Can Culture Explain Fates of Nations?


Most countries have always had multiple sets of values, and which take dominance depend on complex interactions of economic, political, and social interests

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Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, reacting to Volkswagen's impending emergence as the world's largest automobile manufacturer, contrasts the rebirth of Germany and Japan after the Second World War with the struggles of Egypt and Libya to establish political and economic stability after the overthrow of their own tyrannical regimes. The key to everything is culture, he says:

Don't ask me to define the term, but it is something within us individually and something collectively within a nation or people. It is about all that Japan and Germany were left with -- no oil or gas, that's for sure. It explains why Germany, dismembered in a vast and horrendous population exchange, and the eastern sector of it mismanaged for years afterward by knuckleheaded communists, is now Europe's preeminent economic power. Germany may no longer be uber alles, but it's definitely uber quite a bit.
The problem with "culture" as an explanation is that most nations have always had multiple sets of values, which come and go in leadership. In the period of my original specialty, early 19th century Germany, Prussia, Bavaria, and free cities like Hamburg had very distinctive societies and institutions, and the German stereotype in the West was more likely to be the dreamy artist or poet than the military officer. It was a complex interaction of economic, political, and social interests and institutions that produced the Bismarckian Reich. Japanese culture also had multiple strands, immortalized in Ruth Benedict's best-selling Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a wartime analysis of the enemy that later helped shape Japanese culture itself, just as Tocqueville has influenced America's self-understanding. (So much for the uselessness of anthropology.)

Mr. Cohen omits an outstanding and obvious circumstance that separates Germany and Japan from Egypt and Libya -- apart from the fact that neither Axis nation was totally destroyed by wartime bombing but had retained immense reserves of machinery and technological skill. (Yes, the Soviets dismantled factories in their zone, but the U.S. helped move key personnel, including senior staff of Zeiss, to the West.) Bolstering the German and Japanese economies was also essential both for U.S. trade interests and for the strategic containment of Soviet communism. Meanwhile the new state of Israel was self-consciously challenging the stereotypes of Jewish culture as immigration of Jews from Islamic-majority lands helped shape Israeli culture. And in the postwar years, British industrial culture, once the envy of the world (and an underrated engine of Allied victory, as the historian of technology David Edgerton has just shown in Britain's War Machine) was beginning to unravel.

Is cultural change a butterfly-effect phenomenon that will always resist social science modeling, or are there patterns that have so far eluded us? I can't say, but meanwhile I don't think it's helpful to explain anything with a concept that resists definition.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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