In Praise of German Culture

Learned Through My Father

My father was a Germanophile even though we haven’t any family history rooted in the Germanic peoples, except for a Dutch ancestor who emigrated to Nieuw Amsterdam in the 17th Century.

Conrad Harpending Pavellas (1913 – 2000)

Dad belonged to the German Club at the University of California, Berkeley, where he attended in the mid-1930s. He studied the language and culture of Germany, primarily of the 18th and 19th Centuries. He was horrified by the rise of National Socialism (Nazis) after World War One, but never gave up his love of the language (he spoke hochdeutsch), and of the literary and musical heroes of previous times.

What brings these memories to mind is a recent reading of the Introduction, by Thomas Mann, to Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian. In it Mann recounts other works by Hesse, including the one that guaranteed Hesse the Nobel Prize for Literature, Magister Ludi, or The Glass Bead Game.” Mann writes this in the Introduction to Demian (in 1947):

German? Well, if that’s the question, this late work together with all the earlier work is in indeed German, German to almost an impossible degree, German in its blunt refusal to try to please the world, a refusal that in the end will be neutralized, whatever the old man (Hesse) may do, by world fame: for the simple reason that this is Germanic in the old, happy, free, and intellectual sense to which the name of Germany owes its best repute, to which it owes the sympathy of mankind.

Both Hesse and Mann were opposed to Germany’s role in the two world wars. Their writings reflected, explicitly in Mann’s books, their horror of war and of their despair toward fellow Germans who fomented it. They suffered deeply from the disrepute Germany gained from these wars.

Johannes Brahms
(1833- 1897)

A reminder of the large role Germany and its German-speaking neighbor, Austria, have had in the development of Western culture is in my current reading of Johannes Brahms: A Biography, by Jan Swafford.

Brahms is often considered both a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. He was a master of counterpoint, the complex and highly disciplined art for which Johann Sebastian Bach is famous, and also of development, a compositional ethos pioneered by Joseph HaydnWolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Brahms aimed to honour the “purity” of these venerable “German” structures and advance them into a Romantic idiom, in the process creating bold new approaches to harmony and melody. While many contemporaries found his music too academic, his contribution and craftsmanship have been admired by diverse figures such as Arnold Schoenberg and Edward Elgar. The diligent, highly constructed nature of Brahms’s works was a starting point and an inspiration for a generation of composers. (Source).

Swafford’s biography of Brahms echoes the above quote, which is from another source, in that Brahms was ever-mindful of the legacy imparted to him by Bach and Beethoven, the Germans, and Haydn and Mozart, the Austrians—plus the influences of Franz Schubert (Austrian) and Robert Schumann (German), the latter being his mentor and champion. He “heard their footsteps” behind him.

Ludwig van Beethoven is so well known and regarded that I feel he must stand, for anyone, as the exemplar of German genius in the musical realm, although some will argue for Mozart. Some have said that God spoke through Mozart (I say this, especially when experiencing his Great Mass in C Minor); others have said that Beethoven felt God and he were on equal footing.

In summarizing the influence of German and Austrian composers, I look to some data.

Classical Archives lists 60 composers as “the greats”, of which fourteen, or 23%, are Austrian or German. My own list of great or notable composers from these two countries shows twenty-three names:


To be sure, there were great composers from other countries during the 18th and 19th centuries: Bohemia (Czech Republic), England,  Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Russia, Spain, and others. But none, in my view, can match the influence the Austrians and Germans had on the development of man’s most sublime art, music.

German literature, including poetry

I believe my father wanted to learn German, in large part, to read the great writers of the 18th and 19th Centuries in the original. These are the names I remember him talking about and quoting from:

Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832)
Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805)
Heinrich Heine (1797–1856)
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(1749 – 1832)

Goethe was a German writer, artist, and politician. His body of work includes epic and lyric poetry written in a variety of metres and styles; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; treatises on botany, anatomy, and colour; and four novels. In addition, numerous literary and scientific fragments, and over 10,000 letters written by him are extant, as are nearly 3,000 drawings. (Source).

Schiller was a German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright. During the last years of his life, Schiller struck up a productive, friendship with already famous and influential Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. They frequently discussed issues concerning aesthetics, and Schiller encouraged Goethe to finish works he left as sketches. This relationship and these discussions led to a period now referred to as Weimar Classicism. (Source). The words in Schiller’s Ode to Joy were used as the text for the last, choral movement of Beethoven’s greatest work, his Ninth Symphony.

Heine was one of the most significant German poets of the 19th century. He was also a journalist, essayist, and literary critic. He is best known outside Germany for his early lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of Lieder (art songs) by composers such as Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Heine’s later verse and prose is distinguished by its satirical wit and irony. His radical political views led to many of his works being banned by German authorities. Heine spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris. (Source).

Rilke was a Bohemian-Austrian poet. He is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language. His haunting images focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety: themes that tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets. He wrote in both verse and a highly lyrical prose. His two most famous prose works are the Letters to a Young Poet and the semi-autobiographical Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. He also wrote more than 400 poems in French, dedicated to his homeland of choice, the canton of Valais in Switzerland. (Source). I wrote an article about, and quoted from, his Letters to a Young Poet.

Now to the Philosophers

I find that reading what others have said about any given philosopher provides me more understanding than if I read the original works—in English, of course.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
(1844 – 1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. He was interested in the enhancement of individual and cultural health, and believed in life, creativity, power, and the realities of the world we live in, rather than those situated in a world beyond. Central to his philosophy is the idea of “life-affirmation,” which involves a questioning of all doctrines that drain life’s expansive energies, however socially prevalent those views might be. Often referred to as one of the first existentialist philosophers along with Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Nietzsche’s revitalizing philosophy has inspired leading figures in all walks of cultural life, including dancers, poets, novelists, painters, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and social revolutionaries. (Source)

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 –1860) was among the first of the 19th century philosophers to contend that the universe is not a rational place. Schopenhauer developed the philosophies of Plato and Kant, emphasizing that in the face of a world filled with endless strife, we ought to minimize our natural desires for the sake of achieving a more tranquil frame of mind and a disposition towards universal beneficence. Often considered to be a thoroughgoing pessimist, Schopenhauer in fact advocated ways — via artistic, moral and ascetic forms of awareness — to overcome a frustration-filled and fundamentally painful human condition. Since his death in 1860, his philosophy has had a special attraction for those who wonder about life’s meaning, along with those engaged in music, literature, and the visual arts. (Source).

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism, set the terms for much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, and continues to exercise a significant influence today in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and other fields. The fundamental idea of Kant’s “critical philosophy”, especially in his three Critiques, is human autonomy. He argues that human understanding is the source of the general laws of nature that structure all our experience; and, that human reason gives itself the moral law, which is our basis for belief in God, freedom, and immortality. (Source).

Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel
(1770 – 1831)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), along with J. G. Fichte and F. W. J. von Schelling, belongs to the period of “German idealism” in the decades following Kant. The most systematic of the post-Kantian idealists, Hegel attempted to elaborate a comprehensive and systematic ontology from a “logical” starting point. He is perhaps most well-known for his teleological account of history, an account which was later taken over by Marx and “inverted” into a materialist theory of an historical development culminating in communism. (Source).

Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) is most readily associated with phenomenology and existentialism, although this identification is subject to qualification. His ideas have exerted a seminal influence on the development of contemporary European philosophy. They have also had an impact far beyond philosophy, for example in architectural theory, literary criticism, theology, psychotherapy,  and cognitive science. (Source).


Try to imagine what our lives would be like if any number of the above-named men had not been born. Through them our world has been made more beautiful and, for many, more understandable.

Let us take heed, therefore, of Thomas Mann’s cry to understand “the old, happy, free, and intellectual sense to which the name of Germany owes its best repute, to which it owes the sympathy of mankind”.

(L) Hermann Hesse; (R) Thomas Mann
(1877 – 1962); (1875 – 1955)
(; (