An English writer tells the Germans, what is German

An English writer tells the Germans, what is German


norman lebrecht

July 14, 2016

I had a call the other day from the deputy editor of Bild, the Berlin tabloid, asking if I – as a foreigner with a strong interest in German culture – might contribute to a daily series they were running, titled Was ist deutsch?

My first inclination was to decline. Who am I, after all, to tell the Germans what is German, or the Pope who is a Catholic?

But a boyhood memory, risen from nowhere, proved too powerful to resist – especially in the present context when my country is redefining its position towards European civilisation. So this is what I wrote.

lebrecht pope critic

(And the headline writer decided that I was, after all, a Pope.)

Below is the (slightly fuller) English version of my article:

lebrecht caricature

What is German?

I grew up in a North London community of Orthodox Jews, most of whom fled Germany after January 1933. Each Friday night they welcomed in the Sabbath to a tune from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. When talking culture, which they did obsessively, they spoke of ‘unser Goethe, unser Wagner’ – claiming stubborn ownership of a civilisation from which they had been racially excluded.

That phrase, ‘unser Wagner’, stuck in my mind as something more profound and enduring than the traumas of Hitler’s Reich. The phrase taught me that what is German does not necessarily belong in Germany, and that the best of Germany belongs to a world beyond, a world where ideas travel by wordless transmission, a world where we can all be for a few concentrated minutes – or five concentrated hours, if it’s Wagner – intellectually, spiritually and aspirationally German. To be German, in this sense, is an out-of-body state, a transcendent exaltation.

As a music critic, living in England, this idea formed part of my emerging Weltanschauung. The serenity of a Schubert Lied was not defined by the language of its verses; rather, it was achieved by the fusion of language with music and vocal expression into an ineffable wonder, one of the few precious ways we tiny humans can always understand each other.

Beethoven himself was no less German when briefly enthused by Napoleon than he was when he wrote ‘Ah, perfido’ in the language of a country that existed only in his mind. Beethoven from Bonn, as much a Louis as a Ludwig, never traded in his van for a von.

Being German in the age of Bismarck required Brahms and Wagner to relate to national revivalism, Wagner unpleasantly so. Yet if I sit in front of a page of orchestral writing by Wagner and another by Berlioz, I might be hard pressed to tell which is French and which German so powerful is the artistic impulse to reach beyond borders.

With Gustav Mahler it becomes complicated. Using German as his mother tongue Mahler applied inflections of Jewish irony that imbue his music with challenging ambiguity. Yet a song like Um Mitternacht is neither more nor less German, in the most exalted sense, than Richard Strauss in ‘Beim Schlafengehen.’ At such moments, who does not want to be German?

I write that question with a grimace of pain. Seventeen million of my countrymen have voted to deny John Donne’s poetic line that ‘No man is an island’. Emotional barriers are going up. England is drifting into the unknown. At this time, ‘what is German’ takes on a different connotation for me. It stands for ‘unser Wagner’, all that we now stand to lose.

© Norman Lebrecht



  • Maria Brewin says:

    “England is drifting into the unknown.”

    The “unknown”, occupied by basket cases like Australia and New Zealand, as opposed to the “known” that has served Greece so well?

    I believe Wales is also involved.

  • John Borstlap says:

    A very touching article…. could not agree more.

    Ironically, the most culturally-German prewar elite was ‘Jewish’, an entirely irrelevant because ethnic indication. These Germans, when spreading into the Anglo-saxon world, fertilized its music life and musicology. The fact that this influence was so readily absorbed, is one of the many demonstrations of the verity of Norman’s point.

    Nowadays, music life in Germany is admirable, in terms of its performance culture. Its contemporary music life however, is still gravely suffering from postwar nihilism with its ‘pope’ Helmut Lachenmann as ridiculous symbol.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Well said, Norman, with sentiments I entirely echo. It’s a pity that over 17 million of our compatriots had such a warped idea of where they belong culturally and politically.

    • Maria Brewin says:

      The view of 17 million people dismissed in a single sentence.

      Evidence, as if evidence were needed, of the repellent arrogance that infested the Remain campaign.

    • Ellingtonia says:

      What a patronising comment to those of us who voted “out.” As far as where I belong culturally, it has no borders. From John Adams in America, Nusrhat Fata Ali Khan in Pakistan, Mahler in Bohemia, Ravi Shankar in India, Mariza in Portugal, Takemitsu in Japan, the Buena Vista Social Club from Cuba and of course The Rolling Stones in the UK. And that is without mentioning the greatest musician of the 20th century, Edward Kennedy Ellington.
      So by all means limit yourself to “European culture” but leave the rest of us to embrace a “musical world” outside the limited confines of what you consider culture.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It is not so strange that an Englishman is asked to ‘say what is German’, since whatever he says, it will not be burdered by collective war guilt. That is why German music life is fertilized from outside, as if its cultural identity has to be confirmed by ‘foreigners’, which means that in the end, German = European.

    • Sue says:

      Or Middle Eastern, which is increasingly will be. Middle Eastern heterophony anyone?

      • John Borstlap says:

        An often recurring fear. But if immigrants are Europeanized, they become Europeans. To a great extent, this is already happening for many years, in different ways, in different tempi, in different countries and different areas, in Europe. Younger generations born from immigrated people most often identify with the culture where they are born into, and combine this with bits of their parents’ culture, where possible. Hence young emancipated German women from Turkish parents setting-up their business and wearing a head scarf. (German young conductor David Afkham identifies profoundly with the early German romantics: Schubert, Schumann, and he descends from Iranians; with the right education such things become normal.) The separation of immigrants from European society is a matter of education and acculturation. But if education and acculturation by and for the locals is already eroding, it won’t work for immigrant children either.j

        • Sue says:

          That second sentence of yours! Absolutely priceless. Is that the reason for the proliferation of sharia courts in the UK? Oh, I was wondering, and now I know. They’re willing to adopt the cultural habits of the new country. Oooo-kay.

          France should be celebrating ‘cultural diversity’!! It has a kind of false ring to it somehow. Your answer might be to accuse people of “fear” but doubtless that emotion is in plentiful supply right now in much of Europe, thanks to reckless and naive policies.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Multiculturalism has often been understood, by the authorities, as so much respect for ‘the other culture’ that immigrants were above anything else seen as a representative of a group instead as an individual, thereby hindering integration: people were left alone in borderline communities and it was an excellent excuse for indifference. The French philosopher Alain Finkelkraut has written eloquently about this misunderstanding in his ‘Le Défait de la Pensée’ in the eighties. When immigrants experience that they are not allowed to share the same freedom and chances as the locals, they turn their back towards society. Wrong, but understandable. In Germany and in Holland, there is much effort going-on to integrate muslem immigrants, and very often that works-out rather well. Often I have the feeling that national identity of the locals is a hindrance for integrating immigrants from another culture, because it feeds the feeling of ‘we’ contra ‘them’. An European identity is more general and undermines nationalism, which would render locals in a closer emotional position to immigrants. The stupidity of orthodox immigrants wanting to recreate the type of community that so many muslems have fled from, cannot enough be criticized and countered….. a sensitive but very important issue indeed.

  • Dirk Fischer says:

    I, for one, think the “Bild” is a perfectly fitting platform for Norman Lebrecht.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In this case, Bild had the courage and the inventiveness to ask a question which many Germans can be suspected to silently carry around.

  • Bill says:

    I love Germany and German culture with a passion but I find it ironic that Jews identify with Wagner, who hated Jews and revived crude Germanic paganism, an aspect of culture that helped Hitler to rise. An Australian with British roots, I find it strange that Brexitiers should call Remainers arrogant. The Brexit campaign reeked of the obnoxious jingoism that drove tens of thousands of Australian soldiers to an early grave in WW1

    • John Borstlap says:

      Wagner’s antisemitism was a cultural critique clothed in racist terms. As a cultural critique (against the ills of industrialisation, money capitalism, materialist media culture) its points were understood by many intellectuals and artists, agreeing with it and ignoring the racist labelling. In the 19th century, ‘Judaism’ was often seen not as a ethnicity but as a ‘way of life’, a ‘cultural / social vision’. Only in this way we can understand the support of Wagner by people of Jewish descent.

      • Sue says:

        Maybe they just liked the music, as most of us do.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Sure….. I think music lovers of Jewish descent who did not cultivate their ethnic origin, did not feel ‘Judaic’ in the Wagnerian sense, and thus ignored all the racial fuss because they did not feel it was referring to them.

          But how ironic that Wagner was surrounded by people from Jewish descent, puzzled by it, and felt he had to ‘liberate’ them from ‘Jewishness’. Leon Botstein has written eloquently about the Jewish cultivation of Wagner’s music in ‘Richard Wagner and his World’, Ed. Thomas Grey, Princeton University Press 2009, in his essay ‘German Jews and Wagner’, claiming that those Wagnerian Jews tried to assimilate by cultivating their musical preference for avantgarde. In fact, Botstein suggests it was NOT their love of the music but their vain attempt at acceptance. In a roundabout way, Botstein treats the subject racially and socially. Probably there was some of all of these different factors at work. The whole ‘Jewish question’ around Wagner has something pathetically crazy about it.

  • Michael says:

    The EU is mainly about the France-Germany problem. Britain, as opposed to those other two European “powers” had less to reconcile with the history of Europe, a privilege of its island location, perhaps, and therefore less stake in the ever-closer union. Solving the France-Germany problem leaves out issues that are important to other countries, especially a large and independently powerful one like the UK. One does not have to be in the EU to have a good relationship with Europe. Switzerland and Norway prove that. Maturity is when one can disagree and still be civil, even friends. The EU, by making friendship dependent on agreeing has shown itself to be the more immature entity in recent weeks. Maybe this is an opportunity for it to grow up and move past the France-Germany axis?

    • John Borstlap says:

      As far as I know, the EU is not the result of some mysterious power trying to take control over nations, but the result of agreement of free nations to form some kind of unity. This inevitably means surrendering some independence, and first getting together and share common ground, and then complaining you find yourself less free than before, is childish and immature. It is questionable whether the UK belongs to Europe, culturally speaking… with such a different history. The same can be said, probably, of other countries as well like Ukraine and the Balcan.

    • Michael Murray says:

      Are all future generations bound by the decisions of past ones if they feel that it no longer serves the same purpose? Must one stay the course come what may, including perhaps the surrendering of sovereignty unforeseen when Britain joined the EEC? Britain absolutely is culturally and historically part of Europe. But that does not mean they have to be part of the EU. Canada is historically, economically, and culturally deeply related to the US, yet is a very separate country. We can still be friends, though. Can’t the EU and Britain as well? Or does the arrogance and narcissism of the Remain crowd preclude such a state of affairs?

  • Bill says:

    Canada is part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

  • Bill says:

    It is interesting that it was the German ultra tabloid BILD that published this very thoughtful and intelligent article. Sometimes more respectable broadsheets can be heavily skewed by ideological agndas.