Who needs A New History of German Literature?1 What is wrong with the old ones? Quite a lot, actually. The most famous, Wilhelm Scherer’s Geschichte der Deutschen Literatur, was inspired by the noble conviction that “poetry is a holy vocation of our nation.” But it begins with an evocation of the Urvolk der Arier, the prehistoric Arian race, and such a perspective—though innocent enough in the nineteenth century—is hopelessly compromised today. The same objection applies, only more so, to Josef Nadler’s gargantuan work with the same title, written in the 1930s and expurgated in the 1950s, which saw the history of German literature through the prism of the regional “tribes”—a variation on the theme of Blut und Boden, blood and soil. Only a Nazi would want to boast about being provincial. More recent histories are equally flawed by critical theory, whether Marxist or postmodernist, and so it is a relief to report that the hefty new volume from Harvard University Press is comparatively ideology-free.

A New History of German Literature actually delivers far more than its title suggests. It consists of some 200 short essays by an international team of contributors, including not only literary but also political and social historians, critics of art, music, and film, philosophers, theologians, and many others. Each essay takes a significant date in the last thirteen centuries—publications, conjunctions, revolutions, catastrophes—and offers an exegesis that illuminates a major figure or phenomenon. The result adds up to a series of dazzling glimpses of transcendence, a sequence of microcosms, tantalizingly brief but almost always to the point. It is a monument to American scholarship.

A New History of German Literature actually delivers far more than its title suggests.

No review could do justice to the richness of this encyclopedic work, which is presumably not intended to be read from beginning to end, but to be dipped into and sampled at leisure. Once you are hooked by German culture, you stay hooked, and for anybody like me who succumbed early on in life, this book is a veritable banquet. Almost all my favorite characters are invited: not only Luther, Goethe, Wagner, and the other titans, but less familiar yet equally lovable figures such as the mystic Meister Eckhart, the aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, and the bluestocking Rahel Levin Varnhagen. By insisting that each essay be highly selective, capturing only the essential physiognomy of its subject with minimal biographical or critical ballast, the editors have accomplished the seemingly impossible: to make a book of a thousand pages seem effortlessly concise.

Yet this celestial feast of the mind, which should delight the ignorant and the erudite alike, fills me with melancholy. In order to explain why, I must digress, returning to the origins of German culture, and rapidly traversing more than a millennium of its history. The first and last essays of this New History offer a convenient framework for my thesis.

The New History of German Literature begins with a Christian saint and a pagan spell. The saint is Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans, and the spells are known as the Merseburger Charms, among the earliest fragments of Old High German, recorded on a blank page of a Christian codex at the monastery of Fulda founded by Boniface. There is, for our time, a profound significance in this conjunction. First, German literary culture, unlike that of the former Roman colonies in southern and western Europe, is Judeo-Christian from its inception. Second, Christianity expunged almost all traces of pagan religion, but belief in the efficacy of magic outlasted the old Nordic gods and persisted throughout medieval and early modern times. Third, once the moral and spiritual constraints of Judeo-Christian civilization are removed, sooner or later superstition and barbarism reassert themselves.

In the past, German scholars have not always cared to acknowledge the fact that they owe their conversion, and hence their civilization, to an Englishman. Yet according to the historian Christopher Dawson, Boniface (or Wynfrith, to give him his Anglo-Saxon name) was actually the greatest Englishman of all. Certainly Boniface has never been given his due. For this Englishman may be said to have created not only Germany, but Europe.

Missionary, abbot, bishop, and legate to Germany, Boniface made a deep impact on pagans right at the outset by felling the sacred oak at Geismar in 724. He founded monasteries and bishoprics, reformed the Frankish church, and extended papal and imperial authority far beyond the Rhine. In 754, by then an old man, he was martyred; the book with which he tried protect himself survives to this day. By extending the reach of Christianity far beyond the pale of Roman settlement, he not only brought the Germans into the mainstream of history, but also gave a new momentum to an emerging idea that would ultimately transform the whole continent. Henceforth, Christian civilization would no longer huddle in the ruins of the Roman Empire, but would build something entirely new. In an editorial to mark the 1,250th anniversary of his death last year, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a leading German newspaper, declared that Boniface was the apostle, not of the Germans, but of the Europeans. This formulation is typical of the present Zeitgeist, which is dominated by the desire to renounce any specifically Germanic inheritance in favor of Europe.

Though German was not yet a literary language in Boniface’s time, the oral epic was already well established. The Nibelungenlied, the Song of the Nibelungs, on which Wagner based his Ring cycle, is first found in written form around 1200, but its pre-Christian morality no less than its subject matter betrays its origins in the great migrations at the end of the Roman Empire.

From this synthesis of medieval Latin Christianity and vernacular tradition, a German culture emerged that could eventually take its place in the republic of letters. The present volume does full justice to this phase of German literature, including intellectuals who wrote almost exclusively in Latin for an international audience: the great seer, polymath, dramatist, and composer Hildegard of Bingen, for instance, or the historian of the world and uncle of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Bishop Otto of Freising. Though German as a literary language can be said to have come of age with Luther, even Leibniz still wrote mostly in Latin or French, and Kant was the first major thinker to write and lecture almost entirely in German. Whereas the flowering of Italian literature begins in the thirteenth, of English in the sixteenth, and French in the seventeenth century, it was only at the end of the eighteenth century in classical Weimar that German literature attained anything like parity of esteem with its neighbors.

Only two centuries later, that parity is already threatened. The new federal Europe, in which English has long since established itself as the dominant language, is rapidly reversing the century-long process during which German gradually replaced Latin and French as the medium of the educated nations of Central Europe. Just as printing and the Reformation gave a huge boost to linguistic nationalism, and helped to promote vernacular literatures, so the media of the late twentieth century—radio, television, and the Internet—have enabled English to emerge as the engine of globalization. If the political, media, and academic elites have no stake in the survival of German culture, this process will be accelerated. All young Germans, like their European counterparts, aspire to be bilingual. English, the most protean form of German, is their lingua franca of choice.

It was Thomas Mann who declared that he wanted to live in a European Germany, not a German Europe. But, as we have seen, Germany was European from the first, for the simple reason that its integration into Christendom was a necessary condition for the emergence of a new entity to be known as Europe. Germany stands at the crossroads of the continent, and, with its addition, Europe gradually acquired its modern meaning. The imperial destiny of the Germans shifted the center of gravity to the northeast, away from the Mediterranean littoral, and for as long as the Holy Roman Empire remained a necessary fiction it ensured that the Germans preserved their supranational, European pretensions. Just before its abolition, Voltaire dismissed this conglomeration of miniature statelets as an absurdity: “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” But for a thousand years it remained the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Sean Ward’s essay on Frederick Barbarossa quotes the Englishman John of Salisbury demanding to know who had put the Germans in charge of other nations: “Quis Teutonicos constituit iudices nationum?” “The imperial spin doctores had an answer,” writes Ward. “God.”

It was the Germans who joined most enthusiastically in the new European ideology of the Enlightenment.

Thanks to this divine vocation, the Germans have always had a special relationship. It was the Germans who, from the Franks to the Habsburgs, sought to unite Europe under the imperial aegis. But it was also the Germans who divided medieval Europe into rival camps: imperial and papal, Ghibelline and Guelf. It was the Germans who united Europe in a different way through the spread of literacy even before the invention of the printing press and later by the creation of the modern university. But it was the Germans who divided Europe by Luther’s Reformation, under the impact of which the universal culture of medieval Christendom disintegrated, and it was the Germans who suffered most from the consequences of schism, above all in the Thirty Years War, the most devastating of many European wars to be fought out on their soil. It was the Germans who joined most enthusiastically in the new European ideology of the Enlightenment. But it was the Germans who reacted most violently against its Francophone uniformity by embracing a new European movement, Romanticism. It was the Germans who, under Metternich and later under Bismarck, created the balance of power that enabled Europe to achieve unprecedented prosperity. But it was also the Germans who destroyed that balance and precipitated two European wars of unprecedented destructiveness. It was the Germans, again, who evolved the theory and practice of inter-national socialism, which came close to uniting Europe by revolutionary force: Communism was essentially a German ideology. But it was the Germans, too, who reacted against the threat of Communism with National Socialism, which also made a bid for the unification of Europe: a Europe, that is, united in death.

What the New History makes clear as never before is that German intellectual history is a simulacrum of Europe, reflecting the nation’s unique situation and experience at the heart of the continent. Europe and Germany are fated always to be bound together, whether, in Goethe’s words, “rejoicing up to heaven or dejected unto death.” Germany’s misfortunes have often been European in origin. The division of Europe during the Cold War, for example, was symbolized by the division of Germany, and it was the fall of the Berlin Wall that marked its end. But the catastrophes that have been visited on Europe have also often been German in origin. The most obvious case is the destruction of European Jewry and the new diaspora which led to the foundation of the state of Israel.

The New History demonstrates, too, how often there is a cultural symbiosis between German and European phenomena. Take, for instance, the humanist Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. In 1437 he was returning from Byzantium to Italy when he received what he later described as a revelation, giving rise to one of the key texts of the early Renaissance, Of Learned Ignorance. Because Nicholas conceives of God as the “coincidence of opposites,” beyond all rational understanding, his philosophy relies entirely on nature rather than scripture for enlightenment. In his conjectural epistemology and his rejection of a geocentric cosmology in favor of an infinite universe, Nicholas was a remarkable pioneer of modern thought. As a diplomat and churchman, Nicholas sought to reconcile heretical Hussites, the schismatic Orthodox churches, and he even analyzed the Koran for evidence of common ground between Christianity and Islam. He put his ideas into practice at the Council of Basle from 1431–1443; had his example been followed, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation might have been redundant. The range of his achievements was prodigious, though they have lacked adequate recognition. A critical edition of his works has only just been completed, nearly a century after it was begun.

The point is this: the Cardinal was at once a supremely cosmopolitan figure, who spent much of his life travelling on papal business, and a distinctively national one. He was proud of his origins in the Rhineland and his education in the Netherlands, where he immersed himself in the devotio moderna, the mystical asceticism of the Brothers of the Common Life, and at Heidelberg, Cologne, and Padua universities, where he absorbed the contemporary currents of Occamist nominalism and neo-Platonism. Nicholas was probably the first German intellectual to read Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek, thereby inaugurating the enduring love affair of the Germans with ancient Greece. In short, Nicholas of Cusa was a great German and a great European too—for him there was no contradiction.

“The Germans don’t do much, but they write all the more.” The words of Wolfgang Menzel, the leading romantic historian of German literature, were true enough in 1836. Since then, the Germans have done plenty, alas. But if their crimes surpassed those of any nation in history, so too did their atonement. Not the least important aspect of that atonement has been the Germans’ own discovery that they are no longer a nation of writers and thinkers, Dichter und Denker, which was so important a part of German identity in the early nineteenth century.

The desire to be “unpolitical” is deeply rooted in German culture, but the twentieth century shattered that idyll forever. Thomas Mann spent much of the First World War writing a huge book to persuade himself that his support for the German cause was unpolitical, and much of the Second World War depicting his own former attitude as a Faustian pact with the Devil.

Ever since the “zero hour” in 1945, the Germans have suffered from a permanent identity crisis. Defeated, divided and despised, they repudiated their nationhood and decided that they wanted to be Europeans instead. With few and ever fewer exceptions, the Germans have been gripped by a kind of collective writer’s block, unrelieved by the sudden irruption of events, however momentous. The reunification of Germany has so far inspired no novel, no play, no poem worthy of the great tradition that stretches from the Holy Roman Empire to the Weimar Republic, and which must now be presumed to have come to an end.

That should be no surprise. After the illusion that this “metaphysical nation” could enjoy an existence above politics came the illusion that it could escape from history. The nation state was obsolete, so the Germans were no longer able to make their own history. History now took place on a global stage, and Germans would in future participate only as Europeans. The Germans have been looking for the exit from history for two generations now, though the fall of the Berlin Wall demonstrated just how this, too, is an illusion. There is no escape from history, still less that “overcoming” of the past for which postwar Germans have obsessively yearned. Even if we take the end of history in the Hegelian sense that Fukuyama used it, does the end of German history mean the end of German literature too? I fear that, for the moment, it does.

Hence the New History strikes me as elegiac in character, though it is surely not intended as such. It is an elegy to a culture that is not exactly dying—nothing so spectacular—but gradually sublimating itself into the European Union, the nebulous empire in the making that has now usurped the name of Europe. During the years immediately after Europe became the crematorium, both literally and metaphorically, of Western civilization, German culture still survived in the cafes of New York and London and Jerusalem; moreover, it still stood for something, if only the negation of all that the Third Reich had done in its name. Now that Europe aspires to subsume its constituent nations into a cultural as well as a political and economic collective, the Germans no longer know what their literature is for. Deprived of its function as the conscience of the nation, a literature is no longer even of historical, but merely of antiquarian interest.

The last essay in this collection deals with the accidental death of W. G. Sebald in the year 2001, just after the publication of his masterpiece Austerlitz had finally made him a literary star of the first magnitude. This choice by the Harvard editors is a stroke of genius, for Sebald was the latest of so many German writers to live in exile. Though latterly the exile has been self-imposed, it has been real enough for these prophets without honor in their own country. A professor of German literature at a provincial English university, Sebald came to prominence first through translations of his books, which aroused the curiosity (it was at first no more than that) of the Anglo-American critics. Only later did his own compatriots pay attention, and even now there is a certain bafflement about his place in the canon.

With his elliptical, oblique, crablike approach to the heart of darkness, Sebald broke new ground.

With his elliptical, oblique, crablike approach to the heart of darkness, Sebald broke new ground. He was a collector of unconsidered trifles, a master of serendipity, a literary scavenger, not unlike the “rubble women” who cleared the bombed-out German cities after the war. His books are like eighteenth-century cabinets of curiosities, repositories of the arcane for our delectation—but there is always a locked room like that in Bluebeard’s castle, where the indelibly bloodstained evidence of German depravity is preserved.

Andreas Huyssen’s fine study compares Sebald and the eponymous hero of Austerlitz, who is also engaged in a never-ending quest for enlightenment, in his case a project of architectural history. Huyssen shows how Sebald draws the reader into his “gray zone” of haunted memory, in order to bring the real purpose of his character’s obsessive researches into focus. For Austerlitz is a Holocaust survivor, rescued by Kindertransport, cut off from the fate of his family and his people, immured in a British oblivion from which he is desperately seeking to find his way back to the past, to disinter the inferno of occupied Europe. This specifically Jewish predicament was not, of course, Sebald’s own, but his insight into and identification with that predicament was entirely characteristic. Precisely because of his estrangement from Germany, Sebald was the representative German novelist of his generation. His death in a car accident brought to a provisional end the story that this New History tells. By cultivating his own private ars memoria, Sebald was able to provide an epitaph for a culture. Having sifted through the accumulated detritus upon the deserted battleground of history, he used the shards to construct a fitting memorial to his country’s departing genius loci, the spirit of Germany that the Germans themselves extinguished.

It is clear to any reader of the New History that, with a few rare exceptions such as Sebald, German literature is no longer of more than parochial interest. The high stature which the arts and sciences had consistently maintained in Germany until the Nazi era did not survive the Holocaust and the emigration. With each passing generation, German culture becomes more innocuous. If, as I have argued, German culture and European culture are inextricably linked; if Germans are renouncing their own culture in order to become true Europeans; and if German culture is consequently failing to renew itself, what does this mean for European culture? Are the circumstances that have afflicted the Germans unique to them, or is Europe as a whole in a similar plight? Does the creation of a political framework for Europe coincide with its cultural decline? Can it be that Europeans, now approaching the dream of a continent without borders, no longer have anything of importance to say to one another or the world? That they have forgotten whence their culture came, and whither it is bound? That they no longer know what it really is to be a European, as our great predecessors who maintain a spectral presence in the museum of our continent all did?

These are questions that can only be answered in the affirmative by someone who has been steeped in the Europe of Dante and Shakespeare, Cervantes and Racine, Heine and Pushkin. One must have loved European culture in order to mourn its decline. I said that this New History was an elegy, not a lamentation; it exudes a sincere devotion to the living practitioners of German literature, and is sympathetic to the attempts of the post-Sixties avant garde to revive the flagging interest of the public. But there is an impotence about these attempts, summarized by Judith Ryan in an essay on the 250th anniversary of Goethe’s birth in 1999: “The contemporary German mind is not fully capable of pulling the disparate pieces of information together or unifying them through poetic vision.” Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian writer who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature, is an example of this lack of poetic vision. Beatrice Hanssen’s essay on her 1988 novel, The Piano Player, concedes that “the reader must be willing to suspend expectations about pleasurable reading” in favor of “rigorous analysis” of the feminist or Marxist subtext of the work’s grisly depictions of genital self-mutilation and sadomasochism. Jelinek specializes in demystifying her great predecessors: “Hölderlin’s elevated poetic diction enters into uneasy dialogue with pornographic speech,” or lacing her anti-fascist satires with Paul Celan’s sublime verses. Jelinek has been honored with all the most prestigious literary prizes for pouring a bucket of ordure over her predecessors—an apotheosis that is beyond parody.

One can only speculate about the forces at work when the author of works as unrewarding as this can be considered one of the greatest writers in Europe. When so little talent is visible, even charlatans flourish. This unwillingness to make aesthetic judgments might be compared to the loss of moral direction represented by the rise of eugenics, euthanasia, and abortion, or the suicidal refusal of Europeans to reproduce. A similar loss of self-confidence may be observed in the political sphere, where most Europeans feel no sense of gratitude to Americans for past services rendered, but are eager to appease the Islamists.

My own view is that the sources of the cultural, moral, and political collapse of Europe are identical: the abandonment of the Judeo-Christian basis of Western civilization in favor of an intolerant secularism that is blind to history and deaf to divinity. This is an abdication of the intellectuals from their primary vocation, as guardians of the wellsprings from which culture is nourished. This is a trahison des clercs comparable to the descent into irrationalism that Julien Benda saw as paving the way for fascism. The betrayal this time takes the form of a relativism so extreme that it denies even the right to proclaim moral or religious values to be absolute.

And now Europe has lost its last supreme representative of the Judeo-Christian civilization that emerged from the Dark Ages, Pope John Paul II. The Pope’s philosophy was descended from the great German-Jewish phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler; his poetry from the Byronic Pole Adam Mickiewicz; his theology from the Swiss-German divine Hans Urs von Balthasar, and so on. In fact his papal pronouncements reveal an astonishing frame of reference, one which his critics could not begin to match. He placed himself squarely in the tradition that sprang from the triad of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome.

hn Paul II demonstrated what it means to be a cultured European in our time.

John Paul II demonstrated what it means to be a cultured European in our time. But Europe entered a new Dark Age in the last century, and it is by no means certain that we have fully emerged from it yet. There has been no adequate acknowledgment of the human cost of Communism, for example, which amounted to a hundred million dead in the last century. The millions of victims of the Islamic tyrants of the Middle East, too, not to mention the despots of Africa and Asia, have remained uncommemorated. European culture has turned a blind eye to these scandals, and so politicians have followed suit. The new Dark Age differs from the migrations that followed the fall of Rome, during which civilization was sustained primarily by the Church. This is a Dark Age which manifests itself primarily in the eclipse of Christianity. Yet it was Christianity that made Europe possible, and enabled it to become what it might still be again. The moment has surely come for European intellectuals to compare the fruits of secularism with those of faith, to re-examine their consciences, and to set about reviving European culture before it is too late. Europeans need books like A New History of German Literature to remind us of what we have already lost, and Americans need them as an example of what can and must still be preserved.

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  1.   A New History of German Literature, edited by David Wellbery; Belknap Press, 1032 pages, $45. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 9, on page 10
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