Genius, Power and Magic: A cultural history of Germany from Goethe to Wagner By Robert Cavaliero, I.B. Tauris, $25
The transformation of Germany from a hotch-potch of minor kingdoms, principalities, electorates, dukedoms, margravates, counties, free cities and church estates at the beginning of the 19th century to Europe’s most industrialized and militaristic nation by the 1900s, constitutes one of the most astonishing and significant events in European history. In 1800, the German states were in cultural thrall to France and the armies of Napoleon marched with impunity over their lands, reorganizing frontiers and reconstituting the political make-up as they went. By 1870, Germany had not only conquered the once Grand Nation in battle but had its own distinct culture, which, to nationalists, reflected the very soul of the nation.
“The Mastersingers of Nuremberg [one of Wagner’s many masterpieces and his only comic opera]...is the incarnation of our national culture... It brilliantly combines German sobriety, German romanticism, German pride, German industry and German humour.” These words, as Robert Cavaliero implies by quoting them, could have been spoken by any German nationalist in the latter half of the 19th century. In fact, they were written by Joseph Goebbels in 1933. Herein lies a problem. The Third Reich looms so large in our historical imagination that it can be hard not to view the development of German nationalism in the 19th century as a teleological process leading inevitably to Hitler and the Nazis. Of course, this was not the case. As Hugh Trevor-Roper once snapped in a tutorial at some poor undergraduate, “Nothing is inevitable until it happens!” But, without falling into the teleological trap, it is still possible to see the ideological antecedents of extreme nationalism which, when corrupted and bastardized by a band of hate-filled nihilists, produced terrible results.
The 18th-century philosopher, poet and literary critic, Johan Gottfried Herder believed that language equalled thought and that individual languages therefore constituted distinctive thought processes and cultural groups — what he called Volk. Herder’s Volk become the basis of German nationalism, and generations of young Germans went on to echo and amplify his belief that the German Volk was not only unique but superior and as such, destined for glory. Herder was not actually a racialist, but this was the logical extension of his theory and by the end of the 19th century, race was at the centre of German nationalist rhetoric. “These divisions are tremendously wide and deep,” wrote the rabidly nationalist historian, Heinrich von Treitschke, “whenever he finds his life sullied by the filth of Judaism the German must turn from it, and learn to speak the truth boldly about it.”
Treitschke is outside the chronological bounds of Cavaliero’s book, and although it is possible to quote Wagner expressing the similar sentiments (which Cavaliero does), it would be a distortion to imply anything other than that some of the early German nationalist theories were later extended and developed into a more aggressive and dangerous nationalism.
As it is, there is very little danger in Genius, Power and Magic, which for the most part is an engaging and often amusing portrait of Germany before it was Germany. Cavaliero has read extensively, not only about what Germans thought of their own tiny states with their disproportionately large palaces and model armies but also about the impressions of foreigners. The English, for instance, could be merciless in the fun they poked at the miniature German states, none more effectively than William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote in his Fitzboodle Papers about the fictional and yet entirely typical duchy of Kalbsraten-Pumpernickel. Ten miles in depth and bordered on one side by Prussia and on the other by the river Pump, the Duchy of Pumpernickel (Pumpernickel is a German bread) had its own army with a rich and numerous staff of officers who spent much of their time “marching in Turkish dresses with rouge on and wooden scimitars”. As Thackeray observed, the German princes were obsessed with their model armies, and for most, the day’s greatest pleasure consisted in drilling and inspecting their soldiers. Frederick the Great was the archetypal soldier-king, unique amongst his fellow German monarchs in possessing an army which could actually do some fighting; but even he didn’t go as far as the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel who, when the weather was wet, inspected 200 to 300 grenadiers performing manoeuvres in his dining room.
Where the English did not mock the Germans was in respect to their music. The Germans loved their music, and as Cavaliero observes, by the turn of the 18th century, music “was part of the cement that joined Germans in a common culture, no matter how otherwise politically or religiously divided.” Although Bach as a composer, if not as keyboardist, was tragically underrated during his own lifetime, the works of his son, Carl Philip Emmanuel, were renowned throughout the German states, paving the way for Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner. The period was also the golden age of German literature. In Goethe, holding court to foreign dignitaries and aspiring poets in the tiny state of Saxe-Weimar, the Germans found their national poet. For the vast majority of the 18th century, German literary tastes, even the German language, were subservient to French literature. Goethe and his disciple Schiller changed this but not without the influence of an equally foreign literature. Goethe hailed Shakespeare for proving that the Aristotelian unities were “oppressive as a prison” and for unlocking the imagination. Henceforth, while the French wrote about the world before them, the Germans looked to their “mind’s eye” and re-discovered their past.
Cavaliero poetically describes this cultural development which occurred across all of the arts. He also brilliantly captures the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of the German states and their rulers. Where he is less successful is in uniting the cultural history with the political developments of the period, particularly with the politicization of the nascent German bourgeoisie. There is no mention of the Carlsbad decrees which, in 1819, banned nationalist fraternities and removed liberal professors from their teaching posts. It is also unfortunate that, perhaps owing to the way the book has been conceived as a series of essays, it can seem repetitive. These minor faults do not, however, detract from the overall enjoyment of reading what is an informed and entertaining book.