In November 1942 Werner Krauss, serving as a specialist for Spanish in a Wehrmacht translation unit in Berlin, was arrested as a member of the so-called ‘Red Orchestra’, the Schulze–Boysen resistance group—despite its name, not predominantly Communist—and condemned to death. From 1931 to 1940 he had been first an instructor and then Dozent at Erich Auerbach’s Romance Seminar at Marburg University. His courtroom strategy, in which he was helped by other members of the group, was to play the unworldly professor who had participated in anti-Nazi leafleting, without understanding its scope, out of love for a woman in the ‘Orchestra’. His friends and family organized a large dossier of letters from academic colleagues—including Karl Vossler, Ernst Robert Curtius and Hans Gadamer—and from psychiatrists, testifying that he was mentally unbalanced, while Marburg University officially asked the Ministry of Education for clemency. Krauss had the luck to be a bona fide ‘Aryan’ of good family who had served in the Army in 1918–19, and to be judged by a military and not an SS court. In 1944 his death sentence was commuted to imprisonment, which he escaped at the end of the War. While waiting to know his fate, he managed to write a study about the Baroque poet Baltasar Gracián, an early expert on survival, and a Kafkaesque novel about a bureaucratic world—PLN, or ‘postal code’.

In 1945 Krauss became a member of the German Communist Party. Though reinstated in Marburg and promoted to full professor, he found Nazi sympathizers still firmly entrenched in the university; his request for compensation was refused, and his book of essays prohibited by the US military administration—its type was even destroyed, and a grotesque CIA report prepared about him. So in 1947 he moved east, becoming chair of the Romance Institute at Leipzig University in the Soviet occupation zone. There, together with Ernst Bloch, the Germanist Hans Mayer, and the historian of revolutions Werner Markov, Krauss was part of an intellectual centre whose teaching and publications made it the most important nucleus of undogmatic Marxist thought in the GDR, alongside Brecht and his circle in Berlin. But they were seen with growing suspicion by the ruling SED. Markov was fired as a ‘Titoist’, Bloch forced back to the West, and Krauss’s socio-political essays were once more censored, and some of his students arrested. Increasingly, he moved from teaching to research in the Berlin Academy of Sciences. He died in 1976, and his collected works have since been published in eight volumes.

The title of Peter Jehle’s very useful book indicates its twofold goal: to sketch the general record of German Romance Studies—Romanistik—under the Third Reich, and trace the anomalous position of Krauss’s thinking within it. This makes for a work where some chapters—such as those on the early Auerbach or Krauss’s writing on Corneille—could stand as weighty independent studies; also for one full of excursuses and turns, whose final chapter follows the beginning of Krauss’s projects after 1945 and his stance in the GDR. The book is a treasure-trove of often arresting data, which throws considerable light on two highly significant and wilfully obscured chapters of German intellectual and political history.

Towards the end of the Weimar Republic, attacking the separation of literary from general history, Walter Benjamin inveighed against the ‘seven heads of the hydra of academic aesthetics’—‘creativity, empathy, transcending the moment, re-creation, identification, illusion, and art appreciation’. Their writhings, he thought, were part of the general crisis of traditional notions of Bildung, hopelessly out of synch with the actual production and reception of books. Brecht’s reflections on the social position of art, arising out of his court case over The Threepenny Movie, and Gramsci’s notebooks in prison, arrived at parallel conclusions.

Within the German academic world, philology offered one of the most exasperated cases of the frenzied Idealism stigmatized by Benjamin. In reaction to the universalizing claims of the French Enlightenment—and Revolution—Herder had trumpeted ‘national character, possessing its own spirit and language’. The ensuing Holy Trinity of Nation–Geist–Language meant that in Germany—as later in all other European national movements, from Ireland to Russia—both linguistics-cum-literature and philology-cum-criticism became a serious and at times central political business. In this conception, as Jehle puts it, ‘philology gives to an oppressed present the image of a great past, thus feeding the hope for a better future’. Flanking such convictions was a historicism for which, as Meinecke wrote in 1936, ‘human soul and spirit are the deepest forces that move history’. Within this intellectual field, whatever debate there was revolved around the problems of reconciling the claims of linguistic analysis of individual poetic physiognomies with the needs of political and historical synthesis. Whereas the great Italian Idealist Benedetto Croce opted mainly for the former, his interlocutor Karl Vossler in Germany, the leading Romanist of his generation, flirted with the latter in vague gestures towards the Zeitgeist. In both cases, the task was to locate a ‘spiritual nucleus’ or ‘bearing of the soul’: periods—or, indeed, nations—could only be understood as supposed individuals. Clearly, analyses of opposed interests within the same period, or even nation, were impossible from such a point of view, which always found what it started looking for. Materials that did not fit were simply declared irrelevant—‘unpoetic’ or ‘not beautiful’ in Croce, mere Schrifttum rather than Literatur in German philology.

After 1933, most scholars disliked the Nazis, but saw them simply as a variant of a hated mass society that stifled individual spirituality. Civically, if few Romanisten entered the NSDAP, their record was not better than their conservative or apolitical colleagues in other disciplines. Those fired as Jews were not defended, no voices were raised to speak of incompatible values, and archival research has shown a wealth of ignoble denunciations. The Nazis, however, had other fish to fry and contented themselves with kicking out about a fifth of university Romanisten, shrinking student numbers (so there was lots of time for research) and promoting their followers. Intellectually, meanwhile, the various branches of Romance studies found themselves in distinct situations. Iberianists and Italianists were on safer ground, since they could praise the spiritual precursors of Salazar, Franco or Mussolini (Vossler had no qualms accepting a high decoration from Franco’s Minister for the Falange in 1944). Gallicists, on the other hand, were always on more treacherous terrain, since France was not only the enemy nation of 1870 and 1914, the object of vehement philippics from the traditional Bildungsbürgertum all the way from Heinrich Treitschke to Thomas Mann, it was now Hitler’s major strategic bête noire as well.

Within the generally undistinguished and conformist ranks of the Romanisten, however, the generation after Vossler had produced five significant exceptions. Although at home in the range of the Romance languages, each had done leading work on French literature. All (save one) became famous outside Germany after the War: Ernst Robert Curtius, Leo Spitzer, Erich Auerbach, Viktor Klemperer—and Werner Krauss. In the Nazi period, Curtius kept his post at Bonn; Spitzer and Auerbach were driven into exile—first in Turkey and then America—as Jews, while Klemperer, although also stripped of his job, refused to emigrate and was lucky to survive the Judeocide. None was politically radical. Klemperer, indeed, had been an ardent German nationalist before 1933, and critic of Curtius for displaying a culpable indulgence to modern French letters; even Auerbach, a democratic liberal, seems to have been quite detached from any active sense of public affairs.