Letter from Berlin: Secret Germany

By Stan Persky | February 18, 2010

It’s the dead of winter in Berlin. Temperatures steadily in the minus-4 to minus-14 degree range ever since Christmas. Plenty of snow, icy sidewalks, frozen mud and slush, the very weather that the Winter Olympic Games organizers in Vancouver are presumably longing for, instead of the Gothic fog, rain, and premature spring that they’ve got. Here, public discourse has been reduced to earnest debates about the relation of black ice to civic and individual responsibility, and frequent reports of hospitalized people with broken arms and legs who have slipped on the aforementioned ice. And, oh yes, there’s a collapsing Eurozone economy, especially at the edges of the European Union, in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative-neoliberal coalition government is firmly resisting bailout talk.

It’s the sort of winter that leads Germans to turn up the central heating and contemplate the state of the German soul. Rumination about the German Geist has been an Olympic-class intellectual sport here for better than two centuries. Sometimes those ponderings produce a Faust; a Beethoven string quartet; a  Brecht, Thomas Mann, or Gunter Grass; even a Fassbinder film series of Alfred Doblin’s Weimar-era novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz. At other times, that thinking about the authentic German soul or spirit gives us a Herder, Neitzsche, Heidegger, or much darker phenomena — and not just in the form of thoughts.

I think it’s fair to say that Germany is very far removed — more than a half century in time, but the distance is much more than temporal — from its fascist past. Yes, one finds in the press the occasional and almost inevitably exaggerated neo-Nazi story from Germany, but in reality I suspect it’s easier to turn up contemporary fascists in Britain, Italy, France, Austria or Belgium than it is to find them in the former Third Reich of Hitler. Of course, there are neo-Nazis in the country, but the other day when they attempted to march in Dresden to mark the 65th anniversary of the World War II firebombing of the city, some 10,000 counter-protesters showed up in the snow and turned the right-wingers away at the train station. March cancelled. Germany may be one of the few modern nations to have actually learned something from history.

Fascism is gone, but the ghost of fascism remains, at least for a generation old enough to still have some living memory, however faint, of it. For such people, now in their fifties or older, the enigma of how it was possible for Nazism to occur, particularly in Germany, is a permanent question. It’s been a thematic of postwar German writing from Nobel laureate Gunter Grass’s now classic Tin Drum (the 50th anniversary of its publication was marked last year) to such recent works as Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader.

In the winter of German discontent with icy sidewalks, I’ve stumbled upon a lengthy biography of an early-20th century, now mostly-forgotten, German poet and cult leader that tells us more about the troubled stirrings of national souls than most volumes of conventional political analysis and history. The book is Robert Norton’s Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle (Cornell, 2002), a work that’s received only limited attention, largely in academic precincts, but that deserves, for a variety of reasons, a wider readership.

Norton’s bio is a first-rate piece of scholarship and an engrossing read, especially on long winter nights, German or otherwise. It’s among the best literary biographies of the past decade. Second, this first full-length account of Stefan George (1868-1933; the surname is pronounced “gay-org-uh”) fills in important gaps in the history of 20th century poetry, as well as in German cultural history. Most important, it examines once widespread notions about “secret Germany,” a dangerously Romantic idea that energized all sorts of phenomena in early 20th century, from nudist and nature movements, to cultlike homoerotic and mystical circles, to national longings for a strong Leader (or Fuhrer). In addition to appreciating the general virtues of Norton’s book, I have an accidental personal interest in it.

When I was a young writer in San Francisco in the 1960s, I frequently heard stories from my teachers Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan about one of their professors at the University of California Berkeley, when they were all students there just after the end of World War II. Their most memorable teacher, Blaser told me, was the medieval historian, Ernst Kantorowicz, author of Frederick II and The King’s Two Bodies, books to which we younger writers were soon introduced.

Kantorowicz, of Jewish descent, had spoken out against the Nazis and fled Germany in the late 1930s. Once in the U.S., he taught at Berkeley, where he resisted the McCarthyite “loyalty oaths” of the 1950s, and later at Princeton. In his youth, however, he’d been a rightwing German nationalist and a member of the fabled George circle. Kantorowicz’s 1928 study of the 13th century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick was one of the books produced by academic members of the George group that celebrated powerful German leaders.

Another San Francisco writer I knew, Lew Ellingham, who was knowledgeable about German culture and the George group, later partially applied the notion to his and Kevin Killian’s biography of Jack Spicer, Poet, Be Like God (1998). Norton’s biography of George provides a sharply focused portrait of what I’d only known, up to then, as a blurry myth of a distant Germanic brew of poetry and perversity.

As Norton recounts it, “George began his career in the early 1890s as a lyric poet in the French Symbolist mode and he was soon regarded as one of the best poets of his time.” Mallarme accepted the young George into his salon as “one of us.” But George’s ambitions would eventually extend beyond the merely literary.

“Over the next four decades,” Norton says, “George attracted a following, first among the small number of his associates and then among ever larger segments of the populace, that sought to put his ideas into practice in the world. For George had devised not just a way of writing poetry but also, as time went on, a way of living. He considered the group of friends he gathered around him, who habitually addressed him as ‘Master,’ to be the embodiment and defenders of the ‘true’ but ‘secret’ Germany, as opposed to the ‘false’ and all too manifest reality of contemporary bourgeois society.”

The group was “initially an informal coterie of like-minded poets who congregated to discuss and recite their works.” However, “George and his circle gradually assumed an enormously influential position in the culture at large. During the last 15 years of his life George was the closest thing Germany had to a prophet: a poetic visionary who, through his very remoteness, seemed to personify the vague longings of his countrymen for some form of redemption.”

To give some idea of George’s fame, Norton cites a 1929 newspaper photograph gallery, with the caption, “contemporary figures who have become legends”: the gallery included Woodrow Wilson, France’s Clemenceau, Gandhi, Lenin, and Stefan George. “Just before he died in 1933,” Norton reports, “after the new government had taken over in Germany — a regime many thought he had foreseen and whose coming he had, inadvertently or not, helped to prepare — several of its otherwise cocksure henchmen prostrated themselves before him in the attempt to win his blessing and cooperation…” And, in turn, George wasn’t averse to being regarded as the prophet of The New Reich (the title of his final volume of poems).

It’s hard to tell from Norton’s renditions of George’s poetry if it’s any good or not, though many readers and critics of his era claimed George’s poems to be masterpieces of German writing. Norton doesn’t assume any literary pretensions and simply offers workmanlike translations, to give readers an idea of what George was writing about. Unlike his younger contemporary, Rilke, whose work in English translation is remarkably accessible (if nonetheless difficult in terms of content), George’s verse remains opaque, though the titles of his books, Year of the Soul, The Seventh Ring and The Star of the Covenant among others, give some hint of the secret handshake contents.

What’s clearer is the personality (and persona) of the poet, an austere mixture of purities and autocratic power that could be alternately attractive and terrifying. It was just the sort of combination that gives rise to cult leaders. Still, George had a good eye for both talented writers and beautiful boys. When the 20-something George met and began a demonic pursuit of a talented and attractive 17-year-old Austrian poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, in a Vienna café in 1891, the object of the infatuation found it all pretty terrifying. Neither the friendship nor the literary relationship were consummated, though a turn-of-the-century version of telephone tag went on for years.

George was more successful with others. His primary disciple, the photogenic Friedrich Gundolf, turned up as an 18-year-old, and remained devoted to George to his death. Gundolf became a precocious professor at the University of Heidelberg, and published a celebrated study of leadership, The Mantle of Caesar, as well as books about Goethe, Shakespeare and the history of German poetry.  However, when he married, George excommunicated him permanently from the magical circle.

Other prominent followers had similarly stormy emotional and erotic relations with their master. In addition to Gundolf and Kantorowicz, members of George’s circle included such once well-known figures as historian Friedrich Wolter, cultural critic Max Kommerell, and later, the aristocratic brothers Claus and Berthold von Stauffenberg, now remembered for their failed attempt to assassinate Hitler and their summary execution.

Norton is particularly good on tracing George’s  restless parapatetic wanderings between Berlin, Munich, Heidelberg and eventually rural Switzerland. He makes excellent and unprecedented use of the available correspondence and other documents to detail the tangled and obsequious relations that various followers had with the Master. His scene setting brings to life George’s growing influence, beginning with the poet’s first breakthrough salon reading  at the apartment of painter Sabine Lepsius in Berlin in 1897 (the young Rainer Rilke was in the audience; so was the sociologist Georg Simmel, another admirer).

In the pre-World War I decades, a publishing apparatus developed around George. There was a magazine, Pages for Art, a Yearbook of the Spiritual Movement, and a loyal publisher in Berlin who brought out George’s volumes of poetry and the scholarly works of his disciples, a series of so-called Geist-books uniformly marked by the circle’s insignia, a stylized swastika, the symbol that would later become notorious in Nazi hands. The group’s activities ranged from ritualized readings and dress-up parties (George, as many people noted, bore a resemblance to images of Dante, and he occasionally played that role at costumed gatherings) to the debates of fairly nutty sub-groups, such as Munich’s Cosmic Circle, which was a stew of apocalyptic prophecy, anti-semitism, and blood-and-soil mysticism.

George’s biographer is sensibly unsqueamish about the poet’s erotic pursuit of teenage boys, one of whom, Max Kronberger, who died at 16, a scant two years after George first met him, was posthumously elevated to the position of a god, the object of devotion for George’s sect. Although the organizational propaganda of the circle tended to later suggest that all the boy-chasing was “Platonic,” Norton is fairly convincing that the homoerotic aspects of George’s group amounted to more than simply high-minded pederastic conversation.

The core of the book, finally, is the cultural and political ideology of a once shadowy, but eventually quite prominent movement. It was, as Norton says, “elitist, hierarchically minded, antidemocratic, and deeply suspicious of all forms of rationalism.” In sum, George and company embodied “the beliefs and values shared by anti-modern intellectuals,” disturbingly striated with violent, apocalpytic calls for absolute destruction of the impure, debased present. It was a view that displayed nothing but contempt for the bumbling but social democratic Weimar experiment of 1920s Germany.

George’s “Secret Germany,” Norton says, “provided a surrogate ideology that looked back to a heroic European past for political and cultural models,” a past that was largely the product of romantic imagination. Norton underscores the point that this “’Secret Germany’ was not Nazi Germany,” adding, “but the two cannot be separated either.” He provides sufficient evidence that the elderly poet didn’t at all mind being thought of as the prophet of the fascist regime.

I think the real point of understanding George and his times is to understand what was so attractive about fascism. That is, although there’s a temptation to caricature its goose-stepping protocols, there had to be something about the promise of Nazism to explain how enticing it was. Norton’s study of the times also suggests how many of the movements and tendencies of the era were double-edged, both potentially progressive and deeply reactionary.

The images of order and heroics, knights in shining armour, were appealing in the circumstances of turbulent capitalism and political instability that marked post-World War I Germany. The youth, nature and nudity movements of the early 20th century bespoke an interest in environmental preservation against the destruction of technology and the market; the devotion to the body counterposed itself to unfeeling machines. Even the elements of homoerotic romance (and there’s a surprising amount of it attached to fascism) suggested a kind of bonding that rejected the instrumental relationships of bourgeois society. The modes of poetry and mysticism seemed a more authentic route to sublime truth that mere rationality. Finally, there’s the temptation of gnosticism or secret knowledge. That all of this has some pertinence to a post-modern present hardly needs to be spelled out.

Norton’s Secret Germany emphasizes the darker consequences of the phenomena it investigates. Those consequences explain why contemporary, pragmatic Germany is less inclined to seek its mystical soul. Norton gives the last word to the  German-Jewish cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, who wrote about Stefan George in 1933, the year of Hitler’s ascension to power and the poet’s death, that “if ever God has punished a prophet by fulfilling his prophecy, then that is the case with George.” Norton adds, “Only time would tell how right Benjamin had been.”

Berlin, February 18, 2010.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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