Reflections on the "Political" Scholar
"I hate politics and the belief in politics," Thomas Mann wrote in 1918, "because it makes one arrogant, doctrinaire, stubborn, and inhuman."1 With these lines and many more like them in Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen Mann [ Reflections of a non-Political Man], Mann immortalized the stereotype of the "unpolitical intellectual" of Imperial and Weimar Germany. Among the typical traits of this critical character in prewar German history were (1) a certain and arrogant belief in both the singularity and superiority of German Kultur, in particular vis-à-vis Western civilization; (2) an equally firm conviction that this Kultur ultimately defined das deutsche Volk [German people], gave the German people an organic bond, a natural identity; and (3) a pronounced disdain for politics-actually liberal democratic politics-as a lower, purely practical and instrumental realm where the higher ethical values of Kultur could only be compromised and undermined, where unnatural and destructive conflicts of class and confession were allowed to fester and even threaten the genuine unity of das Volk.
Of course, this haughty attitude was anything but unpolitical. As several well-known studies of the German intelligentsia before the war -- by Fritz Stern, Fritz Ringer, Peter Gay, George Mosse-have shown, the "unpolitical" scholars had a deadly political impact on German history. Their disdain for politics really amounted to direct or indirect support for authoritarian regimes which purported to protect and promote German culture and identity, including the Nazi regime. Their narrow-minded insistence on the superiority and primacy of German Kultur encouraged the naive notion that the concrete problems of a modern, pluralist society could be solved through mere ethical rejuvenation or spiritual renewal; and this discredited the democratic political process (of the Weimar Republic) as an effective and legitimate way of regulating difference and conflict. And deadliest of all, their romanticization of the unity of das deutsche Volk bred contempt for outsiders, particularly Jews, and opened the way for the Holocaust. As Gay has said of Weimar intellectuals, "in calling for something higher than politics, [they] helped to pave the way for