The ‘German Genius’ and its Friends in the Wrong Places

A book I just finished reading played a part in unraveling a minor mystery concerning a right-wing German politician.

The right-wing politician is Björn Höcke, Thuringian state chair of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.

The book is The German Genius, a 2010 English-language book by the British journalist Peter Watson.

First I’ll talk about the political mystery, then the book.

I. The Political Mystery

The mystery is whether Höcke, under the name “Landolf Ladig”, wrote articles (g) for an extreme-right publication of the German NDP party.

Let’s keep both parties straight. The AfD (g) Party, founded in 2013, is a right-wing, anti-immigrant nationalist-conservative political party. Although controversial, it currently polls at 10-15% of the vote and is represented in the German federal parliament, the Bundestag.

The NPD (National Democratic Party) (g) is a far-right political party which is considered the just barely legitimate political face of extreme right-wing German nationalism. There is considerable overlap between neo-Nazis and fanatical nationalists and the NPD. German law allows the Federal Constitutional Court to ban political parties which oppose the ‘liberal democratic order’, and several attempts have been made to ban the NPD party, but they failed on technical grounds. The NPD polls at 1-3% nationwide, and is not represented in the federal parliament, although it did get into some state parliaments in East Germany.

So in American terms, the AfD would be Donald Trump — controversial, often rude and crude, but with genuine support in the population, and generally smart enough to avoid openly embracing white nationalism. The NPD would be Richard B. Spencer — white nationalist and proud of it.

Trump is controversial, Spencer is radioactive.
The AfD is controversial. The NPD is radioactive.

Now back to Höcke. Höcke, a high-school history teacher (g) (which means he’s a civil servant) and “German Patriot”, is easily the most controversial member of the AfD. Appearing on a major German political talk show, he unfurled a German flag and set it on the armrest of his chair:

Bildergebnis für höcke will fahne

Höcke is part of the AfD’s ‘right-wing’ fringe, and there have been moves to try to kick him out of the party (g) to give it a more mainstream image. They were unsuccessful.

The question in this post, however, is whether Höcke is “Landolf Ladig”. The texts Landolf Ladig wrote for the radioactive NPD party are filled with extreme-right rhetoric. This doesn’t mean they’re openly neo-Nazi; even the NPD avoids that sort of rhetoric, which would earn it an immediate ban and criminal charges. But they’re full of völkisch-nationalistic code phrases popular among the German far-right. They’re even more controversial than what Höcke normally says, and some of the arguments in those articles may even be unlawful in Germany.

So, to sum up, what Landolf Ladig wrote is well outside the pale even for right-wing Germans. Therefore, if Höcke is Ladig, this would be a major blow to his political career. In 2015, a German sociologist Andreas Kemper, began publishing pieces in which he noted the similarities between Höcke’s writing and that of Landolf Ladig. Here’s a representative video:

Unfortunately it’s only in German, but it makes a strong case that Höcke wrote the Ladig pieces. Kemper’s work, among other things, eventually led the AfD to commission a legal expert opinion on whether Höcke was Ladig, which, according to news reports (g), concluded that it was likely he was, indeed, Ladig (g).

Höcke has always denied being “Landolf Ladig”, and in 2015, he threatened to sue anyone who said he was. This has led a German left-wing group to troll him by devoting an entire website (g) to claiming that Höcke is Ladig. You can even buy mugs and T-shirts with Höcke’s picture identified as “Landolf Ladig” on them. So far, Höcke has declined to sue.

And now, finally, we get to the book! One of the pieces of evidence mentioned by Andreas Kemper in a recent interview and article (g) was that Landolf Ladig told his NPD readers to read Watson’s book The German Genius, which bears the German title of Der deutsche GeniusBut Ladig got the name wrong, calling the book Genius der Deutschen. And guess what? Höcke made the exact same mistake! It’s only one element of the Höcke=Ladig case, but it’s an interesting one. Allow me to say, just for the record, that I am not interested in being sued, and don’t really care, so I hereby expressly declare that I have no opinion on whether Höcke is Ladig.

II. The Book

So what about the book? In a word, it’s a nearly 1000-page long compendium of German achievement, summarized thus in a positive Guardian review:

Peter Watson’s colossal encyclopaedia, The German Genius, might have been written for me, but not only for me. A journalist of heroic industry, Watson is frustrated by the British ignorance of Germany, or rather by an expertise devoted exclusively to Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Watson wonders not just why the nation of thinkers and poets came to grief between 1933 and 1945 but also how it put itself together again and, in 1989, recreated most of the Wilhelmine state without plunging Europe into war or even breaking sweat.

Watson has not simply written a survey of the German intellect from Goethe to Botho Strauss – nothing so dilettantist. In the course of nearly 1,000 pages, he covers German idealism, porcelain, the symphony, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, telegraphy, homeopathy, strategy, Sanskrit, colour theory, the Nazarenes, universities, Hegel, jurisprudence, the conservation of energy, the Biedermeyer, entropy, fractals, dyestuffs, the PhD, heroin, automobiles, the unconscious, the cannon, the Altar of Pergamon, sociology, militarism, the waltz, anti-semitism, continental drift, quantum theory and serial music.

Watson’s approach is mainly biographical — the book is essentially a series of potted biographies of German achievers, complete with birth-and-death dates. However, Watson’s summaries of their achievement are accurate and interesting, and he revives many forgotten figures and controversies. Watson probes every single nook and cranny of modern German culture and achievement.

The argument of the book is basically that although German thinkers and doers have shaped huge portions of our modern intellectual and political landscape, the English-speaking world underestimates this achievement because of its excessive focus on the ‘Prussian militarism’ and of course the Nazi era. Germany was a world leader in universal public education, modern research universities, and modern healthcare, chemistry, and physics.

And before the mid-20th century, the English-speaking world recognized this. Watson points out (twice), for instance, that the New York Times dedicated its entire front page to the death of Alexander von Humboldt in 1859. There are thousands of American cities, towns, and institutions whose names reflect the heritage of German settlers (including Humboldt County, California, now famous for something very different). German intellectual rigor and distinction was once proverbial in the English-speaking world, and German language ability and a tour in a German university was a mark of distinction for young British and American intellectuals. Watson’s book is intended to remind us why this was the case, and that the specifically German aspects of German-speaking culture still has much to offer the world.

I enjoyed the book immensely and learned an enormous amount from it, so it’s a solid recommendation from me, Landolf Ladig, and Björn Höcke. Although I should point out, in capital bold letters, that Peter Watson is in no way an apologist for völkisch German nationalism. He devotes exhaustive attention to the horrors of the Third Reich, and points out how aspects of the “German Genius” (excellence in chemistry, philosophical and social radicalism, völkisch nationalism, German historiography) either helped lay the foundations for Nazism or furnished it with tools. Watson admires modern Germany’s culture of remembrance, and doubtless has zero sympathy with the AfD, NPD, or any of those fellows. This is not a book intended to warm the hearts of German nationalists (although, as we have seen, it does that), but rather to encourage respect for and interest in one of the world’s great, and distinctive, cultural traditions.

German Word of the Week: Thingstätte

This GWOW amuses English-speakers because it begins with a false friend. But then it gets very German, in all senses of that word.

A ‘Thing‘, Wikipedia tells us, was “the governing assembly of an early Germanic society, made up of the free people of the community presided over by lawspeakers.” In other words, a sort of proto-parliament, usually held outdoors at a symbolic grouping of stones or large tree (perhaps a Gerichtslinde or “court linden”). There are very few records of Things left, and few ruins which can be positively identified as Thingstätte (Thing-places, pronounced approximately TING-steh-tuh). Nevertheless, they were important institutions — many Scandinavian parliaments have some form of the word “ting” in their official title.

But Germanic Thingstätte had a disturbing second life, as with so many things Germanic. The völkisch movement in Germany, and later the National Socialists, decided to revive the ancient tradition of the Thingstätte. The new versions weren’t supposed to be parliaments, but rather outdoor gathering places where the faithful could assemble to revere nature, the Germanic soul, and other nationalist topoi*.

Party groups, or the Hitler Youth, would assemble at the Thingstätte for Thingspiele, multi-disciplinary events which might feature torchlight processions, speeches by academics or ideologues, choral singing, patriotic dramas, sporting contests or similar collective celebrations of things young, healthy, vigorous, and Teutonic. Nazi-era Thingstätte in Germany — of which 400 were planned, but only 40 built, are often huge, with oval-shaped amphitheaters with seating for thousands, usually set on hilltops. This means they’re quite hard to get rid of, and still generate controversy, since they are massive and indelible reminders of the Third Reich. They attract visitors from the unsavory right-wing fringes of German society, as well as from people who want to revive ancient Germanic traditions such as Walpurgisnacht (there is some overlap between those groups, but it’s far from 100%). I once visited perhaps the most famous Thingstätte, in Heidelberg, and saw only yuppies jogging up and down its steps.

And today I just learned, from the magnificent ars publica düsseldorf** site, that Düsseldorf had its own Thingstätte, way off in Gerresheim, a working-class suburb in the eastern part of the city. It was built in 1935, partly as an employment-generating measure for World War I veterans. Now, it’s pretty much completely abandoned, and surrounded by privately-owned houses:

It included a big 220-step path up a large hill, at the top of which was a massive boulder with a memorial inscription. I bet a ruined Thingstätte would be pretty interesting to visit (after getting necessary permissions, of course), so it’s now at the top of my list of things to see and do in this endlessly-fascinating city. Continue reading “German Word of the Week: Thingstätte”