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The Twilight of the Public Intellectual: Germany

Keywords: German history , intellectuals , Literature

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Abstract:

This essay focuses on the questions of whether German unification resulted in a wholesale retreat of intellectuals from politics and engagement with social issues, as the rhetoric of failure would indicate, or whether the key debates of the period can be read instead as a sign that Germany is on the road to becoming a more 'normal' European nation. Before returning to these issuesat the end of this paper I first provide a broad historical and theoretical context for my discussion of the role of the concerned intellectual in Germany, before offering an overview of the respective functions of literary intellectuals in both German states in the post-war period. I then address a series of key debates and discussions in 1989 and the early nineteen-nineties that were responsible for changing the forms of engagement in intellectual debates in post-unification German society. I argue that the 1990s and early years of the new millennium hastened the disappearance of the writer as a universal intellectual and focused attention on the writer as an individualist and a professional. Today's youngest generation of writer in Germany is a specialist intellectual who intervenes in political and social matters from time to time but who is not expected to take a moral-ethical stance on most issues of national and international concern. S/he is one who frequently writes about personal subjects, but may also occasionally, as witnessed after September 11, turn his or her pen to topics of global concern as in terrorism and Islam. More often than not, however, writers now leave the work of commenting on political affairs to writers of the older guard and to other 'senior' specialist intellectuals.

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