The German Problem Reconsidered: Germany and the World Order, 1870 to the Present
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.