The German Genius
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The German Genius

3.96 of 5 stars 3.96  ·  rating details  ·  323 ratings  ·  44 reviews


Paperback, 964 pages
Published 2011 by Simon & Schuster (first published January 1st 2010)
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It is characteristic of the Germans that the question “What is German?” never dies out among them.
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

The German Genius is a big sprawling unwieldy Teutonic book which tries to be two things at once.

The first part is an explanation of the German 'genius' in a variety of fields since 1750. In this task, our author reaches an impressive variety of fields, ranging from analytic philosophy to architecture to fertilizer production. His range is exhaustive, and c...more
What an enormous book 850 pages of accounts of German intellectuals. Took me more than three months to read. But its enormous for a reason. Its a book with a huge agenda to bring to light the great German thinkers (from Goethe to Habermas) who lie at the heart of so much of modern thought and, partly because of the Nazis and partly because of Anglo-American-centrism have been unjustly overlooked. Having said that the book also charted where German thought began to go wrong at first very slowly b...more
I went for a long trip to Germany in 2013 and wanted to get a bit of backstory on the place (asides from what we're all told about all that unpleasantness in the early part of last century).

This isn't a book about redemption, or about citing Germany's previous contributions to industry, medicine, and the arts. Watson could attempt to dissect Germany's troubled legacy, or how the nation is viewed, but such a discussion would be outside the book's focus (and would be arguably as long and detailed...more
This was an amazing whirlwind tour of, well, German genius from the death of Bach in 1750 to the present: not only the artists, writers, historians, and philosophers that typically people the pages of cultural histories, but also scientists, engineers, businessmen, and doctors. If it has a fault, it's that Watson tries to cover as many people as possible, so occasionally it feels a bit like you're reading one encyclopedia entry after another. But that's more than outweighed by the overall arc of...more
Somewhere along the line after writing the introduction and title, Watson forgot his mission to explain how Germany became a dominant economic European country after 1945. Chapter 1 starts with year 1747. Not to be deterred, I waded through 713 pages to get to post-WWII. I took note of priests, architects, musicians and scientists. The changes in thought leading up to 1938 are useful, and answered lots of questions for me. Watson is an English journalist with an academic bent hoping to educate a...more
Part of my fascination is language. All the profs say English is descendant of one kinda Deutsche or another; a word like Bildung comes along. It is not just a word: it is a concept, very important to understanding Germany. Which is important and really needs to use a lot of pp to tell you why. One word does not equal one word in another language. Several word/concepts like that. When you see italics, start paying attention.

Watson's basic tenet is this: from 1750 -1933 it was the Germans. They t...more
Vuk Trifkovic
Had extremely high expectations after reading the introduction. It tackles a very pressing and neglected topic. It promised breadth, depth and tremendous amount of insight. However, I had to give up after about one third in. Basically, as you progress the book slowly looses a common narrative plot and becomes an encyclopaedic overview giving accurate but still fairly basic information about figures. There's very little to connect the episodes, and the snapshots themselves are pretty formulaic.

Roger Wood
Thorough research, and a strong statistical approach to observations, help make this book compelling. At times it does read like "The Book of Lists" by the Wallenchinsky/Wallace family. The book requires the patience of Job, to sift through the author's volume of evidence to support his hypothesis that without the tireless innovation of the German speaking cultures, the modern world as we know it would be less enlightened. However, Peter Watson's ability to call out connections between German ac...more
Watson has a gift for producing vibrant, elucidated, quotes--from other people's arguments. About 1/10th of the way through his 900 page long volume (happily I'm reading this on my kindle...) I've already started to notice what may turn out to be this book's main flaw, rhetorical reliance on other authors. I'm not sure that this needs to be as much of a problem as it's feeling like. In theory there's nothing wrong with the book collecting and gathering a lot of research, it's a more histiography...more
William J. Shep
Britain’s Peter Watson is a former journalist who has written several provocative tomes on the history of ideas. His most recent work, The German Genius, is a massive survey of German history and culture from the Age of Bach to the present. His primary purpose is to address what he views as British and Americans ignorance regarding the enormous cultural impact that Germans have had on the world. He argues that British obsession with their heroic role in defeating Hitler, combined with the Americ...more
If this history does not qualify as magisterial, I'm not sure what would. This is a valiant effort to re-instill a sense of national greatness among the German people based on their legitimate intellectual accomplishments over the past several centuries.

I found this story to be very compelling. There truly has been something special about the way the Germans organized themselves academically to achieve such soaring accomplishments in every major field of intellectual endeavor. This dazzling quo...more
This could easily be listed on the currently reading list; but it might be there for the rest of my life. I enjoyed the subject matter and appreciated reading on lesser known Germans who contributed to world culture (culture in the big sense - all inclusive). However, the narrative does not flow, each chapter could stand alone, and so I decided to read it that way. I dip in and out periodically, but it may be a while before I read the entire book.
Viktoria Michaelis
The opening section of this massive book makes one fact clear before we get into the details of German Genius: the English-speaking world has little or no idea of the influence Germany has had on the world prior to the Second World War; history teaching in many schools is limited to a very small time frame; most people associate Germany only with the events of 1933 - 1945. There is, the author claims, a block placed on all other information, all other history surrounding the German Federal Repub...more
As I have to read lots for work, I normally do not embark on volumes of the size of the German Genius. 800+ pages seem to be a challenge; luckily the book is available on kindle and therefore I could read it whereever and whenever I had time. I have to say that I found it difficult to put the book down. The book is very accessible and, if you are interested in cultural history, very interesting. I have come across many of the authors in The German Genius before but Watson brings the together in...more
Should have been titled "The Unchecked German Genius." Watson sets out to correct what he views as an error to define Germany simply by the thirteen years of the Third Reich. As he so well demonstrates in painstaking detail, Germans of the 19th Century led the world in nearly everything, from science to math to music, chemistry, industry and, most notably, philosophy. As he does so, he carefully lays out how that philosophy, culture and political view of itself very much provided the foundation...more
Watson's Herculean book deserves praise just for his subject - the emergence of a remarkable talent of German intelligence that has helped to shape the modern world as it is today - from education to philosophy, from music to art, from logic and mathematics to all branches of science. In the anglophone world in particular, we have been somewhat blinded by the 12 year aberration of the Third Reich and then jealousy in the sixties at the Wirtschaftwunder.

It's a huge area of civilisation that needs...more
Josh Brown
This felt like two different books. Book 1 (basically the beginning and the end): a nuanced argument about the evolution of German intellectual history, its complicated relationship with Nazism and our inability to discern the complexity of that relationship because of our overwhelmingly Nazism-centered understanding of Germany and German history. Book 2: a long concatenation of 5-page overly simplistic summaries of every possibly important German intellectual, of every possible stripe, for the...more
This is a big book that covers a lot of ground. It is not for everyone because it does cover a lot of history - from the Renaissance time period to the present day. The main premise is that the Germans have contributed much to our current way of life and thinking and that contribution has been lost in our preoccupation with Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust. Its unfortunate that is what so many people think of when they think of Germany. But in reality, in the time period prior to World War II, t...more
Manuel J.
This is a work of love, in the double sense of trying to be thorough regarding accomplishments of people of german origin, and in the call for a deeper look to the german contribution to the present world that's hidden behind a historical curtain caused by recent events.
Is Watson successful in this undertaking? I think he is, even considering the compromise of breadth and deepness over the different subjects that is always a characteristic of these books. I kept wanting to know more about this o...more
An impressive book, but grows a bit tiresome. Essentially reads like an endless series of connected, chronologically and thematically linked wikipedia articles on German genius. I am also less than convinced with half of his thesis. I have no issue with the idea that Hitler has caused us to forget the achievements of German culture prior to the rise of Nazism. However, he seems to think that Hitler was not the logical consequence of German culture.

While I would not submit that Hitlerism was ine...more
An incredibly thorough study of German culture, science, art and philosophy and its influence on the West.

Watson not only offers an exhaustive history of seemingly unlimited German cultural and scientific achievements (and a very interesting analysis on what he thinks caused them) but also makes a very convincing argument on how much Germany has influenced the (modern) world.
Aside from that, it's a fascinating story of Bach, Kant, Marx, Goethe, Einstein, Gödel, Krupp, the Humboldt brothers, Lan...more
It is impossible to capture this comprehensive and so well balanced book on German intellectual and cultural history on a single page.

I will say this in summary: I agree! It, in a much more factual and researched manner than I could ever hope to encapsulate, confirmed my gut instincts and fuzzy ideas that I've held since I was introduced to Germans and German culture in the late 1990's.

Educated, cultured (in the best meaning of the word), inward, conflicted, successful in the modern world but ne...more
Klara W.
May 31, 2013 Klara W. is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
This books makes me proud. I have never been proud of my country before but, for some reason reading an english journalist writing about it as if he adores everything of its process in science, literature et., even things I never knew about Germany, wakes a great amount of pride in me. Germany, especially now, is a great state to live in, with a brilliant and beshaming history at the same time, which is drawn fascinating in this book. As a foreign speaker it's really, really hard to read this bo...more
You won't find over-much politics here. What you will find is German culture Uber alles. A huge, fascinating book.
With this 849 page tome the author catalogs German intelligence and smarts over about three centuries, philosophers, artists, musicians, inventors. Most chapters are engaging, a few a bit ponderous. Premise: The “real” Germany was not Hitler-era unpleasantness but a nation of brainy pioneers who made innovations and discoveries in the arts, sciences and mechanics. Though some 19th Century characters were “rather fetid,” in all, German advancements surpassed those of England and France. Moreover,...more
Ali Al Khalifa
This is an important book that shows just how important and influential German thinking and Germans have been and continue to be in the world. The next book I'm going to read, On War, is written by a German and I found out about it from this book. The German Genius has been a good read, with very interesting information. I could not resist the urge of tweeting and sharing a lot of the information I read. However, the sheer density of information can become a little too much, and as always with l...more
Dit is wel voor de liefhebbers. een enorme pil om aan te tonen, dat de Duitsers en Duitsland meer zijn dan de ex-nazi's met hun gruwelijke daden. Het boek is geen verontschuldiging, maar laat wel zien hoeveel de Duitsers en de Duits sprekenden hebben bijgedragen aan wetenschap en cultuur, en vooral aan de filosofie, al lang voor de 2de wereldoorlog en daarna. Goed geschreven, ongelofelijk veel feitenmateriaal, maar nergens saai.
Livia Lazar
Jul 16, 2013 Livia Lazar is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
"Baumgarten was joined by Johann Jakob Bodmer who argued that poetry (and by implication other forms of art) was a form of truth equal, if not superior, to philosophy (to include what we call science), the more so because it was more closely related to history. This was an important insight because it suggested that the unique and distinctive essence of a nation is best found in its poetic and mythic traditions."
Peter Watson starts out strong, there is no doubt about that.

After some hundred pages one realizes that here a journalist is at work writing a feature. It is not enough, it merely fakes thoroughness but certainly does not achieve it, if you approach this theme essentially by dropping names. Yes it does add human interest. For a while, say 30 pages. It kind of whets the appetite but fails to satisfy.
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Education: educated at the universities of Durham, London and Rome.

Deputy editor of New Society.

Part of the 'Insight' team of The Sunday Times for four years.

New York correspondent of The Times.

Has written for the Observer, The New York Times, Punch and The Spectator.

Author of thirteen books.

Presented several television programs about the arts.

Research Associate at the McDonald Institute for Archa...more
More about Peter Watson...
Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities--From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums Landscape of Lies (Felony & Mayhem Mysteries) A Terrible Beauty: The People and Ideas That Shaped the Modern Mind: A History

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