Germany, wrote Henry Adams in 1901, is “the great disturbing element in the world.” He likened it to a great “powder magazine” which “sooner or later” must explode, and went on to predict that there would be no equilibrium, either political or economic, until its “explosive force” had been exhausted. Adams’s assessment picks out unerringly what, for the historian looking back in retrospect, is the central fact of German history between 1865 and 1945. Of the three great revolutions experienced by Europeans between 1789 and 1945, the French and Russian were constructive revolutions, in the sense that they opened the way for new societies. The distinctive feature about the German revolution was its violent, almost deliberate, destructiveness. It is surely remarkable that this orgy of destruction was predicted with uncanny foresight by the poet Heine, way back in 1832, before the first of the railways which dragged Germany from economic stagnation had begun to operate, and while the cities of the ramshackle Germanic Confederation slumbered beneath their huddled roofs and spires.

Heine’s prophetic vision of 1832 and Adams’s somber assessment of 1901 are the milestones between which every historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany must somehow find his way. But how? How are we to account for the fact that Heine’s prophecy, implausible as it seemed at the time, literally became true, that “Thor with his giant hammer” really did “leap up at last and shatter the Gothic cathedrals”? By following Erich Eyck who laid the burden of guilt on Bismarck and tried to show how he “perverted” what might otherwise have been a “normal” development? By invoking the momentum of the delayed industrial revolution, the sudden concentration of power it unleashed? By scrutinizing the constitution of 1871 and the obstacles it placed in the way of democratic parliamentary control?

THESE are the traditional lines of approach, and nowhere have they been pursued with greater learning and impartiality than in Miss Ramm’s new book. It deserves to be, and probably will become, a standard textbook for university classes. Certainly it answers fairly and accurately all the questions—the limits of Stein’s reforms, the significance of the Zollverein, the ins and outs of Bismarck’s diplomacy, and the like—which figure so large in academic discussion. Yet, just because it does its job so well, I am reinforced in my conviction—having read more political histories than I like to think—that this sort of frontal attack leaves the peculiar qualities of German history unexplained. No one would deny that economic and political developments played their part. The fundamental question, however, is why Germans reacted to these developments—for example, to Bismarck’s internal and external policies—in the way they did; and this can only be discovered by probing deeper.

Golo Mann does this—and does it with incomparable grace and imagination. It is only necessary to compare the pages he devotes to Heine with Miss Ramm’s passing reference to see where the difference lies. Unlike the run of academic historians, Mann knows that the key to the German situation can be found only by going beyond the limits of empirical thinking and factuality into the fastnesses of the German soul. That is why he has so much to say about German poets and novelists; for it is here, in its literature, that German society’s awareness of its beliefs and practices is most explicitly reflected.

This does not mean that Mann is one of those—there have been far too many since 1939—who embark on an erratic chase through German history, searching the pages of Herder and Fichte and the wordy proponents of Volk mythology for delusions and aberrations, which they mount and label in neat rows like butterflies. Here, they insinuate, forgetting that another entomologist could find equally strange specimens in another field (let us say, in California), is the corpus delicti, here are the “roots” of National Socialism! But the weakness of this argument, like the attempt to find the explanation in Bismarck’s wars or in economic conditions, is that it is based, as Peter Stern has pointed out, “upon an aprioristic concept of causality whose actual working is shrouded in mystery.” Nothing, no doubt, happens out of the blue; but Golo Mann is surely right in warning us against the facile view that “the future is determined by the past.” This is historicism run riot. Even after the reign of William II, so often treated as though its only importance was as a stage on the road to Hitler, “something altogether different might have happened.”

THE ESSENTIAL FEATURE of German history after 1815, it has often been said, was “the spiritual dissension between Germany and Europe,” the revolt of the German soul against the values of the Enlightenment. This is true enough, but it is not the whole truth. If we, looking back, see only the growing divergence, contemporaries were often more impressed by the growing convergence. One of the points made in the collection of essays, Britain and Germany in Africa, is that the Germans were welcomed as an “ally and partner” (the words are Mr. Gladstone’s) in the imperial mission. In the minds of Rhodes and his associates, with their concept of a great “Anglo-Saxon fraternity” to which the Germans belonged, England and Germany were two highly civilized nations which were to provide for the less civilized and less capable peoples of Africa. This acceptance of Germany was, of course, the result of the widespread belief, after 1870, that the new Reich, with its liberal constitution and its burgeoning industrial middle class, had fallen into line with the liberal democracies of the West. Only after 1914, in the heat of war and wartime propaganda, did the idea take hold that the Germans were unfit to be “entrusted with the sacred task of civilizing other nations.”


Nevertheless a closer examination reveals fundamental differences between German and British imperial attitudes. Whatever the truth of Wilson’s denunciations of German colonial atrocities, it was the German General Staff itself which proclaimed a “colonial policy based on the sword.” The essential difference is perhaps best expressed by John D. Fage. “The main British preoccupation” was “how best to administer the colonies…with the minimum of expense and involvement”; for the Germans it was “how best to realize” their “economic potential,” and it is suggested that the German preoccupation with crude “exploitation” was due to the peculiar character of German imperialism “as the expression of the nation’s rising power.” It was, in other words, a reflection of differences between Germany and the West, which made themselves felt as soon as the Germans entered the imperialist race.

In a recent book the German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf has suggested that the essential question about German history since 1789 is why so few Germans “embraced the principle of liberal democracy.” This view is questionable. Even in the case of Nazism, as George Lichtheim once pointed out in these pages, what foreigners found repulsive was not its deviation from Western political practices—which many, in fact, accepted—but its “sheer, indescribable swinishness.” Democracy in its French or English or American form is no more necessarily appropriate to Germany than it is to Vietnam or the Congo; the Rechtsstaat ideallized by German conservatives, though it may not have been the last word in political wisdom, offered ample scope and opportunity. It is not, in other words, the uniqueness of German political institutions that matters, but the kind of uniqueness; and this is the consequence of something far more fundamental than the rejection of “liberal democracy.” It is the consequence of a rejection of what the West calls “civilization,” of the abandonment of faith in Reason and the glorification of power. As Fritz Fischer has put it: “In the western view, man sins by the abuse of power; in the German view, man sins by revolting against power.”

These differences were already there when the nineteenth century began. Even during the twelfth century, when dialectical reasoning was enjoying its first triumphs in Paris, Germans took refuge in the mysticism of Hildegard of Bingen and Otto of Freising. The divergence from the West cuts deep into German history; the tendency to escape from reality into abstraction, to seek in the realm of the spirit what is missing in everyday life, has a long ancestry. But Golo Mann and Miss Ramm are right in picking out the French Revolution as decisive. It was in the reaction against the French Revolution that the three dominant features of German ideology took shape: the displacement of Cartesian rationality by idealist metaphysics, a new emphasis, born of romanticism, on the uniqueness of German culture and its superiority, and the conception of the Volk as a substitute for the non-existent German state. This specifically German ideology was in existence by 1840—well before the first upsurge of German industry after 1852, which (rather than Bismarck’s wars) was the real foundation of German unity—and the only question was whether it would dominate or be submerged by the new society which arose so rapidly after 1871. In fact, it dominated—with results we all know. Hitler may not have been a consummation of German history, nor National Socialism a predestined outcome; but certainly neither was simply an aberration.

WE MUST BE very careful, therefore, before we speak of the dichotomy between the Germany of Kant and Goethe and Beethoven—the “good” Germany—and the Germany of Bismarck, Ludendorff, and Hitler—the Germany of the mailed fist—and explain the German “tragedy” as the defeat of the former by the latter. This view, still popular with apologists, is simplistic. The problem is not that Germans ignored their philosophers, but that they took their philosophers too literally. It is precisely here that Heine’s insight, in his prophecy of 1832, is so uncanny. The reason why the German revolution, when it came, would be more terrible and more destructive than any other, he said, was that the Germans had been taught by Kant and Fichte and others to “live in the spirit and defy the material world.” For them the world was not the inescapable framework of human action, but a malleable protoplasmic mass waiting to be kneaded and shaped to German specifications: therefore they would treat it “without piety”—and, if necessary, without pity either.


The peculiar character of German philosophy, as it took shape after the French Revolution, also determined the attitude of generations of Germans toward politics. Goethe himself had not been “very interested.” For Hegel politics were an unfortunate but unavoidable obstacle to the self-realization of the spirit, for Schopenhauer the destructive wrestling of the impure will with itself. Only through philosophy, Schopenhauer taught, does the will realize how impure and unenlightened it is, and then—in Golo Mann’s words—“it turns away from itself and the whole world.” In some of his most arresting pages Mann comments on the effects of this attitude:

The intellectual was impotent in spite of his achievements. He lived apart from the state and was happy with this situation. To him it seemed more important to serve beauty and truth, to explore the beginnings of man’s history and the secrets of the soul, than to worry about crises in Morocco or Reichstag elections.

Of course, there were exceptions, men “who wanted to produce change” and “criticized society in the style of the French,” like Golo Mann’s uncle, Heinrich, in his satirical novels about the Wilhelminian age. But they “were regarded as alien in Germany.” It was Golo Mann’s father, Thomas, rather than his uncle, Heinrich, who emerged as the representative writer of the Stresemann years, and the sensitive pages in which Golo discusses his father and his works—particularly The Magic Mountain, “a stage on which everything was discussed and nothing decided”—are among the most memorable in this book. Thomas Mann’s Reflections of an Unpolitical Person—his justification of the war of 1914 as a defense of German “culture” against the politically minded democratized civilization of the West—is the epitome of a German attitude which reaches back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was, says Golo Mann, a “noble, highly intelligent, honest muddle.” It was also a good deal more. If Thomas Mann could write that “the German soul is too deep for civilization,” anything—even the impossible—was possible. Fifteen years later the impossible occurred, and “the daemonic powers of the old Germanic pantheism” (as Heine called them) broke loose.

WE CAN SEE today that National Socialism was the German revolution predicted by Heine almost exactly a century earlier. Like the French and Russian revolutions, it was not merely an internal, or national, but a world event. It destroyed forever the pre-eminence of Europe and ushered in a new age of global politics; it was not merely what Meinecke called “the German catastrophe,” but a European catastrophe. But it also destroyed the German past, as embodied in imperial Germany. “Hitler’s social revolution,” was a reality; it pushed German society (in Dahrendorf’s words) “to the point…that made modernity and liberalism a real possibility.” Miss Ramm, at the end of her book, points to a change of emphasis, already visible in the decade before 1914, from war and external power to social policy, wages and housing. But this shift, she rightly adds, “could not actually happen until imperialism had failed”; and German imperialism, Wolfe Schmokel pertinently remarks, in his essay in Britain and Germany in Africa, died a “hard death.” When it finally expired on the battlefield of Stalingrad in 1943, it left a void in the heart of Europe which the two German republics—the Democratic and the Federal—are doing their best to fill.

OLD GERMANY is dead. It does not matter greatly whether we attribute its death, with Dahrendorf, to Hitler, or, with Golo Mann, to developments since 1945. Certainly we can agree with Mann that the fourteen years of Adenauer’s chancellorship, from 1949 to 1963, were a time “during which German society changed more profoundly than in the whole preceding century.” In spite of the strength of “restorative forces” in the West, the old social structure simply could not be restored. Paradoxically enough, as Golo Mann observes, it is only in the D.D.R. that “a little of the charm” of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany can still be found—and also of the “public spirit” on which Germans once prided themselves. In the West, you have “a bourgeois society, completely freed from the old hierarchy,” philistine, skeptical, materialistic, its scale of values measured by business success and its politics rivaling those of Switzerland in complacent mediocrity. The volcano has burnt out, the “expansive forces” which Henry Adams viewed with such alarm are exhausted.

Or are they? It is not necessary to raise the bogey of von. Thadden and his neo-Nazis to ask this question. The structure of German society may have changed irrevocably; that does not mean, as Golo Mann warns, that “its basic character” has changed also. No doubt the traditional German “virtues” (or vices, as you choose to look at them), once regarded as unchangeable properties of the German character—discipline, orderliness, cleanliness, industriousness—have gone. But, as Dahrendorf says, the things that concern Germans are still “not social but national.” Whereas in the United States the main subject of public debate and discussion is civil rights, in Germany it is such things as the Oder-Neisse frontier, the status of the “socalled” D.D.R., or Germany’s position in the world.

German interest, in short, is concentrated not on its own domestic problems but on the power structure of world politics and its significance for Germany. The shift of emphasis discerned by Miss Ramm is still not complete; and that means that the German problem is not solved. But the world in which Germans live today is very different from that of Hitler’s day. Eastern Europe is no longer what it was when Hitler invaded it in 1939. The whole world is no longer the same. And Germany’s potentialities are therefore not the same. In a world in which the great issues are the conflict of races, the pressures of population, and the threat of underdevelopment, the dimensions of the German question have shrunk; and Germans themselves are increasingly aware that they have more to gain by accepting the status quo—a divided but prosperous Germany anchored on one side to the Common Market and, on the other, to the economy of the Soviet bloc—than by seeking to reverse the consequences of Hitler’s folly.

This Issue

October 24, 1968