Johann Gottfried Herder

Johann Gottfried Herder

A fierce opponent of colonialism, cultural arrogance and racism

by Moritz Nestor

On 14 May 2017, the Integration Commissioner of the German Federal Government wrote: “A specifically German culture, beyond language, is simply not identifiable.”1 The Integration Commissioner thus proved the usual ignorance. Her provocation struck the heart. Try and say such words to those Catalans who can still remember “how, after the death of the dictator, all place-name signs in Catalonia were corrected by hand – with brush and paint – from Spanish (Castilian) to Catalan. In the hearts of the people, the Catalan language and culture – their freedom – had remained alive.”2 The statement of the Integration Commissioner has understandably provoked consternation and anger.3

So what is a “specifically German culture”?

The doctoral thesis “Johann Gottfried Herder. Cultural Theory and Concept of Humanity of the Ideas, the Letters of Humanity and Adrastea”4 by Anne Löchte was published in 2005. It helps to clarify much of this question. It is, for example, to Johann Gottfried Herder’s credit to have worked out in his “Treatise on the Origin of Language” of 1772 that nothing characterises a culture as specifically as its language.
Together with Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Christoph Martin Wieland, Johann Gottfried Herder belongs to the “Weimar constellation of four”. They are the most important poets and writers of the “Weimar Classicism”. Only so much for the question of what belongs to a “specifically German culture”. But it is also part of the “specifically German culture” that epochs of its history, such as the Weimar Classicism, are today hardly consciously still alive in the soul of the German people.
Herder was a fierce opponent of colonialism, cultural arrogance and racism.5 Herder abhorred destructive and warlike nationalism. He despised the arrogance of the nobility, criticised the state of Frederick the Great and admired the direct Athenian democracy of antiquity. As a Christian believer, he was a fierce opponent of the Roman Church’s hunger for power. He regarded self-determination as the natural right of every culture, praised international understanding, peaceful cultural exchange and the learning of peoples from each another. Nothing was more alien to him than what we would today call “nation building”, “humanitarian intervention” or cultural imperialism. He was a fierce opponent of conquest and imperialism.

“If you don’t lay it out, underlay it.”

Anne Löchte’s great merit lies in having liberated Herder in her book from a great deal of poetry and ignorance. It was said about him that a direct path led from him to volkisch (ethnic) “Teutomania”, that he had presented the first “closed theory of modern nationalism”. He is a “historical relativist”, he provides a “legitimation of colonialism”, shows “racist tendencies” and sees the “white man” as “primeval man” etc. The summit of ignorance is Nathan Gardel’s devastating judgment: “Of course, Herder’s Volksgeist became the Third Reich.”6 What has been attributed to one of the greatest German humanists in more than a hundred years is reminiscent of Goethe’s biting verses from Faust: “Be fresh and alert in the interpretation! If you don’t lay it out, underlay it.”

Herder, pioneer of modern (cultural) anthropology

How complicated things are in reality becomes clear, for example, from a remark by Anne Löchte, in which she briefly mentions that the modern concept of culture of the cultural anthropology founded by Frans Boas goes back to Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt and his geographical, historical and psychological research. If the curious reader now pursues this hint, he discovers astonishing things:
It was Herder and Humboldt who had deeply influenced Frans Boas when the young German emigrated to the USA at the age of 29 for reasons of love. Born in Minden, Westphalia, in 1858, Frans Boas grew up as the son of liberal, cosmopolitan Jewish parents, sympathisers of the freedom ideas of the 1848 Revolution and supporters of the Enlightenment and Weimar Classicism. He attended the Minden Gymnasium with its classical humanistic curriculum, read his Homer and became interested in foreign cultures at an early age. He studied mathematics, physics and geography at the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn and Kiel and took his first doctorate in 1881 at the age of 23. He became an assistant at the Berlin Ethnological Museum, where he was encouraged by Rudolf Virchow, founder of scientific medicine. In 1885, at the age of 27, he took his second doctorate in geography in Berlin.
Frans Boas, a learned and educated German in the spirit of the Enlightenment, humanism, Weimar Classicism and liberalism, founded modern cultural anthropology in the USA on the intellectual prequisite know-how of European culture, with the “specifically German culture” at its centre. Today it is called “American” without hesitation …
On 30 July 1931, the 73-year-old emeritus Frans Boas speaks at a ceremony in his honour at the University of Kiel, where he received his doctorate 50 years earlier: “The behaviour of a people is not essentially determined by its biological ancestry, but by its cultural tradition. The recognition of these principles will save the world and Germany in particular, many troubles.7 On the eve of National Socialist racial madness, Boas, who comes from the Herder tradition, warns with these words against racist Social Darwinism, eugenics and their political arm, National Socialism, which replaced the achievements of the Enlightenment with pseudo-scientific drivel. In the USA, too, Boas warned against the abuse of anthropology by secret services and against the devastating biologism that claims that cultural differences originate biologically and “prove” the superiority or inferiority of races.
For the sake of completeness, one thing should only be mentioned briefly, Anne Löchte herself does not go into it: Herder’s concept of culture also corresponds in its essential features with Alfred Adler’s individual psychology, with the philosophical anthropologists of the 20th century such as Gehlen and Scheler, and above all with Adolf Portmann’s “basal anthropology”.

Serious study of Herder has increased recently

In view of this situation, one can only be grateful that Anne Löchte has presented a factual analysis of Herder’s view of culture. The second peer reviewer was Hansjakob Werlen, a member of the International Herder Society. The work was encouraged by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation with funds from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The Siblings Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation for the Humanities in Ingelheim on the Rhine supported the printing. A “comprehensive investigation”, Löchte writes, was necessary not least because “there are countless misrepresentations in the history of reception, the spectrum of which ranges from comparatively harmless misinterpretations to abstruse accusations.8 The serious study of Herder’s work has increased in recent decades, she reports. This was also urgently necessary, as the newsletter of the International Herder Society from April 2004 makes clear, which speaks of the “completely dodgy Herder knowledge of the present”.9
Anne Löchte writes objectively, in a differentiated way. She weighs carefully and precisely and does Herder justice historically. She examines his concepts of culture and humanity from the Ideas to the Letters of Humanity to the late work Adrastea. She wants to make a research contribution and not demonstrate the topicality of Herder’s ideas. That is up to the reader. With Anne Löchte’s study, the reader holds in his hands a work with which he can reflect on the real intentions and the deeply human ideas of one of the greatest thinkers of (his own) German culture and independently assess its significance for our time. Although not intended to be so, the book is, through its objectivity, a very topical book on the question of “specifically German culture”, but also on the thorough clarification of the question of what a culture is at all and why life in cultures is the natural form of human life.

“It was already known to the ancient Greeks ...”

In the sixties school essays still liked to start with sentences like “It was already known to the ancient Greeks .…” As far as the “completely dodgy Herder knowledge of the present” is concerned, one might recall that even the ancient Greeks knew that wisdom was the foundation of historical justice. Wisdom, they said, is, when you can perceive a person as it is, not as you please. One of the most dangerous things is the slow distortion of the historical memory of a culture for its own human achievements, the positive side of its identity. Here lies the task: to liberate from oblivion what “specific German culture”, indeed what culture really is. The historical memory of the European peoples for their own cultural achievements must again become true to reality. Herder’s rehabilitation by Anne Löchte was an important step in this direction.    •

1    Jaeger, Mona. “Deutsche Leitkultur nicht identifizierbar” (German defining culture not identifiable). In: “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” from 31 August 2017. (seen on 15 September 2017)
2     Roca, René. The Catalans have the right to freely determine their future. In: International. Zeitschrift für internationale Politik (International. Journal of International Politics). IV/2017, p. 22f.
3    ibid.
4    Löchte, Anne. Johann Gottfried Herder. Kulturtheorie und Humanitätsidee der Ideen, Humanitätsbriefe und Adrastea. (Cultural Theory and concept of humanity of the Ideas, the letters of humanity and Adrastea) Würzburg 2005
5    Herder, Johann Gottfried. Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit. (Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind) Verlag Deutscher Klassiker 1989, II 7,1, p. 255f.
6    Knoll. Nationalismus. (Nationalism) p. 240, quoted after Löchte, p. 77.
7    Pöhl, Friedrich/Tilg, Bernhard (Ed.). Frans Boas – Kultur, Sprache, Rasse, Wege einer antirassistischen Anthropologie. (Frans Boas – Culture, Language, Race, Ways of an Antiracist Anthropology. Vienna 2011, p. 21
8    Löchte, p. 9
9    Sauder, Gerhard. In: Löchte, p. 9

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