The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century

The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century

by Peter Watson


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The German Genius is a virtuoso cultural history of German ideas and influence, from 1750 to the present day, by acclaimed historian Peter Watson (Making of the Modern Mind, Ideas). From Bach, Goethe, and Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein, from the arts and humanities to science and philosophy, The German Genius is a lively and accessible review of over 250 years of German intellectual history. In the process, it explains the devastating effects of World War II, which transformed a vibrant and brilliantly artistic culture into a vehicle of warfare and destruction, and it shows how the German culture advanced in the war’s aftermath.

Editorial Reviews

Literary Review

He has an enviable gift of explaining lucidly and cogently ideas that are complicated or profound (or both). . . . Everyone interested in the sufferings and greatness of modern culture will be informed, entertained and provoked by it.

The Guardian

[A] colossal encyclopaedia. . . . Heroic. . . . Watson derives the German genius from deep springs.

The Independent

Assembles such a wealth of information, based on an impressive range of sources, that The German Genius will be an essential work...for years to come.


The German Genius present a huge corpus of scholarship in easily digestible form, and its range is astonishing. No professor, least of all a German one, would have dared to essay such a synthesis; so much the worse for the professors.

New York Times Book Review

A compilation of essential German contributions to philosophy, theology, mathematics, natural and social science and the arts since 1750. Watson enshrines a vast pantheon of creative thinkers... [including] compressed summaries of some exceedingly difficult ideas. The range of subjects is impressive, from painters to physicists.

The Scotsman

A joy, for its ambition, its seriousness and its moral integrity.

Tucson Citizen

Reveals several surprises. . . . A remarkable book on many levels. The research is first-rate and it is surprisingly accessible.

Berliner Zeitung.

A powerful and vivid opus. . . . Watson’s story is brimming with life. You can barely put the book aside.

Sunday Times (London)

A tour de force. . . . It is impossible not to be impressed by his range and versatility as he bounds across the disciplines. . . . This intelligent book presents a breathtaking panorama.

The Times (London)

Watson’s book is intended to subvert the negative German stereotypes. Though it checks in at just short of 1,000 pages, it is a usefully concise introduction to the principal themes and personalities of German scientific, philosophical, social, literary and artistic culture since 1750.

Press Association

Watson tells how the Nazis’ first artistic blacklist appeared just six weeks after Hitler assumed power in 1933 - and how his catastrophic handling of his intellectual inheritance has unfairly overshadowed the country ever since. This exhaustive and virtuoso sweep through history goes some way to restoring the balance.

Frankfurter Rundschau

Watson’s story is vibrating with life. It is unputdownable. It contains a lot one didn’t know. So much enlightenment and so much that moves.

The New Yorker

[The German Genius is] Watson’s eight-hundred-and-fifty-page love letter to the all-stars of the Teutonic intellect…his élan generates its own momentum… The book’s breadth is part of the point.

Berliner Zeitung

A powerful and vivid opus. . . . Watson’s story is brimming with life. You can barely put the book aside.

Publishers Weekly

We are shamefully ignorant of German culture, asserts veteran British historian Watson (The Modern Mind) in this engrossing, vast chronicle of ideas, humanists, scientists, and artists: Bach, Goethe, Hegel, Gauss, and many more. Stirred by the French Revolution, German nationalism exploded. The same era in Germany produced the modern university—in which professors are expected to discover, not just teach, knowledge, and students learn to reason, not just memorize—and new forms of scholarship. There followed a cultural renaissance as important as Italy’s earlier one. Science flourished, stimulated by new university-based laboratories. Modern medicine started as German medicine (bacteriology began with Robert Koch). From Bach to Schoenberg, music became overwhelmingly German. Kant, Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, and others dominated Western intellectual life. An ominous byproduct, though, was a growing, pugnacious sense of national superiority. This led to trouble, but until Hitler wrecked everything after 1933, Germans won more Nobel prizes than Britain and America combined. English now dominates the arts and sciences, but Watson writes an absorbing account of a time not so long ago when German ruled. (June)

The New Yorker

[The German Genius is] Watson’s eight-hundred-and-fifty-page love letter to the all-stars of the Teutonic intellect…his élan generates its own momentum… The book’s breadth is part of the point.

Library Journal

As in previous books, Watson (McDonald Inst. for Archaeological Research, Univ. of Cambridge; Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud) takes the reader on an entertaining tour of a daunting subject. This time it's German intellectual history since the death of Bach (1750). Watson argues that our view of Germany's history has been hijacked by Hitler's 12-year rule, slighting the vast and substantial contribution Germans made to the modern experience. He takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride across 250 years of history, discussing a host of German luminaries, some not at all famous today. Watson weakens the book by trying to include everyone: at times it leaves him without room to say enough about those who really count. And while the reliance on secondary sources may have been unavoidable, it makes his interpretations often seem thin, much like some of his choices for inclusion. Why highlight Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, in the section on postwar emigration to America (and he is from Austria anyway—Watson's definition of "German" is wide)? Still, the book provides an opportunity to look at the full range of German thought in modern times, allowing us to consider the output of Nazi hacks alongside that of indisputable luminaries like Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. VERDICT Good as an introduction only. Readers familiar with the subject will be frustrated.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

Kirkus Reviews

Germany, said historian Norbert Elias, "cannot move ahead until a convincing explanation for the rise of Hitler has been given." British journalist and scholar Watson (Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, 2005, etc.) offers several in this sweeping survey of German culture. The 20th century should have belonged to the German-speaking world. Every humanist scholar was indebted to thinkers such as Hegel and Kant, every reformer to Marx and Engels, every musician to Beethoven and Mozart, every scientist to Rontgen and Einstein. All that came undone with the rise of Nazism, one result of which was a thorough disavowal of that culture. By one account, writes the author, some 60,000 writers, scientists, intellectuals, artists and musicians "were sent either into exile or to the death camps by 1939." The infamies of Nazism are well known-so much so, in fact, that they are all that most non-Germans know of the German world today, such that, according to a recent poll, "fully 60 percent of Britons could not name a living German." The author endeavors to make up for this generalized ignorance with this hefty tome, which begins with the death of Bach in 1750 and extends to the present, "normal" Germany. Every page is packed with names, dates and numbers, sometimes in an embarrassment of riches. Within just a few representative pages, for instance, the reader encounters capsule lives of Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Lion Feuchtwanger and Erich Maria Remarque. Occasionally Watson's logic seems a bit rushed, as when he suggests that without Karl Marx, 9/11 would never have happened. (Adam Smith would seem as likely a candidate.) Valuably, the author identifies several cultural seedbeds for the rise of Nazism, among them the widespread acceptance among all classes of late-19th-century society of Social Darwinism, competing strains of anti-Semitism, each more virulent than the next, and an overarching sense of pessimism and grief following World War I-attested to, among other sources, in the sorrowful poems of Rilke. A sprawling book, but with few wasted words-a welcome resource for students of modern history, literature and cultural studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060760236
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/26/2011
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 992
Sales rank: 189,630
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 2.00(d)

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