Shengren – Chapter 2.3 – Three Theories about German Orientalism

“What the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve over”

The exact role of Germany in global orientalism is still disputed. The Germans were part of “Western orientalism”, and their culture was part of the European “Culture of Entitlement”. However, if British and French orientalism were seen as the standard Orientalism, or Classical orientalism, then the Germans indeed deviated from that standard. Three different views on a particular German orientalism exist. I call them Depressed, Alternative, and Detrimental Orientalism respectively:

1) Repressed Orientalism:

Edward Said, a historian of orientalism, argued that Germany’s interest in the Orient was more scholarly and professional, and less administrative and imperialistic, mainly because of its lack of colonies (Said, 1978). That did not necessarily make German imperialism less brutal (Pollock, 1993; Marchand, 2009); only more intellectual and pathological: “German fantasies were not only differently motivated, but had a different function: to serve not so much as ideological smokescreen or cover-up for colonial atrocities or the need for violence, but as Handlungsersatz, as substitute for the real thing” (Zantrop, 1997). German fantasies, German ideals, German desires – all mismatches with reality in Asia. In addition, German language was highly fremdenfeindlich (xenophobic);[1] Martin Luther, the founder of German language, was a very religious man, and his language was biblical; and Leibniz and Thomasius, too, advised against the use of foreign terminology.[2] True appreciation of foreign culture thus had its boundaries. Germany put great emphasize on philological education, textual analysis, and the scientific or philosophical approach to knowledge. Therefore the German orientalists thought they were doing alright; and they still do think that today.

Edward Said was born in the British Mandate of Palestine and was a United States’ citizen and American scholar; he did not know the German language. In his book Orientalism (1978), Said assigned the Germans a less vital role in Western orientalism: The German thinkers claimed “intellectual authority” over the East, yet they did not have a “protracted sustained national interest in the Orient”. He was not alone with his view. The historians Jennifer Jenkins and Suzanne Marchand too, distinguished between “British orientalism of a politically motivated sort” and German orientalism that tried to provide Europe the intellectual and spiritual legitimacy.[3]

2) Alternative Orientalism:

In her The Seductive and Seduced “Other” of German Orientalism (2001), Kamakshi Murti argued the opposite (of what Said claimed): in her view the Germans played a much larger and vital role in Western orientalism.[4] Although Edward Said has played down Germany’s colonial aspirations; yet Germany hold colonies in Africa (Rwanda, Botswana etc.), America (Little Venice), China (Tsingdao) and the Pacific (German New-guinea etc.). Moreover, Germany had caused both World Wars. The German Empire did not lack any “imperialistic ambitions”, and always had an “eye on world domination”, just as the British. The theoretical end was the same, only the practically means by which the Germans operated – based on their unique cultural and historical outlook – different from the French and British.

3) Detrimental Orientalism:

Suzanne Marchand at one point offered an alternative view to Said and Murti’s ideas: “German orientalism”, she wrote in an article ‘German Orientalism and the Decline of the West’ (2001), had “helped to destroy Western self-satisfaction, and to provoke a momentous change in the culture of the West: the relinquishing of Christianity and classical antiquity as universal norms”. The historian Douglas T. McGetchin came to similar conclusions in his book Ancient India’s Rebirth in Modern Germany (2009); and Todd Kontje, another expert on German Oriental history, wrote in his German Orientalism (2004) that the Germans were “allying themselves with parts of the East against the West”. If that is true, than Germany’s participation was somehow detrimental to Europe’s interests.

Of the three variations above, Said’s assessment of Germany as the weakest partner in crime in Western orientalism, although a very American point of view (they cannot read German sources, to begin with), was nevertheless wildly accepted among European scholars, too. After all, the Germans themselves are very reluctant to study German orientalism – all experts on it are non-Germans. Germany tries to avoid any research that could potentially link Germany’s imperial past to the German doings during the holocaust,[5] the latter which is usually (and conveniently) explained as accident, not as culture.

What all three explanations of German orientalism above have in common is their decision to acknowledge a distinct German way, a very German attitude to deal with foreign cultures, a way that differs from the classical British way, and certainly differs (however slightly) from the American, Dutch, French or Portuguese ones.

Not having experience with Asian culture, culturally and geopolitical speaking, was not seen as a weakness in Germany; on the contrary, many commentators saw it as Germany’s greatest strength: the rational, impartial, and objective observer. The Germans had another adjective for it: weltfremd. Weltfremd is untranslatable, but roughly means something like “being a stranger to the world” or “unworldly”. German rationalism (from the 17th century onwards) is thus in direct opposition to British empiricism, which emphasizes a kind of knowledge that comes through experience rather than through mere thinking. The spirit of the German people was a cold and rational type of calculi, while the Anglo-Saxon spirit was an adventurous and emotional go-getter. The analytical German spirit lacked empathy and tolerance for others, and preferred emotional distance over true experience with its object of study. The empirical Anglo-Saxon spirit preferred direct engagement and intervention, while the German spirit preferred its role as the immovable subject of all rational enquiries; a symbiosis that worked fine during Western imperialism and colonialism when the British, French, and even Americans acknowledged the Germans were born philosophers and metaphysicians and used German intellectual output as sounding board to explain the world they were about to experience and dominate just a little bit more.

The subject (the creator) of the rational enquiry was immovable; that subject was the thinking German. The typical German sinologist did not become Chinese; he was just analyzing the Chinese, taking them apart, and judging them. If experience of the Chinese was of any greater relevance; the Chinese themselves would make better sinologists than the Germans, wouldn’t they? And if Jesus Christ himself had lived during those days of German rationalism he would not have gotten a German doctorate with his teachings; he would have gotten one if he had written about his teachings. Only distance guarantees emotional detachment. The holocaust was about the Jews; no German had to sit with the Jews.

In the German world view, other cultures are bizarre and intolerable derivations of the German-European standard. German philosophers like Kant in Das Ende aller Dinge (1794) and Zur Geschichtsphilosophie (1786) and Hegel in Die Orientalische Welt (1837) saw Chinese characteristics as undesirable. The only cure for China’s backwardness was “Civilization” – the Western one, if necessary, so Kaiser Wilhelm, by force. [6] The Euro-centric world view of the Germans had not changed in the 20th century and why should it if it was magnificent and advantageous: “Until recently the Western philosopher implicitly took for granted that there is one, self-evident, social and cultural context (the North Atlantic one), and one self-evident language (his own)”.[7]

To sum up, German orientalism was late, different, quite intellectual, and came across, compared to the real Anglo-Saxon thing, a bit sophomoric. Few scholars on German orientalism, including the American ones mentioned above, by the way, noticed the absence of sages in German literature; the reason for that was effortless, there were no sages in German literature because sagehood had disappeared in German culture a long time ago. The English speaking world took “sages” in the East for granted, they expected the Germans to do them equal, and thus paid no further attention: yet, there were no Weisen in most German writings.

[1] Craig (1982), p. 343

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jenkins, 2004; Marchand, 2009

[4] Murti, 2001, p. 7

[5] Staas, 2011

[6] Deutsches Historisches Museum, “Hunnenrede”, 2010

[7] Van Binsbergen, 1999, Cultures do not exist, p. 48