The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance

Peter Watson
Frederick the Great

In 18th century Germany, new beliefs, new tempers, new ways of thinking were taking place. Many of the new ideas transformed Europe and would also transform North America.

The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century

Publisher: HarperCollins
Price: $35.00
Author: Peter Watson
Length: 964 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-06
Excerpted from Chapter One: “Germanness Emerging” from The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century by Peter Watson (footnotes omitted). Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. ll rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

One Sunday evening in the spring of 1747, as his court musicians were gathering for their regular concert, an aide handed Friedrich the Great, king of Prussia, a list of visitors who had arrived at the Potsdam town gate that day. When the king scanned the list, he suddenly cried out: “Gentlemen, old Bach is here!” Later accounts had it that there was “a kind of agitation” in the king’s tone.

Johann Sebastian Bach, the composer, then sixty-two, had journeyed from Leipzig, eighty miles away, to visit his son Carl, chief harpsichordist in Prussia’s royal Kapelle. Ever since Carl had been in Potsdam, the Prussian king had let it be known that he would like to meet “old Bach.” Carl, however, knew how different his father and the king were and had done nothing to bring them together. He was not wrong. The encounter, when it did occur, proved to be a collision between two very different worlds.

Bach was an orthodox Lutheran who believed the biblical tradition that music was Hebrew. He was a widower and a family man who had twenty children between his two wives. “Frederick, a bisexual misanthrope in a childless, political marriage,” says James Gaines in his description of the meeting, “was a lapsed Calvinist whose reputation for religious tolerance arose from the fact that he held all religions equally in contempt.” Bach wrote and spoke German. At the king’s celebrated court, everyone spoke French. Friedrich boasted he had “never read a German book.”

Their differences carried over into their tastes in music. Bach was the most brilliant exponent of church music, in particular the “learned counterpoint” of canon and fugue, an ancient craft that had evolved such sophistication that many musicians of the day thought of themselves as “custodians of a quasi-divine art.” Friedrich considered such claims overblown. Counterpoint, to him, was old-fashioned. He dismissed music that, as he quipped, “smells of the church.”

Despite their differences, when the king saw “old Bach’s” name on the arrivals list, he ordered that the composer be brought to the palace that very night, not even giving him a chance to change his clothes. When Bach arrived, weary after his trek, he was presented by the king with a long and complex musical motif and a request (except it wasn’t really a request) that the composer make a three-part fugue of it. Despite the hour, despite his weariness, Bach rose to the task, “with almost unimaginable ingenuity,” so much so that all the virtuosi in the king’s orchestra were “seized with astonishment.” Still Friedrich wasn’t done, perhaps even a little disappointed that old Bach had performed so well. He now asked the composer if he could rearrange the theme into a fugue for six voices. This was a hoop Bach wouldn’t jump through, not there and then anyway. He insisted he would work out the arrangement on paper and send it to Friedrich later on.

In July, two months after the evening at Potsdam, the proud Bach completed the six-part fugue and dispatched it. There is no evidence that Friedrich ever had the piece played but had he done so, the king—a subtle, astute man—would have been more than a little affronted. For this composition contained what one historian described as a “devastating attack on everything that Frederick stood for.” In the first place, the music was deeply religious. Elsewhere it contained a subtle form of sarcasm, where the score was annotated with references to the king’s rising fortunes—though in practice the music descended into melancholy. Counterpoint and other forms of music that smelled of the church were interspersed throughout, all of which has allowed musicologists to conclude that, in the “Musical Offering,” Bach was having the last word—defying, chiding, even satirizing the king, reminding him that “there is a law higher than any king’s which is never changing and by which you and every one of us will be judged.”

This entire exchange—subtle, clever, but pointed—epitomized the clash between two very different worlds, a clash that, in 1747, was sharper than ever. Three years later Bach was dead. The last great achievement of his life, completed during his final months, was the Mass in B Minor, one of the great masterpieces of Western music (“titanic” in the words of the critic Harold Schonberg), and one that Bach himself would never hear. With the Mass in B Minor and Bach’s death, a whole artistic, spiritual, cultural, and intellectual world was at an end. The baroque had essentially been the style of the Counter-Reformation church, and its aim, in the visual arts, as summed up by Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti in Rome, one of the great reformers of the Catholic Church, was “to set on fire the soul of her sons,” to place “a sumptuous spectacle before the eyes of the faithful,” and to make the church “the image of heaven on earth.” Bach’s aim in his music—although it was Protestant music—was much the same. Such an understanding, such an aesthetic, died with him.

But if the baroque fire was cooling, new beliefs, new tempers, new ways of thinking were taking its place. Some of these innovations were fundamental, reconfigurations in thought that were as profound and as revolutionary as anything expressed for a thousand or even two thousand years. Many of the new ideas transformed Europe in its entirety, and North America too. Several, however, were specific to Germany or applied there more than anywhere else.

Until the middle of the eighteenth century—1763—the German speaking lands were, in the words of the Harvard historian Steven Ozment, “Europe’s stomping ground.” Their location, at the geographical heart of Europe, had made them a crossroads of international trade since the Middle Ages, a circumstance not entirely without its beneficial effects. In the early sixteenth century, for example, the imperial free cities of Germany—Augsburg, Ulm, Cologne, Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck—boasted a civic culture second only to their Italian and Swiss counterparts. At that time, Nuremberg, as Tim Blanning has pointed out, was home to Albrecht Dürer, Veit Stoss, Adam Krafft, Peter Vischer, and Hans Sachs. In the seventeenth century, however, that same geographical centrality conspired to make the German lands, as Ozment’s phrase implies, a battlefield for Europe’s great powers—France, Russia, Sweden, the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary, and Britain. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), a bitter conflict between Catholics and Protestants, was fought largely on German territory, and was so vicious that atrocity stories became commonplace—see, for example, Philip Vincent’s contemporaneous The Lamentations of Germany, which featured plates showing “Croats eating children,” “Noses and Eares cut off to make Hatbandes,” and other delicacies.

At the end of that time, the Treaty of Westphalia—a peace of exhaustion as much as anything else—hammered out a new political reality, a loose confederation of states of very unequal size and importance: 7 (later 9) electors (a reference to the office, largely ceremonial, of electing the emperor and his heir apparent, the king of the Romans), 94 spiritual and temporal princes, 103 counts, 40 prelates, 51 free cities, all equally sovereign (or half-sovereign), and around 1,000 knights, all claiming authority but ruling collectively barely 200,000 subjects. The main innovation among this morass was the fact that sovereign (and mainly Protestant) German states “spun away” one by one from their former historical hub, the Catholic Austrian/Hapsburg Empire. By using their new territorial rights, which gave them an independent foreign policy and armaments, Bavaria, Brandenburg-Prussia, Saxony, and Württemberg emerged from the Austrian shadow (though only Brandenburg-Prussia had a professional army worth the name). In 1667, Samuel Pufendorf, a jurist and the very man who coined the phrase “the Thirty Years’ War,” described what had been the former empire as a political and constitutional “monstrosity.” Population had collapsed, Württemburg’s falling, as an example, from 445,000 in 1622 to 97,000 in 1639. The German states were now so fragmented that in the 1690s barges navigating the Rhine to the Channel paid border tolls on average every six miles. Trade patterns had shifted to the North Atlantic following the voyages of discovery, and the German economy withered.

This new world didn’t endure. Over the next 200 years, the single most important political, cultural, and social development in central Europe was the rise of Brandenburg-Prussia, the cell from which what followed emanated. In 1700 Hapsburg Austria was 9 million strong and still the preeminent part of the “Heiliges Römisches Reich deutscher Nation” (Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation). Prussia at the time could boast a population of barely 3 million and, in terms of territory, ranked only eleventh in Europe. Yet, by the middle of the eighteenth century it boasted Europe’s third-strongest army and was breathing down Austria’s neck. The root cause of this change owed something to the Peace of Westphalia because under it Brandenburg-Prussia had acquired the territories of East Pomerania, Magdeburg, Minden, and Silesia. Prussia’s successes also owed something to a line of rulers who lived long and productive lives. But the most important development, the development that came to shape and characterize Prussia, in her own eyes as well as in the eyes of others, was a new variety of the Christian religion. Germanness, as we now understand it, emerged in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and cannot be understood without a firm grasp of Pietism.

Pietism and Prussianism

Friedrich the Great has, with good reason, attracted most attention from historians as a forceful personality who, by a combination of military prowess, personal charisma, and an intellectual/artistic cast of mind, helped catalyze the German renaissance that is the subject of the next few chapters. There is no doubt that he played an important role. Recent scholarship, however, has focused rather more on his father, Friedrich Wilhelm I. Without the achievements of this man, and the reforms he initiated, Friedrich the Great might not have had quite the glittering career that he did have.

When Friedrich came to power in 1740, aged twenty-eight, what gave the Prussian state the special character it already had was the unparalleled emphasis among state employees on the conscientious fulfillment of their official duties. “Whereas in other European capitals monarchs reigned over court establishments characterised by ostentatious luxury, the Prussian kings wore military uniforms and promoted an official ethic of parsimony and frugality.” The Prussian bureaucracy was even then well known for its commitment to much higher standards of honesty and efficiency than its European counterparts.

Photo (partial) by © Bert Hulsemans

Peter Watson was educated at the universities of Durham, London, and Rome. He has written for the Sunday Times, the Times, The New York Times, the Observer, and the Spectator. The author of War on the Mind, Wisdom and Strength, The Caravaggio Conspiracy, and other books, Watson lives in London..

© Peter Watson

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