New Year’s Eve celebration at the foot of the Berlin Wall, 1989

A glorious flowering of difficult ideas

Two newly translated books evoke chapters of the divided and discarded history of Germany’s capital


This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960 1990 by Philipp Felsch (Polity, £25).

The First Days of Berlin by Ulrich Gutmair (Polity, £50).

Janus-faced Germany is looking back with Sehnsucht (longing) and forward with Angst. As they bid reluctant farewell to the relative serenity of the Merkel era, Germans are asking themselves: if the price of becoming once more a nation of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers) is to be again a land of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), the prosaic answer is: Nein, danke. After the trauma of two world wars came the euphoria of the economic miracle; after the triumph of the fall of the Berlin Wall came the trials and tribulations of reunification. No wonder they will do anything for a quiet life.

The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960 1990 by Philipp Felsch (Polity, £25)

In a provocative essay, the historian, Niall Ferguson, has accused Angela Merkel of having “all but brought German history to a halt”. His overall judgement of her tenure is probably too harsh. It is unfair, for example, to hold her responsible for “a demographic future [that] still looks more like Japan’s than America’s”, while simultaneously blaming her for allowing in “a flood of migrants”.

Nor is it her fault that most German universities are mediocre, there are few if any writers of global stature and much of the press is indeed “drearily parochial”. In any case, German artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Gerhard Richter are indeed world class. It’s the same story in music and film, not to mention technology and science — and it was the German firm BioNTech, with Pfizer’s money, that won the race to make the first Covid vaccine.

But some of Ferguson’s criticisms hit home. Merkel’s Germany has allowed Europe to punch below its economic weight. Most Germans are attached to their velvet Chancellor, but at heart they know it’s time for a change. As Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat leader now building his coalition government, puts it, “part of the security we’ve always had over the past decades — that we can do more than others — is gone”. That sense of security was not merely financial: it was also intellectual.

The First Days of Berlin by Ulrich Gutmair (Polity, £50)

The Teutonic addiction to romanticism (even “Mutti” Merkel loves her Wagner), nostalgia (including its peculiarly East German variant, Ostalgie) and an all-pervasive pessimism are hard to kick. A recent survey by the European Council on foreign relations found that 52 per cent of Germans believe that their golden age is in the past — the highest proportion in the EU.

This preference for the irrevocable is especially prevalent in the haunted Hauptstadt. Berlin revels in retro and ruminates on ruination. Before 1989, it was a gaudy island in a sea of grey; a refuge for draft dodgers and dilettantes, rebels and rock stars; a Cold War capsule dreaming of its lost grandeur and oblivious of its destiny. For one brief world-historical moment, on the night of November 9, 1989, Berlin was the Archimedean lever that demolished a wall, an empire and an ideology. Now it has re-emerged as the sleek new facade of Europe’s angst-ridden power-brokers.

Two newly translated books evoke chapters of the divided and discarded capital’s history: Philipp Felsch’s The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990 and Ulrich Gutmair’s The First Days of Berlin. The latter picks up where the former leaves off, at the moment when the opening of the Wall brought a sudden end to the hermetic world of High Theory and ushered in a demotic culture based on raves and squats, clubs and galleries.

While Felsch has written the intellectual history of a generation, using the archive of a small radical publishing house to illuminate an entire epoch, Gutmair depicts the brief interregnum between one republic and the next — the “first days” of a city that had seen the downfall of four regimes in one lifetime.

If I concentrate on Felsch in this essay, it is not because Gutmair’s memorial is less valid, but because my own memories of Berlin are mainly earlier: a year as a research student in 1979-80 and occasional visits in the late 1980s as first Bonn and then Eastern Europe correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.

The brilliance of Felsch’s approach is that the founders of Merve Verlag, Peter Gente and Heidi Paris — his hero and heroine — were anything but conventional publishers. “We’re not pros, we’re bookworms,” they told people. “We happily confess to making bad and cheap books.” Looking at one of them as I write, I can confirm that Merve volumes — always what would now be called “paperback originals” — were indeed badly printed on bad paper.

But they were not necessarily bad books. They included the French postmodernists, poststructuralists and deconstructionists: manna from heaven for the precarious and parochial pioneers of West Germany’s post-Nazi culture.

But Merve was also one of several publishing houses to ride the wave that Felsch calls “Theory”: a new category that cut across traditional genres to embrace radical thought, from philosophy and intellectual history to psychology and the social sciences.

What gave Theory its cachet in the 1960s and 70s was, in part, the paperback publishing boom. Hitherto unobtainable or unaffordable works were suddenly cheap as chips and even more delectable. For a glorious season that lasted for decades, Theory was, for those with intellectual aspirations (or pretentions), as hot as fiction and as cool as rock.

Theory was, for those with intellectual aspirations (or pretentions), as hot as fiction and as cool as rock

Thanks to publishers such as Penguin in Britain, Gallimard in France and Suhrkamp in Germany, the generation that it is now fashionable to patronise as “boomers” was better-read than any other, before or since. Olaf Scholz, for example, says that he “reads passionately and a lot”.

So The Long Summer of Theory is a book about books, not just as vehicles of ideas but as objects of desire. Peter Gente recalled how for five years he was inseparable from a dog-eared paperback of Minima Moralia by Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, the co-founder of the Frankfurt School and godfather of Theory.

The ghostly revenants of this late flowering of the German Geist still lurk in dark corners of my library. One such relic is a slim Merve volume by Jacob Taubes: Ad Carl Schmitt: Gegenstrebige Fügung. Its yellowing pages transport me back more than forty years, to another summer in another divided city: Jerusalem. I met Taubes in 1977 while I was an Oxford undergraduate, during the long vacation which I spent working on a kibbutz.

In Israel I was staying with family friends, Naomi Shepherd (the New Statesman correspondent) and her husband Yehuda Layish. They kindly introduced me to academic acquaintances, including Jacob Taubes, Professor of Judaic Studies and Hermeneutics at the Free University, Berlin, nicknamed der Wunderrabbi. Though he was indeed descended from Viennese rabbis, Taubes was not a religious Jew but one of the high priests of Theory. “Komm nach Berlin,” he said to me, “you could join my seminar. You would enjoy it. Ich auch.”

And so it came to pass. Two years later, thanks to a scholarship for which I was nominated by Tom Stoppard, I arrived in the small hours at an apartment in Uhlandstrasse, courtesy of a friend, the poet and essayist James Fenton, who had bequeathed me his room. My flatmate was Timothy Garton Ash, who has immortalised that era in his memoir The File.

I did indeed attend the seminar of Professor Taubes. He held court at a villa in Grünewald, an elegant suburb where the haute bourgeoisie had once lived. It was also the station from which Berlin’s Jews were deported to the death camps. There is now a memorial at Platform 17, but in the early 1980s nobody showed much interest.

According to Felsch, Taubes also liked to entertain at the Paris Bar in the Kantstrasse — then by far the best and, really, the only restaurant worthy of a once great capital. I was never invited there by the Wunderrabbi, but I do remember quite a lot of what he talked about in the seminar room.

It all revolved around a thinker whose name I had not hitherto encountered: Carl Schmitt. Taubes had discovered a letter to Schmitt from one of the great heroes of the Left, Walter Benjamin, dated 1930. Enclosing a copy of his book on seventeenth-century tragedy, Benjamin paid homage to Schmitt as one of the foremost political and legal thinkers of the age. This letter had been omitted (“suppressed”) by Adorno from the published selection of Benjamin’s correspondence.

Why? Because by 1930 Schmitt was already one of the gravediggers of the Weimar Republic. Just three years later, he became one of the leading political theorists of the Third Reich. After the war, he was interned and, though never put on trial, his academic career was finished. His notoriety as “Hitler’s Crown Jurist” was simply too great. Yet he continued to write and to exercise a subterranean influence from his retreat in Plettenberg, a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia. Indeed, the bulk of his oeuvre was produced between 1945 and his death in 1985.

Jacob Taubes in his study at the Free University of Berlin

In his research into Western Eschatology, his doctoral dissertation and the only book he ever published in his lifetime, Taubes became aware of Schmitt in, of all places, Jerusalem. Through Armin Mohler, the secretary of Schmitt’s friend Ernst Jünger, the soldier-novelist, Taubes put out feelers to Schmitt and opened a correspondence with him.

As Taubes put it later, “Carl Schmitt thinks apocalyptically, but from the top down; I think from the bottom up. What we have in common is that we both experience time and history as a deadline, a stay of execution. That is originally how Christians experienced history.” For Taubes, Schmitt was above all the Catholic creator of “political theology”, the key to understanding modernity, secularisation and the sublimated faith of the faithless.

As a refugee from the Nazis and almost the only Jewish professor then teaching in Berlin, Taubes was initiating us into the ideas of a man who had once invoked the Führer as the “protector” of the rule of law. Just as Hannah Arendt, another Jewish refugee, had rehabilitated her erstwhile lover Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who saw himself as the Führer of the German universities, so Taubes was largely responsible for rehabilitating Schmitt.

Both stars of the Nazi intelligentsia have outlived their disgrace and are now ubiquitous in transatlantic academic discourse. Hegel coined the phrase die List der Vernunft (“the cunning of reason”), but there is such a thing as the cunning of unreason, too.

Carl Schmitt photographed in 1932

Taubes died in 1987, aged just 64. The party was over. He had been one of the editors of Suhrkamp’s prestigious Theorie series and his pupils were the footsoldiers of the movement, including Merve’s Peter Gente.

For me, the importance of Taubes was that he brought me to Berlin — the city with whom I had an unrequited love affair, but in whose moment of glory I was lucky enough to have a hand (see “After the Wall”, The Critic, November 2019.)

The fall of the Berlin Wall spelt the end of “the Western world’s subsidised madhouse”. Just as the asylum was taken over from the lunatics, the esoteric ideas that had flourished in Berlin went mainstream. Hence Felsch dates the decline of Theory from 1989.

As the new century dawned, its chief promoter in Britain, Terry Eagleton, was writing its obituary (After Theory, 2003). There have been revivals and comebacks, but Felsch asks: “Have difficult ideas returned — as a retro fashion?”

The long summer of theory from the Sixties to the Eighties must bear its share of responsibility for the quagmire in which our universities now find themselves: squabbling over what to censor and whom to cancel, while inculcating guilt instead of knowledge, virtue-signalling instead of virtue. A YouGov survey of 14 Western nations, including the US, found the British most inclined to agree with the proposition: “Political correctness is undermining free speech in my country.”

There have been revivals and comebacks, but Felsch asks: “Have difficult ideas returned — as a retro fashion?”

Yet it is difficult for me, at least, to trace the lineage of this new puritanism from the laid-back, libertarian attitude towards dangerous or heretical ideas that I recall from the West Berlin of 40 years ago. Nothing and nobody, not even the Nazis, was off limits — and we didn’t know what self-censorship was.

Irene von Alberti’s 2017 film Der lange Sommer der Theorie, loosely based on Felsch’s book and including interviews with him and other intellectuals, depicts three young women exploring the legacy of Theory as a means of liberation. Theirs is a non-stop talking shop, some of it boring, pretentious or silly, but silencing free speech just isn’t their game.

There’s a reason why the late, rightly lamented Roger Scruton never dismissed any of the post-war Continental movements out of hand. In one of my last conversations with him, he confided: “I’ve always been a bit of an existentialist myself, you know.” In the best of the academic antagonists he devoted so much of his life to refuting, he recognised fellow rebels, worthy of his steel. High Theory often meant the higher nonsense, but it could also mean seriousness, erudition, close reading.

The day after the Wall opened, I encountered the French nouveau philosophe André Glucksmann, who had rushed to Berlin. “This is the end of the text,” he declared. He meant that the history of studying texts, from the Bible to Das Kapital, was over. How quickly the very concept of “text” has atrophied since then. The long summer of theory has been followed by an even longer winter of ignorance.

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