THE Germans seem to be an enigma. How is it possible that in poetry, music, philosophy, science, technology they should have made such a large contribution to the intellectual wealth of mankind and yet should have permitted Hitler to create a criminal state and overwhelm the world and themselves in disaster? Those who admit their efficiency, their industriousness, their conscientiousness, their soldierly qualities, are the more astounded at the indifference with which they seem to take everything. But though their political unreliability is shocking, they constitute a material force which appears to be indestructible; and in the present state of the world that force is needed. The hope is that through the development of democracy in Germany this force may become purer, more Westernized, increasingly governed by principles of freedom. But do the Germans think in a democratic way?

Imperial Germany in Bismarck's time was governed by liberality and sound legality. Economic life, science and arts, literature and poetry were all free; parties and movements could be freely formed. The majority of people had a sense of security. Statistics at the end of the century showed an annual increase of wealth. Social problems, it is true, caused anxiety; but the tremendous economic progress steadily improved everybody's standard of living. Most people lived confident in the belief that things would go on getting better and better without any catastrophe. Even the Social Democrats had, in actual practice, abandoned their revolutionary Marxist ideas.

One thing, however, was not clear. The glorious freedom prevailing in private affairs was accompanied by political unfreedom. Pseudo-constitutionalism gave the pretense, through the elections for the Reichstag, that power was shared. The noise of speeches and campaigns disguised the fact that nothing important was being decided. Actually, the German people lived happily in an authoritarian state. Policy was made by the government; they trusted that it was good. Bismarck had directed his policy toward a lasting peace in Europe. It had been self-willed but it had worked to Germany's advantage. Of course there was also grumbling and apprehension, but that was only temporary. The civil service was clean. The social priority of the army flattered the nation's pride in power. Life had splendor, and the government poured sanctification from above.

This state of affairs was the apparently excellent product of the authoritarian state which had been in existence since the Thirty Years' War. By a tradition of many centuries the individual German was satisfied that his rôle was restricted to private affairs in the widest sense of that term. As he had no share individually in world politics nor any knowledge of them he felt no responsibility. Whatever the government did, he did not feel that he had done it. He did not feel guilty about a war or about any actions or orders of his rulers in the course of it. He obeyed, and his obedience sprang from a sense of duty. Obedience was a moral value as such. This, however, created a double standard: he was identified with the power of the state, he enjoyed the pride of power, but he had no responsibility.

When Germany obtained parliamentary democracy in 1918 it was a result of her military and political collapse and not-- as it had been in Western countries--the product of grave struggles within the state. German democracy was not a moral and political achievement but the symptom of a collapse; it was simply a way out of impotence. Though its growth was attended by fallacious and sentimental hopes, the new parliamentary democracy did not derive from the political thinking of the people. With Germany's economic revival it was taken over by the parties, and these became mere groups of interest. The majority regarded the situation as uncomfortable and deplored its lack of glamor. Though the existence of the parties was looked upon as merely accidental, elections were decided with reference to them rather than clear political issues or personalities. People went to the polls out of a vague impulse and for selfish material interests. They obeyed, as usual: but they resented obeying disreputable figures. Due to the misery of unemployment, which after 1929 hopelessly increased, more and more people were in a state of mind to yield to a magician promising everything, to a pied piper who while leading them to ruin seemed to lead them to glory. But this was by no means an inevitable development. Unimpeachable men like Ebert and Briining did their best for the honor of Germany but never succeeded in casting a comparable spell. The reasons they failed are many. One certainly is the fact that their sober planning, their common sense, their patience and their moral reliability remained unrecognized by so many of us Germans, and that even where they were recognized they failed to satisfy the demand for superhuman qualities.

After the unconditional surrender of 1945 came a strange hopeful interlude. The occupying Powers governed through the best Germans they could find. Their intention seemed to be that the Germans should acquire political education through their own experience in civil government, starting with municipal administration and slowly progressing higher, the external controls meanwhile being gradually and cautiously lifted. The occupying Powers had liberated us but they had not made us free. We were to obtain freedom for ourselves--not by force and rebellion, but through political self-education. Perhaps the procedure would have been politically sound if the occupying Powers had openly admitted that they possessed actual sovereignty. We might then have proceeded with our self-education while they guaranteed security outside. Such a course would have been possible for the victors, who respect human rights and want freedom everywhere. But they were afraid of what they call colonial administration. Since in their eyes man is by nature born free, they thought that any nation could without any interval plunge successfully into free political thinking if only it were given a chance. They therefore impatiently prescribed parliamentary democracy for Western Germany. To us, however, this political freedom meant merely a shift of government to the parties and in some instances to the same politicians who had been in office before 1933. The plan by its nature required a slow development of perhaps 10 or 20 years; instead, a form which had already failed with the parliamentarians in 1933 was revived. Within a short time constitutions were worked out for regional and federal governments and the occupying Powers then quickly rushed them to a vote. But those constitutions were not rooted in the mentality of the people. They did not require the participation of the people in discussion, and to this day they are practically unknown to the people. Thus the people voted on something they did not know. It was the old story: since basically the whole thing is not specifically your business, you stick to the things you know. You work, you suffer and if it becomes too much you grumble. You have hardly any idea of the meaning of a constitution. You wish to be "governed decently;" but it does not occur to you that you cannot count on that unless you are politically active yourself.

Thus self-education in political democracy never in actual fact began in Germany. The present parliamentary democracy is a democracy which was forced upon us--or, put in more flattering terms, it is a democracy which was conferred upon us by the grace of the victor. It has not grown out of our own work. East Germans and West Germans are not separated by different ideologies of their own but as a result of different decisions of the victors for the specific regions which they occupied; in the one case they originated in the idea of freedom, in the other in the idea of totalitarianism.

In Western Germany, so far as the mass of the population is concerned, one cannot speak about a new democratic way of thinking. It is true that various Germans have expressed themselves on the basic ideas of democracy, on the legal state, on liberalism. Authors have tried through the press, sometimes in imploring terms, to lead us toward responsible thinking. But there should be no illusions, I believe: they were and they are voices in the desert, heard by some, but dying away on the whole like monologues in an empty room. There is as yet no effective political thinking which derives from within and stands the test of everyday life. Perhaps the inclination toward such thinking has even decreased in recent years.

These developments coincided with a phenomenon which in itself was very satisfactory for Germany. Western Germany experienced the "economic miracle." Sparked by American aid, German efficiency and industriousness achieved the unexpected economic boom. This, however, has had the effect of further slackening the urge toward political thinking. A growing sense of satisfaction sets the prevailing tone in spite of the ruins, in spite of the sufferings of those who have no part in the material improvement, in spite of the refugees from the East of whom only a small (though increasing) part have been integrated and can share in the general success. Thus the restoration of the old parliamentary democracy, of its parties and party leaders, became the pattern for the new Germany in all other fields. The past was continued--fundamentally without much enthusiasm, though with great external activity, and based on an intellectual level which meanwhile had on the whole deteriorated.

To the question as to what is left of Hitler's times today the answer must be, I believe, that it is almost surprising how completely Hitler himself has been forgotten. A few die-hards and scoundrels aside, there does not seem to be any considerable number of Nazis. The majority of Germans want to be governed authoritatively but decently. Hitler was a terrible disappointment. But the fact that a restoration of the Nazi régime seems unlikely at present is not by itself enough ground to feel reassured. The swamp of intellectual, moral and political confusion, the uncertain and unreliable soil on which Hitler and his associates flourished, is still there. We therefore can but watch anxiously to see what will be the final German attitude toward the relics of National Socialism. To the extent that they are not firmly denounced either in the abstract or when it comes to choosing personnel there is evidence of that same continuing political vagueness of which I spoke above. On a higher intellectual level, too, a basic idea which is politically calamitous has by no means been extinguished. In principle Hitler is denounced but not the idea of the great leader as such. The subject is not of current interest and one does not talk about it. But those who have lived through 1933 and have seen the reactions of professors, students, the middle class and even workers know that there is something in our people which believes in the great leader, whether he be an imperial monarch or a charismatic hero of the people. It can be traced in our classic literature. The sober and realistic understanding that Man is always governed by Man and that every human leader needs to be controlled seems hard to attain.

II

The average German, then, trusts authority; the business of authority, he assumes, is to handle politics and relieve him from thinking about them. He expects that this authority, which derives from God, as the expression used to be, will lead him well, and he demands that it should not disappoint him. If he is disappointed, however, it has never as yet been his desire to share the responsibility but to obtain a better authority.

As we look back at German history we see that since the seventeenth century democratic ideas have never moulded the form of the state. Instead, political ideas have yielded to force, mechanical arrangements or mere fatigue. There is an enormous gap between the great political concepts of Kant and Baron von Stein, of Mommsen and Max Weber, and the political reality which was determined by Bismarck's successful foreign policy and his suppression of domestic democratic tendencies. The possibilities of German democracy lie sleeping. A people which has been obedient for centuries cannot be expected to become democratic all of a sudden.

Here I must note, however, that the meaning of democracy is felt, understood and expressed in different ways in different Western countries. In all of them democracy is linked with the idea of the legal state and liberalism, but not in equal degree. There is recognition that the people are sovereign and that they are entitled to take part in politics, but there are wide variations in the manner and extent of this participation. In some cases the people take a constant interest in public affairs, helped by current information in the press and by their statesmen; in others their coöperation may be reduced to rare elections in which the voters hardly know what they are called upon to decide. Popular participation in politics may be part of daily life, reflected in the general attitude, in the acceptance of joint responsibility, in equal rights, in neighborliness; or politics may remain outside daily life due to the emphasis on hierarchies or because political intercourse consists of giving and obeying orders. As a logically defined term democracy will always be unsatisfactory. For democracy is the historical reality of the community shaped by the origins and great decisions of its ancestors.

My statements must not be misunderstood as the expression of hopelessness, but are to be taken as they are intended, as a warning against illusion. Truthfulness is the condition for all improvement.

In the first place, people should beware of the idea that there is such a thing as a recognizable national character and that it rules out certain eventualities. It is impossible to define the political character of a people precisely and to state just what is going on inside it; no matter how many factors are taken into account, there will always be others, some of them contradictory. The full nature and power of a trait are indefinable. The hidden or the contemptible, the accidental or the ridiculous, may be the seed of some dominant trait of the future. The predetermination of an event cannot be deduced by constructing attributes of national character. What possibly may be and what is really going to be remain open.

This is a fact to the German who has lived his life among Germans. I have always been aware of the variety of elements active in the German people--a people of many peoples held together by nothing, outside the language, except various episodic formations of states. However much one may know about the present intellectual situation in Germany and the political forces at work there, it still is not enough to permit any prediction. I know that for half a century I have practically always been wrong about the political future. The unpredictable, which is perhaps even stronger in us Germans than in other peoples, worries both ourselves and others. Foreigners and Germans alike were surprised by what happened in 1933. Suddenly in community after community people who had until then been disreputable failures became the masters. Notorious criminals began to run the country. Now most Germans were doubtless as reasonable, industrious and decent before 1933 as they are today. Of course, there was a considerable minority of obsessed persons in 1933, but actually the Nazis came to power through a chain of accidents which seemed at the time to represent either an irresistible turn of history or satanic fate. They advanced to power at first through disguised illegalities (disguised, because even Hitler knew that the Germans would trust only what seemed a legal and orderly transfer of power) and finally through a series of bluffs and acts of blackmail (which impressed a minority as proofs of their leader's glorious superiority). And then--it is another fact which is surprising and should not be forgotten--not everybody followed, but the majority did.

It must not be assumed that the German political characteristics described above are innate or hereditary. The people of Holland and Switzerland, for example, are so much like us that a Frisian from northwest Germany feels more at home in all important respects in Holland than he does in Upper Bavaria; and a German from the Black Forest feels more akin to the Swiss than to the Pomeranians. But this kinship with the Dutch and the Swiss immediately disappears where political thinking and political judgment are concerned. After the devastation of the Thirty Years' War, Germany was re-shaped on authoritarian lines by a state which was in a desperate situation and found a means of salvation in the systematic action of European princes and without the knowledge of the helpless people involved. In those days, and up to the beginning of the First World War, the Prussian civil service was clean, reliable, unselfish and devoted, but firmly convinced of the fact that the ruler is entitled to the obedience of his subjects. The Dutch and the Swiss, on the other hand, have preserved their old freedoms from the Middle Ages and have shaped them into modern freedom. It was their own doing and their own luck. They kept up heroic opposition against absolutist countries like Germany, France and Spain which tried to usurp their powers; and in this resistance they formed the basis of their own freedom.

What has been brought into being and formed by history is carried on by tradition, not by biological heredity. It is born slowly and it changes slowly. In view of historical analogies, the German people cannot be expected to change suddenly; but they should be encouraged to do so in the long run, beginning with an inner revolution in the thinking of the individual. Those in Germany who know what is needed--and they still are only a few--are working for such a change.

III

What should be done in our situation? Perhaps a few points can be made for the sake of German freedom. The active statesman must restrain his public speech in view of the effect which it might have on current events. A mere writer who is thinking only in the sphere of possibilities is not hampered by such considerations.

Most Germans still cover up memories of the past which on the contrary should be looked at and thought through. It does not help to try to blot out what has happened and what has been done. The things that one tries to forget stir from below and hamper the attainment of a reasonable understanding of the present. The present economic miracle encourages German self-deception; almost it seems as if the years 1933 to 1945 had never existed. To my mind it is wrong to say that a line should be drawn under the past, that people should forget, should start over again, should look solely ahead because that is the course of nature and only so is life possible. My answer is that that is not Man's destiny at all. Man is more than nature and accident. The more he remembers, the more he realizes what he has done and experienced, the more determinedly he accepts his responsibility and the deeper he searches into what has been and what is, the more Man he is.

If doing away with illusions is the condition for a revival of political thinking, we Germans still have a great task ahead of us. I cannot describe it in these pages but I can draw attention to it.

First, a few rough facts of which every German should be aware. We owe our freedom not to ourselves but to the Western Powers who, in alliance with Russia, defeated Hitler's Germany. We have received aid from the Western victors to an extent unique in history, and it is this aid which has made Germany's reconstruction possible. We stand, a tiny Power, in a moment of world history when the future freedom of mankind will be determined. In this situation national interests have not by any means lost their importance, but they must yield to the claims of a higher interest. The demand for "sovereignty" has become absurd, the bestowal of "sovereignty" undignified make-believe. All the German political parties lack a basis of genuine belief. The Social Democrats, for example, though in actual practice and occasionally even in words they have denounced Marxism, in theory still cling to their old-fashioned world of ideas and lack the strength to formulate clear convictions and express them. Interests hide behind ideological symbols which, in fact, nobody takes seriously. It is an encouraging fact that there are men who understand all this and who work patiently for the recognition and practical application of political ideas. But they remain anonymous even in their own parties, and not one of them has as yet been able to influence the general attitude or the course of events. They are the hope of the future.

It seems to me particularly dishonest that the cry for German unity should have a double meaning. Every German must be depressed by the thought that millions of German-speaking people in the East, by a common spiritual tradition as akin to us as the Western parts of Germany are kin to each other, must live under the terror of totalitarianism. Their youth are being made over in complete isolation from the West, with the result that in a few decades in spite of a common language two different peoples may have developed. The question arises whether the majority of the Germans in the West are not perhaps taking a rather indifferent attitude toward this development, whether they do not fail to visualize what it means to live in falsehood, material misery, error, silence and distrust. It might naturally be expected that West Germany would be willing and eager to welcome all Germans from the East who want to come and would accept them in the West with immediate and equal rights, on the theory that it is human beings that count, not territories. There are reasonable arguments against this point of view: the consequences of adopting it would be favorable to the Bolshevists; the extraordinary should be neither asked nor expected. At the same time, however, it should be realized that solidarity of the kind I am speaking about did not develop in Germany. And this fact throws light on the way in which the West of Germany is concerned about the East of Germany. The cry for reunification and liberation of the East is powerful; indeed it is supported unanimously by all Germans in the West. But they are far from unanimous on the fact that reunification is not the only way to bring about the liberation of the East. Liberation might also be brought about even if two German states existed. The cry for unification is more closely related to a desire for power than to solidarity; it is the expression of a longing for the past glory of a great Reich.

History and the consequences of our own political doings have now confronted us with duties more important than breathing false life into the ghosts of the past. The question of East German liberation should be approached the other way around: if political unification with the West should become a necessary measure for the liberation of the East Germans, then it should be taken. But by making unification as such our goal, we just repeat the mistake we made in the nineteenth century at the prime of our cultural and economic life, when the cry was for unity first, then freedom. It was argued that once we have unity (and with it the power of a mighty empire), freedom would follow in due course. Today we know that it never did, and that unity has political and moral value only if it is based not on power alone but on freedom and on the struggle for inner political freedom.

German political life cannot derive dignity from the Bismarckian concept that absolute sovereignty is a nation's ultimate goal, but only from an attitude which relates all decisions to the central question presented alike to us and to all other nations by the world situation today--is there to be freedom on earth or not? Only so will it be determined what place the essential is to have in political life.

The German who works toward these goals can proceed only within the framework of parliamentary democracy--not without it, not outside of it, not by destroying it. The infinitely hard thing is to breathe democratic life into the formal democracy that was forced upon us. What should have been its basic constituent must now belatedly be roused within it.

IV

The main question which will decide our democratic future and our freedom, both at home and abroad, is that of the new German army. In view of the total loss of freedom which threatens us from outside, rearmament is a hard necessity. In contrast to former days, German youth now has no inclination toward military service. Nobody wants a war. Yet there are strong pressures to rearm. The regular officers of the Hitler era push forward into public life, anxious to rehabilitate themselves while building a new army. America wants German rearmament because without it no secure dam for the protection of Europe can be created. The European countries favor it for the same reason, despite misgivings about reviving an army which has proved once before that it can achieve the inconceivable. Among the German people themselves additional confusion has been caused by what they have been told from abroad. In 1945 they heard that every military activity must cease altogether, once and forever, and that it was wrong even to have a future military aim in view. Now they hear that military activity should be revived, indeed that it is a necessity, and that it would be morally wrong to try to evade the realities of the situation by adopting a "without me" attitude.

Rearmament cannot be discussed parenthetically. Yet a few of the possible dangers which it represents for the democratic system of thought should be called to mind. Would not the spirit of the Hitler army, through its many regular officers who are still available today, kill at the start all chance for the creation of a German political spirit? Would it not be disastrous for German freedom and indeed for world freedom if the new German army were not built up in radical denunciation of the spirit of the Hitler army and after a conscious break with that tradition? Must not the new army discard that tradition in favor of the soldierly spirit of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and the old Moltke? In this connection it should be realized that the German military spirit lost its dignity under Hitler. Nobody who owed his position to Hitler and had served him could save his honor except by sacrificing his life as did General von Treskow and others. The discussion of the oath to Hitler which continues to this day proves the disintegrating effect of National Socialism. In the Hitler era there of course were a few regular officers who both by their acts and their refusals to act gave proof of a character which would qualify them to help build a new army. But they cannot be picked out objectively, and probably some of them would even shy away from such a task. On the other hand, the new German regular officer should not be trained by the regular officers of Hitler's army. But how otherwise? At one time in the eighteenth century Prussian army instructors helped the Americans to build up their army. Would it not be possible for American and Swiss instructors to train the new German soldiers and officers now? That would take too long, I am told, the matter is too urgent. Doubt is also expressed whether the spirit of an army in the old sense can be revived at all. Instructors for the mechanized modern army are totally different from the officers of the past; Hitler's officers were efficient technicians, and so would be useful.

At this point I am overcome by terrible pessimism. Whoever wishes to save the possibility that there will be democracy and liberalism in Germany should find a way to free those people and forces who would start at the beginning and build up, in a technical age, a spirit that is soldierly and yet humane. They would not build on the immediate past--except as something to push away from--but on centuries-old memories of German and Western honor, finding new forms to suit the new conditions. When I imagine how, in the framework of a European Army, German contingents might be trained in France and French contingents in Germany, what possibilities for mutual sympathy and esteem might flourish as a result of direct contacts on a basis of equality, how the spirit of democracy would develop naturally--this dream seems to me the most natural thing, and still a dream.

A German national army trained by and in charge of Hitler officers would, I think, be unreliable. I fear it as a German, and I understand the fears of others. May not all Germany's chances for democracy be put in jeopardy? What has happened before should not be forgotten. The right road to German rearmament is to be found only by German democrats. I am convinced that they exist. I do not attempt to say concretely what course they should follow, since I lack sufficient information. But I believe everybody should realize that this is not just one political problem among others, but that with it the future of German democracy, of German freedom and of German integration in the Western World will be decided. The world situation permits no delay, and political thought is pressed to find immediate solutions. On the other hand, the development of a moral and political standard for a people requires time, and political thought in that sense must look far ahead. The urgent problem arises from the threat of totalitarian power; the long-range problem is the self-education of released spirits in the transformation of the technical world. The way in which the urgent problem is solved will decide the long-term problem also.

It is proper to add that Chancellor Adenauer seems to me to be on the right road both as regards the question of the European army and in his general conception of world politics. He has not expressed himself on the practical steps to take for the construction of the army. The critical investigation of each of these steps must not stop. Among the Chancellor's associates support should be given to those who stand firmly against the claims of the regular officers of the Hitler army and against American support of such claims in the urgent and merely military interest. The potentialities of democracy and how they are to be utilized must be studied, while avoiding undignified appeals to national pride and false desires for prestige. The guiding idea should be freedom in Germany and in the world, and every decision should be weighed in that light.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • KARL JASPERS, Professor of Philosophy, University of Basle; former Professor of Philosophy, University of Heidelberg; author of many standard works
  • More By Karl Jaspers