At the end of his impressive biography of Bismarck, which was first published in Germany in 1980, Lothar Gall notes that it was during the period in which the chancellor dominated the political scene that Germany acquired its historical identity. This, he makes clear, has had unfortunate results:
The nation’s self-awareness still seems to be determined by the external configuration of the Reich as founded in 1871. Modes of behaviour, institutions, the way in which parties and groups see themselves and the terms in which social relations of all kinds are conceived still seem to be largely influenced by the traditions of Bismarck’s Reich, albeit in various refractions. Academic history is still focused primarily upon this period—even, in many instances today, in a peculiarly impassioned manner. Despite its often vigorous attempts at detachment, it is only rarely able, after a prolonged struggle, to bring itself to declare the period historically closed.
A striking illustration of this was seen after the Berlin Wall came down on November 9 of last year. When Helmut Kohl issued his now famous Ten-Point Program, the term that he used for his ultimate goal was the “reunification” of Germany, which all too plainly evoked the memory of 1871. In a notable article in Der Spiegel, Günter Grass immediately objected to the use of this term, arguing that it implied a return to attitudes and ambitions that could not be tolerated in a Germany that had just witnessed the first peaceful and successful democratic revolution in its history. That this had much effect upon people who still regard Bismarck as, next to Luther, Germany’s greatest man is doubtful. The authors of the books under review here would, however, be largely in agreement with Grass.
James J. Sheehan begins his important contribution to the Oxford History of Modern Europe by defining, as the essential character of the German past and the German present, its “diversity and discontinuity, richness and fragmentation, fecundity and fluidity.” Historically, he points out, what we call Germany is neither a fixed entity nor a state nor a clearly designated landscape. It has had many shapes and many histories,
histories that led Germans toward and away from one another, at once encouraging them to act together and making such common action virtually impossible.
This explains why German intellectuals are so constantly preoccupied with the national identity, which they never seem to be able to define to their own satisfaction, why German poets either bemoan the physical and moral fragmentation of their country, as Hölderlin did in his novel Hyperion, or make legends out of such rare demonstrations of unity as “the days of 1914,” and why German historians wrangle so interminably over the continuities and discontinuities in their past and present.
For the non-German chronicler this presents a formidable challenge, but Sheehan has risen to it successfully, in a book that will certainly become the standard account of German history from the end of the eighteenth century, when the only bond between the German states, aside from language, was the Holy Roman Empire, until the Prussian victory over Austria at Königgrätz in 1866, which opened the way to the political unification of all non-Austrian Germany five years later. Its distinctive features are the even-handedness of its political chapters, where Sheehan tells us a great deal about the lesser states, which is not usual in a general history, and studiously avoids following the tradition, set by Heinrich von Treitschke, of seeing everything from the Prussian perspective. The book is also notable for the attention it gives to the changing nature of the social order, to classes and elites, and to economic growth and its effects, and, finally, the emphasis on the German mind and the emergence of what Sheehan calls a literary culture. There are perceptive treatments of such standard subjects as the German enlightenment, or Aufklärung, the romantic movement, and the first stirrings of nationalism. The sections devoted to the nineteenth century have splendid chapters on the cultural establishment and its critics, the growth of participatory politics, and the fashions, manners, and values of bürgerliche culture.
At the end of the eighteenth century, where Sheehan begins his story, the political disunity of the German states seemed part of the natural order, sanctioned by the Westphalia settlement of 1648, which equated “German liberties” with territorial atomization, and supported by the self-absorption of the princes and the political inertness of the mass of the people. In 1793, when some German governments began to fear that the revolution in France might inspire imitation in Germany, Adolf Freiherr von Knigge, author of a famous treatise on manners and social conduct but also an astute political observer, wrote an article to explain why these concerns were groundless. He asserted confidently that the German governments were not harsh enough to provoke rebellion by a populace “grown accustomed to a certain degree of poverty and domination,” and that the prevailing fragmentation of the land would render any rising ineffective even if it did occur. In addition, there was no German equivalent of the Third Estate that had energized the revolution in France, for what passed for a Third Estate in Germany was composed largely of bureaucrats, court officials, contractors, lawyers, and physicians, and other persons who were committed to the existing order. Finally, the common people were more sensible, more suffused with “a reasonable religiosity,” less likely to be led astray by “adventurous spirits,” and less spoiled by the “corruptions of enlightenment”—the last a shrewd comment, for, in truth, the Aufklärung had been restricted in scope in Germany and had had more moral and less political content than in the West.
Sheehan points out that it did not seem to occur to Knigge that the French Revolution might become militant and invade Germany and that, when it did, it would bring many changes with it. This, of course, is what happened, with the result that centralizing tendencies already characteristic of the internal administration of some of the German states were now extended, with French encouragement, to the map of Germany in general, as imperial fiefdoms and ecclesiastical holdings and other petty states were absorbed by their larger neighbors. By the end of the Napoleonic period, the number of German states, over two hundred and fifty in the eighteenth century, had been greatly reduced, and some of them significantly modernized by French administrative practices. More important perhaps was the fact that during the years of French domination and the struggle for liberation a sense of national identity was born. Its origins lay in the prerevolutionary period, when writers like Herder and Lessing strove to create a truly national literature and did so, not least of all, as Sheehan notes, by “contrast[ing] the authenticity and depth of their language and values with the shallow artificiality of French culture and its admirers among the court aristocracy.”
During the revolutionary and Napoleonic period, this struggle of cultures became more intense, and some writers began to politicize it and to dream of a future united Germany. Friedrich Ernst Schleiermacher wrote to Friedrich Schlegel that his
greatest wish after liberation [was] for one true German Empire, powerfully representing the entire German folk and territory to the outside world, while internally allowing the various Länder and their princes a great deal of freedom to develop and rule according to their own particular needs.
Ernst Moritz Arndt devised a scheme for a single monarchical state with its own army, laws, and representative institutions.
These products of the literary imagination did not impress the peacemakers who gathered in Vienna in 1814 and 1815. In the interests of the European balance of power, they left Germany divided between the two great monarchies of Austria and Prussia, the kingdoms of Saxony, Hanover, Württemberg, and Bavaria, the grand duchies of Baden and Hesse, the free cities of Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, and Frankfurt, and twenty-seven other assorted principalities and duchies, bound together in a German Confederation, which performed a more symbolic than practical function. This disappointed advocates of more effective national cohesion, and one of them, Wilhelm von Humboldt, said in 1815:
It will never be possible to stop Germany from wanting to be One state and One nation; the inclination, if not towards unity, at least towards some kind of association remains…in every heart and mind.
In the years of general political reaction that followed the Vienna Congress, this prediction was borne out, as the national idea was taken up by returning war veterans and university students, and the growing number of people in the political public who began to call themselves liberals and think of themselves as standing for progress, movement, and the forces of history, and as representing the true interests of the German Volk. The 1830s and 1840s saw the creation of networks of reform-minded leaders and rudimentary political parties; and these were galvanized by the social and economic problems of the 1840s and encouraged by the march of liberalism abroad, in Switzerland and in France and elsewhere, to try to achieve both political liberties and national unity by revolution. That they did not succeed was not owing, as has often been said, to innate passivity or failure of will. Once more the problem lay in the fragmentation of the land. Sheehan writes:
Many Germans were ready and willing to act politically, even at considerable risk, but they could not find ways of channelling their acivities into organizations powerful enough to win decisive victories over the existing order. Political debates about goals and strategies, social conflicts, religious and regional differences fractured popular forces into competing groups. Moreover, these divisions coexisted with, and were often reinforced by, the divisions created by diverse patterns of political life within the various states.
Rudolf Haym, the biographer of Hegel, spoke of the decade of the 1850s that followed as a period “which has learned to renounce poetic illusions and romantic confusions,” and “sees itself surrounded by unresolved contradictions and complicated practical tasks.” It was no coincidence that in the 1850s, when the term Realpolitik was invented to describe the politics of a new breed of statesmen, many of the young idealists of 1848 turned from politics to business, that the performance of the economy became, as Harold James has written, “crucial to Germans’ view of themselves,”1 and that Gustav Freytag’s novel Debit and Credit became a runaway best seller. Politics now reverted to such people as Felix zu Schwarzenberg, the Austrian premier who suppressed the Hungarian Revolution, and Cavour and Bismarck, practical men who saw in the weakening of the international system after 1848 opportunities which, if seized, would increase their own power and that of the state they served, and who possessed the skills appropriate to a new age of blood and iron. German politics now became increasingly polarized, and ineluctably the clash of arms between Austria and Prussia drew on.
Sheehan calls the penultimate section of his book, which deals with the Austro-Prussian conflict, “The German Civil War,” taking his cue, perhaps, from the Austrian dramatist Grill-parzer’s bitter remark, “You claim that you have founded a Reich, but all you have done is to destroy a Volk.” Sheehan carries his sympathy for Austria to the point of arguing that it came close to winning the crucial battle of the war, although his point is seriously weakened by his addition that this would only have been possible if “the Austrians [had] been somewhat better armed, or better led, or better served by the fortunes of war,” and by his lack of appreciation of the daring, and ultimate vindication, of Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke’s strategy. The expulsion of Austria from Germany doubtless had some serious consequences, but it was a natural result of Austria’s clinging to an outworn absolutist system of government, the irrationality and extravagance of its foreign affairs after 1848, and its failure to devise a coherent German policy. It is true that the majority of German liberals were opposed to Prussia’s cause in 1866, but it would be hard to argue that they favored its opponent, and it should not be forgotten that they voted in 1848 to exclude Austria from the future German Reich.
What then of the man whose diplomacy prepared the way for this victory? When Otto von Bismarck left Berlin to go to the front in the first days of July 1866, he was, to say the least, an unpopular man. When he returned, the weather-vane of opinion had not changed completely, but there were signs that, even among the liberals, it was shifting. Theodor Mommsen, in a statement that he was later to regret, said that he rejoiced to be alive “when world history turns a corner…Germany has a future and that future will be determined by Prussia.” Other liberal leaders were equally impressed by the vistas opened by the victory at Königgrätz, although worried by the possibility that it might encourage a return to complete reaction in the kingdom of Prussia.
Here, not for the last time, they underestimated their old adversary, the Prussian Junker, once described by King Frederick William IV as a “red reactionary, [who] smells of blood.” Bismarck had, ever since his appointment as minister president of Prussia in September 1862, implacably defied their attempts to restrict the prerogatives of the Prussian crown, not hesitating to violate the Prussian constitution as he did so, and, in effect, daring the liberals, if they were serious about their objectives, to go back to the barricades. Now, to their considerable astonishment, he made it clear that the government was ready to reach an understanding with the liberal opposition in Parliament and to collaborate with it in undertaking the tasks that lay ahead.
Lothar Gall’s explanation of this apparent volte face lies at the heart of his interpretation of Bismarck’s approach to politics. In the first volume of his biography, the most satisfactory and reflective account of the Prussian statesman’s whole career that we possess, Gall describes his subject’s brief legal apprenticeship in preparation for the civil service; his abandonment of this course, because, as he said, he wanted to make his own music or none at all, and his return to his estate in Pomerania; his religious conversion to an unswerving trust in a personal God; his decision, during the revolution of 1848, to become a professional politician; and his subsequent career in Parliament and as a diplomat at the Diet in Frankfurt and in Petersburg and Paris. He was appointed minister president at a critical moment in Prussia’s fortunes, when the King, worn down by the crisis in Parliament, was contemplating abdication, and he decided to break the liberal opposition by conducting a dynamic and successful foreign policy that would appeal to their nationalist instincts.
From the very beginning, Gall makes clear, Bismarck was ambitious for himself and his country, and the year 1866 showed him at the peak of his political creativity and effectiveness, determined, in accordance with one of his favorite sayings, unda fert nec regitur (in effect, you can ride the wave but not control it), to move with the times, guided only by the objective of affirming his own authority and that of the state he served. With that power-seeking opportunism that often amounted to lack of principle, he turned after Königgrätz to the liberals because they could give him what the conservatives and the court, intent on clinging to the past, could not, because he needed a parliamentary majority to help him build the foundations of a new Germany, and because, as Gall writes,
He saw…that a particular political and social constellation, a state of equilibrium between the forces and powers of the past and those now emerging in the wake of a process of fundamental economic and social change, was exceptionally favourable to the power of the state, the political executive and the man at its head.
Bismarck was completely indifferent to the accusation that in acting this way he was aiding his political opponents. What was important was creating an institutional basis, from which he could exploit the new situation to his own and Prussia’s advantage, and thus it was that, with the support of the new National Liberal party, he set about establishing and organizing the North German Confederation, which—after the victorious war with France—was to have a decisive influence on the shape of the Reich of 1871. All of this represented a revolution from above and explains why Gall calls Bismarck a “white revolutionary.”
The Reich that evolved under Bismarck’s leadership in the next twenty years was characterized by all the external characteristics of modernization: national, economical, cultural, and legal unity, an expanding industrial economy for which the bureaucratic interventionist state created widening opportunities, a social welfare policy in advance of any in the Western world, and a foreign policy that played an indispensable part in creating a rational and ideology-free international system that buttressed national security. Yet the very mixture of old and new from which it was created was from the beginning a source of essential weakness. Politically, it was an uneasy blend of constitutional and absolutist elements, a parliamentary system that gave the parties no effective control over the policy-making agencies of the state and left the royal prerogative so unrestricted as to invite irresponsibility in the exercise of power, although the worst abuses of this kind came after Bismarck’s dismissal.
That the National Liberals collaborated so willingly in the Reich’s creation can be explained by the euphoria inspired by the victory over France. In time they became more critical and demanded that the powers of Bismarck and the state be checked; and when that happened the chancellor broke with them and looked for parliamentary support in new combinations. The majority that he needed to retain the confidence of the monarch became increasingly harder to find, and, since Bismarck, as Gall points out, possessed no Reichsidee capable of inspiring the German people but thought only of power and its manipulation, he was forced to try to bolster his position by sudden changes of front, coups de théâtre, the creation of foreign crises, attacks upon groups and parties that he loosely defined as “enemies of the Reich,” and threats of drastic constitutional revision. Faced with multiplying problems that he could not solve on his own terms, the white revolutionary, Gall says,
finally became transformed into the sorcerer’s apprentice, who sought with the aid of futile spells to lay the forces of the future that he had himself helped to awaken. But what he conjured up, far from constituting any kind of order, was confusion and a general absence of orientation.
In the end, as an English historian has written, the old gentleman began to appear slightly off his head, and the new emperor, William II, who had ideas of his own, dismissed him.
Gall has no doubt that, at the height of his career, Bismarck’s methods “had the effect of enormously accelerating the historical process and ushering in at a rapid rate what for the sake of brevity we call the modern world.” But his ultimate judgment is nevertheless a severe one. Because of the pseudo-constitutional system that he created and imposed upon it and his successful defeat of all attempts to place reasonable restraints upon the power of the crown and the army, “the Reich as created by Bismarck had not only narrowed the historical possibilities for the German nation; it had deformed the nation itself and in so doing had as it were perpetuated itself in its negative consequences.” The reign of William II was to show how true that was.
At the end of his life, the historian Theodor Mommsen, who after the Prussian victory of 1866 had spoken enthusiastically of Germany’s future, wrote:
With the best that is in me, I have always been an animal politicum and wished to be a Bürger. That is not possible in our nation, in which the individual, even the best, never overcomes the duty that’s bred in the bone and the political fetishism.
This “inner alienation from the people to which I belong,” he continued, had made him decide “to avoid, as far as possible, revealing [his] personal life to the German public, for whom [he] had no respect.” His heirs, the author of the Roman History added, should honor his feelings and restrict access to his private papers to members of the family.
One is reminded by this incident, with which Lothar Gall opens his book on Bürgertum in Germany, of Robert Minder’s comment, in one of his brilliant essays on French and German culture, about the difference between the French word citoyen and the German word Bürger. Minder said in effect that one knew where one was with the former term, which denoted a person who was an active members of a political community, a citizen in the full sense of the term, whereas the term Bürger was indistinct and elusive, meaning either citizen or bourgeois or something in between.2 In Ferdinand Freiligrath’s song of 1848, the “good Bürger” sings:
Du sollst verdammte Freiheit mir
Die Ruhe fürder nicht gefährden!
Lisette, noch ein Gläschen Bier!
Ich will ein guter Bürgen werden.
[Damned Freedom, cease from plaguing me,
and troubling my peace of mind!
I want (Lisette more beer!) to be
A Bürger of the proper kind.]
This is clearly neither the sort of Bürger Mommsen had all his life striven to be nor the type he was complaining about, for Freiligrath’s portrait is of the Kleinbürger, or petty bourgeois. The target of Mommsen’s anger and the Bürgertum of which Gall writes was rather
that section of society that is composed of merchants and pre-industrial entrepreneurs of the most varied kind, of civil servants, members of the free professions and educated (Gebildeten) persons in the most different kinds of positions, who owe their economic, and above all their social position as well, essentially to their individual initiative and achievement. Originating in part in the old city patriciates, but also in quite different social groups, they sought—in more or less pronounced opposition to the traditional corporative order of estates that was based on birth—to make this…principle of individual accomplishment and qualification the predominant principle of the whole economic, social, political and intellectual and cultural order.
This was, then, a new elite of accomplishment, competing with the elites based upon birth, and, because its animating principle was so comprehensive, it ultimately brought a new revolutionary dynamic to all spheres of life. For a long time it was, compared with its counterparts in Western Europe, a very small group, so that a division of power with the landholding aristocracy or the symbiosis in style of life or mentality that took place in England, for example, was unthinkable. On the contrary, until late in the nineteenth century, this elite was pronouncedly anti-aristocratic in attitude, while making a point of its connections with other social groups. Thus, it claimed to be a Mittelstand between the aristocracy and most of the rural population, the advance guard of that bürgerliche society that would gradually absorb other social groups, the representative of the new society and of the nation to be.
This ideology, Gall writes, gave the Bürgertum an idealistic élan that found expression in significant achievements in art, science, and scholarship, and all aspects of German culture, while making a significant contribution to the style of the modern era. But it also involved it in political conflicts and crises of conscience in which its goals were defeated and its ideals abandoned. In the end, its ideological coherence yielded to the imperatives of the Bismarck-Wilhelmine system, and it degenerated into a bourgeoisie that aped the manners of its former antagonists and accepted the irrational reverence for false values and the political fetishism of which Mommsen spoke.
In this absorbing book, Lothar Gall has, as a historian, done what Thomas Mann did as a novelist: described the rise and fall of the German Bürgertum through the history of a single family. Mann’s Buddenbrooks were representatives of the North German Hanseatic patrician world of Lübeck; Gall’s Bassermanns, whom he follows through nine generations, originated in Hanau in southwest Germany in the period after the Thirty Years War, moving in the eighteenth century to Heidelberg and eventually to Mannheim. Thanks to hard work, an eye for the main chance, and fortunate marriages, they made their way from being small traders and millers and innkeepers to financial independence and a leading role in the expanding commerce of their city, with interests in textiles, the wine trade, and iron products.
With affluence came a heightened civic sense—the Bassermanns were keenly interested in Mannheim’s schools, its musical life, and its theater, where Schiller’s The Robbers had had its première in 1782, and where the possession of a loge was a mark of middle-class success. (The family’s interest in the theater, indeed, included active participation: in the late nineteenth century Ernst Bassermann gave up a legal career to become an actor and eventually served as a highly respected director of the Mannheim National Theater. His nephew Albert Bassermann was a distinguished actor of stage and screen in the Weimar period, and became a well-known character actor in Hollywood films after he left Nazi Germany in the 1930s.)
The Bassermanns were by no means free of class ideology. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Friedrich Ludwig Bassermann, following the mode of the times, chose a family coat of arms, he included a picture of a man with a pretzel, since the first Bassermann had been a baker’s apprentice, and added the motto:
Sey dein eigner Herr und Knecht:
Das ist des Mittelstandes Recht.
(Be your own master and servant:
That is the right of the middle
This sense of the independence of the Mittelstand together with its idealistic hope of making Germany a free and united society involved the family in the politics of the 1840s, Friedrich Daniel Bassermann, grandson of the Heidelberg innkeeper, serving as a leader of the moderate liberal faction in the Badenese Parliament and as member of the National Assembly during the revolution of 1848.
The self-defeating violence of the revolution in Baden and the failure of the National Assembly not only disillusioned Friedrich Daniel (he committed suicide in 1855) but went far to destroy the middle class’s belief in the creation of a new society under its leadership. It marked the beginning of the long crisis of the Bürgertum, which Gall describes with great effect in the final chapters of his book. Its representative figure was Friedrich Daniel’s nephew, Ernst Bassermann, leader of the National Liberal party in the Reichstag during the reign of William II. Chairman of the exclusive Kunstverein in Mannheim, member of the Musical Society, patron of the theater, member of numerous directorates, gentleman rider, he lived in the “genteel” section of the city and took his vacations on the Riviera or Sylt or other fashionable watering places. He had long abandoned the idea of a classless bürgerlich society, and his politics reflected this, for as the Christian Socialist leader Friedrich Naumann once said, he refused to allow his party to vote for any declaration critical of the emperor or any list of demands supported by the Social Democrats. August Bebel, the Socialist leader, once jeered,
Herr Bassermann can’t help it if he has an unfailing fear of any revolutionary movement, for he inherited it. Even before the revolutionary days in Baden, the Bassermann family was known as one that had a terrible fear of revolutionary occurrences.
This was unfair, for in 1848 the Bassermanns and the class they represented still considered themselves as a force for movement in society. By the time William II had ascended the throne, however, the Bürgertum was as cut off from most of the rest of society as the aristocracy, and its political philosophy was as sterile as Bassermann’s party declarations, which constantly proclaimed that “we will not let ourselves be moved by radical forces that will break the dams and surrender to the inrushing floods the foundation that Bismarck laid.”
Christian Graf von Krokow’s The Germans in Their Century, which has caused something of a stir in Germany, is hardly likely to reassure readers who have been worrying about the speed with which that country has been moving toward a new 1871. After tracing the course of German history from the accession of William II to the death of Adolf Hitler and reflecting upon the political irrationality, crime, and inhumanity with which it was marked, he writes:
There are, it appears, some creations of the human hand, the establishment of states among them, upon which a curse weighs from the very beginning. The gods turn away and relinquish their place to the lesser demons. The Reich of 1871, the German national state, belonged to these creations….[It was burdened by] a double calamity. [It] was too big and too mighty in achievement to fit reliably into the European balance and too limited to become a real world power. That was one part of the curse. And the attempt to base the self-confidence of a nation on domination and hierarchy instead of on freedom and equality, an experiment that contradicted European civilization, that was the second part.
The first part of this burden might have been alleviated by a foreign policy that was modest in its objectives and collaborative in its spirit, but this was made impossible by the second. Why the post-Bismarckian Germany, with its great achievements in the arts and the sciences, should have lacked self-assurance is difficult to understand, but there is no doubt that it did. This was apparent in the excessive and somewhat anxious enthusiasm with which it celebrated its national holiday, Sedan Day, the day of the victory over France in 1870. It was shown in the fact that Germany was the only country in Europe in which ministers and their deputies appeared in the Reichstag in uniform and with sabers by their sides. It was apparent not only in the new emperor’s speeches but in those of leading academics, and it is interesting in this respect to compare William II’s speech to the provincial Landtag of Brandenburg in February 1892 (that curious oration in which he conferred general’s rank on God and referred to Him as “our ally of Rossbach and Dennewitz”) and Max Weber’s inaugural address at the University of Freiburg in May 1895. Both appeared to regard the years since 1871 as a kind of adolescence and announced that the time had come for Germany to prove its manhood.
In this atmosphere it was not strange that Wilhelmine foreign policy should be frenetic and unreliable, marked by no clear understanding of national interest, characterized by forcing plays and sudden retreats, by irrational competitiveness and fear of isolation, and finally by an Endzeitpsychose that was deeply fatalistic. The often belligerent vacillations of Germany’s course, combined with its naval program and the aggressiveness of its foreign trade policy, described in Alfred D. Chandler’s new book on managerial capitalism,3 created the atmosphere out of which the First World War grew. That tragic conflict, however, seemed to teach no useful lesson, for Germany’s defeat, when it came, was blamed not upon those responsible for it, but upon the democratic republic that came into existence in 1919. Krokow does not tell us much that is new about the short and unhappy life of the Weimar Republic, but he writes with feeling and insight of the “wall of hatred” upon which it foundered, and with a wealth of striking citations that illustrate the role played by the persistence of past pieties and illusions. There were unfortunately too few people in Weimar Germany who were as capable of analyzing the sickness of the times as Karl Vossler, the Rektor of the University of Munich, who said in a speech in 1927:
Always in new forms the old stupidity: a metaphysical, speculative, romantic, fanatical, abstract and mystical kind of politicking…. At countless beer- and coffee-tables one can hear people sighing how dirty, how incurably unclean all political business is, how untruthful the press, how false the cabinets, how common the parliaments, and so forth. People who lament in this way are presuming that they are too elevated, too spiritual for politics. In reality, they are small-spirited, lazy, slack and incapable of helping or serving their own people. When someone is not up to playing even a nominal political role, then it’s fine for him think that he stands above the parties.
Lack of commitment was not the only reason for the fall of the Weimar Republic. The Great Depression encouraged political extremism and paralyzed the party system, while the civil war in the streets made ordinary Germans susceptible to Adolf Hitler’s promise to restore order and unite the Germans in a true Volksgemeinschaft. By appealing to the romantic idealism of young Germans, the Nazis made many converts, a fact that deeply impressed the leadership of the army, one of whose members said resignedly in 1932, “It’s the youth movement. It can’t be stopped.” Nor could it, or all the horrors it brought with it.
Of these Krokow gives a more than adequate account, although he admits his inability to make the incomprehensible comprehensible, to explain how people who in their normal private existence were upright Bürger became, when they donned uniforms, drunk with the will to power and ruthless to the point of barbarity when commanded to be so. He suggests an answer by referring to two books: Helmut Plessner’s The Belated Nation, first published in 1935, which argued that Germany history had not given the Germans a sense of self-worth or taught them to prefer responsibility for their own actions to obedience, and Heinrich Heine’s On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, which warned that the berserker rage of the ancient Germans had been tamed but not destroyed by religion, and that as religion weakened and was replaced by new ideologies it would revive, and “a drama [would] be performed in Germany, in comparison with which the French Revolution [would] look like a harmless idyll.” This is not very persuasive, and we are left wondering over the schizophrenia that enabled what Krokow calls the “ideal-typical” German to lead a double life between 1933 and 1945.
Less typical were those who led a different kind of double life, those members of the German resistance who were torn between their deep patriotism and their knowledge that Germany must not be allowed to win the war that Hitler had brought upon it. Among these men and women, whom Krokow praises for building a bridge to the future, was Helmuth James von Moltke, a great-great-nephew of the victor at Königgrätz in 1866. Although his deep religious convictions made it impossible for him to collaborate with those resistance groups who were plotting Hitler’s assassination, Moltke worked tirelessly to bring churchmen, laity, and soldiers together in secret conferences for the purpose of planning a new post-Hitler Germany and for this was eventually arrested and executed. His letters to his wife, reviewed here when they were published in Germany in 1988,4 are now available in English, and it is appropriate to quote one of them as a way of conveying some sense of the anguish felt by this brave man and all members of the Resistance. On August 36, 1941, Moltke wrote:
The news from the East is terrible again. Our losses are obviously very, very heavy. But that could be borne if we were not burdened with hecatombs of corpses. Again and again one hears reports that in transporting prisoners or Jews only 20% arrive, that there is starvation in the prisoner-of-war camps, that typhoid and all the other deficiency epidemics have broken out, that our own people are breaking down from exhaustion. What will happen when the nation as a whole realizes that this war is lost, and lost differently from the last one? With a blood-guilt that cannot be atoned for in our lifetime and can never be forgotten, with an economy that is completely ruined? Will men arise capable of distilling contrition and penance from this punishment and so gradually a new strength to live? Or will everything go under in chaos?
Krokow’s answer to the last question but one would be a modified Yes: that such men did in fact arise, at least in the western half of Germany, and that in the forty-five years that followed the destruction of the Nazi Reich, the Federal Republic freed itself from the past in a way that was impossible for the Weimar Republic, and transformed itself into a stable democracy. He does not hazard a guess concerning the effect of the fusion of this democracy with the seventeen million Germans who have been living under totalitarian systems ever since 1933, or what effect this will have on German self-confidence, which, he notes, has suffered intermittent fluctuations even in the West. But he writes that November 9, 1989, when the Wall came down, was a turning point in German history, the day of Germany’s only successful revolution, and he suggests that one day it may become a united Germany’s national holiday. If it does so, it can also serve to commemorate other historical moments of the kind that Bundespresident Richard von Weizsäcker has said must not be forgotten: November 9, 1918, the date of the collapse of Wilhelmine absolutism and the real birthday of the luckless Weimar Republic; November 9, 1923, the date of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch and a sign of things to come; and November 9, 1938, the date of Reichskristallnacht and the beginning of the Final Solution of the Jewish question.
June 28, 1990
Harold James, A German Identity, 1770–1990 (Routledge, 1989), p. 216. ↩
Robert Minder, Kultur und Literatur in Deutschland und Frankreich: Fünf Essays (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1962), p. 9. ↩
Alfred D. Chandler Jr., Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 393–395. ↩
See my article “Facing Up to the Nazis,” The New York Review (February 2, 1989). ↩