The End of the Golden Age

The last four years of the reign of William II of Germany—that is, those that stretched from the outbreak of the First World War until the Emperor’s abdication—were of such tragic weight and consequence that they have tended to obscure the twenty-six years that preceded them. As a result, when these are studied at all it is generally only for the clues they yield to the catastrophe that was to follow. This is an unfortunate distortion, for seen in its own right the period from 1888 to 1914 was characterized by a degree of institutional stability, technological progress, and economic prosperity that Germany as a whole was not to enjoy again until the last years of the twentieth century, as well as by a cultural and intellectual eminence second only to that of the classical age of the years between 1770 and 1830.

That earlier time had been the age of the Kantian revolution in philosophy and the poetic and dramatic triumphs of Goethe and Schiller and Hölderlin, accomplishments which, because unchallenged by anything comparable in the sphere of politics, had won for Germany a reputation as the land of Dichter und Denker. In contrast, the second “age of genius,” as it was sometimes called, was dominated by natural scientists. The reign of William II witnessed tremendous progress in biological and virological research, which was facilitated by the foundation of great new research institutes financed by industry and the state, and was a golden age of physics which culminated in 1915 with Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It was a time of great discoveries like tuberculin, and salvarsan, the “magic bullet” against syphilis, and the X-ray. And it was above all a time when science enjoyed an unblemished public renown, and scientists applied themselves to their calling with a disciplined zeal that reflected their belief that they were serving the cause of human progress. In 1911, when the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was founded, the chemist Emil Fischer declared, in a tribute to Paul Ehrlich, the discoverer of chemotherapy, that the future did not lie in the conquest of colonial empires; rather “chemistry and with it, more generally, all of natural science is the true land of boundless opportunities.”

This faith in science was not unalloyed, and as it became more organized and more specialized, doubts emerged. Max Weber was not alone in fearing that the traditional centers of scientific inquiry, the universities, were becoming “state capitalist enterprises,” managed for purposes external to learning for its own sake, and that freedom of inquiry was beginning to give way to the production of knowledge useful to the state for technical and economic reasons, if not for purposes of legitimating state authority. And others remembered Nietzsche’s concern over the heedless pace of modern science (“as if science were a factory and every minute’s delay would bring punishment after it”) and his troubled question, “What will become of science if it doesn’t have time for culture …

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