History shows that intellectual greatness needs an environment that supports university autonomy and cultural and academic diversity
Last year, on a train in central Europe, a German friend of ours fell into conversation with some earnest tourists. He was puzzled that they were labouring to learn Czech grammar. They were happy to explain: they wanted to read Kafka in the original. Our friend hesitated, then broke the news. Czech would be no help to them. Kafka's works were all written in German.
He doubts they believed him - which shows how far we have forgotten, as well as lost, the extraordinary civilisation of pre-war central Europe.
These countries produced great literature that captivated the world. They were the home of innovation in philosophy and economics. They dominated world science. And the language in which they did this was not Latin, French, or English, but German.
German universities defined "world class" from the 19th into the 20th century because German states and localities competed with each other to attract and support great research professors. Their American students took the modern idea of the research university home with them. Today, it is California, creating its university system under Clark Kerr, or Texas, pouring billions into its Austin campus, that evoke that lost Germany of scientific pre-eminence. Modern Europe's centralised systems do not.
Who, 100 years ago, would have guessed that the world's scientists would soon communicate only in English? If you visit Thomas Edison's laboratories in New Jersey, there, in his perfectly preserved office, are shelf upon shelf of German-language scientific journals. Today, US universities so dominate scientific research that the rest of the world is an also-ran. But in the period between the wars, the whole North American continent produced a small fraction of the Nobel prizewinners.most were European scientists.
Hitler, of course, destroyed central Europe's German-speaking culture, leaving much of its heartland imprisoned in the Soviet empire for almost 50 years. In doing so, he bestowed on America a generation of brilliant scholars who laid the foundations for its contemporary dominance. This, in turn, is why we now have a truly global academic language.
Here in Britain, we benefit enormously. We operate naturally in English. We are not forced to learn any foreign language well (and so really should have time, as children, to learn some other things a lot better than we do). And we attract fee-paying foreign students who want to study at our universities as much for the language they teach in as for the quality of their instruction. We should be very grateful to those 18th-century Brits who defeated the French in the seven years' war and secured North America for our native tongue.
But was it, in fact, inevitable that the language of that particular continent would conquer the world? Isn't it conceivable that German could have done so instead; or, at least, that we could have had a two-language world of science? The Roman Empire, after all, used both Latin and Greek for centuries - and it was Greek that was the language of culture.
Perhaps English would have triumphed in the end. But I don't think it was inevitable, and I certainly don't think it need have come so soon. For German to have remained the language of high culture and the scientific frontier would, though, have demanded a very different Germany, for the simple reason that so many of those who graced it were Jews.
Kafka was a German-speaking Jew: so, of course, was Einstein; and Karl Popper. Or take John von Neumann, one of the 20th century's great intellects, and a quintessential central European. He was born in Budapest, educated in Hungary, Germany and Switzerland. His first academic position was in Berlin before fascism drove him to the universities of the New World. And so it was there, not in Germany, that he made his enormous contributions to game theory, ballistics, hydrodynamics and the development of modern computing.
The Nazis destroyed German cultural and scientific pre-eminence in the course of destroying so many of the people who loved and created it. They rejected university autonomy and cultural and intellectual diversity. The Americans embraced them, and so today it is the ideas generated by their universities that fashion the world. I do not see anyone, now, dislodging English from its global position - but the whole world can and should learn the 20th century's lessons about what fosters intellectual greatness.
Alison Wolf is professor of education at the Institute of Education, London.