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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 was to introduce an element of equivocation into Dehio’s work. As a good historian he knew that when powers embark on the quest for domination they may do so subconsciously, even somnambulistically. More than that, he knew that such powers have usually acted in this fashion in modern times. Since the seventeenth century, when it was first possible to draw a logical distinction between security and domination, it has been the hegemoniacal state which has found this distinction most difficult to appreciate and to preserve. As a good historian he knew, again, that, while it is permissible to analyze the history of international relations since the seventeenth century as a succession of bids by one power or another for domination, it is also necessary to remember that the world has steadily changed, that the standards widely applied to international behavior have, since the early nineteenth century, significantly improved, and that what historians may find easy to explain and to condone in Louis XIV or even Napoleon I is more difficult to excuse, if not to understand, in the conduct of twentieth-century Germany. Indeed because he knew these things, Dehio’s analysis constituted a formidable indictment of his own government’s policies, and he was violently attacked by many of his compatriots. On the other hand, because he himself could not suppress the urge to excuse his own people, he brought in those mitigating considerations which have been mentioned.

OTHERS HAVE BEEN DETERMINED wholly to discount those considerations, and the post-Dehio debate, thus greatly intensified, has for two reasons increasingly concentrated on the question of the origins of the First World War. It is unquestionable that at the outset of Germany’s career as a rogue power the Kaiser’s government was indecisive, somnambulistic, as Hitler’s, which brought that career to its disastrous close, never was. There is accordingly wide room for argument as to whether the Kaiser’s government really intended what it actually performed. It was with the plunge into war in 1914, in the second place, that Germany embarked upon the slippery slope which led to the creation of still greater disaster for herself and the world and from which it is difficult to see how, once upon it, she could have escaped. Both for those who seek to excuse her subsequent enormities and for those who denounce them it has accordingly become crucial to settle with some precision to what extent and with what motives—with how much or how little justification—she contributed to what was once called Armageddon. Professor Fritz Fischer, in Griff nach der Weltmacht, argues that the Kaiser’s government was not only primarily responsible for the out-break of war but even deliberately provoked it in the search for physical expansion. The argument of his critics in this increasingly specialized quarrel may be stated as follows: Germany undoubtedly precipitated general war by the steps she took, but far from wanting war, she was bewildered—she blundered—when she was taking them.

It is perhaps unnecessary in the light of what we have said already to add that, as well as having centered on highly detailed disagreements, the quarrel about the outbreak of the First World War has become even more bitter than were the earlier stages in the debate, which turned on more general issues. More to the point is the fact that it has become largely irrelevant to the clarification of the larger issues. For one thing, it has in no way shaken Dehio’s diagnosis. That the Kaiser’s government did not deliberately provoke war in 1914; that it did not merely blunder into war, on the other hand, with arrières pensées no different from those of the other powers; that it was primarily responsible for war because it was gambling; that it was gambling in 1914 because it had been indulging in what we now call “cold war” for nearly twenty years—these remain the conclusions which best accommodate all the evidence, including the additional evidence brought forth by this most recent quarrel. For another thing, whereas the prime need of the Germans, as of all of us, is not to seek excuses for this decline but to contemplate the fact that it occurred, the obsessional interest in unraveling the thoughts and motives which then underlay Germany’s conduct has remained geared to the wish to find excuses for her subsequent decline. Even Professor Fischer’s work is fundamentally concerned with shifting the responsibility from the inter-war generation onto that of its fathers.

It is in this context, for its effort to pull back to a sober level the controversies raging when he gave his lectures, that Professor Ernst’s book may be pronounced an important if an elementary book. There were no doubt utilitarian reasons why he adopted a simple approach, and why his lectures thus tell us little that we did not already know about German history since the 1900s. Ernst was addressing a mixed but a primarily undergraduate audience. He was not an expert in the intricacies of twentieth-century international history, so that he spoke only as a German who had lived through the experiences which most of his listeners had only heard of or read about. But the main ground for his insistence on being elementary was clearly his conviction that the debate was departing from its moorings. Thus he was content to say that, while no responsible German wanted war in 1914, German policy was nevertheless mainly responsible for the outbreak of war. And while mentioning that other nations have had chequered histories, he refused to do more than glance at the excesses of other peoples. Although he insisted that Germans must not gloss over the particular excesses which were committed in their name, he also warned against the opposite course of “wallowing in the humiliation of the mistakes of one’s own country” and “reveling in the baseness of one’s own fellow-countrymen.” “No more postmortems,” is what he felt, “but also no more excuses.” It is difficult to think that any other advice could be more sensible and salutary in all the circumstances.

PROFESSOR MERKL’S BOOK reinforces this opinion. A German refugee, he returned to Germany after an absence of seven years, and it may be said that he did so in order to see if he could write a book which would deliberately advance the debate; and he succeeds in doing this. He shares with Ernst the conviction that the Germans must master their “undigested past”; but he is able as a result of a combination of inside knowledge and outside experience to add to the analysis a dimension which Ernst could not provide. This is his recognition that since 1945 West German society has been in rapid transition to the normalcy which eluded Germany in the earlier phases of her modern history. He emphasizes how her increasing absorption by the technological and cultural integration which binds the advanced communities ever closer together has made this possible. At the same time he finds in Germany an accompanying tendency toward the comfortable mediocrity that unfortunately accompanies progress toward the industrial, social, and parliamentary forms of Western society.

He might have added that Germany’s defeat was a precondition of this transition, and that the process has accelerated as men have come to realize that neither West Germany nor even a reunited Germany (supposing that to be possible) is likely ever again to possess the preponderance in the international balance which Germany once enjoyed. He might have avoided the device of casting his analysis of the case in the form of imaginary conversations between imaginary characters, for while this is tedious to the reader, it adds nothing to our understanding of the problem. He adopts it because he thinks that the reasons for past German behavior are very complex, whereas, as indicated above, they are very simple. But to compensate for the weaknesses of the book on its historical and stylistic sides, Professor Merkl’s analysis of contemporary Western Germany is a work of conviction by a sound political scientist. Convincing too is his extension of Ernst’s plea in this conclusion:

“Digesting the past” means setting ghosts to rest and turning to the problems of the present and the future. The real test of Germany’s moral recovery is not how anti-this or anti-that the Germans turn out to be…. It is not even enough to ask how well Germans of today acknowledge their responsibility for the past; it is much more important to ask what they are going to do with their future.

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    Published by Norton, 142 pp, $1.35 (paper)