Berlin + around 1800 + ???

I was invited – together with a hundred other elected guests – to an inofficial birthday party at the Academy of Sciences yesterday. As chance would have it, the presentation of the project “Berliner Klassik” happened to take place on the 75th birthday of its director Conrad Wiedemann. The whole presentation was called “Wie die Klassik nach Berlin kam” (roughly translated “How classicism came to Berlin”, although I am not sure that this really renders the different meaning layers of the word “Klassik”). Two longer talks, lots of great music (vocal and flute), a project presentation by the people who have made the “Berliner Klassik” in the last 10 years and a small speech by Conrad Wiedemann filled the evening.

It striked me how little Berlin there was to all that. Of course, the presentation of the “Berliner Klassik” was Berlin-centered. It was in fact a splendid moment of science, articulating cultural and literary history on a basis of a sketch drawn by E.T.A. Hoffmann (“Der Kunz’sche Riss”) on which he represented the Gendarmenmarkt, its monuments, and the streets nearby, peopled with winehandlers, playwrights, and even characters from his books. But this concentration on Berlin’s most beautiful square was more the exception than the rule on that evening, which I cannot help but wonder about. What is it about Berlin that you cannot really grab it?

In his thesis, Conrad Wiedemann is certainly more radical than me. He thinks that Germans  have shown throughout their history a reluctance to admit that Berlin is special, that it is the center. I would not extend my analysis beyond the period of time I actually know, this hard-to-define “around 1800” which includes late Aufklärung, early romanticism, high romanticism, German idealism and whatnot (here I should list the institutions that contributed to it too, but I will let you read the page of the Berliner Klassik instead). Why add some “Klassik” on top of all these -isms? The “Klassik” is there to make the point that all these different tendencies converged, and they converged to Berlin.

My position is less radical than his since I only defend the idea that the situation in Berlin was a singular one at that time. I tend to avoid comparisons (like the one with Weimar, a place that is historically and literary connected to the idea of “Klassik”) by saying it is not really comparable with other constellations. That might be cowardice from me. Or ignorance of how it was elsewhere. I grant you that: I am far from being able to overlook all that. Plus, I am not a historian, which makes me feel like I will never, ever be able to theorize on this kind of scales.

But still. The fact that Conrad Wiedemann mentioned my project as one of those that are evolving as a development from the Berliner Klassik was a great recognition gesture to me (and helped me with that confidence issue I have had lately…). Interestingly, he underlined the fact that I operate with other concepts than he does, especially those of “networks” on the one hand and of “intellectuals” on the other hand – saying something like “it is ok, it is a new generation and they operate with their own, new categories”. I think that it is true that mentalities have changed in the past ten years. It is not just me, it is the whole scholarly context. In the field of research itself, the inhibitions to work on Berlin, on the time “around 1800” and the Napoleonian Wars while knowing perfectly that this is the birth of national spirit in Germany with all the further consequences it will have, have lowered greatly. Those inhibitions are still there, of course. But the fact that somebody like me gets to be generously funded to check if the two concepts “intellectual” and “network” allow to understand the phenomenon “Berlin around 1800” somwehat better, shows that the question is, at least, considered an interesting one, one that has to be asked.

So let’s ask it again: What is it about Berlin around 1800? – and hope that the network analysis will gain another dimension through our digital edition…



Cite this blog post
Anne Baillot (2012, April 11). Berlin + around 1800 + ??? Digital Intellectuals. Retrieved May 28, 2024, from

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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