Academic journal article German Quarterly

German Kultur, the Bildungsburgertum, and its susceptibility to national socialism

Academic journal article German Quarterly

German Kultur, the Bildungsburgertum, and its susceptibility to national socialism

Article excerpt

In 1949, upon his return to Germany from exile in the United States, the literary critic Richard Alewyn was alarmed to find a carefree Goethe cult, "allerorten schon wieder anschickt, Goethe zu feiern, als ob dies fur einen Deutschen die naturlichste Sache von der Welt ware, als ob gar nichts geschehen ware, oder als ob irgend etwas damit ungeschehen gemacht werden konne"1 Dismayed and annoyed, Alewyn warned his compatriots: "Zwischen uns and Weimar liegt Buchenwald, [...] Was aber nicht geht ist, sich Goethes zu riihmen and Hitler zu leugnen." How did Auschwitz come about? Are Buchenwald and Weimar really so near to each other? Why was the German variation of fascism, National Socialism, so particularly brutal?

These and similar questions have been raised and answered in myriad ways time and again. Yet, as diverse as the debate has been over the exceptionalism of Germany's road to modernity, the intensity of the dispute itself indicates a common point of reference. The Sonderweg thesis is not a matter of the mere details of academic research; rather, it lies at a point of intersection between the historical development of a nation and its simultaneous self interpretation. Critics of the Sonderweg thesis warned famously of the dangers of a teleological and polarizing orientation, beyond reality, to National Socialism. England and France, said these critics, must not provide standards for normal development. The concept of bourgeois revolution is a myth: other countries have had their own traditions of authoritarianism and their deficits regarding democracy In addition, orienting German history to "bad times" was supposed to hinder the development of a "normal" sense of national identity.

Supporters of the Sonderweg thesis, on the other hand, called attention to the failures of German revolutions, to the delayed formation of the nation-state, and to certain specifically German strengths in bureaucratic, authoritarian institutions, together with notable parliamentary weaknesses. Generally, supporters of the Sonderweg thesis would take the historical course of Western Europe to be normal and exemplary, and, as the reader is no doubt aware, would often cite evidence beyond institutional developments, reaching to intellectual history and the history of states of mind. Such arguments present a path of specifically German authoritarian mentalities, from Luther to Hitler via Nietzsche, a path laid with "the destruction of reason," political incapacitation, abstract intellectuality, and pre-modern ways of thinking.

Admittedly, the intense dispute over the Sonderweg has long since abated. The expression itself has become somewhat unfashionable. More cautious language of a specific path to modernity, or Eigenweg, or of the consciousness of a Sonderweg, eases the evidence's burden, as then no philosophy of history will dictate that exemplary normal development be exhibited, more or less, by the Western European states. But while the debates have subsided, this does not mean at all that the issue has been settled as to whether any specifically German conditions, beside immediate political and historical events, played a part, in the long run, in making possible the success and acceptance of the Nazi regime.

I would like to argue that such longer-term potentialities included an element which has not received much scholarly attention so far, and which may only be understood as part of a new kind of transdisciplinary exploration. My topic includes first, the reactions of the German learned and academic elites, the Bildungsburgertum, to a triumphant cultural modernism, as detected in linguistic traces, and second, closely related to this, a certain susceptibility to National Socialism, which did indeed present itself as the rescuer of German culture. With these remarks I hope to make it easier to understand why Weimar and Buchenwald are not very far apart. For this precise locality symbolizes a specifically German sequence, the attainment of a normative peak followed by a plunge into the depths, a succession that developed among the dynamic interplay of semantic elements in the arts discourse among the Bildungsburger, artistic productivity, and political destructiveness. …

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