IN the "Cahiers" of the French philosopher Montesquieu we find the pensive lines: "One has to know the prejudices of one's century, in order neither to offend nor follow them too much." If Montesquieu had lived recently he most likely would not only have pointed to the prejudices of one's time as constituting a great political danger but would have added a warning against collective judgments and might have suggested a way to avoid them in the sociological ideas which he himself put forward. In the following reflections I shall try not to overlook the fact that the politician and diplomat as well as the historian must utilize collective terms like "Germany" or "the Germans;" but I want to warn my readers not to confuse collective conceptions and terminology with reality. For the reality is not a firm element but a strange agglomeration which to some extent is on the point of genuine development and to some extent is about to dissolve.
I might illustrate what is to me the political meaning of this situation by an example from history. One can have strong doubts as to whether Germany really has ever been correctly referred to as "a nation of poets and thinkers." But it is not open to doubt that belief in this general conception has for years prevented the world from making an accurate and understanding appraisal of Nazi crimes and Nazi criminals. This was true, moreover, not only of the outside world but also of Germany herself. Today it is equally dangerous to regard Germany or Western Germany as a state like the United States or any country of Europe and to imagine that the Germans form a nation either in disposition or structure similar to the western democracies. The reality about Germany becomes evident only through a sociological analysis which reveals the unique evolution of this fateful European country since 1914 -- an evolution in which the years of Nazi terror were only a ghastly interlude.
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