"Aesthetic experiences are always part of the history of the given subject"

Wilhelm Kühlmann is one of the Germanists who renewed German studies after the vivid intellectual life started by the student movements in 1968, which was threatened by National Socialism. He created the rethinking of the combination of forms and ideas in the interpretation of German literature, and during this work he also found time to pay attention to the relations in Hungary. ELTE thanked him for this decades-long work by presenting him with a certificate certifying the title of "Honorary Doctor and Professor of German Studies" on May 12, 2023. András Balogh, director of the Institute of Germanic Studies, talked to the professor about his life and academic career.

You grew up in modest circumstances, which were further aggravated by the war. What stayed with you in connection with this environment, what are your first important memories?

No one from my family went to university, my ancestors were miners, mine foremen and engine fitters. They respected good performance and knowledge but distanced themselves from wordy forms of showing themselves off. The smaller world of my childhood was not the bourgeois salon, but the workshops, kitchens and living rooms of hard-working people. When I was born in 1946 in Gelsenkirchen, i.e. in the Ruhr region, people with a clean past including my family got new opportunities. My father became a higher-ranking police officer instead of working at a mine. The entering British troops included him and many others in the new democratic structures, which for us meant moral satisfaction and a slow rise.

I must thank a very old elementary school teacher for a chance to study at the high school where they focused on humanities.

My mother was worried and asked him what she should do with a child with so much thirst for knowledge.
My main fields of interests, developed later, in the end literature and history prevailed. Another old teacher, a Baltic German man, gradually led me to recognize the complexity of the great turns of the German and European past. Of course, I had to work during my studies, I was a jackhammer and sandblaster during the holidays, but this experience significantly expanded my horizons and my political experience. In the late 1960s, I became a steadfast liberal-minded man in exciting and heated discussions in various circles, arguing against the attacks of bourgeois neo-Marxism with the experience I gained in the world of work.

Who influenced your scientific development? Does it come from a specific academic school or did you learn from several?

From the summer semester of 1965, I studied German studies, Latin and philosophy in Freiburg im Breisgau and for a short time in Hamburg. My wife Antonie and I got married at the same time as my state exam (1970). Three children were born from this marriage. Among the university professors who taught me, I would like to single out two Freiburg scientists who have determined the direction of my scientific development to this day: the Latin specialist Karl Büchner and the Germanist Wolfram Mauser. Büchner passed on the traditions as a teacher of classical philology, while in Professor Mauser's classes,

in the German Studies seminar intense theoretical debates took place and students were made to ask themselves the question what the essence of literature is.

Different scientific conclusions could be reached from the possible answers. After that, I did my doctorate with Karl Büchner on the comparative analysis of Virgil's Aeneid and the structure of the ancient epic (1973), then I became Mauser's assistant.

What is your scientific creed? Which achievements and works are you proud of?

From the time I became Wolfram Mauser's assistant, I saw my work as an attempt to connect hermeneutic philology with a form of literary history that should also hold its place as a subfield of social and cultural history. Although aesthetic experiences are always part of the history of the given subject, impulses act in this history and we overcome challenges that are not private in nature, but are embedded in society.

The description and interpretation of the texts leads to the question of "why" (why this way and not a different way),

and reinforces the requirement to examine the problem of the connection between the creation and reception of literary works in a given cultural space and social context.
In my habilitation thesis (Republic of Scholars and Princely State, Tübingen, 1982), I tried to present the epochal change of a central literary formation of the early modern period: the change in the humanistic scholarly culture in the horizon of courtly absolutism, bourgeois rationality and the new public stratification. After the habilitation, I focused on the literature of the Upper Rhine, Alsace and the old Kurpfalz, the period I researched reached from humanism to early romanticism, I produced countless monographs, text editions and studies.
After my habilitation and quitting being an assistant (1982), I was a substitute professor in Münster, Osnabrück and Braunschweig and finally received two offers in 1987, including one in Heidelberg and I chose that one. Here I continued to cultivate my main focus, also as a co-editor of journals and scientific series. It was supplemented by questions of continuity, competition and discontinuity in the early modern history of ideas and forms of knowledge in the field of tension between academic theory and theosophical speculation on nature, between religious orthodoxy and dissident manifestations of post-Reformation movements of piety.

A large-scale project funded by the DFG to document the natural philosophy of the German late Renaissance, especially the so-called Paracelsism, has been developed and published in the meantime. Naturally, I continued to elgage with the literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Biedermeier era or the historical novel, both in terms of education and publications. My endeavor to teach and research the entirety of German-language and Latin literature from the 16th to the 19th century has contributed to my being the editor of the Killy-Literaturlexikon, soon afterwards I was also able to work as co-editor of the author's lexicon of early modern era in Germany 1520-1620. I have been co-editor of almost 250 volumes of the scientific book series Early Modern Times since 1989.
I also worked as a literary critic for about ten years, including at the well-known national daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Before my retirement in 2014, I also carried out academic organization tasks: between 1995 and 1998 as dean, then from 2000 to 2004 as vice-dean. I gained important experience during my guest lectures in the United States and China.
I consider becoming one of the honorary doctors of ELTE to be a special honor and one of the highlights of my academic career.

What do you consider to be the high-water mark of your life and academic career?

The fact that during my time in Heidelberg I was able to do doctorates for around 35 students and habilitate around ten talented doctors still fills me with satisfaction today. This circle of "students", colleagues and friends later published excellent volumes for my sixtieth, sixty-fifth and seventieth birthdays. To this day, I am in charge of a workgroup for the preservation of early modern Latin literature, which has resulted in quite a few publications.

How did you discover Hungary for yourself?

I first discovered Hungary when I was about 10 years old with the help of my emerging stamp collection, which included the stamp released for the 1000th anniversary of the Battle of Lech.
Not long after, I followed the news that reached us about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 in the newspapers and on the radio. But I didn't get to travel to Hungary until much later, during a holiday in Styria I traveled with my family to Western Hungary and Pécs. It was here that the complex layers of Hungarian history became clear to me for the first time, especially the problem posed by the Turks, and I gained an insight into the problems of the historical Kingdom of Hungary and Transylvania.

I considered Hungary an ethnic and cultural "laboratory" of European conflicts, as well as of European cooperation.

The contact with Hungarian scientists, including my friendship and continuous cooperation with Professor Gábor Tüskés, strengthened my interest in the country again and again. It was a pleasure to give lectures in Budapest, Debrecen, Miskolc and Tokaj, and to participate in the publication of our jointly published books. The journeys connected to these took me to special memorial places, the significance of which, I still try to understand as much as possible through reading.