Wednesday 22 January 2020

Book Review: Peter Watson, The German Genius, Europe’s Third Renaissance and the 20th Century (London, 2011)

Molly Southward
BA History
I first read this book while researching for my A-Level History course, focusing on the rise of youth groups in Germany between 1860 and 1972. As I skimmed through it for my coursework, I was intrigued and so bought a copy to read cover-to-cover later on. The fact this book stood out to me in the sea of German history books I was reading at the time clearly speaks for itself. In this book, Peter Watson aims to show that there is so much more to German history than the Holocaust, despite it obviously being a crucial topic that should not be dismissed. He clearly achieves this aim.
The length of the book, which stands at 850 pages, shows the amount of work and scholarship that has gone into the publication. Throughout the book, Watson raises many questions about the type of German history that has been perpetuated in the mainstream. This is so refreshing and makes the reader realise how little German history, other than the war period, is in circulation in the UK. It stands defiantly as the antidote to ignorance that Watson intended it to be. This is also addressed in the book’s introduction, which discusses the impact that this fragmented historical knowledge is having on the relationship between Britain and Germany, and what the future repercussions of this may be.
The book gives an overview of modern German history. It covers a wide range of topics from 1750 to 2010, though many are only skimmed briefly because of the scope of this ambition. This also means it’s not a quick read, but anyone interested in Germany, or culture, sciences and the arts specifically, will really appreciate this. It is astonishing how much one country has created and influenced the culture and world of today. Many references to books, poetry, plays and art are made throughout. Linked to this, some German is used in the book which, for people unfamiliar with the language, may take away from their enjoyment of it, especially since it can sometimes slow the pace of the book. However, it does also add to the narrative and certainly allows the reader to be more immersed in authentic classical European culture. There is a highly academic tone and a plethora of new ideas and concepts introduced throughout the book: for example, philosophical, psychological and classical studies which are often not addressed in such detail in more ‘traditional’ history monographs. This can, again, feel daunting at times.
It is understandable that the author does not completely ignore Hitler’s rise to power, the Nazi years and the Second World War. However, only three chapters are devoted to this, and most of the focus is placed on the impact the war had on the arts, scientific developments and scholarship in Germany, as opposed to limiting itself to a regurgitation of the infamous policies and atrocities that took place at the time. This is a highly effective way to deal with what could have a potentially problematic part of this book and, with this approach, Watson is able to add a new dimension to the reader’s understanding of the German past.
Ordered chronologically, each chapter is played out in such a way that it is almost broken down into individual stories or events. The author uses every opportunity to add as much information as possible. Alongside the main body of text is a list of 32 influential Germans that are not mentioned in the rest of the book. There is also a lot of narrative that lends itself to further investigation. This is helped by the 70 pages of notes and references at the end of the book, though they are mostly modern, and not so much primary material, which may be detrimental at times.
One thing to note, however, is the conservative religious and political views of the author which occasionally surface in the text. These are, arguably, unnecessary remarks towards certain people and their actions. This can sometimes detract from the objectivity of the author and will not be to everyone’s taste. They also make the book potentially difficult to read; however, the depth of knowledge shown, although not excusing these views, does still give the book merit and makes it a worthy read.
To conclude, I understand this book might not be to everyone’s taste, that it’s not the quickest or at times easiest to read and it may not be the best book to start your journey into German or cultural history. However, I would highly recommend the book if German culture and science are topics that interest you. Even if there’s only one small part of it that does entice you, the range of subjects covered will give it a wide appeal. It is an incredibly informative and well-written read on an understudied topic: you will certainly take something away from reading The German Genius.

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