The country's two most eminent philosophers are pointing the finger at each other in a slanging match that has rekindled the ideas and vocabulary of the Third Reich, and heaped embarrassment on a society that is understandably reluctant to engage in learned discourse about the bermensch, or Superman.
Peter Sloterdijk, the greying enfant terrible of German thought, stands accused of advocating eugenics, the science of improving the human race. His accuser is Jurgen Habermas, Grand Old Man of German philosophy and aspirant to the vacant throne of the Frankfurt School. This battle of the Titans, fought with a melange of metaphors that even philologists struggle to deconstruct, has nevertheless captivated the German public. At stake is Germans' right to discuss ideas that went out of fashion in 1945, but have been brought back into sharp focus by advances in modern science.
Two weeks ago, Professor Sloterdijk, 52, gave a lecture at a Bavarian castle. The title was "Rules for the Human Zoo", and his audience was a group of Jewish intellectuals. The scholar, already known for his eclectic views, seemed troubled by the human condition.
"The taming of man has failed," he lamented. "Civilisation's potential for barbarism is growing; the everyday bestialisation of man is on the increase." This was alarming stuff. Not since Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who inspired Adolf Hitler, has anyone spoken so plainly about the decline of the human race.
The remedy, just as in Nietzsche's time, was obvious. In an ideal world, man would be shorn of his basest instincts, purged of the genetic coding for all that "bestiality". Help, thanks to the latest "anthropo-technology", was at hand.
Whether Professor Sloterdijk actually drew those conclusions is a matter of heated dispute. In a culture that regards obliqueness as evidence of piercing intellect, the Sloterdijk lecture weighs in at the sublime end of the spectrum. Millions of words, filling every newspaper in the land, have already been committed to analysing the message, and still nobody is sure of its true meaning.
But some of the phrases the professor used shine through. The "human zoo", for instance, provides a marker. He talks of "human breeding" and "steering reproduction" - terms that give one some idea of the territory into which we are heading. And there is one word that is a dead give-away: selektion.
This word does not crop up in the German language very often these days. It was once used in - among other places - Auschwitz to denote the procedure whereby Dr Josef Mengele and his fellow "scientists" determined which inmates were to be sent to the gas chamber and which were to be spared on any given day.
The contemporary German word for selection is auswahl. But Professor Sloterdijk talks of selektion. There is, he argues, nothing new in this concept. "One must finally accept that people are always `made' in all cultures," he argues. "This has happened until now only through the interaction of the rules of class, caste, marriage and upbringing ... in accordance with rules of selection and combination. In the meantime, improvements in biotechnology have come into sight."
The technology exists for slotting in a gene that will toughen up any species, including Homo sapiens. What was science fiction only a few years ago will soon be fact. Professor Sloterdijk says he is warning the citizens of a country that is perhaps more sensitised to this kind of scientific endeavour than any other.
American scholars can enthuse freely about breakthroughs in biotechnology. But in Germany, such discussions inevitably take on a sinister dimension. By trumpeting the dawn of eugenics, Professor Sloterdijk appears to be reconquering a piece of German intellectual tradition that had been lost for the past half century, and going all the way back to the legacy of Nietzsche and his stigmatised terminology. So what if the bermensch is dead? - Long live Superman!
In the eyes of Professor Habermas, a left-wing philosopher, this secret agenda makes his fellow academic a "fascist". Professor Sloterdijk, also a left-wing philosopher who once travelled to Poona to seek enlightenment from the Bhagwan, thinks his critic is resorting to "fascist" tactics to discredit him.
Who is to sort out which of them is right? Friedrich Nietzsche and Dr Mengele were not available for comment. Not yet.
THE ORIGINAL `SUPERMAN'
Mankind must work continually to produce great human beings... how can your life retain its highest value, the deepest significance? Only by your living for the good of the... most valuable specimens Untimely Meditations
The superman is the meaning of the earth... Thus Spake Zarathustra
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