I got an impression that Germany at the turn of the 20th century had a lot of very important thinkers and scientists, who created foundation for lots of modern theories and philosophical concept. Freud, Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer, Gauss, Weierstrass, Dirichlet, Hilbert, Jung, Weber, Koch, Petri, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Fromm and so on.

Is there some historical, political or economical background for this phenomenon? Or it is only my personal bias and there is no phenomenon at all?

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    I think at that time German universities had immense prestige not shared with universities in other countries. Maybe they were simply intellectually more advanced than other countries at that time. May 24, 2016 at 21:38
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    Are you asking if this is unusual? There were a lot of British, French, Russian, Polish, American, and other thinkers at the time - science was undergoing a massive global shift at the time in many fields.
    – user13123
    May 25, 2016 at 3:12
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    Kant died 1804, Hegel 1830 ... I think you have "an impression that Germany at the turn of the 20th century had a lot of very important thinkers" because you condense 250 years into a short timespan.
    – mart
    May 25, 2016 at 6:18
  • Nit-picky here, but Freud and Schrodinger were Austrian and Jung was Swiss.
    – CGCampbell
    May 25, 2016 at 14:07

2 Answers 2


Note: much of this is source from the German Wikipedia, which doesn't have English equivalents for some of the quoted articles.

This can be traced even further back to the late 18th and throughout the 19th century, when the German nations (there wasn't a single one yet) considered itself das Land der Dichter und Denker, as literary historian Wolfgang Menzel said

Die Deutschen thun nicht viel, aber sie schreiben desto mehr. Wenn dereist ein Bürger der kommenden Jahrhunderte auf den gegenwärtigen Zeitpunkt der deutschen Geschichte zurückblickt, so werden ihm mehr Bücher als Menschen vorkommen. […] Er wird sagen, wir haben geschlafen und in Büchern geträumt. […] Das sinnige deutsche Volk liebt es zu denken und zu dichten, und zum Schreiben hat es immer Zeit.


The German don't do a lot, but they make up for it by writing even more. One day, when a citizen of future centuries looks back at the current [i.e. 1828] moment of German history, they'll encounter more books than people. [...] They will say that we slept and dreamt in books. [...] The sensual German people loves to think and confabulate [lit. write fiction or poetry]. It always has time to write.

It may also go back to Johann Carl August Mutäus in the 18th century

The term was also used derogatorily by people in other countries and was then warped, in light of German militarism and totalitarianism in the 20th century to Land der Richter und Henker (land of judges and executioners).

The origins go back to enlightened, though still absolutist, monarchs like Frederick the Great. But it's also linked with the development of a Bildungsbürgertum, a bourgeois elite that saw education as a high goal. In this sense it took denken out of dichten und denken, focusing on its meaning of thinking and devising things.

As @Michael Hardy wrote, this was supported by an excellent school and university system. It allowed the bourgeois to obtain high social standing through education instead of noble birth.

However, lest this be thought as some great meritocracy

Dadurch baute das Bildungsbürgertum Bildungs- und Sprachbarrieren auf, die es zu einer elitären Schicht werden ließ, zu der Ungebildete nur schwer Zutritt gewannen.


The educated bourgeoisie built up barriers in said education and language which led them to become an elite into which the uneducated could not easily gain access.

Interestingly, it also became a path to assimilation for German Jews, which is why there were so many great Jewish scientists and engineers from Germany. Until the turn towards the idea of Blood and Volk around the turn of the 19th/20th century segregated German Jews regardless of how much they supported the Fatherland.

Jews who entered the Bildungsbuergertum embraced the ideal of Bildung, a process of intellectual expansion, aesthetic refinement, and moral aspiration. Discord between “social-political” and “cultural-epistemological” variants of Bildung, however, complicated their enthusiasm, as A. Assman has shown. Ultimately, Germans armed with Fichte and the Grimms abandoned eternal, universal Bildung for their own particular historical Volksnation. As Volk outstripped Bildung at the turn of the century anti-Semitic vitriol spread despite Jewish support of the Fatherland. (source: Review by Gregory Kaplan (Stanford Humanities Center and Department of Religious Studies, Stanford University) of German Jews: A Dual Identity by Paul Mendes-Flohr, page 1


The number of great scientists in a country strongly correlates with periods of vigorous economic development of the nation. Examples: England since 17th century and later. Netherlands in 17th century. France in 18th and early 19th centuries. Japan and US in 20th century. Germany unified (and thus became a nation) in the second part of 19th century and a period of vigorous economic development followed. Very quickly it reached the level of England and passed it on many economic criteria. The same period was the golden age of German science.

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    Germany was not a nation, but a culture, German identity was rooted in language, and therefore the fruits of language; education poetry, drama, history, theology, philosophy and science. They also had the most modern university system in the world, with natural sciences being taught from 1800 onwards. Germans saw themselves as the pre-eminant culture of Europe. My tutor at university used to argue that this cultural pride became problematic when mixed with militaristic nationalism after unification.
    – marchanti
    May 26, 2016 at 19:02

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