Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
A New Americanism
Why a Nation Needs a National Story
POLITIK. BY HEINRICH VON TREITSCHKE. Leipzig: Hirzel, 1897-98, 2 v.
IT HAS been a persistent source of irritation to Englishmen, and on occasion to Americans, that the Germans have almost invariably deserted from the army of liberalism. True, for a brief moment in the middle of the last century -- when Metternich was forced to flee for his life and the old absolutism was everywhere under attack -- Anglo-Saxons thought that Germany might reform. Then when liberal prospects seemed brightest the German people supinely surrendered their freedom to Bismarck in exchange for the pottage of political unity. In the years that followed, the language used by Englishmen to express their disgust and hatred for Bismarck was even more vivid than that later hurled at Adolf Hitler. Still, they did not entirely give up hope: when Bismarck went, they argued, all would be well. But after Bismarck's dismissal in 1890, British expectations were again dashed: a few years of the erratic rule of William II made men sigh for the Iron Chancellor.
Even these repeated disappointments failed to daunt the more sanguine among British liberals. This charitable attitude is well illustrated by Sir Edward Grey's reaction to Treitschke's books with which he became acquainted only in 1914. Though he found them appalling -- "every ideal except that of force is abolished" -- and though he was quite willing to believe that Treitschke spoke for the rulers of Germany, Grey refused to believe that the German people as a whole were so bad. "The rest of the Germans are people more akin to ourselves than any other race," he wrote.[i] Three years later, Woodrow Wilson was to draw the same distinction between the evil rulers and the good people of Germany.
During the early postwar years the Anglo-Saxon optimists seemed vindicated. Then came Adolf Hitler, and the old refrain was taken up once more. In December 1938, Neville Chamberlain asserted that his dealings with Nazi Germany showed faith, not in the Nazis, but in history: ". . . the complete subordination of individual independence to something which is called the State but which really only means those who for the time being rule the State, would be insupportable because it runs counter to all our most fundamental conceptions of the framework of human society." He argued, however, that this was no reason for refusing to have contact with the authoritarian states. "History teaches us that no form of government ever remains the same."
Optimism is usually an amiable vice, but in politics, as Machiavelli pointed out in an age very like our own, "leave it to time" may be a dangerous maxim, "for time, driving all things before it, may bring with it evil as well as good." And a hundred years, even in the history of nations, is a long time. During the century just past, the "fifty mad professors at Frankfurt" whom Disraeli denounced gave place to "the crazy minister at Berlin," as Palmerston called Bismarck. And Bismarck was followed by William II, who, Lord Salisbury thought, "must be a little off his head." Today we are left to contemplate the future. One war to save democracy led to the substitution of Adolf Hitler for the Kaiser. Would another such war produce -- a liberal Germany? If the past has lessons to teach, we shall not be too confident. Perhaps, as the outstanding statesmen and writers of Germany have constantly reiterated during the past century, the German people believe that the liberal creed is not adapted to them. And indeed, is it not possible that they are right? At any rate, we may profitably listen to what they have to say on the matter.
Heinrich von Treitschke, the professor who so terrified Grey and other Anglo-Saxons from 1914 to 1918, is well suited to be our guide. He was the mentor of countless German university students from 1858 to his death in 1896, and throughout most of those years his favorite course of lectures dealt with politics. He had hoped eventually to distill the essence of these lectures into a definitive work on political science. But this hope he never realized. In 1897, however, his lectures were edited from the notes of his students and were published as his "Politik." It was not until the World War that there appeared an English translation -- to which Arthur Balfour and A. Lawrence Lowell contributed introductions.[ii] President Lowell contented himself with some general remarks about Treitschke's "many startling conclusions." Mr. Balfour, like Sir Edward Grey, was shocked by Treitschke's immorality: "His Utopia appears to be a world in which all small States have been destroyed, and in which the large States are all either fighting, or preparing for battle."[iii]
Born in 1834, the son of a Saxon general of Czech descent, Treitschke's formative years were spent in the atmosphere of alternating hope and despair which preceded and followed the revolution of 1848. Before the revolution, German nationalists had been liberals in the sense in which Englishmen understood that word, and the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848 had been filled with men who looked to England for guidance and inspiration. By the time Treitschke began the usual tour of universities, the revolution had been crushed, and the liberal nationalists were in exile or living in discouraged silence. The disillusionment of his friends, and his own growing deafness, tempted the young student to seek refuge in the life of a poet. Even his poetry, however, was saturated with political conflict, and he soon took up the teaching of history and politics at Leipzig. These early writings when read today seem confused and contradictory: now he preaches the liberal doctrines of individualism and cosmopolitanism; now he proclaims the necessity for a strong Prussian army to smash the internal and foreign enemies of German nationalism. At the time, these contradictions were an asset because the same confused aspirations were present in the minds of most young German nationalists. His students revered him as a prophet. The Saxon authorities, however, naturally objected to a professor who urged Prussia's conquest of the lesser German states, including Saxony, and in 1863 he was glad to move to Freiburg in more nationalist Baden. Again he won the ardent support of his students. By 1866 his fame was so great that Bismarck sought his services as a scholarly press agent in the impending war with Austria, offering the hope of a professorship at the University of Berlin as a reward. Treitschke was tempted, and not only because a post at Berlin meant financial security and professional recognition. He was a nationalist, and he felt that Bismarck was setting out to unify Germany in the only possible way -- by the Prussian battalions. But Bismarck was ruling Prussia in defiance of the constitution, and a believer in constitutional government like Treitschke could not serve such a master. He therefore refused the offer. When, however, war came and Baden sided with Austria, he resigned his post at Freiburg. The contradictions in his thought had driven him to the sidelines in the great struggle which was to determine the future of Germany.
The success of Prussia in the Seven Weeks' War, and the partial unification of Germany which Bismarck carried through in 1867, ended Treitschke's doubts. In the latter year he returned to Baden as a professor at Heidelberg, and thereafter he was an unquestioning supporter of the Iron Chancellor. In flaming essays he prepared the German people for war with France, steeled their courage during the war when it came, and prepared their minds for the proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles and for the Peace of Frankfurt in 1871.
The completion of political unity was not the end of the story for Treitschke. Germans, he believed, still lacked the spiritual unity, the self-confidence, and the zest for new achievements which characterized the peoples of older states like England. Eagerly, he set out to remedy these defects in the national character. To stimulate pride in the past glories of his country he undertook to write a "History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century" which he had carried to 1848 at the time of his death. In the columns of the Preussische Jahrbücher and from his seat in the imperial Reichstag he attacked the enemies of German greatness and exhorted his countrymen to new endeavors. In 1874 he received the coveted call to the University of Berlin. There, as earlier at Leipzig, Freiburg and Heidelberg, he drew crowds to his lectures. Old men waited at the door long before the lectures began, in the hope of getting a seat; more hardy souls listened outside to the raucous, half-strangled voice of the deaf speaker; and newspapers faithfully reported his words.
Adulation there was aplenty, but it was not won by the methods of a sycophant, as Arthur Balfour suggested in his introduction to the "Politics." This became evident after Bismarck's fall, when Treitschke heaped scorn on the new advisers of William II. Other enemies he had in great number -- Socialists, Jews, social reformers, capitalists -- all of whom he attacked in language as memorable as it was virulent. In combat with foes at home he was tireless; yet the foreign jibes at his narrow patriotic tone he shrugged aside: "But even the foreign world will some day have to accustom itself to the sentiments of New Germany."[iv] Even in his last years, when his eyes failed him, he continued to cry out of the silent darkness against the slothful opulence which, he felt, was corrupting the heroic simplicity of German life. His last speech, delivered a year before his death in 1896, was such a castigation of national weaknesses that Germany's enemies were glad to quote it against her in 1914.
Treitschke intended that his "Politics," like all his teaching and writing, should intensify the -- to him -- insufficient national pride of his countrymen. One evidence of national weakness was the vogue of western, and particularly British, political thought in Germany. Dazzled by the prestige of political economists like Adam Smith and political philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, Germans talked about natural law, the contractual basis of sovereignty, the self-evident natural rights of the individual citizen and the brotherhood of man. The British, Treitschke warned his hearers, had not taken these ideas too seriously themselves. "England, in her rôle of advocate for Liberalism, set all Europe by the ears, and under cover of the latent discontents which she herself had fostered, she conquered half the world."[v] But in the process England herself absorbed some of the poisonous doctrines she was disseminating; as a result, the Merry England of earlier centuries had been converted into a drab and decadent land where only a tradesman could be happy. Treitschke warned that if the Germans were to escape a similar fate, they must forsake fallacious alien teachings. The foundations of a true art of politics, he declared, had been laid in eighteenth-century Germany by such teachers as Herder. On these foundations he would build.
Politics, Treitschke argued, must always remain an art. This did not mean, however, that experience should be disregarded. On the contrary, the weakness of British thought arose precisely from its reliance on abstract theory, while the strength of German thought was its refusal to consider anything which was not supported by the lessons of history. Politics was really applied history. But no two historical situations were alike, and therefore the political scientist could never hope to prophesy with the same accuracy with which the natural scientist could foretell the results of an experiment. History could warn against actions which had invariably proved disastrous. History could provide working principles of action: the statesman must study the trends of history if he was to hope for success. But the margin of error would always be great. ". . . for the real point is to understand how the Divine plan has unfolded itself little by little in all the variety of actual existence."[vi]
Using all history as his laboratory, Treitschke set out to discover the nature of the state. Was the state born, and did it live, in accordance with "the laws of nature and nature's God?" Experience, he contended, provided no evidence to support the doctrine of natural law. Of the innumerable states known to history, no two had been alike; each possessed an individual character, determined in every case by time, place and environmental circumstance. Were governments instituted among men to secure the inalienable rights of their citizens, and were they subject to revolution if these rights were not secured? Again, Treitschke argued, history knew nothing of such rights or of such governments. With unimportant exceptions -- which, examined closely, proved not to be exceptions -- states had grown up as the expression, the essential outward form, of a national society. To Treitschke, the conclusion was obvious. Far from being a mechanism to be set up, altered or dismantled at will, the state was a living personality, "the most supremely real person, in the literal sense of the word, that exists."[vii] History was the biography of states, the story of the strength and weakness, the virtues and sins, the achievements and tragedies of collective personalities.
A reader trained in Anglo-Saxon traditions of statecraft, and therefore contemptuous of philosophical abstractions, will naturally be most skeptical as to the validity of Treitschke's reasoning. Nevertheless, think of them what we will, the consequences of his conclusions are, in practice, far-reaching. If it be granted that states are, as he maintained, "thoroughly capable of bearing responsibility and blame," the statesman is no longer bound by the code of private morality; his actions become good or bad as they advance or injure the interests of the state. "The statesman has no right to warm his hands with smug self-laudation at the smoking ruins of his fatherland, and comfort himself by saying 'I have never lied;' this is the monkish type of virtue."[viii] There are further consequences. For the individual, the law of self-preservation has numerous exceptions: life may be sacrificed for family, for country, for God. Above the state, however, is God alone. For Treitschke, history is " the objectively revealed Will of God, as unfolded in the life of the State."[ix] If the state is not merely a person, but a God-directed person, then for it there is no exception to the law of self-preservation. And to live means to be strong. With wearisome emphasis, Treitschke insisted that power was the first need and the distinguishing characteristic of the state. He believed that all the resources of the state -- physical, intellectual and moral -- contributed to the reservoir of national power. But the reservoir itself was the army. As the expression of national power, the army must be truly national, recruited by compulsory universal service. A professional army, no matter how highly trained, would not suffice; such an army did not gather up and intensify the strength of the state. The lack of universal service in England, in his opinion, explained "the want of chivalry in the English character, which strikes the simple fidelity of the German nature so forcibly." A national army is a civilizing instrument in time of peace; in war it is essential, because in modern war all the resources of the state must be thrown into action. The sublimity of war follows from the fact that the battlefield is the ultimate test of national character. "Brave peoples alone have an existence, an evolution or a future; the weak and cowardly perish, and perish justly. The grandeur of history lies in the perpetual conflict of nations, and it is simply foolish to desire the suppression of their rivalry." Since the great national personalities can suffer no compelling power superior to themselves, and since history will always be in constant flux, some nations declining, some growing in power, war must be accepted as part of the divinely appointed order. And as a corollary, it must be obvious that "the large state is the nobler type," while absence of power "accounts for the undeniably ridiculous element which we discern in the existence of a small State."[x]
Such were the practical consequences of the belief that the state is "the most supremely real person, in the literal sense of the word, that exists." What lessons did these truths, founded on historical experience, hold for Germany?
Before the nineteenth century, Treitschke maintained, the teeming resources of Germany had been wasted by statesmen who refused to recognize that the state was a living personality. With mingled anger and pathos he traced the errors of the mediaeval emperors and the Hapsburgs. As early as the seventeenth century, he believed, it was obvious that Prussia alone was true to the Germanic genius; in the march of subsequent events "we see the secret forces of Nature themselves at work, for Prussia's Crown was not always a willing agent." At last men appeared who could read the message of history -- William I, Bismarck and Roon. They imposed the Prussian, the truly German, stamp on the other German states; they created a state capable of guiding, controlling, encouraging the tumultuous strength of German society which had hitherto been dissipated.[xi]
Treitschke saw nevertheless that there was still much to be done before the national character of Germany would be fully developed. Remnants of provincialism persisted. Worse, the old cosmopolitanism was still strong: Catholics still gave political as well as religious loyalty to Rome, while workmen were seduced by international Jewish Socialism. The Jew found even more dangerous opportunities in the rise of urban commerce and industry: trade knew no frontier, and since the Jew knew no fatherland, he turned instinctively to trade. Jews had always fostered the disintegration of nations, Treitschke believed. They must not be permitted to undermine the hard-won unity of Germany. If the German Jews could not make up their minds to forget what Treitschke described as their international loyalties, a wave of anti-Semitism was inevitable. Until the Jew had made his decision, the German must be constantly on guard against corruption through the Jewish press or through Jewish artists. "Whenever he finds his life sullied by the filth of Judaism the German must turn from it, and learn to speak boldly about it."[xii]
Abroad, too, Treitschke pointed out his country's duties. In this age of great states, Germany must expand if she was not to see the world dominated by "the Russian knout or the English money bags." On the Continent, there remained only one task: to obtain control over the mouths of the German Rhine. Holland need not be annexed -- a customs union would suffice. Such a union, by opening the Dutch coast, would enlarge Germany's window to the sea. Sea power was the indispensable prelude to colonial power; it was also a good in itself for the sea helped strengthen national morale. "This Germany of ours was once the greatest of the Sea Powers, and, God willing, so she will be again." Holland, he continued, also had a colonial empire, and this, added to the colonies of Germany, would serve as a basis for further expansion. We must "see to it that the outcome of our next successful war must be the acquisition of colonies by any possible means." As things stood, German strength was being drained away, and the strength of rival states increased, by the emigration of millions who could not live in the crowded homeland. This drain must cease. The French had solved the problem by not having children. For Frenchmen, this was a logical answer; they were born calculators "and import the arithmetical spirit even into the kindly relations of married life." Such an escape was impossible for Germans. ". . . we hold that every man should be a man, and place his confidence in God. The German is a hero born, and believes that he can hack and hew his way through life. Reckoning and begrudging are not for him."[xiii]
Such are the arguments most emphasized in the "Politics." It is easy to see why Allied propagandists translated these volumes. They contained, according to Arthur Balfour, an accurate prophecy of German policy; they foreshadowed all those designs which England was fighting to thwart. "They could not have been written before 1870," said Balfour. "Nothing quite like them will be written after 1917."[xiv]
When Treitschke was discovered by the British, his writings had long been relegated by Germans to the list of unread classics: he was honored, in Prince Bülow's words, as "the prophet of the national ideal."[xv] With the advent of National Socialism his works were resurrected. The Nazis, seeking precursors in German history, canonized Treitschke as a prophet of the Third Reich. His "History of Germany" was put on the list of one hundred most acceptable books compiled for the guidance of National Socialist booksellers. A volume of selections from his works appeared in 1933, with a laudatory introduction by Alfred Rosenberg, the high priest of Nazi doctrine. A year later the National Socialist historian Walter Frank published a pamphlet called "Embattled Scholarship," to which the leader of the youth movement, Baldur von Schirach, contributed an introduction.[xvi] Ostensibly, Frank's tract was written to commemorate Treitschke's centenary. Actually, it was a virulent attack on German scholarship of the generation before 1933. After Treitschke's death, Frank contended, German historians had retreated to an ivory tower, from which they had looked down with indifferent neutrality on the struggles of the German people. They refused to lead, refused to fight, refused above all to admit that a German must see the past through German eyes, and that German historical writing must serve the national cause. In particular, Frank pilloried Hermann Oncken, a scholar whose writings had won international acclaim. All this was past, Frank rejoiced. Now, with Treitschke as a guide, German scholarship would once more take its place in the battle line, would fight for the German idea.
This challenge was accepted by the dean of German historians, Friedrich Meinecke. Unlike that of Frank, Meinecke's career reached back to Treitschke's day; in fact, it was he who had nominated Treitschke as editor of the most important German historical journal, the Historische Zeitschrift. Meinecke himself had succeeded Treitschke as editor in 1893, and in 1934 he still held this position of leadership. This legacy he was unwilling to betray. Therefore, although Frank had carefully directed his attack against less revered scholars, Meinecke unhesitatingly struck back. Frank, he maintained, had falsified both the teachings of Treitschke and the traditions of German scholarship. Treitschke, according to Meinecke, had always been the foe of any ideal which threatened the freedom and the sacredness of the individual, whether the threat came from political authorities of the day or from collectivist philosophies. Treitschke had fought throughout his life for freedom of inquiry, and he had never wavered in his recognition that free inquiry meant the certainty of divergent conclusions. In his insistence on the moral importance of the individual personality, he was a child of German idealism: "In his admiration for Bismarck, he did not forget Goethe." Undoubtedly, Meinecke admitted, the generation just past had produced no one comparable in stature to the giants of whom Treitschke was the last; but German historians had been true to the ideals formulated by their great predecessors. Above all, they had defended the right and the necessity of free inquiry, which was the basis of all historical truth.[xvii]
The result was a foregone conclusion. In November 1935, Meinecke's name was gone from the cover of the Historische Zeitschrift, and the first article was contributed by Walter Frank. Contemptuously Frank described the fate of those scholars who, boasting of their impartiality and objectivity, had thought the National Socialist revolution a temporary evil to be lived through in silence until sanity returned. They had been swept aside. Everyone now understood that there was room in Germany only for those who could say, like Treitschke, "The patriot in me is a thousand times stronger than the professor!" Now German scholarship could be brought back into harmony with national life. "The march of the storm columns and the song of the masses and the solitary struggles of the scholar and the artist, will create tones which will blend together, freely and without compulsion, into one great German symphony." However, Frank hastened to add the warning that refusal to speak or teach in harmony with the ideals of the New Germany would be treated as "a revolt of insolent slaves, who must be beaten down with the whip."[xviii]
Meinecke's voice can be silenced. But will the voice of Treitschke, speaking from volumes which form part of the National Socialist Acta Sanctorum, blend into the one great German symphony? Or will it encourage those who would call a different tune?
Treitschke placed the state, the power of the state, the needs of the state, in the foreground of his "Politics" because he believed that Germans lacked reverence for the state, that they were a cosmopolitan, not a national people. But in the last years of his career this belief was unfounded: he had not perceived the changes which had taken place in German ways of thinking since he first began to preach the blessings of unity in the days when there was no German Empire. By the nineties he was preaching to the converted. The "rough national pride, splendid in its one-sidedness" which he had admired in an Englishman like Canning, had become superabundant in Germany. Undoubtedly the uneasiness of foreigners like Austen Chamberlain who listened to Treitschke's diatribes and observed the ecstasy of young Germans in the lecture hall, was well-founded. Treitschke must stand as one of those who encouraged the blind, uncontrolled lust for expansion in prewar Germany. The "Politics" is valuable today because from its pages we can learn how much of contemporary Germany is rooted deep in the past and therefore unlikely to be easily uprooted.
The "Politics" is no less valuable as a measure of the gulf separating the Third Reich from nineteenth-century Germany. The distinguishing characteristic of German political life today is that it is totalitarian, that neither the individual in Germany nor the rest of the world outside Germany can appeal to any power higher than the "national will." The question as to what agency enforces that will is irrelevant; it is the claim to exclusive power and right which is significant.
Such a claim was not even thought possible by Treitschke, much less upheld by him. Against the older western European traditions of political thought, which exalted the individual citizen and mankind above the state, he urged the central importance of the state. Yet he accepted limitations on the power of the state as self-evident. He did not stress these limitations precisely because they seemed to him self-evident. He urged his students to study Aristotle because the Greeks revered the state. They did, he added, exaggerate the importance of the state, but modern students were in no danger of falling into this error. "The different circumstances of our lives prevent this, and above all that recognition of our undying personality which Christianity has brought us, through which we realize that man can never be merely a member of the State, when he is free to think as he will of God and the Kingdom of God." Modern Europeans, he declared, realized that the citizen could be a member of several different groups, political and non-political, "without identifying his whole personality with any one of them." The state might try to use its power to impair freedom of conscience, "although it would be madness to attempt it amongst us; it would meet with such resistance that it would have to acknowledge its own impotence." He contended that the growth of strong national states would increase the freedom and independence of the individual. "The State feels that its own strength and glory rests ultimately on the freedom of reasonable, thoughtful men." To him, a national army such as that of Germany presupposed political freedom and general satisfaction with the government; otherwise it would be dangerous to put arms into the hands of the people.[xix]
And as the state was strong only if the citizen was free, so the state would realize that there was a real family of nations. "Every State will realize that it is an integral part of the community of other States in which it finds itself placed, and that it must live with them on some kind of terms, bad or good, as the case may be." War was the ultimate arbiter in quarrels between states, and treaties could not endure forever in a dynamic world, but "a state which went upon the principle of despising faith and loyalty would be constantly threatened by enemies." International law had no absolute sanctions behind it, only mutual give-and-take; but even on this basis Treitschke thought it possible to look forward to "a harmonious comity of nations, who, concluding treaties of their own free will, admit restrictions upon their sovereignty without abrogating it."[xx]
Cold calculation of national interest would suffice to prevent tyranny at home and anarchy abroad, Treitschke believed. He reminded his hearers, however, that, in the ultimate, all power, including the power of the state, was from God. Treitschke insisted that a political philosophy which was indifferent to the means by which power was won and the ends for which it was used was founded on "deep immorality;" ruin awaited the state which made power an end in itself, rather than a means for service to "the highest moral welfare of the human race."[xxi]
Treitschke and the Germany of his day had not forgotten Goethe in their admiration for Bismarck. Though that Germany had travelled far from the individualism and cosmopolitanism of Goethe's Weimar, it was still far from the Munich of Adolf Hitler and Paul Goebbels. Goethe, Treitschke, Goebbels -- here are fixed points through which the line of German history must be traced. If we have supreme confidence in the teachings of history, we may project the line into the future. But whether we will draw comfort from the vista thus opened to the imagination depends on the degree to which we share the optimism of that long line of Anglo-Saxons which stretches back through Edward Grey and Woodrow Wilson to that forgotten liberal, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, who admitted in 1866 that Bismarck's influence had been "simply evil," but who remained serenely confident that the Iron Chancellor would fail because, "when any institutions come directly into contact with the spirit of the time, they may resist for five years, or ten, or twenty, but down they must go in the end." [xxii]
[i] G. M. Trevelyan: "Grey of Fallodon." Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937, p. 308.
[ii] New York: Macmillan, 1916, 2 volumes. Unless otherwise indicated, subsequent citations will refer to this edition of the "Politics."
[iii] I, xxvii, xliv.
[iv] "History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century." New York: 1915-19, v. V, p. 611.
[v] II, 585.
[vi] II, 619.
[vii] I, 17.
[viii] I, 17, 104.
[ix] I, 13.
[x] I, 34-35; II, 394-96.
[xi] II, 359 ff.
[xii] I, 298-302.
[xiii] I, 116-19, 213, 230-32.
[xiv] I, viii.
[xv] "Memoirs of Prince von Bülow." Boston: Little, Brown, 1931-32, v. III, p. 114.
[xvi] Walter Frank: "Kämpfende Wissenschaft." Hamburg, 1934.
[xvii] Historische Zeitschrift, CL, 1-9; CLII, 101-103.
[xviii] Ibid., CLIII, 6-23.
[xix] I, xxxii, 4, 76; II, 22, 441.
[xx] I, 28; II, 588-600.
[xxi] I, viii, 84, 85.
[xxii] Sir M. E. Grant Duff: "Studies in European Politics." Edinburgh, 1866, p. 234, 245.