Everything New is Old

Blogging in the 18th century:

One of the distinctive features of the periodical literature of this era was its discursive, dialogical character. Many of the articles printed in the Berlin Monthly (Berlinsche Monatsschrift), for example, the most distinguished press organ of the German late enlightenment, were in fact letters to the editor from members of the public. Readers were also treated to extensive reviews of recent publications, and sometimes also to lengthy replies by authors with a bone to pick with their reviewers. Occasionally the journal would call for views on a specific question — this was the case, for example, with the famous discussion on the theme “What is enlightenment?” that began with a query posted by the theologian Johann Friedrich Zoellner in the pages of the Berlin Monthly in December 1783. There was no permanent staff of journalists, nor were most of the articles in each issue directly commissioned by the journal. As the editors, Gedike and Biester, made clear in the foreword to the first edition, they depended upon interested members of the public to “enrich” the journal with unsolicited contributions. The Berlin Monthly was thus above all a forum in print that operated along similar lines to the associational networks of the towns and cities. It was not conceived as fodder for an essentially passive constitutency of passive consumers. It aimed to provide the public with the means of reflecting upon itself and its foremost preoccupations.

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947, p. 249

It was slower, of course, and embedding video would have to wait a while too, but it’s an interesting lineage.

So as not to reflect solely upon times past in states abolished more than half a century ago, there is a NATO summit beginning tomorrow. The most interesting question is whether a concrete path to membership will be opened for Georgia and Ukraine.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Culture, Germany, History and tagged , by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

4 thoughts on “Everything New is Old

  1. I read that book recently and was struck by an something interesting, which the author doesn’t address and which I’d never seen before: German intellectual life from, say, 1730-1830 was (except for the musicians) mostly a Protestant affair, despite German-Speaking Catholics being nearly as numerous. Prussia, as the largest German Protestant state was ultimately the beneficiary of this, drawing lots of Protestant talent from outside Prussia, making Berlin became the center of German civil society and intellectual life rather than Vienna. I wonder if someone with a stronger grasp of German history can strengthen/weaken this claim.

  2. Danny, a helpful place to start might be James Sheehan’s German History: 1770-1866 (Ox Univ Press). Good survey, iirc good set of references to the intellectual history involved.

    At first whack, your thesis is interesting, but at the second, my doubts start to grow. One of the key features of German political and intellectual life in that period is fragmentation. After all, the period you sketch is roughly Goethe’s life span. Not Catholic by any means (and Lutheran mostly by upbringing rather than conviction), he was devoted to Weimar. A bit earlier than your period, but still with a large overlap, gives you Kant’s lifespan, and thus Koenigsberg. Frankfurt was another major center, narrowly missing becoming German capital a number of times.

    So it’s not so much Berlin vs Vienna, as it is a polycentric situation. Interesting too to consider Prague, Breslau, Pressburg, Posen, etc as centers of German thought. Another thing about Vienna is how it is on the one hand a German center but on the other the cener of a famously polyglot empire, with a surprising degree of Latin retained in administrative use, simply because a dead language is a neutral one.

    Further thoughts?

  3. Thanks, Doug.

    I realize I made two points here:

    The first is that German Protestants were over-represented in German literary life in period mentioned, and German Catholics underrepresented. If one looks at a list of major participants here and here you could get that impression. This is interesting in itself (at least to me).

    The second is that possibly this may have had political implications in getting Prussia to lead Germany. Here I’m mostly wrong; top-down developments such as past Habsburg nuptial politics, the borders created by the Vienna Congress that strengthened Austria multi-national character while letting Prussia expand in Germany would have been far more important, as would Bismarck’s top-down actions that created a Prussian-lead Germany.

    I also realize that German intellectual life was more polycentric than other countries (and still is); I guess I had Hegel in mind (a Swabian Protestant, moves to Berlin, places the Prussian State as pinnacle of historical development).

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