Shengren – Chapter 2.7 – The Decline of German-Language Scholarship

Should I think of Germany at night,
it puts all thought of sleep to flight…[1]

– Heinrich Heine, Nachtgedanken

The expansion of Germanentum, the spirit of the German people, could not save the German language from its decline in scholarship in 20th Century. That’s because other nations had a vital interest in containing the continental threat and to deny the Germans the status of Weltmacht—super power.

After the end of the First World War, which had surprisingly little losses because of Germany’s early capitulation, it became alarming to everyone that the German-speaking domain, which had a youthful 60 million population (France and Britain: 40 million), were still expanding culturally at a breathtaking pace and would soon have fully recovered and be ready to go to war again, and if it was only out of despairing defiance against the humiliating sanctions, unbearable reparation payments, and the constant sabotage of her economy. Punishment also came in form of language discrimination: German in newspapers and schools and as the language of medicine, culture, and psychology was gradually discontinued.[2]

One professor of Chinese Literature, Martin Kern, described in his book The Emigration of German Sinologists 1933-1945 (1998) how the top scholars migrated to America—never to return [Hellmut Wilhelm, Karl August Wittfogel, Friedrich Hirth…]. Other historians published similar research on ‘the fall of German-speaking Oriental scholarship:’ Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair (1963), Fritz Ringer’s The German Universities and the Crisis of Learning 1918-1932 (1961) and The Decline of the German Mandarins 1890-1933 (1990), Georg Fülberth’s Finis Germaniae (2007), and Suzanne Marchand’s German Orientalism (2009)—all coated a rather gloomy outlook for Germany’s once so ambitious Drang nach Osten—the yearning for the East.

While the dysfunction of certain branches of scholarship during and shortly after the Wars could be explained as the result of war propaganda [‘the first casualty when war comes is truth’—H. W. Johnson], other factors were at work in Germany too: The country’s fragmented history (it had not achieved political unity before 1871), civil wars and clashes with its neighbors (most notable in the Thirty Years’ War [1618-1648] and the Napoleonic Wars [1803-1815]) and the late but rapid industrialization and militarization, the late run for colonies, the late rise to Great Power status, and its Untergang (downfall) – all left their scars on the German psyche: a deeply rooted pessimism, the need for repressive order, rigidness, and overregulations, void of soul, a fear for modernity, and – since the German language was under siege in business, entertainment, and academia – a serious schizoid form of cultural despair.

Although German was the most spoken mother tongue in Europe (excluding Russia)—it peaked at approximately 95,000,000+ native speakers in 2010—the ‘linguistic solidarity’[3] of the German scholarly class was fragile at best. That’s easily explained: If a German scholar published in English, he or she increased his or her theoretical readership by the factor 100 [Germany had 1% of the world population]. Or, if you originally could reach 1 academic but now potentially 99 more [cause they all know how to read English], that’s an increase in theoretical readers of 9900%. There were only two ways—one direct, the other indirect—for Germany to reach and engage an international audience: a) publish in English; b) build/rely on a gigantic industry of translation services. Unsurprisingly, it became an amalgam of both.

As German became a liability, most major scientific journals, especially later the electronic ones, were now asking exclusively for English entries.[4] A historian of German publishing, Heinz Sarkowski, captured the exodus: There was a time when German was ‘the lingua franca of the scientific community’ and ‘German universities and science libraries provided a model for American and also for Japanese science.’[5] Only fifty years later, the German hype was over, and another fifty years later and English became the language of science and research, by far and in total:

German (language) was (at least in part) the predominant language in the sciences and the humanities in the 19th and 20th century, but has now altogether lost its position […] It should be stressed at this point to mention that the nihilistic spirit of hostility of the Nazis has contributed much to the demise of German language culture in the world. [6]

One had to carefully distinguish between German scholarship and German language scholarship. German scholarship never declined: the Germans just published in English now. The German language scholarship on the other hand was in free fall, at least in business studies, finance, entertainment, diplomacy, science and the humanities. German universities were now offering English language degrees and courses. One could rightly speak of the expiry of the conceptual German ‘Humboldt’sche University’:

That the German university tradition… would vanish along its transformation into an English-American college culture was predictable. The current restructuring of our universities into British ones, with their appropriate tests and graduate degrees such as B.A., M.A., B.S., M.S. etc. is logical, but it eliminates the difference and qualities of the German University…[7]

In addition to the pressure and demands from the international community, namely the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN), to liberalize [read: consolidate] the planet’s education system, Germany was now totally exposed to global educational research and evaluation—which means institutionalized Anglo-Saxon leadership. In contrary to erroneous popular German myth, German students were just of average intelligence,[8] and German universities could no longer compete globally with schools such as Tsinghua University or Peking University in mainland China, and a handful of Hong Kong’s universities, letting alone the Ivy Leagues of North America, Japan, and Britain.[9] But Germany could be ‘more diverse’. It now seemed that Germany had to admit more foreign students, not that it wanted to: It mean corrosion and subversion of the state—that is if the planners of ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ actually had the longevity of the German state in mind. Moreover, the politically motivated practice of the German legislators to systematically ban foreign degrees and diplomas mostly from Eastern European (Communist) countries and China and Russia, but also Turkey and the Middle East, came under scrutiny. As of 2011, about 300,000 intellectuals lived in Germany that had seen their foreign diplomas revoked or invalidated by West German authorities, effectively eliminating their careers.[10]

The way Oriental languages were studied had greatly changed for the Germans by the end of the 20th century. The Germans now increasingly studied Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, and Arab using English textbooks and instruction manuals, in particular when attending language schools and universities in those countries.

No research—to the best of our knowledge—on whether English as the language of instruction was detrimental or not to learning a third foreign language has been published so far; yet the constant exposure to the international lingua franca abroad, English, had some effects on the young German’s minds and their future international career plans. German schools often wisely abstained from calling English a Fremdsprache (foreign language) at all, but rather classified it as core course besides Deutsch and Geschichte.

One gets the idea that German language still has not opened up to foreign cultures and concepts; it just has granted the Anglo-Saxon predictor to play a greater part in it, otherwise for the time being where would new ideas come from, the Germans still guard against hundreds of thousands of Hindu or Chinese names and concepts that are always ready to take a slight detour into Western Europe. In fact, the little size of German culture realistically makes it hard even to take in Turkish or Persian culture, its names and concepts, but that aside. Given the decline of German language Oriental studies in the last hundred years, what did German scholarship actually know about China and the Far East and to what extent was mutually understanding on a cultural level possible? The answer must be: Germany still lived in the pre-War Eurocentric world, had little understanding of Chinese culture, no tolerance for Eastern traditions, and still had no concept for sages and sagehood:

The two wars then denied Germany finally and irreversible the evolution toward multiculturalism. They have succumbed in the Eurocentric world-view.[11]

When Robert K. G. Temple, British bestselling author and Visiting professor at Tsinghua University, published The Genius of China (1987), the UNESCO embraced his book and initiated the translation into 43 languages. The German publisher felt ‘Genius’ an overestimation and instead named the book Das Land der Fliegenden Drachen (1999) [The Land of the Flying Dragons]. Possibly, it was meant a pun on those countries where dragons actually walked. In 2008, the editorial board of ‘one of Germany’s top scientific institutions, the Max Planck Institute’ wanted to ‘grace the cover of a special issue of its Max Planck Forschung Journal’ but instead of Chinese poetry it printed a brothel ad proclaiming ‘Hot Housewives in Action!.’[12] The news about this funny but embarrassing blunder was published nationwide and across Europe,[13] and became a blogger sensation in China. One Hong Kong website started its response: ‘Wenn man kein Chinesisch kann…’ [If one doesn’t know Chinese…].[14] Which is quite accurate: to the Europeans the general way to conduct ‘business’ abroad has not changed significantly since the time of Imperialism and Colonialism. Especially the Germans, always a little bit late and slow, still send white German males with absolutely no knowledge of Chinese abroad, accompanied by some loyal expats who are paid exorbitant salaries and bonuses to set them wide and apart from their Chinese peers, hire a few local Chinese translators, and socialize only within the Western establishments (with the exceptions of some local brothels and escort services) like in Xuhui district in Shanghai (the old French concession) or Chaoyang district in Beijing.

The German Journal above had consulted ‘a German sinologist’ prior to publishing the piece, but he or she had no idea what the piece really said – the German expert thought it was just beautiful Chinese poetry. Another scandal in the German-China relationship was the Deutsche Welle’s firing of its China correspondent and fluent German speaker (she worked in Germany for nineteen years), Zhang Danhong. Deutsche Welle is Germany’s propaganda mouthpiece abroad, and Ms Zhang caused a public outrage when she announced the following on German airwaves:

China has managed to the 400 million people out of absolute poverty in the last 30 years. Thus, the Communist Party of China contributed more than any other political force in the world to Article 3 of the Charter of Human Rights. [15]

After Ms Zhang had lost her position and reputation, some German commentators concluded that, technically, her statement was correct, that the Chinese government indeed had helped millions of its people to escape poverty. It is not a secret. A regime journalist and ‘China correspondent’, Georg Blume, had made similar comments on the Communist Party of China before. It was just this: The German regime could not allow Chinese intellectuals to speak their mind. Ulrich Wickert, a former prominent German intellectual, journalist and author, who fell into disgrace for his dissenting views, cynically remarked on the double standard of Germany’s media: ‘Was ein Deutscher sagt, darf eine Chinesin noch lange nicht sagen’[16] [What a German says, a Chinese woman must not say ever]. Monika Lehner, a German sinologist, confirmed the overwhelmingly adverse attitude of the Germans toward Chinese who open their mouth: ‘Der grausame Chinese, der gelbe Chinese – diese Klischees sind leicht als solche zu entlarven und halten sich doch beständig[17] [The wicked Chinese, the yellow Chinese – those stereotypes are easily exposed, yet they persist]. Under the headline ‘Away with [our] arrogance’ (2010), Michael Blume, a scholar of religious studies published this:

We human beings all like to regard ourselves and the culture we belong to as the pinnacle of world history. For the German society today, I can say for sure: We are not. We borrow, we whine and implode [as a country] because of our lack of children – all in the midst of freedom, wealth, and high life expectancy, of which our grandparent’s generation could only dream of. [Yet] We represent a for decades now dying culture […] But since we are ALREADY depending on migrants to maintain our industrial prowess and to organize the care for our increasingly lonely elderly, it would be more than just appropriate to attach LESS ARROGANCE towards other cultures and religions.[18]

The German author Frank Sieren, a resident of Beijing, once criticized (in English) the overwhelmingly negative German reporting on China: ‘It’s strange – watching from afar, the Germans don’t appear to be self-doubting, but rather tend to consider themselves the center of the world’s civilization.’[19] Why all that German animosity toward China? One had to be remembered that China-German business relationships – as opposed to ideological and cultural ones – had been ‘excellent’—so the official propaganda—since China’s opening-up reforms in 1978; so why did the Germans felt so much contempt for Chinese culture? The answer was simple, but complex: Germany, as Frank Sieren explained before, indeed saw itself ‘as the center of the world’s civilization,’ and Germany had no reason to believe otherwise when it checked upon what Germany had already known from its past Oriental studies about China and the East. Germany had never discovered that China was a sage culture, and Germany had never thought of China being anything more than a pre-Christian, undeveloped, and backward society—Chinese, a ‘primitive language’[20]—whose destiny it was to be dominated, culturally and intellectually, by its European masters (see Hegel: ‘It is their necessary fate to be subjugated’[21]). The German ‘China-Bild’ (image of China) was stuck in the Hegelian 19th century and had not developed much since:

No one would, I think, dispute that Germany has lost the cutting-edge status in Oriental Studies, perhaps forever. This was not only the fault of the Nazis […]. Germany was already beginning to lose its status at the time the Great War broke out because of its sluggish adoption of comparative perspective, its prejudices for the ancient, as opposed to the modern world, its comparatively small toehold in Asia, and its very late discovery of East Asian cultures.[22]

The historian Adrian Chan described the German ‘lack of understanding’ of the most fundamental concepts in Chinese cultures in his Orientalism in Sinology (2009). Germany had never grasp the idea of sage cultures, and instead called the Chinese sages Philosophen or Heilige. The German thinkers never took China any more serious than a bad imitation of the West. Tuska Benes, a specialist in the cultural and intellectual history of nineteenth-century Germany, in her Babel’s Shadow: Language, Philology, and the Nation in Nineteenth-Century Germany (2008) gave another bleak assessment of Germany’s incapability to understand China:

The negative associations with the study of Chinese in Germany suggest that the German national identification with the East, while it extended to the central Asian peoples who had supposedly sparked the tribal migrations, broke down at the Chinese border. Not being an inflectional language, Chinese was not so amenable to the techniques of comparative-historical philology as Indo-European tongues and was quickly stigmatized as a primitive, underdeveloped language.[23]

The deviations of German Oriental scholarship in general and German China scholarship in particular from international (Anglo-Saxon) scholarship had been spectacular, if not to say fantastical, so much so, that a ‘new’ academic discipline was born to deal exclusively with the madness by which the Germans looked down onto the Asians: ‘German Orientalism.’ Organized in the United States, with now several experts (Marchand, Murti, Jenkins, Benes), the discipline compares German-language Oriental scholarship to the rest of the world. The Germans who did not understand sage culture and instead criticized and judged the Asians on every occasion, coldly and callously, would always cause conflict in the future, in stark disproportion to Germany’s actual size and position in the world.

Some have called for restrain [political correctness]. The high-and-mighty master narrative of the past in no way reflected the new realities of German-China relations and was best kept undisclosed. Chancellor Angela Merkel assured the world that her country understood its limitations: ‘Deutschland ist eine europäische Mittelmacht’[24]—a middle-sized power. There it was from the US puppet dictator herself: Germany was in fact not a great power. It pleaded no global contest.

In a world dominated by the United States and Anglo-Saxon leadership, and now the rise of the entire East, the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, an admirer of Deng Xiaoping’s political ideas, had this to say about Germany’s diminishing role in the world: ‘Our ground is not world politics; it is not pursuing an atomic strategy, it is not Asia, it is not the Middle East nor the Far East or Africa – our priority is our own European neighborhood.’[25] Such political ‘orders’ trickled down through elite circles quickly. And when a rather annoying journalist tried to talk Sino-German relations back into the 20th century, Schmidt snapped back, sharp and unequivocal: ‘We see China all wrong!’[26]

It was true, the English-speaking world also engaged in cruel ‘China-bashing’ on grounds of political and economical rivalry; nevertheless the rich experience of Asian cultures and the massive English language and cultural exchanges for hundreds of years gave the Anglo-Saxon world a head start and better understanding of Chinese culture and, historically, for ‘sage culture’. It was an exchange among equals. The German-speaking world, on the other hand, a sub-par-culture, perhaps a US colony, for historical and psychological reasons could not command respect. Instead, it retracted:

Our spiritual subculture is more superficial than that of the great Eastern traditions, and the German thinking has apparently retracted and specialized itself to bless the world with expensive and efficient cars. Germany is now the land of engineers, not the country of philosophers. The rediscovery of an integral and evolutionary spirituality reaches us today mostly from America. There [in America], the preparatory work done by idealistic and romantic philosophies is now developing further into new ways of thinking. In Germany, we obviously do not dare to connect directly to these important [new] trends of intellectual history.[27]

Can German-language scholarship recover from its decline? Yes, but this time it should not expand at the costs of others. Instead, the German language should let in everything; and by everything I mean foreign names and concepts. They should not even try to pretend that Aufklärung exactly means enlightenment. And for the sake of exact scholarship, they should call them junzi and shengren, not ‘Edler’ and ‘Heiliger.’

[1] Königs, 2006: ‘Denke ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, Dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht.”

[2] Ringer, 1961

[3] Eisenberg, 2007

[4] Frühwald, 2000

[5] Sarkowski, 2001

[6] Frühwald, 2000: ‘Das Deutsche, das sowohl in den Naturwissenschaften wie in den Geisteswissenschaften vom 19. bis in das 20. Jahrhundert (zumindest teilweise) vorherrschende Wissenschaftssprache war, hat diesen Rang inzwischen vollkommen eingebüßt. […] Es sollte an dieser Stelle nicht unerwähnt bleiben, dass die nihilistische Geistfeindlichkeit der Nazis viel dazu beigetragen hat, die deutsche Wissenschaftssprache und Wissenschaftskultur international zum Verschwinden zu bringen.”

[7] Ibid.: ‘[…] dass die deutsche Universitätstradition […] mit der Transformation der Sprache der englisch-amerikanischen College-Kultur weichen mußte, war vorauszusehen. Der heutige Umbau der Universitäten zur englischen Einheitsuniversität, mit den entsprechenden Prüfungen und Graduierungen (B.A., M.A., B.S., M.S., and more) ist folgerichtig, aber er beseitigt natürlich die Differenzqualität der deutschen Universität…”

[8] Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2009

[9] The Times Higher Education World University Rankings, 2008-2011

[10] Die Zeit, 2011 (23rd March)

[11] Marchand, 2009, p. 496

[12] The Independent, 2008 (9th Dec)

[13] Sueddeutsche, 2008 (10th Dec)

[14], 2008 (9th Dec)

[15] Sueddeutsche, 2009 (24th March): ‘Es ist China gelungen, in den letzten dreißig Jahren 400 Millionen Menschen aus absoluter Armut zu befreien. Damit hat die KP-China mehr als jede andere politische Kraft auf der Welt zu Artikel 3 der Menschenrechte beigetragen.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Lehner, 2007

[18] Blume, 2010: ‘Wir Menschen halten uns und unsere jeweilige Kultur gerne für die Spitze der Weltgeschichte. Für die deutsche Gesellschaft heute kann ich jedoch sicher sagen: Wir sind es nicht. Wir verschulden uns, jammern und implodieren mangels Kindern – und das alles inmitten von Freiheit, Reichtum und Lebenserwartung, von denen noch unsere Großeltern nur träumen konnten. Wir repräsentieren eine seit Jahrzehnten (aus-)sterbende Kultur […] Aber WENN wir schon Migranten benötigen, um Industriestandorte zu halten und die Pflege unserer zunehmend vereinsamten Älteren zu organisieren, dann wäre ETWAS WENIGER ARROGANZ gegenüber anderen Kulturen und Religionen sicher angebracht.”

[19] Sieren, 2008

[20] Graebner, 1924, p. 76-77

[21] Hegel, 1830, p. 174; 1930, p. 174

[22] Marchand, 2009, p. 496

[23] Benes, 2008, p. 94

[24] Merkel, 2006, ‘Mittelmacht’, in Welt

[25] Schmidt, 2010, ‘Keine Anmaßung’, in Die Zeit

[26] Schmidt, 2008, ‘Wir sehen China ganz falsch’, in Westdeutsche Zeitung

[27] Steininger, 2010: ‘Unsere spirituelle Subkultur ist eine mehr oberflächliche Spielart der großen östlichen Traditionen, und das deutsche Denken hat sich anscheinend darauf zurückgezogen, die Welt mit teuren und effizienten Autos zu beglücken. Deutschland ist heute das Land der Ingenieure, nicht das Land der Philosophen. Die Wiederentdeckung einer integralen und evolutionären Spiritualität erreicht uns heute vor allem aus Amerika. Dort werden heute die Vorarbeiten der idealistischen und romantischen Philosophie in neuen Formen weitergedacht. In Deutschland wagen wir es anscheinend noch nicht direkt, an diese wichtigen Strömungen unserer Geistesgeschichte anzuschließen.”

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York