Economic depression and political radicalism go hand in hand. When economic distress reaches a certain point, the individual citizen no longer uses his political power to serve the public weal, but only to help himself. His ideal of political liberty pales before his ideal of economic equality.

Once this sentiment has eaten its way into the hearts of the majority of a nation, any political system is doomed to failure. It is useless to tell the embittered masses that their political and economic rulers are not responsible for their misfortunes. It is equally useless to point out to them that a revolution with its attendant disorders would not improve their situation, but would hopelessly compromise it. The world is not ruled by reason, but by passion, and when a man is driven to despair he is ready to smash everything in the vague hope that a better world may arise out of the ruins.

Intelligent and orderly as the German people are, patiently as they have borne the sufferings of war and of inflation, they are in danger today of falling into this reckless state of mind. It would seem that the economic crisis, the reduction of large classes of the German population to the level of the proletariat, and the unemployment of nearly five million persons, cannot go on for many more years without ruining the German nation as a whole. Here is a population, well-equipped from the point of view of health and intellect, which in general is forced to be satisfied with an income barely sufficient for a minimum existence. One-eighth of those who are able and eager to work are unable to find any opportunity to do so. And those who are employed see no possibility of little by little rising to positions where their abilities will have fuller scope. Above all—and this is perhaps the worst aspect of the situation—not only are great numbers of persons forced to abandon any hope of advancement themselves but they must also relinquish the idea of giving their children an adequate education and thus opening up a way for them to better their situation. About 30 percent of the German people have received an education higher than that acquired in the ordinary public schools. But only about 12 percent of all positions available in Germany are of a nature to require this higher education or make it advisable. Thus vast sections of the people feel oppressed and bitterly discontented.

The consequence is a pronounced and inclusive dissatisfaction with the prevailing economic system. All the blame for every ill is laid on the shoulders of the capitalistic system, despite the fact that it has been hampered and weakened to a considerable degree by governmental interference. The number of people who feel confident that they can get on by their own abilities is steadily declining. You will recall the saying that Napoleon’s soldiers were inspired by the belief that each of them carried a marshal’s baton in his knapsack. Perhaps this was not really the case. But certainly it is one of the secrets of success of any efficient régime not to allow the feelings of self-reliance and self-help which exist in a nation to go to waste. America has managed things better in this respect than have the nations of the old world. In Germany, the self-made man is no longer the ideal of the people. This marks the end of the “bourgeois” way of thinking in the best sense of that word. The number of those who are beginning to think in terms of socialism is increasing. The adherents of the middle parties, who oppose this development, are dwindling in the same proportion that the number of independent, progressive and self-reliant citizens is being diminished through the increasing pauperization.

Of the non-bourgeois parties, the Social Democratic Party, notwithstanding its general socialistic attitude, is the one that cares least about remodeling the state in the socialistic sense. This is not so strange as it sounds. This party, which is still by far the strongest political group in Germany, consists of brain and manual workers, employees, foremen, small officials and peasants. It is proletarian in name, but actually the individuals who compose it have attained a greater degree of lower-middle-class security than have many of those in the ranks of the old bourgeoisie. This is partly the result of extensive social legislation, but in the main it is due to the protection offered by the tradeunionist organization. In these times of economic distress it has been unable to hold its own in open economic strife with the capitalists, but thanks to its power at the polls it nevertheless has been almost completely successful in averting the reductions of wages which would otherwise have accompanied increasing unemployment.

In consequence, this whole social group has become as conservative as any other class which has something to lose. Their economic and political phraseology is radical, but as a matter of fact they are concerned to preserve the present economic order because they see that their own existence and that of their children is tied up with it. Radical as this party is apt to be when there is a question of limiting capitalistic profits, it nevertheless turns resolutely away from any sort of revolutionary violence which would ruin the basis of their livelihood. For the time being, then, it is almost completely absorbed in the ungrateful but historically significant task of keeping alive, in wide circles of the population, a sense of order and an appreciation of the value of the state. Nor does it allow itself to be diverted from this attitude by the evidences of unfounded or exaggerated dislike which many well-to-do and well-educated citizens frequently exhibit against it. It has in the end become a party standing for the preservation of the state.

The attitude of the Communist Party is totally different. It constitutes a reservoir for all those proletarians who—either without fault or by their own fault—have failed to find suitable employment or adequate wages. Of the great altruistic idea of communism there is not a trace to be found in this party. The watch-word is not the Christian one, “What is mine shall be thine,” but rather one of envy, “What is thine shall be mine.” The blind submission shown by the leaders of the party towards edicts issued by Soviet Russia increases its danger to Germany, as does also their financial dependence on Moscow. But—leaving out of account some disgruntled writers who are not in touch with world currents—the party members are recruited from the lower strata of the working classes. Unless the distress among the German people should become insupportable, any sudden advance movement on their part that relied on force would be doomed to failure without armed support and assistance from outside.

Greater danger is threatening at the present time from the National Socialists, popularly called the Nazis. This movement comprises the large ranks of the disinherited and the déclassés—middle-class citizens, officials, officers and landowners. All of these deserve our sympathy and pity. Enormous numbers of them have been uprooted from a satisfactory social position by war, revolution and inflation, and thrust out to seek an uncertain and penurious existence. In supporting and voting for the National Socialist Party they are generally influenced to only an inconsiderable degree by its rhetoric. For Germany’s foreign policy in its main features is compulsory, not a matter of conviction, but of diplomatic and geographic fate. The success of the party lies principally in the fact that those who belong to it despair of ever again being able to win a substantial share of the goods of this world or to secure a higher post than the one they fill today.

The National Socialist Party offers the advantage that one may indulge in cheap socialism, or rather in a socialism of envy, without having at the same time to forego class-consciousness or a sense of superiority over the proletariat. Both the membership and the political aims of the party show extraordinary variations. Some of its members condemn the present Republic on account of its ruthlessness in breaking loose from the old traditions of the German people. Others blame it for being lukewarm about the necessity for a new social order. That is why nobody knows exactly what their “third empire” would be like. They call themselves socialists, and probably really mean to be. But they use the word “Marxists” as a term of opprobrium and reserve it for their adversaries. Their “socialism” is hatred of capitalism; their “Marxism” is hatred of social democracy. Whether this party will ever make up its mind to take the leap and try an assault upon the Republic is extremely doubtful. And after all, it comprises at present not more than one-fifth of the population. Moreover, it is animated by a club or fraternity spirit more than by the sort of will which resorts to revolutionary measures. But no matter whether its deeds remain undone or whether it succeeds in temporarily usurping power or a slice of power, the main danger in the long run will be that it has no goal to attain. It therefore is bound to lead the hosts of its disappointed adherents not to a victory of reason but to some sort of embittered union of forces with left-wing radicalism.

Is there any way of counteracting the dangers inherent in this whole situation? One must not forget what difficulties Germany had to overcome in her struggle for economic progress even before the war. History has no parallel to offer of the way in which, during the years 1871-1914, Germany achieved the gigantic feat of increasing her population of 40 millions to 70 millions and of providing them with tolerable conditions of existence within her same narrow frontiers. England maintains the standard of living of the English people only by means of the interest and dividends from her foreign investments, which are almost great enough to cover the cost of feeding the entire nation. The American workman has one-fourth of the raw materials of the whole world at his disposal for his work, so that, with every turn of his hand, he enriches America not only by the value of his work but also by the value of the raw materials thus turned to account. In Russia a host of slaves, consisting of 120 millions of peasants who live in a state of serfdom, with few needs and in a state of misery beyond that of the Middle Ages, is toiling for an oligarchy of 6 or 8 millions of industrial workers. Germany was unable to draw on any such resources even before the war.

Will Germany be able to continue along the line of her past achievements?

The energy and willingness of the German workman, the intelligence and enterprise of the German capitalist, the adaptability and versatility of the German merchant, the efficiency and technical training of the German man of science—these have not decreased, at least not to any considerable degree. It has been aptly said that Germany “starved herself to greatness” during the nineteenth century. She would be able to do the same thing again today if the conditions imposed on her from without were the same as they were then. But these conditions have become harder in two respects.

Germany is groaning under burdens arising out of the lost war. She has obligations at home and obligations abroad. The number of invalids, widows and orphans created by the war, all of whom have a claim to maintenance, is enormous. The cession of important territories has made it difficult for Germany to provide the needed raw materials, and the establishment of impossible frontier lines has mutilated her physical body to such an extent as to make it difficult to regulate economic exchange and the supply of goods. The fabulous reparations imposed on her people bleed her capital strength, notwithstanding that an increase in her exports has been made possible by cutting prices.

The second adverse factor is a general one, and consists in the increased isolation of the various countries of the world from one another. Germany by herself is too small to turn to account and develop the vital energies of her population. World commerce is a necessity for her. But the greater the need of the nations, the greater their dependence on coöperation in the field of international economics, the more obstinately they seem to set their mind on nationalism and protectionism. They shut themselves off from one another. Tariff walls rise higher and higher. Meanwhile emigration of the laborers and peasants for whom there is no longer room in Germany is coming to a standstill. Even German physicians, chemists, technicians and merchants, many of whom formerly put their abilities to work in different parts of the world and then brought home the fruits of their labor, are now excluded almost everywhere. Germany is thus confined to her own narrow limits, within which her people wear themselves out in fruitless competition.

From both the economic and the political point of view Germany’s collapse would mark a long stage on the road leading to the decay of our modern culture. The German is easily satisfied and by nature is opposed to revolution. Only when he becomes a prey to despair does he lend his ear to agitation. With some good will, the world could prevent Germany’s collapse. Germany was overwhelmed in the war because the world got the erroneous conception that she was an obstacle to the idea of democracy and liberty. Today the world ought to help Germany defend her democratic and liberal institutions by showing some understanding of her economic and political needs. In doing so, the world will be defending its own liberty and its own democratic institutions.

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  • ERICH KOCH-WESER, former Minister of Justice of the German Republic, recently leader of the Democratic Party
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