The feuilletons of Western Europe, pale shades of their former selves, still occasionally allow an argument to pinball around the continent. In March 2013, two months after the eu’s Fiscal Compact came into force, Giorgio Agamben published a polemic in La Repubblica under the headline, ‘If a Latin Empire Took Shape in the Heart of Europe’. Seeking a foothold against what he took to be the German economic imposition of a common way of life for all Europeans, Agamben invoked a curio: Alexandre Kojève’s confidential aide-mémoire, perhaps intended for de Gaulle. In ‘The Latin Empire: Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy’, Kojève, four months after the defeat of Nazi Germany, warned of coming German economic resurgence. Hitler had made the anachronistic mistake of basing his empire on national socialism: the usa and the ussr, equipped with extra-national, universalist ideologies, were the future. It was only a matter of time before Germany was enlisted as a proxy by one side or the other. De Gaulle’s boldest course of action, Kojève advised, would be to build a Latin customs bloc, with Italy, Spain and eventually Portugal as junior partners. Only then could there be a true imperial socialism—powered by the fossil fuel of Catholicism—that could avoid the cyclical crashes of the Anglo-American market and the forced stability of the Soviet economy. As a bonus, the ‘contradictions’ between latinité and Islam could be resolved—and they could resume pollinating each other’s cultures—if the Latin Empire were to extend toward the Middle East and embrace its former imperial subjects (‘A giving colonialism’, Kojève would call this in another context). Pooling together French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese colonies would solve the problem of raw materials. If Latin collective bargaining for German coal did not suffice, perhaps the Saarland could be annexed. These reveries, elevated to the idiom of raison d’état, seem to have been crafted to affect de Gaulle—who probably never read the memorandum—like the dream that convinced Emperor Constantine to turn Europe Christian.

Kojève’s diplomatic lunge of 1945 was reduced by Agamben to a parry for endangered species. ‘Not only is there no sense in asking a Greek or an Italian to live like a German’, Agamben wrote, ‘but even if this were possible, it would lead to the destruction of a cultural heritage that exists as a way of life.’ When his article appeared in France in Libération, the headline was upgraded to ‘Let the Latin Empire counter-attack!’ The German press volleyed back contempt. ‘Against Germany?’ cried Die Zeit. ‘A Latin Europe Coming Soon?’ rang out the Frankfurter Allgemeine. Twitchy readers could find solace by flipping to the Politik and Wirtschaft sections. The closest any coordinated ‘Latin’ action had come to slowing Berlin’s austerity roll-out was the pebble Mario Monti, along with Rajoy and Hollande, had placed before a weary Merkel at 4am on 29 June 2012, when they squeaked out a deal to ease access to the eu bailout fund. But the concession may in fact have smoothed German advances by making its policies appear more consensual. While in the wake of Brexit, there were faint rumbles that, without Tory intransigence in the eu, the voting rules in Brussels might be changed to favour a Latin gang-up against the North—a tactic preferred by Thomas Piketty—those worries evaporated with the election of Emmanuel Macron, whose first trip was to pay tribute to Berlin, where he assured the Chancellor that he did not want to ‘pool debts from the past’, and two days later cemented his pliancy with the appointment of the impeccably neoliberal Bruno Le Maire, a ump stalwart, as Finance Minister. Spain, where unemployment has dipped to 17.2 per cent, and Greece—only 23 per cent—are now lofted in the German press as evidence that Berlin’s policy is finally bearing fruit.

Wolf Lepenies’s The Power on the Mediterranean: French Dreams of a Different Europe can be read as the most sophisticated of the German establishment’s responses to Agamben’s cri de cœur. In the form of a courteous inspection of French conceptions over the centuries for building ‘Latin’ coalitions of various dimensions, Lepenies gently lets the suggestion surface that dissenters to the rules of the game of German Europe would do better to dispose of their illusions—especially the French, whose periodic attempts to map the North–South conflict onto the external world are more often than not the projection of conflicts inside their own national culture. Die Macht am Mittelmeer was treated as a skilful diagnosis of a French obsession by German reviewers. The only objections were that Lepenies made his case in too leisurely a fashion; that there were too many redundancies; and that the book is mistitled, since the Mediterranean is only one feature in a wider landscape of delusion.

Born in East Prussia, from where his family fled the Red Army, Lepenies grew up in Koblenz and studied at Münster, then a centre of conservative sociology led by Helmut Schelsky and Dieter Claessens, who supervised the thesis that became his first book: Melancholy and Society (1969), a study of the European culture of boredom and its relation to political defeat and exclusion. The examples were wide-ranging. Lepenies argued, for instance, that the uprising of the Fronde against the consolidation of the monarchy in seventeenth-century France was the result of aristocrats who were desperate to find social meaning even in the form of a doomed rebellion. Louis xiv attempted to compensate for their political impotence by making the officer corps their exclusive domain, and continually adding to the elaborations and time-consuming activities of his Court. Lepenies’s main interest, however, lay—as it has done since—in the values and sensibilities of the German bourgeoisie. Excluded from the political power that was being extended to their peers elsewhere in nineteenth-century Europe, the German middle classes, so the story goes, retreated into aesthetics, savouring the productions of their great writers and thinkers, when they themselves were not buried in work. What had once been the aspirational melancholy of an entire class—the ‘Werther Syndrome’ of the eighteenth century—became increasingly, as the bourgeois ideal of work gained self-legitimating force, the province of disparate individuals. The particular target of Lepenies’s attack on the aestheticization of boredom (and in the Nazi period, of politics)—the inclination of the bourgeois to imagine themselves private aristocrats without political responsibilities—was the dominant conservative of post-war German sociology, Arnold Gehlen. Ascribing the timeless attraction to melancholy to a basic human nature that could only be overcome by Supreme Leadership Systems or, as he amended his text after the war, ‘the founding of institutions’, Gehlen had declared that ‘the history of ideas has come to a conclusion, and that we have now arrived at post-histoire. Thus Gottfried Benn’s advice to the individual—namely, “count on using your own reserves”—should now apply to mankind as a whole.’ By disparaging the project of the Enlightenment as utopian and historically defunct, Gehlen—declared Lepenies—had ‘discovered a way of proving modernity worthy of tragedy’.

Lepenies’s intent to reduce the entire corpus of Gehlen to a variant of aristocratic escapism, while expressly avoiding any debt to the Frankfurt School (indeed treating Adorno—who had famously sparred with Gehlen on television a few years earlier—as the other side of the same syndrome), set his course as a left-liberal critic of conservatives in the German academy. It has been a fruitful career. Lepenies may be the least known yet best connected of leading German intellectuals. A longtime head of the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, his personal ties extend across the Anglosphere, where he edited the Ideas in Context series with Skinner and Rorty, and found a side of paradise at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. After 1989, he became a tireless sower of cultural seeds in the East, instrumental in the founding of the Bibliotheca Classica in St Petersburg, the Centre for Advanced Study in Sofia, the Collegium Budapest and the New Europe College in Bucharest; he is rumoured to have been a whisperer in Stockholm’s ear to help Banat-born Herta Müller clinch the Nobel Prize. As a public intellectual, his graceful, if at times orotund, style distinguishes him from the staid expositions of the generation of German sociologists that trained him. A past member of the Axel Springer Board of Supervisors—an ostentatious badge of heresy for the 1968 generation—Lepenies contributes light, learned columns to the conglomerate’s acceptable daily Die Welt, where he writes on philosophy, film and the agon of the nba.

Culture versus power, bourgeois decency versus aesthetic transcendence: these oppositions have been at the centre of Lepenies’s work since the beginning. In his best-known book, Between Literature and Science: The Rise of Sociology, Lepenies had looked back at a lost age of his discipline when the boundaries between the social sciences and literature scarcely existed, and Balzac, Taine and Zola ‘had probed reality with the scalpel of science’. But with the politicization of sociology in France—literati attacks on the Dreyfusard science of Durkheim—French reactionaries regrouped into literature in such numbers that by the time of Vichy the French novel was a form dominated by fascists. In the postwar German Federal Republic, the situation was nearly reversed, with left critics of the regime such as Böll and Koeppen taking to the novel as their cudgel, while academic sociology was dominated by conservatives. Against these breaches, Lepenies’s defence of the bourgeois man of letters who keeps the politicization of science at bay found expression in the book that may be closest to his heart: an extraordinary biography of the critic denounced by Nietzsche (‘wanders around, cowardly, curious, bored, eavesdropping’) and attacked by Proust (‘as though the persevering falsehood of his thought had derived from the artificial dexterity of his style’) that could have been entitled Pour Sainte-Beuve. Indeed Sainte-Beuve, notwithstanding his animosity to the democratization of culture, was despite himself a beneficial liberal force, in his determination to bring art back down to earth and anchor artists in their personal context—he championed the scientific affinities of literary realism—and his consistent engagement as a public intellectual, punctilious in his response to the issues of the day.

A decade later, with The Seduction of Culture in German History (2006), Lepenies took up a theme developed by George Mosse and Fritz Stern a half-century earlier, a version of which could already be found in Peter Viereck’s Metapolitics (1941) if not before: the baleful effects of the construction of culture as an aesthetic or spiritual realm of the sublime, above the compromises and chicanery of politics, and especially parliamentary politics. It was Nietzsche who first gave vivid expression to a fatal opposition between culture and power that became engrained in the sensibility of so many Wilhelmine and Weimar intellectuals. After serving as a young medical orderly in the Prussian army in 1870, he had reacted to its triumph over France not with jubilation but regret, predicting the new German empire would spell the eclipse of German culture: ‘the extirpation of the German spirit for the benefit of the “German Reich”.’ Between power and culture a choice had to be made. ‘One lives off the other, one prospers at the expense of the other. All the great ages of culture are ages of decline, politically speaking: what has been great in the cultural sense has been unpolitical, even antipolitical.’ The only remaining artist or philosopher worth the name in Germany, Nietzsche ironized with a mocking ‘blush’, was ‘well, Bismarck’.