über alles


By 1900, nearly everyone agreed that there was something special about the Germans. Their philosophy was more profound — to a fault. So was their music. Their scientists and engineers were clearly the best. Their soldiers were unmatched. Did this German superiority bode well or ill for the new century? Some foreigners served up dire warnings, but others were rapt admirers. Richard Wagner’s English son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, even wrote a weighty tome arguing that the Germans were the only true heirs of classical Greece and Rome. Many Germans were happy to agree. After world war broke out in 1914, German intellectuals rallied in indignant defense of a superior culture besieged by barbarians. Thomas Mann, for one, was anything but a flaming nationalist, but he wrote at length about the need to defend Germany’s unique cultural profundity. Mann came to regret his fulminations long before 1933, when a more noxious band of German chauvinists drove him into exile. And in early 1945, in California, he read Joseph Goebbels’s defiant proclamation that the Germans’ national greatness was the reason an envious world had united against them. Mann was honest enough to confess to his diary that this was “more or less what I wrote 30 years ago.”

more from Brian Ladd at the NYT here.