What do you think of when you think of Germany and the German people? Let me guess:
That’s about what I thought. Well, let me tell you: from about the 1770s through the 1920s, the German-speaking world was fucking awesome. Not that you necessarily always wanted to be there, especially when Napoleon came through. But they had Kant, Mozart, and Goethe AT THE SAME TIME. That’s like John Locke, Shakespeare, and The Beatles all just hanging out around England, kicking it.
And it wasn’t like it was just a handful of philosophers, composers, poets, and scientists. It was one after another. And an industrial boom. And the formation of a new empire, when everyone else was beginning to walk back the whole empire thing. The Germans were pumping out babies like it was their job, but unlike the Brits, they had nowhere to go. So they came to America. (More Americans can claim German descent than any other ethnicity.)
Prussia beat France in a war in the 1870s when France was at the top of the world. And didn’t just beat them — they stomped on them. France was so shook up, it had to have another revolution about it. This was like England beating the Spanish Armada.
The industrial revolution? Yeah, the Brits did some nice things with textiles, and the Americans had a lot of bodies to throw at it (plenty of them German), but the rest of it? German.
The twentieth century was Germany’s to lose. And sweet Jesus, did they lose it.
But the Germans didn’t. Not all of them. Because all of that knowledge spread throughout the world. There’s a great line in The Right Stuff, where one of the Americans claims that the Soviets can’t be ahead of them in the space race: “Our Germans are better than their Germans.” World War II just never stopped for them — the so-called Allies kept fighting each other on their turf, using their brains to do the work.
This history — which the understandably overwhelming memory of the Nazis has effectively wiped out for most Americans — is the theme of Peter Watson’s new book The German Genius. He calls what happened in Germany in this period “the third Renaissance.” Here’s a glimpse:
At Göttingen and Halle in the 18th century, and at Berlin and Bonn in the 19th, Germany invented the modern university, combining teaching with research in both humanities and science — at a time when Harvard and Oxford were conservative and theology-centered. University grads staffed a new bureaucracy of experts, and their work in laboratories and archives made research “a rival form of authority in the world.” The universities also enshrined a new ideal of individual cultivation (the fetishized German word is “Bildung”). Germans from Kant to Mann embraced this “secular form of Pietism,” turning inward to find truths not anchored in reason or revelation — and often, like Mann in 1915, choosing mystical wholeness over messy liberal politics.
So how did all this happen? Well…
There’s a new thesis making the rounds that has already stimulated plenty of discussion about the benefits and costs of copyright laws. It comes from the German economic historian Eckhard Höffner, his work summarized in a Der Spiegel review titled “No Copyright Law: The Real Reason for Germany’s Industrial Expansion.”
Höffner contends (according to the review) that the near absence of copyright law in eighteenth and nineteenth century Germany laid the groundwork for the “Gründerzeit”—the enormous wave of economic growth that Deutschland experienced in the middle and later nineteenth century.
An “incomparable mass of reading material was being produced in Germany” by the 1830s, Höffner notes. Some 14,000 publications appeared in the region in 1836, widely distributed thanks to the presence of “plagiarizers”—competing publishing houses unafraid of infringement suits. The result was a cheap mass book market catering to a huge reading public…
And this “lively scholarly discourse” didn’t just focus on poetry and philosophy. It included endless tomes about physics, chemistry, biology, and steel production—crucial subjects a nation would need to master to launch a top flight industrial revolution.
That’s right. They BitTorrented it.