The Great Disturbing Element

The History of Germany Since 1789

by Golo Mann
Praeger, 547 pp., $10.00

Germany, 1789-1919, A Political History

by Agatha Ramm
Barnes & Noble, 517 pp., $13.50

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…

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