Lepenies, described by Ozment as "a Berlin sociologist and one of Germany's foremost intellectuals," argues in his book that the reason why Germans have come so haltingly, even grudgingly, to political unity and democratic politics rests on " 'the catastrophic German habit' of valuing culture over politics, and even substituting it for politics." Lepenies calls the problem "cultural/moral" and pins it on "the apolitical German soul."
Writes Ozment: "For Lepenies, the apolitical German is a true universal; this is 'a national attitude prevalent throughout German history.' 'German inwardness' and a penchant for 'metaphysical flight' are its existential roots — a kind of inner Sonderweg separating the romantic German soul from the empirical Latin and the utilitarian Anglo-Saxon."
The historical roots of the problem, according to Lepenies, lie in "the stunning failures of German politics." In the two centuries he addresses, the most "crippling" of these came in the aftermath of Napoleon's defeat in 1815. "At that time," writes Ozment, "a liberated Germany confronted old rulers determined to restore the political status quo ante, demanding 'the submission of civil society to the state and the surrender of the individual to the community.' Having been denied political participation all too long, the German bourgeoisie had scarce affinity with, and respect for, the old regime and joined Goethe in the flight to a cultural national identity (Kulturstaat)."
Lepenies discusses the paradoxical nature of this German society: "On the one hand, 'a community almost slavishly docile to constituted authority,' on the other, 'a community with a rich, critical, creative cultural life.' " He does not, however, according to Ozment, "search out the apolitical German to praise him, but rather to warn him away from a once and future folly. A people who discover their nation in national theater do not have their political destiny in their hands. The amateur Nazis became specialists in cultural-political extravaganzas, knowing well how to take aesthetic advantage of an apolitical post-World War I German citizenry."
Lepenies's true subjects, according to Ozment, are German intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries, and he analyzes Goethe, Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers. But he takes readers up to the present day with a harsh assessment of postwar Germans and their "memories" of World War II.