Education and Society in Germany

By H. J. Hahn | Go to book overview

2
A Period of Transition: From the Formation of the Empire to the First World War

Introduction

The Humboldtian system with its idealized concept of Bildung had suffered its first setbacks in the post-Napoleonic period of political restoration and, again, in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Revolution of 1848; it experienced a crisis after the Franco-Prussian War and Germany's unification ( 1871). This crisis, from which the system never wholly recovered, had a number of causes:

(a) The establishment of the long-awaited nation state led to new priorities and a new set of values, already foreshadowed in Bismarck Realpolitik and a general shift in ideology, away from Western concepts of liberalism and democracy, towards the more 'tangible' values of political and military success. Whilst the icons of German idealism, Goethe, Schiller, Kant and Humboldt, remained pre-eminent, humanist idealism was rejected on the grounds that it obscured the real needs of the new German nation state. 1 The industrialist Werner von Siemens recounted with some satisfaction that, after the defeat of Denmark ( 1864) by Prussia and the German Confederation, British and French journals no longer wrote in praise of German scholarship and music or felt indulgent towards unpractical and romantic Germans, but now voiced their hostility towards a militaristic, imperialist and bloodthirsty Germany. 2 Such a change in perception is well illustrated by a comparison between Mme de Staël's admiration of German cultural achievements ( 1813) and the despair of Ernest Renan ( 1879) at the loss of German idealism and the rise of a new illiberal regime, poised for war and a demonstration of its national superiority. 3 In similar vein Friedrich Nietzsche also deplored the fact that victory over France had extinguished Germany's humanist spirit, and many German writers on the political right, such as Paul de Lagarde and Fritz Langbehn, agreed that a cultural crisis had caused the degeneration of the educational system, undermining its elitist function and producing an educated barbarism which weakened individual strength through overloading the Gymnasium's curriculum. 4

(b) The educated classes themselves felt threatened by the impact of British economic liberalism ( Manchestertum) and by French-inspired socialism. British advances in the natural sciences and the introduction of free trade were viewed as

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