Thinking about national essence

January 07, 2021

A lot to think about today, but for now, I'll just give you an oblique bank shot.  Remember, very little in history is unprecedented.  This moment definitely has precidents.


This morning I've been reading Suzanne Marchand’s Down from Olympus: Archaeology an Philhellenism in Germany, 1750 to 1970 (Princeton University Press, 1996).  It's a really interesting book, for many reasons: it’s about the intellectual development of Germany, the development of notions of modernity, the ongoing reinterpretation of classical antiquity and much else.  I highly recommend it. 


It is poignant for me to be reading this on the day after white nationalists stormed the US Capitol, because of the discussion in this book of how German academics grappled with the questions of the nature of German identity at the beginning of World War One.  In the first few months of that war, a coordinated propaganda campaign—not without factual basis—associated the German army's war crimes in the early days of the war with some essential barbaric nature to German culture.  The Germans, this account went, were essentially nothing but barbarians (“Huns,” as people said), committed to violence and cruelty above all else.  The veneer of culture and intellect that they had presented to the rest of Europe over the past several centuries was just that: a veneer. 


The German scholars were anguished by these charges, but tried to reply by embedding the industrial and military might of their nation—into which they silently delighted the violence and atrocities that their army had committed—within a larger picture of German Kultur.  “Our Wissenschaft is embedded within our Kultur, our Geist,” they seemed to say; and this allowed them to rationalize, by which I mean excuse away and render invisible, their country’s own violence. 


Both sides of this debate, the Anglo-French, and the German, trafficked in cultural essentialism here.  We wouldn't do that, of course.  Nonetheless, it does seem to me that the agonies of the German academics have a parallel in the agonies that American academics face today.  What is the relationship between the violence we see all around us and have seen for the past few years, and the deep structures of American history?  


These are very important questions that we have been struggling with for a while now, and continue to struggle with.  Perhaps we can learn more by employing a language in which contingency and accident has more of a functional role than cultural essences do.  That seems to be the strategy we are employing.  It may also be useful for us to look back at earlier ages, when other intellectual and academic cultures faced analogous problems in their own settings.  So I recommend looking at the German academics in the first several decades of the 20th century.  


Be well.  Think hard.  We will all need to do much in the years ahead.  That has been true in the past; it remains true today.