Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Hagiography of a Secular Saint: Alexanderj Von Humboldt and the Scientism of the German Democratic Republic

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Hagiography of a Secular Saint: Alexanderj Von Humboldt and the Scientism of the German Democratic Republic

Article excerpt


Twenty-seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern European communism, eastern Germany remains the most secular region on the planet. Out of the forty-six countries and regions investigated by the World Values Survey, eastern Germany had, at 25.4%, more than twice the number of selfdeclared atheists than the next closest country, Japan (Froese and Pfaff 397-98). And with the percentage of its residents not believing in a god remaining at nearly 70%, eastern Germany has proven resistant to the religious resurgence experienced by other nations in the former Soviet Bloc (400). The reasons for such a culture of secularism are, of course, manifold; chief among them, however, is the lasting impact of the wissenschaftliche Weltanschauung sponsored by the ruling Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Although such official programs of secularization existed in some form or another in each of the former Soviet satellite states, the GDR's promotion of a Marxist-Leninist materialist worldview proves to be the most resilient, as evidenced by the World Values Survey.

At the heart of East Germany's implementation of its wissenschaftliche Weltanschauung was a program of substitution, a program that provided the population with the option of replacing formerly held religious beliefs with a more contextually appropriate Marxist-Leninist alternative. Alexander von Humboldt, among other luminaries from Germany's past, such as Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Georg Forster, proved essential to this substitution by providing the SED with a face and historical weight to accompany the state-sponsored secular philosophy. East German authors and politicians recruited and reimagined Humboldt as a socialist scientist and a champion of the oppressed in order to provide scientific and cultural legitimacy to the state's official ideology and political agenda. The following analysis explores how the East German cultural apparatus supported the SED's systematic propagation of its wissenschaftliche Weltanschauung in part by using historical actors like Alexander von Humboldt as substitutes for traditional religious figures and their respective social functions. Such an investigation, in turn, elucidates the inception of a secularist cultural tradition that continues to influence and shape eastern German culture even today.

II.Scientism in the GDR

In order to cement its power culturally as well as politically, the SED sought early on in its existence to challenge the authority practiced, and the metaphysical worldview espoused, by the religious denominations active in the GDR. This challenge took shape in two distinct forms. The first, which will be addressed in more detail later on, was the direct political persecution and expropriation of religious organizations. The second was the propagation of an opposing materialist worldview that would compete with traditional religious doctrines. This new worldview rested on the conviction that the scientific method yielded the most reliable access to the truth, and that science provided "the only path to a glorious future" (Schmidt-Lux, "Science as Religion" 28). The wissenschaftliche Weltanschauung promoted by the SED, however, proves difficult to define with any degree of specificity, due to the ubiquity and the reflexivity of its use. Indeed, the "term Wissenschaftliche Weltanschauung [...] could be found in almost any official GDR document" (20). Despite the vagueness that often accompanied its use in East German texts, the term wissenschaftliche Weltanschauung bespoke the fundamental principles of Marxism-Leninism and encompassed

die Trias aus dialektischem und historischem Materialismus, politischer Ökonomie sowie wissenschaftlichem Sozialismus bzw. Kommunismus. Gleichzeitig fand [der Begriff] aber auf eine Weise Verwendung, die ihn - zusätzlich zur formalen Definition - als eine Art Metakategorie bzw. …

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