A Sense of the Past

Germany, Yesterday and Tomorrow

by Peter H. Merkl
Oxford, 366 pp., $7.50

The Germans and their Modern History

by Fritz Ernst, translated by Charles M. Prugh
Columbia, 164 pp., $4.50

Fritz Ernst delivered these lectures in 1961-2 at the University of Heidelberg, where from 1937 until his death in 1963, except for a spell in the army in the first half of the Second World War, he was Professor of Medieval and Modern History. His object was to convince his audience that if they wish to continue as a nation the Germans “must come if not to a uniform, at least to a prevailing interpretation of their history”—particularly of their history since the beginning of this century—by honestly confronting and discussing it. The book is thus part of the swelling but still confused debate among Germans over an issue which they cannot avoid.

Ernst was aware of the delicacy and magnitude of his task if only because some of his compatriots had previously contributed to this debate and had aroused bitter recrimination, particularly Ludwig Dehio, whose work has appeared in English under the titles Precarious Balance and Germany and World Politics in the Twentieth Century. Furthermore, Ernst clearly understood why the task was so difficult and the controversy so venomous. For so long as national unity remains a political requirement—and patriotism, not to say nationalist sentiment, is clearly a powerful ingredient in national unity—people will naturally resist the attempt to remind them that they have indulged in behavior of which they must be ashamed. As Ernst clearly recognized, some men, no less anxious than the critics of the past to preserve their national self-respect, will assert that other nations were no less responsible than their own for the circumstances in which their own collapsed. And others will at least imply that, even if their own nation’s standards did become debased, yet in similar circumstances any other nation’s standards would probably have undergone an equally catastrophic decline.

IT IS ALL TOO EASY for outsiders who are only spectators of the German debate to overlook the relevance of these truisms, and especially the immense appeal of these defensive positions. To appreciate Ernst’s book, we should remember that not even those Germans who have advocated a frank reappraisal of the recent course of German history have always resisted this appeal. Ludwig Dehio showed himself to be a brave man when he launched this debate as early as 1948. When he demonstrated that the German catastrophe is explained by the fact that since about the beginning of this century Germany went on the rampage—became what he called a “hegemoniacal power”—he revealed that he was an objective and a shrewd historian. But not even he could exclude from his analysis the argument that history had known earlier hegemoniacal powers whose unpleasant behavior formed the historian’s model for an understanding of the Germany of our times; nor could he exclude the suggestion that Germany might have been forced upon this disastrous course by the lack of understanding shown by other powers during the years which culminated in the outbreak of the First World War.

The result …

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