A Cultured Way to Ignore Civilization

When one thinks of Nazism, high culture generally doesn't come to mind. But a new book by a prominent German intellectual historian argues that it was precisely the country's elites' traditional adulation of culture that permitted Adolf Hitler and National Socialism to triumph in the early 1930s.

What, you ask, does the love of poetry, opera and literature have to do with imperialism and genocide? Well, according to Wolf Lepenies -- who next month will receive the Peace Prize, one of Germany's most prestigious literary awards -- in the early 20th century, German intellectuals tended to see themselves as being above politics.

It's not that the elites didn't care about the fate of the German nation but that they understood it to be more a cultural than a political entity. As such, they saw the creation and appreciation of high German culture as a substitute for political participation.

Unlike other Europeans, Germans still tend to make a sharp distinction between the meaning of the terms kultur and zivilization. In the German language, "civilization" refers more to material culture while "culture" describes artistic endeavors that transcend the material world.

This distinction, in part, derives from the fact that German culture emerged long before the foundation of a German state. Dubbed by historians "the belated nation" because it was not founded until 1871, before then artists and intellectuals came to view culture as a more powerful means of forging German unity than politics.

In 1799, the philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote in a letter to the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that "whoever occupies himself with philosophy and art belongs to the fatherland more intimately than others."

This intellectual bias was buttressed by the nation's underdeveloped civil society. Unlike, say, the French republic or the United States, Germany was not established by way of a bourgeois revolution but essentially by a kind of monarchical decree. As a result, in the first half of the 20th century, its educated elite and middle classes still had no sense of their responsibility and role within their young nation's political decision-making process.

Not surprisingly, the belief in the primacy of culture over politics also had a devastating effect on German political discourse. "Culture is the realm of the absolute," Lepenies told me. "It strives for utopia."

Politics, on the other hand, is all about compromise. Indeed, politics is the realm in which citizens seek to balance competing interests within a society. It stands to reason that an intellectual elite that viewed culture as a superior national force to politics came to disdain the narrow-minded, self-interested rhetoric of parliamentary horse-trading.

Consequently, more than a few intellectuals were drawn to the romantic national aesthetic of Nazism, and too few of those who abhorred Hitler could be bothered to stoop into the lowly realm of politics to oppose him.

In 1930, the writer Thomas Mann became among the first to break with this tradition when he endorsed not only Germany's fledgling democracy but also the Social Democratic Party as a means to stem the rise of the National Socialists.

Needless to say, Mann's urgings did nothing either to subvert Germany's anti-democratic tendencies or halt the encroachment of fascism.

Lepenies wrote in "The Seduction of Culture in German History," that through the "monumentalization" of Nazi crimes, Germans forget that the real problem in German society was the absence of courage and the "disappearance of decency in everyday life." Because so few had been trained in democratic responsibility, most Germans were incapable of expressing decency and dissent in the public sphere.

The moral of the story to those who disdain the deceptiveness and buffoonery of the political world is that as tawdry as it is, democratic politics is still the realm in which we learn to assert our personal notions of social decency in the public square.

It's not pretty, and it's rarely uplifting, but it's all we've got.

Gregory Rodriguez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where this comment first appeared.