ONE OF THE MOST influential academic hypotheses regarding the relationship between Germany and the world is put forth in the introduction of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978). There, Said draws a distinction between nineteenth-century German scholarship of the Orient on the one hand, and French and British attitudes towards the region on the other. Whereas France and Britain pursued active imperial interests in the Middle East—playing a “great game” of sorts that culminated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916—Germany, lacking similar investments, took a much more abstract view of the region: “There was nothing in Germany to correspond to the Anglo-French presence in India, the Levant, North Africa. Moreover, the German Orient was almost exclusively a scholarly, or at least a classical, Orient: it was made the subject of lyrics, fantasies, and even novels, but it was never actual.”
Said's distinction was carefully delimited both temporally and geographically: he never meant it to apply outside of the nineteenth century or to areas other than the Middle East. But because Orientalism became the de facto founding text of postcolonial studies, and postcolonial studies, in turn, was for several decades the dominant humanistic paradigm for discussing relations between Europe and the rest of the world, the idea that Germany's interest in the world was primarily academic or belletristic rather than strategic or power-political took unexpected roots. Only over the last fifteen years or so have scholars begun a concerted pushback, focusing both on the destructive consequences of German colonialism (such as the brutal suppression of the Boxer uprising in 1900–1901, or the Herero and Nama genocides of 1904–1907), and on the inadequacies of Said's hypothesis itself. These efforts have, in turn, led to more vigorous discussions of Germany's colonial past within the public sphere.
This chapter is inspired by such corrective measures, but nevertheless departs in a different direction. For, as it turns out, the thesis that Germans relate to the world in a fundamentally different way than the Western European powers (i.e., through cultural rather than military means) is by no means original to Said. It can be found in many canonical German literary and academic texts from the period between 1800 and 1945 as well.