The German Leviathan

Germany 1866-1945

by Gordon A. Craig
Oxford University Press, 825 pp., $19.95

The German Problem Reconsidered: Germany and the World Order, 1870 to the Present

by David Calleo
Cambridge University Press, 239 pp., $11.95


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.

Germany became divided in two opposing camps; by drawing a sharp line between friends and foes the government on the one hand solidified the ruling group, but, on the other, it opened such a wide gulf between its adherents and opponents that a broadening of the basis of government and the adjustment to the social transformations of the new industrial society became impossible. The forces combined in the ruling bloc also gave a fateful direction to the foreign policy of the Reich. The protection by tariffs of German agriculture antagonized Russia; the government’s support for industrial expansion on the world market and for the navy building program, eagerly backed by German heavy industry, antagonized Great Britain. An arrogant and aggressive tone was infused in this foreign policy by the military leaders who formed an essential element in the ruling bloc, cementing its various parts.

Craig’s book is written in full awareness of this interpretation of the history of the Second Reich, and he takes account of the results of the researches of the revisionists. He places appropriate emphasis on the purges of all disloyal elements from the Prussian bureaucracy in the 1880s and he provides an excellent explanation why the German school system, though efficient in eliminating illiteracy, served as a brake upon social mobility and tended to freeze the existing social system by erecting an unpassable barrier between elementary and higher education. But for Craig the authoritarian and reactionary turn which was given to German policy in the 1870s and 1880s was a political decision set in motion perhaps by the economic situation, but not determined by it. His implication is that since this was a man-made decision it could also be reversed by man.

For Craig, moreover, the crucial factor in the history of Germany before the First World War was the inadequacy of its political leadership: first there was the disastrous combination of two emotionally insecure and superficial characters, William II and Bülow, and then the fatalism of Bülow’s successor Bethmann, “the quintessential Geheimrat” possessing “all the best and worst qualities of the Prussian bureaucracy.” The fate of the Weimar Republic was sealed by the shortsightedness of the social democratic leaders and the rigidity of Brüning; better men could have given events another turn.

Craig’s approach, insisting on the existence of choices and alternatives, instead of assuming that events followed a predetermined course, will probably now have a better reception than it would have had a few years ago. The revisionist wave appears to be receding, the pendulum is swinging back. The intensity with which the Bismarckian and the Wilhelminian periods have been studied has brought to light a number of issues which suggest that the situation was more “open” than the revisionist thesis allows, at least in its strict form. The spurt in industrial production after the ending of the Great Depression in the 1880s created differing interests among the industrial leaders. The increase in socialist votes and socialist participation in municipal administrations strengthened reformist attitudes which might have gradually induced the socialists to cooperate with other political forces. And the civil service, despite its innate conservatism, was enough aware of the precarious German situation in the middle of Europe to fear the grave consequences of an internal conflict. Accordingly personalities—or the inadequacies of personalities—may have been more significant than the thesis of an impenetrable authoritarian system developing its own irresistible dynamism would allow.

Nevertheless, if we don’t accept the thesis of the inevitability of the outcome, we may well wonder whether in concentrating on the political aspects of German history Craig does full justice to the impact of industrialization. Even to us, used to economic miracles, the rapidity and extent of German economic growth since the middle of the nineteenth century are astounding. The statistics are well known: on the increase in German coal, iron, and steel production; on the domination of the world market by German chemical products; on the doubling of the real industrial wages between 1871 and 1913, etc. These facts, of course, can be found in Craig’s book, but he does not fully convey the pressures which this development must have placed on those in power. There was a steadily growing labor force, officially at odds with the existing order. On the other hand, there were the industrialists, elated by their successes, enjoying social acclaim, and indefatigably pushing for further expansion in return for their support of the government.

Craig is probably right in assuming that choices existed, that better decisions could have been made, and that another direction could have been given to German political life. But I think it has also to be admitted that, in the situation which existed in Germany, such difficult decisions were almost beyond the grasp of the high civil servants who governed Germany. For an understanding of the lack of vision in the politics of imperial Germany, we must take into account the feelings of restlessness, ambitiousness, and instability which permeated the atmosphere. Craig himself gives a striking example of the transformation of this gnawing discontent into a hunger for expansion when he discusses the fatal attraction which the notion of “world power” and “world politics” exerted in Germany. It even seduced such courageous advocates of the need for democratization as Friedrich Naumann and Max Weber. In Weber’s view democratization would have the advantage of better equipping Germany to win in the struggle for world power. I would have wished for some indication in Craig’s book that the influence of economics on politics was exerted not only by single personalities, or reflected in particular actions, but also was subject to the dynamism which economic life had developed.

A similar tendency to avoid general statements about the relationship of politics to other parts of society can be noticed in Craig’s treatment of German intellectual life. I have mentioned the impressive extent of Craig’s knowledge of German literature; frequent and interesting quotations (with English translations added) provide insight into the political views and attitudes of various German literary figures. But whether or how the course of German intellectual life was related to the political and social history of the country is not fully examined. Craig makes the excellent and revealing remark that Bismarck “became not only the political symbol of the Reich but the culture hero as well.” But he does not emphasize enough that this identification of cultural values with political leadership implied a nationalistic vulgarization of intellectual and cultural life. In all European countries in the early twentieth century, the officially recognized and patronized art and literature degenerated into pompous imitation of misunderstood patterns of the past—with sentimental and patriotic trimmings—and provoked in reaction a consciously aristocratic and esoteric cult of severe, uncompromising classical standards or a complete rejection of representative or realistic art.

In Germany these tendencies were particularly pronounced. No other country surpassed the art of Wilhelminian Germany in empty monumentality, nor was the elitist contempt for the taste and artistic understanding of the average man anywhere else as haughtily displayed as in the circle of the poet Stefan George; nor was the renunciation of communication by realistic representation or ordinary language as thoroughly rejected as by the German expressionists in the years before the First World War. It is the radicalism of these attitudes and the sharpness of the contrasts between them that one would have liked to see discussed, and if possible explained. Were they caused by the tensions and the instability of life in the German empire? Were those who patronized antiofficial literature and art asserting a spirit of freedom that was otherwise suppressed? Did the monopoly of political power and control by a small, authoritarian ruling group call forth intellectual and artistic extremism and radicalism?

This may be the place to express my unhappiness about one brief passage in Craig’s book. He condemns with unusual acerbity Kurt Tucholsky and the German left-wing intellectuals of the Weimar Republic because, instead of defending the republic, they harped on its deficiencies, because of “their continual variations on the theme of the degeneracy of the society in which they were living.” In such attitudes, however, there was more traditional German intellectual extremism than Craig acknowledges; and I think we ought to appreciate that the emphasis on pure republican virtues had its value in a political society which was forced to so many compromises that, long before Bruning and Hitler, Germany was in danger of falling back into the old authoritarian groove. Craig quotes Nietzsche’s famous warning that it would be fatal if the German military victory over France resulted in the erroneous belief that “German culture was winning a victory in that conflict.” Nietzsche’s warning seems a good leitmotif for any treatment of German cultural history. But if this was Craig’s leitmotif it is barely audible.

Craig ends his book by stating that because Hitler’s “work of demolition was so complete, he left the German people nothing that could be repaired or built upon. They had to begin all over again….” I am well aware that historians like to end their books with the announcement of a new beginning, but even if we deduct the amount of exaggeration inherent in any peroration, Craig’s statement goes too far. Neither in economics, nor in educational institutions, nor in political structure was Germany a tabula rasa. David Calleo’s The German Problem Reconsidered, a book on Germany published almost simultaneously with Craig’s, takes the opposite line. The author believes that German traditional attitudes, especially in the field of foreign affairs, might still be of importance in the future; nor does he regard this prospect with foreboding. The author believes that the Germans have received undeserved blame; their foreign policy was determined by Germany’s precarious geographical situation in the middle of Europe rather than by aggressive tendencies of their ruling group. But Calleo asserts not only that the Germans are not worse than other European peoples; the reader gets the impression that he thinks that they are better than others.

Calleo’s book contains a useful, brief account of the origin of the revisionist thesis in the writings of Joseph Schumpeter and Eckart Kehr, and presents the most important statistical facts about Germany’s industrialization in a convenient form. But next to Craig’s masterly and rich historical study, Calleo’s book is thin in every respect. The level of argument by which Calleo defends the Germans against their critics is superficial. For instance, Calleo states that “the Junkers did not dominate policy in late imperial Germany.” And from this he draws the conclusion that German policy was determined by the same bourgeois values as the policy of all other European nations. But certainly the fact that the Junkers were not the only policy makers in Germany does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that their particular attitude—let us say, their “militaristic outlook”—had no influence on German policy. There is not much substance in this and the other arguments of this book.

Nevertheless, the difference between Craig’s and Calleo’s views about the importance of traditions in present-day Germany—Craig assuming their extinction, Calleo their survival—is significant. It shows the two extreme positions that can be taken in a discussion about the relation between Europe today and the Europe before World War II. I submit that a satisfactory discussion of this problem must start by recognizing one fundamental change: the emergence of new world powers and new economic forces has widened the distance between the spheres of foreign policy and of domestic policy. European governments have much less power over foreign policy than over domestic policy. Admittedly the bonds which tied foreign policy and domestic policy together have not entirely snapped; but the lines which connected them have loosened and lengthened.

Future historians will no longer be able to write national histories of single European nations or, if they do so, this genre of history will take a very different shape. For national history as it was conceived in the nineteenth century had as its focal point a power center which, for better or for worse, determined the course of a European nation both in its domestic and foreign affairs. Craig’s Germany comes out of this great and authentic tradition of European historiography.


The German Problem: An Exchange November 8, 1979

The German Problem April 19, 1979