Two Old Germans Drinking Coffee

Is the title of this piece in The American Interest.  Generally I read TAI in connection with Walter Russell Meade’s blog, but the link in a side-bar caught my eye and — thanks to the wonders of the internet — hey presto! I was there.

A couple of quick thoughts:  I’d known that Angela Merkel was the daughter of a Lutheran pastor in the Soviet Occupation Zone East Germany but hadn’t understood that the new Bundespräsident is himself a former pastor, likewise from the old zone.  This might well be a coincidence.  On the other hand maybe not.  Among my favorite reads of the last several years is rather thick book titled The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century, by Peter Watson, which is an intellectual and cultural history of the area known now as Germany from 1750 to just recently.  The author (British) starts his foreward with the observation, backed up by survey data, that at least in Britain the twelve years of the Nazi era have pretty much eradicated awareness that long before the Austrian corporal emerged from the grit and slime there was German thought, philosophy, literature, science, music, industry, and innovation.  Up through 1933 Germans had won more Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry than all other nations put together.  The modern university, especially the research university, is a more or less Prussian institution.  In short, there are way more moving parts to Germany, what it was and what it is, and how it got both ways, than you can comfortably fit inside a gas oven.  Watson’s book, like Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern, is a tremendous source of for-further-reading inspiration.  In any book of that scope there won’t be space enough fully to submerge oneself in the details of what might interest, but its scope will (i) plow up enough subjects that the reader will find multiple topics to explore in greater detail elsewhere, and (ii) if the endnotes are consulted, provide some good hints at where to start looking for those greater details.

In any event, one of the interesting factoids to which Watson calls attention, more than once, is the frequency with which the drivers and visionaries of Germany thought and progress all have, somewhere in their biographies, the data point that they were children of Protestant pastors.

The other interesting point made in the linked article is the difference between the ages of the principals: Benedict was born in 1927; Gauck only in 1940.  While at their respective ages one might think 13 years not too significant, its true importance becomes apparent when you consider how old each was in 1944-45, as Everything Went to Pieces in the Reich.  Joseph Ratzinger was 18 in 1945, nearly a full-grown adult, and while not possessing an adult’s full measure of adaptive capacity, at least sufficiently aware of the world to make some kind of sense of it.  Gauck, however, was among the very youngest Kriegskinder, those children who — especially in the east — were exposed to the horrors of industrialized warfare without emotional defenses of any kind.  I’ve already posted on what has been called the “forgotten generation,” and the damage those children took with them into later life.  What is the likelihood that Gauck’s approach to politics is not to some degree colored by his partially-processed, overwhelming recollections of the war’s end, and his father’s arrest and enslavement by the communists?

Is it, in other words, wholly surprising that two “old Germans” of their respective generations and backgrounds would both perceive the de-Christianization of Europe to be among the more important issues facing Western Civilization?

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