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The German Problem: An Exchange

In response to:

The German Leviathan from the January 25, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

I don’t mind if Professor Gilbert dislikes my book (The German Problem Reconsidered: Germany in the World System, 1870 to the Present). But I do object to the casualness with which he misrepresents its contents. His review [NYR, January 25] compared it with Gordon Craig’s Germany and found it “thin.” The comparison was rather silly as my book does not pretend to be a comprehensive, detailed account of modern German history. Instead, I wrote a series of essays about our present understanding of the meaning of that history. How do we now answer the obvious questions about Germany: Why was Germany at the center of the two world wars? How could so civilized a country have had a regime like the Nazis? What is the relevance of Germany’s past for present problems?

As the book makes clear, I am skeptical about many of the currently fashionable answers. These tend to depict modern Germany as a uniquely aggressive state, its external aggression rooted in an unusually illiberal domestic political system and culture. While such a view is hardly without some foundation, I think it has been overdone. Imperial German “aggressiveness” looks less singular when put in context with a Britain that annexed half the globe, a France that several times invaded the rest of Europe and acquired a huge overseas empire, or a Russia and United States that each relentlessly seized a continent. Similarly with Germany’s domestic political institutions and culture. Many of the domestic features supposed to “explain” Germany’s external behavior were not uncommon elsewhere. Much of postwar German historiography, with its eagerness to claim an unusual wickedness for its subject, seems therefore rather provincial.

The principal issue does not lie, as Gilbert seems to think, in a dated quarrel between “traditional” historians, who emphasize the personalities and choices of leaders, and “revisionists,” who emphasize broad social and economic forces. The issue is the degree to which German history can properly be studied in isolation from either the world system or the comparative development of other Western societies. Both “traditionalists” and “revisionists” suffer, in my view, from the same malady. They treat German history in isolation from its context.

I would hardly present my modest collection of essays as the last word on the meaning of Germany’s modern history. Instead, I wrote to suggest the inadequacy of prevailing theories and stereotypes, as well as the significance of this inadequacy for understanding the international system that is now evolving. Gilbert’s comments sidestep the whole international dimension while categorically dismissing my domestic view as “wrong in its presentation of the facts of the German political and social situation.” Apart from my not attempting any comprehensive “presentation of the facts,” in such vast and complex questions as whether a society is more or less “illiberal” than its neighbors, the “facts” and their interpretation seem sufficiently elusive to suggest the need for a certain open-minded humility. Reasonable men may differ and even occasionally learn something from each other.

In the rather more simple task of accurately stating my arguments and conclusions, Professor Gilbert flunks. His illustrations of my “errors” are either preposterous, irrelevant, or imaginary. Where I suggest, for example, that the Junkers were less influential in Imperial Germany than commonly supposed, he accuses me of naïvely assuming them to be without any influence at all. Even the most casual reading could not sustain so silly a view.

Where I observe that there are several kinds of anti-Semitism, not necessarily interchangeable or sequential, and not of equally pernicious political import, I am apparently accused of trying to diminish the importance of “this trend.” This is like accusing a researcher who notes that not all forms of cancer are the same, sequential, or equally fatal, of therefore being insensitive to the dangers of the disease.

Where I contrast the Imperial German and British capacity to organize large-scale modern industries, and note how the universal extent of primary education in German states contrasts particularly sharply with the lack of education for the lower classes in Britain, I am declared ignorant for not emphasizing the “class character” inherent in German universal education. But I was not arguing that Imperial Germany had a classless society, but that its educational system made it easier to organize its work force for large-scale advanced industry, a not insignificant aspect, after all, of “modernization.” In any event, was British education, or rather the lack of it, any less class-ridden? Does education anywhere lack class character?

Finally, in taking on what I believe to be a particularly inaccurate shibboleth, I note how Philosophical Idealism, so frequently blamed for Germany’s supposedly illiberal political culture, was hardly limited to Germany and was, furthermore, not inherently illiberal. Here Gilbert faults me for ascribing an “idealistic ingredient” to authoritarian conservatives, but not to liberals. But I was, of course, not talking about who among German parties was idealistic, but rather about the influence of a certain philosophical tradition—Idealism—upon German culture—an influence frequently claimed to have been malign. My defense of Idealism over libertarianism can certainly be contested, but my point can hardly be obscure to anyone familiar with the writing either of Bracher or Dahrendorf. Even for anyone who had never heard of these scholars, the connection is amply spelled out.

The kindest explanation for Professor Gilbert’s misinterpretations would be that he had not read the book very carefully. That is perhaps understandable. But after getting through Craig’s eight hundred pages, he might at least have been grateful.

None of this would be worth bothering about except for the seriousness of these questions for understanding the present. Postwar German historiography has inevitably been distorted by the traumatic events that preceded it. Rehabilitation of the country has been achieved not only by condemning the past, but also by dissociating from it. Particularly convenient to that process has been the picture of the Empire as an absolute state dominated by an obsolescent Junkerdom. Particularly inconvenient, by contrast, would be a picture showing a complex constitutional system reflecting a plural and dynamic society, a socio-political order in which an expansive, export-oriented industry was increasingly dominant. Most particularly unwelcome would be the notion that commercial power locked Imperial Germany into an almost inevitable conflict with its industrial rivals. Above all, it would be distressing to think that protectionism and imperialism, and the international breakdown they engendered, were the natural consequences not of Germany’s conservative predilections, but of the world’s entering a prolonged recession after a period of unparalleled growth.

Every age needs to reinterpret the past in order to make sense of the present. With German history, the process seems unduly delayed.

David P. Calleo

The Washington Center of

Foreign Policy Research

Washington, DC

Felix Gilbert replies:

I agree with Professor Calleo’s statement that I dislike his book; I do not agree with his view that I misrepresented its content.

Since my review of Professor Calleo’s book appeared more than six months ago, the reader of The New York Review of Books will hardly remember what I wrote about this book and I may be allowed to quote the sentences in which I characterized its main line of argument: “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.” This characterization is not much different from what Professor Calleo says in his letter about the intentions of his book.

Since I can hardly accuse Professor Calleo of having failed to read his own book very carefully, the kindest explanation of his letter is that he has forgotten what he wrote in his book. He complains that I misinterpret his views about the role of the Junker in Germany, but on page 129, at the end of a section in which he first stated that “the Junkers did not dominate policy in late Imperial Germany,” that “the Junkers could flourish only insofar as they reconciled themselves with the requirements of a rapidly modernizing society,” Professor Calleo concludes, “It was the imperialist aggressiveness and anxiety of the dominant bourgeois class that was responsible for the conflict with Britain and, increasingly, for the conflict with a rapidly industrializing Russia as well.” A reader who has read this paragraph can hardly assume that Professor Calleo regarded the Junkers as an important policy-making factor in the Wilhelmine Empire.

In my review I did not touch upon the other issues which Professor Calleo discusses in his letter: anti-Semitism, education, philosophical idealism. I mentioned Professor Calleo’s erroneous treatment of these issues briefly in a reply to a letter by Professor Hanrieder, who had felt the urge to come forth in Professor Calleo’s defense [NYR, April 19].

Professor Calleo distinguishes (pp. 144-145) three distinct categories of anti-Semitism—objective anti-Semitism, social anti-Semitism, and political anti-Semitism. Even if you accept this division it cannot mean that the different forms of anti-Semitism have equal strength and importance in various countries. In a country like Germany, in which Calleo’s three forms of anti-Semitism existed simultaneously, they certainly interacted with each other and reinforced the anti-Semitic tendencies and virulence in each of these groups. Professor Calleo is wrong, therefore, in saying that “social anti-Semitism was no worse in Imperial Germany than anywhere else in Europe”; moreover, the exclusion of Jews from the civil service and from the officers corps gave to German “social anti-Semitism” an official stamp (when Professor Calleo continues saying that Jews even reached high positions in Germany, he overlooks—like many American writers—the sharp distinction which German officialdom under William II made between baptized and non-baptized Jews. People with Jewish names who reached high positions were—with hardly any exception—baptized Jews).

In the case of education Professor Calleo again has conveniently forgotten what he wrote on page 71: “Indeed, many who stress the autocratic and conservative character of Imperial German policy do not weigh sufficiently the real progress toward social security and integration achieved by that regime—particularly in contrast with more “liberal” Britain. Public education, for example, was nearly universal in Germany, and had been so since the early nineteenth century.” Clearly Professor Calleo considers education as a socially integrating factor; not to mention that education in Germany was a class education is a blunder.

With regard to the role of philosophical idealism in Germany I simply find Bracher and Dahrendorf right and Professor Calleo wrong. I must object, however, to the statement in his letter that “philosophical idealism…was hardly limited to Germany.” This is correct only in an entirely superficial way. Certainly, there were some idealistic philosophers in England and France, but their influence was insignificant and cannot be compared to the importance which Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, Dilthey, and Windelband had for German intellectual life; the dominating figures in England and France—Bentham, Mill, Comte, Spencer, Taine, Durkheim, etc.—were not idealistic philosophers.

Even the reinterpretation which Calleo, the author of the letter, gives to Calleo, the author of the book, does not justify a reconsideration of the German problem along the lines which Calleo suggests. If anyone should look again at my review, he will notice that I praised some—not many, I admit—sections of Calleo’s book. I tried my best to be fair to what must be described as a misinformed and misinforming book.

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