The German Problem Reconsidered: Germany and the World Order, 1870 to the Present
I am surely not the only person who from time to time is unpleasantly reminded of the gap between his proclaimed convictions and his actual behavior. I frequently say that I am fascinated only by those historical writings which, by applying new methods or focusing on previously neglected aspects of the life of the past, add a new dimension to our understanding of history. Actually, however, I have difficulty putting down a work of historical scholarship that is a well-written narrative along traditional lines. Gordon Craig’s book on Germany made me again aware of this weakness. I was entranced; despite its length, it seemed too short.
Its most obvious virtue is its style. At the beginning of the second chapter, for example, which outlines the institutional structure of the Reich, Craig writes that among the many good-will messages which were sent to the German government upon the foundation of the Reich was one from President Ulysses S. Grant, who congratulated the German government in the name of the American people for having
completed the long-desired unification of its territory and for its decision to embark on its new career as a federal union like the United States itself, a decision, the President indicated none too delicately, that showed a desire for speedy progress towards the blessings of democracy.
This engaging exercise in self-satisfaction must have amused its recipient, Prince Bismarck, and he subsequently made a point of assuring American visitors gravely that he had been much influenced by the United States constitution when making his own plans for Germany. It is quite possible that he had gone so far as to read that document, but it would be difficult to demonstrate that he borrowed anything from it. The similarities that President Grant found between the two constitutions were as superficial as his prophecy concerning Germany’s future political course was erroneous.
With these few sentences we find ourselves in the midst of the crucial German constitutional issue, the problem of maintaining an authoritarian regime in a world moving toward democracy.
This is not an exceptionally sparkling passage; but it is an example in both senses of the word. Here, as throughout the book, Craig’s prose is clear and precise, brought to life with an adjective describing or evoking a human reaction, which frequently adds the slight ironic twist that reduces a single event to its correct proportion within a wider setting. Craig describes the extraordinary history of the seventy-five years from the founding of the Bismarckian empire to the collapse of the Third Reich in a steadily interesting narrative, explaining the decisive events on which subsequent history depended, and interrupting his account with brief evaluations. For instance, in a short chapter on Bismarck’s foreign policy in the last years of his chancellorship Craig reveals the simple principles underlying the complexity of Bismarck’s alliance system, whereas an equally succinct chapter on Germany’s foreign policy after Bismarck shows how the lack of firm principles led to “Meddle and Muddle.”
Craig is well known as a diplomatic and military historian but he is no less competent to discuss German internal developments. To take one example, the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878 are usually treated in their relation to the growth of the Social Democratic Party; Craig demonstrates the poisonous effect the laws had on the entire German political atmosphere by showing how the German courts, the police, and several German states—by declaring local states of siege—actually used the powers the laws had given them.
Craig’s characters are drawn with verve. His portrait of William II takes its cue from that of the Kaiser in the third volume of Bismarck’s memoirs and Craig compares William II with his Hohenzollern forebears as Bismarck did, although Craig’s portrait lacks the varnish of the courtier with which Bismarck concealed his contempt for the Kaiser. In showing that William’s lack of discipline and inclination to theatricality led him to chase after prestigious successes rather than pursue a consistent, aggressive strategy Craig is both devastating and fair. It is impossible not to write amusingly about the chancellor whom William II regarded as his own Bismarck, the egregious Bernhard von Bülow, but Craig also shows the dangerous side of Bülow’s “unabashed pandering to the Emperor’s worst qualities”; such servility became a precondition for attainment of high office.
In my opinion, the outstanding portrait in Craig’s book is that of Heinrich Brüning after he was appointed chancellor in 1930. It has never been comprehensible to me why Brüning has enjoyed such an enviable reputation, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries; it is a relief to have Craig fairly but also convincingly state that, although Brüning had undeniable gifts, “it may be doubted whether they were quite the ones needed in the situation that confronted him.” He was “a man who thought in terms of measures rather than of people, and he overvalued the power of reason and logic.” Briefly, he lacked “the psychological gifts that politicians need if they want to be successful.”
Craig’s knowledge of German poetry, drama, and fiction seems greater than that of many professional historians of German literature. He seems to have true feeling for this literature, not merely a useful interest in it. This enables him to trace with a few strokes the popular attitudes to the events of his story. Perhaps one has to have lived through the German inflation of 1923 to feel the full impact of the following quotation:
Wir versaufen unser Oma ihr klein Häuschen, und die erste und die zweite Hypothek.
We are drinking up grandma’s little
and the first and second mortgage.
This was the most popular song of the period and it evokes the mixture of fear and freedom, of love for shabby glitter and longing for true values which characterized these crazy years. Craig’s criticism of the false profundity and rhetorical emptiness of the right-wing intellectuals of the Weimar years—Möller van den Bruck, Spengler, Jünger, and Zehrer—is salutary because both in Germany and outside Germany they have always found defenders who want to show off their superior knowledge of Germans and Germany by making much of figures outside the mainstream.
Obviously nobody will agree with all the statements made in a book of over 750 pages. Usually Craig is succinct, but it seemed to me that in his description of the conflicts between the German civilian and military leaders during the First World War he is led into excessive detail by his enthusiasm for military history. The intricate stories of these conflicts—over submarine warfare, Poland, peace negotiations—are hardly any longer of much relevance and the main point worth making about them is that the civilians, overawed by the military’s prestige in Germany, always gave in.
Where I also disagree with Craig is in his characterization of Hitler. Craig stresses, quite correctly, Hitler’s uniqueness:
The similarities of thought and action that have been adduced to prove Hitler’s kinship with other German statesmen or to demonstrate the native roots of his political behavior are too trivial to be persuasive. Adolf Hitler was sui generis, a force without a real historical past, whose very Germanness was spurious because never truly felt.
Craig then continues: Hitler’s “uniqueness had another aspect. Among all of the prominent figures of the Weimar period, he is the only one of whom it can be said unequivocally that he possessed political genius.” I don’t quite know what political genius means when this notion is applied to a politician whose career ended in catastrophic failure and who has left nothing of permanence behind him. But my quarrel may be only a semantic one. My main objection to Craig’s characterization of Hitler concerns what he considers to be the essential element of his genius—“his remarkable intuitive powers,” which enabled him to sense the moods, the fears and longings of the masses. The Hitler regime was a police regime and Craig himself mentions that the police reported in extraordinary detail about the mood of the people, about any sign of discontent, and if the police noticed disaffection, they investigated what measures might have caused it. To assure themselves of continued popular support was a steady and important worry of the Nazi leaders, and this insecurity was one of the motives that forced Hitler never to be satisfied with what he had but to chase from adventure to adventure.
Nobody, of course, will deny Hitler’s or the Nazis’ inventiveness in techniques of propaganda and control of the masses. They developed new methods for arousing mass enthusiasm through mass meetings and speeches which emphasized simple, easily understandable “injustices”; and they exploited the possibilities for shaping the lives of individuals by the organization of leisure time and the direction of art and public opinion. But the signals were given from above; they did not come from below. And we understand Hitler and the Nazis best if we consider them as the discoverers of the new means of control placed in our hands by modern technology, and as the most radical and ruthless practitioners of these new discoveries—and if we keep away as far as possible from “demonizing” the Führer.
These objections pose debatable issues, however, and Craig’s book certainly stands out from most of the literature on modern Germany as the best-informed and most reliable guide through the labyrinth of recent German history—and it is superbly readable.
Perhaps this review could end with the preceding sentence. But at the outset of his book Craig writes that he fears his work might be regarded as “old-fashioned.” This statement clearly raises questions that require further discussion. To what extent does Craig’s book depart from recent historiographical trends? Craig himself says the chief difference is the great importance which he ascribes to personalities; many younger historians no longer give such weight to the influence of individual leaders.
Craig’s belief in the importance of personal factors implies a rejection of the views of German revisionist historians that beginning in the 1870s a combination of economic and political factors set German policy on a course from which it could not deviate; the unavoidable outcome was the descent into the catastrophe of 1914. The determining factor in this new interpretation of German history during the empire was economic: since Germany was late in joining the competition among industrial states, its industrial development was consequently rapid and overheated. German industry and agriculture tended to rely on government support, and their need to do so became particularly great and urgent in the 1870s when the so-called Great Depression began to set in. The economic slump gave Bismarck and the government opportunity to reduce the influence of the liberals and to strengthen and stabilize the authoritarian character of the regime. In recognition of the advantages gained by the government’s introduction of protective tariffs the leaders of agriculture and industry were expected to rally to the regime and to cooperate with it in keeping the various forces of opposition—liberals, democrats, socialists—out of power and under control.