National character and vaccination skepticism

EIt will probably no longer be entirely clear who initiated the debate about whether romanticism is to blame for Germany’s skepticism about vaccination. Was it like that “Daily Mirror” reported, a article by Nils Minkmar in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, who attributed the mysterious unwillingness to vaccinate in German-speaking countries to “the deeply anti-modern deep layer of the German soul”? Or was it like that “NZZ on Sunday” guessed a Tweet the “Spiegel” journalist Mathieu von Rohr, who announced on November 11, 2021: “Late consequences of German romanticism: anthroposophy, homeopathy, anti-vaccination”? In any case, since then there has been a debate in the world as to whether the cultural-historical constellation of Romanticism can be held responsible for the growth of a milieu of irrationalistic protesters.

In the “time” it became fashionable pro-con game focused on the person of the poet Novalis, with subheadings such as: “But yes, it’s his fault!” and “For heaven’s sake, no!” One can assume that the slight lack of seriousness that blows through this debate should also be staged here . Other feuilletons, however, had seriously pursued the question of whether the longing for the blue flower led directly to lateral thinking. The “Tagesspiegel” interviewed the political scientist Herfried Münkler and the historian Volker Reinhardt. the „taz“ teamed up with the Swiss WOZ and the Austrian “Falter” to clarify, by consulting a number of experts in the history of esotericism, “whether the skepticism about vaccination is a consequence of German intellectual history”. Finally, the romance expert Stefan Matuschek had to “Time” make it clear that romanticism is being built up into a “national pathological bugbear”.

National character studies replace political analysis

At this point, it might be worth taking a step back and asking yourself what the functions of this form of updating are. Because the idea that there is a typically German connection to romanticism, to the fetishization of nature, to irrational enthusiasm, also has something vain about it, because it sometimes charges quite pathetic problems with the noble horror of a profound cultural-historical tradition. In this way, the political analysis can be replaced by the murmuring reference to a deeply rooted and somehow also aesthetic national character.

Above all, however, this type of updating follows an attention-economy logic of the feuilleton and literary studies, which repeatedly tries to inscribe their historical subjects in contemporary debates. In the context of a frequently diagnosed loss of relevance, this seems quite panicky. You want to show that you also have something to contribute to the big questions of the present. With the claim that romanticism is to blame for the high proportion of Germans opposed to vaccination, the slightly outdated cultural-historical heritage is charged with the glamor of a tradition that is still relevant today. The direct gain in knowledge for the present itself, on the other hand, remains questionable. In the back and forth of the feuilletonistic debate, however, the suspicion arises that something really important must be involved – otherwise would one argue about it?

This insistence on the presence of canonized cultural assets is often not at all good for the authors or works that have to serve as proof of the relevance of their own metier. Surprisingly, the ritualized affirmation of the “amazing modernity” of canonical works usually occurs precisely when an author is celebrating an anniversary. And the object whose interpretative power one wanted to demonstrate is reduced to the level of a diagnosis of the present in commonplaces. In 2018, for example, the famous Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt published a short book entitled “Tyrant – Shakespeare on Politics”, an attack on Donald Trump that was very transparently equated with the tyrant characters in the dramas. It says about the rebel Jack Cade: “He promises to make England great again.” That was an astonishingly meager yield, especially for a reader who is known for his subtlety.

The example shows how updating can go wrong if you try to force it. Feuilletons and the humanities gain topicality when, instead of forcing their subjects into current debates, they actually observe the present. If a Novalis cult had spread among the “lateral thinkers” with blue flowers on the parka, then the reference to the legacy of romanticism would have had a completely different energy. The survival of cultural-historical traditions can be observed above all in the analysis of concrete practices, not with reference to a vague national character.


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