The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
This article is adapted from the author's remarks at the tenth annual dinner of the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, at which he was honored for distinguished scholarship in German history and for contributions to good relations between the United States and Germany. Reflections on his career and accomplishments were made at the November 14 dinner by Joschka Fischer, German foreign minister; W. Michael Blumenthal, director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin; and Richard C. Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
To have witnessed even as a child the descent in Germany from decency to Nazi barbarism gave the question, how was it possible? an existential immediacy. Along with others of my generation, I wrestled with that question, trying to reconstruct some parts of the past and perhaps intuit some lessons.
Today, I worry about the immediate future of the United States, the country that gave haven to German-speaking refugees in the 1930s. (In 1938, at the age of 12, I came with my family to New York.) We refugees are grateful to the United States for saving us and for giving us a chance for a new start, if often under harsh circumstances. We loved and admired this country that, when we arrived, was still digging itself out from an unprecedented depression, under a leader whose motto was "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," while his German contemporary preached fear in order to exploit it.
The United States was the best functioning democracy of the 1930s -- that "low, dishonest decade" -- and under President Franklin Roosevelt it was committed to pragmatic reform and maintained inimitable high spirits. I have not forgotten the unpleasant elements of those days -- the injustices, the right-wing radicals, the anti-Semites -- but the dominant note of Roosevelt's era was ebullient affirmation.
The Leo Baeck Institute is a monument that German Jewish refugees built as a memorial to their collective past, a troubled, anguished, glorious past to which many of them remained loyal even after National Socialism sought to deny and destroy it. It is impossible to generalize about German Jews in the modern era, but common to most of them was an earlier deep affection for their country, its language, and its culture. Perhaps they loved not wisely but too well. Even Albert Einstein, with his abiding antipathy for things German, remembered his unique, never duplicated companionship during his great years in Berlin with his German colleagues Max Planck and Max von Laue.
I remember from my childhood the decent Germans, so-called Aryans who, being opponents of the Nazi regime, disappeared into concentration camps in and after 1933. The ties between us had been close, and when they were broken, when so many Germans decided they did not want to know what was happening to their Jewish or "non-Aryan" neighbors, when they denied their common past, the pain was deep. But something of what had once been remained in the minds of many refugees, and they founded the Leo Baeck Institute to be a repository of this legacy. Its archives are a treasure for historians, and scholars from everywhere -- in recent decades especially from Germany itself -- have visited its unique library. The institute has contributed to greater understanding and reconciliation between Americans and Germans, between Christians and Jews.
The founders probably seized quickly upon the name Leo Baeck to recall the last liberal rabbi of Germany -- a student of the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, someone who deepened theological learning by taking a fuller account of the irrational, mysterious elements in human existence. However much Baeck and Paul Tillich had understood the power of the demonic when they studied it in the 1920s, Baeck could not have imagined that he would live to see the triumph of hate-filled unreason. In the end, he had to endure living under that triumph, in a unique position as the last head of Germany's Jewish community, its representative to the Nazi authorities.
Eventually, in 1943, the regime sent him to Theresienstadt, that Nazi mockery of a "model" concentration camp, where for a time specially selected victims, spared as yet from extermination, were allowed to retain some form of a community before most of them died of hunger and disease. Baeck survived his years there; perhaps he met my father's sister and her husband there before they were deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
Former German President Richard von Weizsaecker, in his extraordinary address on the fortieth anniversary of Germany's unconditional surrender, warned that sparing German feelings would be of no avail. The wounds remain and need to be acknowledged. In that same spirit of candor, let me say that the work of the institute is all the more important in light of what an early head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Gerson Cohen, wrote in the 1975 Leo Baeck Institute Year Book. He mentioned that German Jewry had received a "bad press" in recent literature, being depicted occasionally as epitomizing submissiveness and self-hatred. The history of German Jews is complex, and hence the importance of the diverse testimony collected at the institute; but it is also appropriate to recall the poet Heinrich Heine's thought -- that Jews are like the people they live among, only more so. Hence German Jews, who came in great variety -- orthodox, liberal, secular, converted -- were like Germans, only more so: ambitious, talented, disciplined, and full of ambivalence.
After their civic emancipation in the nineteenth century, German Jews made an unprecedented leap to achievement, prominence, and wealth within only three generations, but some special insecurity and vulnerability clung to them, as it did to many Germans. I remember finding in an obscure book British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's confession in the early 1870s to young Leonard Montefiore, English author and philanthropist, "You and I belong to a race that can do everything but fail." What a poignant remark, I thought, and mentioned it to my son, who instantly responded, "How hard on the others."
It probably was hard on the others, but now many Germans regret the absence of that creative complicated element in German Jewry. They recall the inestimable contributions that Jews made to German life and culture in their century of partial emancipation. But their forbears had more complicated feelings on the subject, and even the most successful Jews felt, as the industrialist and statesman Walther Rathenau once said, that "there comes a moment in every Jew's life when he realizes he is a second-class citizen."
Perhaps that strange mixture of German hospitality and hostility to Jews evoked the ambivalent response of some of the greatest of German Jews. They were the brilliant diagnosticians of German and European hypocrisy, the memorable breakers of taboos: think of Heine's mockery of German sentimental pretense, of Karl Marx's insistence that the cash nexus trumps virtue, or of Sigmund Freud's exposure of sexual hypocrisy and falsehood. Disturbers of a false peace are indispensable but rarely welcomed. So anti-Semitism, which comes in many guises and degrees, existed in pre-1914 Germany, as it did more ferociously in other countries. In Germany, it became an all-consuming political weapon only after the Great War.
It is now conventional wisdom that World War I and its senseless, unimaginable slaughter was the ur-catastrophe of the last century. It brutalized a Europe that before 1914, although deeply flawed by injustice and arrogance, also contained the promise of great emancipation movements championing the demands for social justice, for equality, for women's rights -- for human rights, more generally. World War I radicalized Europe; without it, there would have been no Bolshevism and no fascism. In the postwar climate and in the defeated and self-deceived Germany, National Socialism flourished and ultimately made it possible for Hitler to establish the most popular, the most murderous, the most seductive, and the most repressive regime of the last century.
MORALS OF THE STORY
The rise of National Socialism was neither inevitable nor accidental. It did have deep roots, but it could have been stopped. This is but one of the many lessons contained in modern German history, lessons that should not be squandered in cheap and ignorant analogies. A key lesson is that civic passivity and willed blindness were the preconditions for the triumph of National Socialism, which many clear-headed Germans recognized at the time as a monstrous danger. We who were born at the end of the Weimar Republic and who witnessed the rise of National Socialism should remember that even in the darkest period there were individuals who showed active decency, who, defying intimidation and repression, opposed evil and tried to ease suffering. I wish these people would be given a proper European memorial, not to appease our conscience but to summon the courage of future generations.
After World War I and Germany's defeat, conditions were harsh, and Germans were deeply divided between moderates and democrats on the one hand and fanatic extremists of the right and the left on the other. National Socialists portrayed Germany as a nation that had been stabbed in the back by socialists and Jews; they portrayed Weimar Germany as a moral and political swamp; they seized on the Bolshevik danger, painted it in lurid colors, and stoked people's fear in order to pose as saviors of the nation.
In the late 1920s, a group of intellectuals known as conservative revolutionaries demanded new volkish authoritarianism, a third Reich. Richly financed by corporate interests, they denounced liberalism as the greatest, most invidious threat and attacked it for its tolerance, rationality, and cosmopolitan culture. These conservative revolutionaries were proud of being prophets of the Third Reich -- at least until some of them were exiled or murdered by the Nazis when the latter came to power. Throughout, the Nazis vilified liberalism as a Marxist-Jewish conspiracy, and, with Germany in the midst of unprecedented depression and impoverishment, they promised a national rebirth.
Twenty years ago, I wrote an essay called "National Socialism as Temptation," about what it was that induced so many Germans to embrace the terrifying specter. There were many reasons, but at the top ranked Adolf Hitler himself, a brilliant populist manipulator who insisted and probably believed that Providence had chosen him as Germany's savior, a leader charged with executing a divine mission. God had been drafted into national politics before, but Hitler's success in fusing racial dogma with Germanic Christianity was an immensely powerful element in his electoral campaigns. Some people recognized the moral perils of mixing religion and politics, but many more were seduced by it. It was the pseudoreligious transfiguration of politics that largely ensured his success, notably in Protestant areas.
German moderates and German elites underestimated Hitler, assuming that most people would not succumb to his Manichean unreason; they did not think that his hatred and mendacity could be taken seriously. They were proved wrong. People were enthralled by the Nazis' cunning transposition of politics into carefully staged pageantry, into a flag-waving martial Mass. At solemn moments, the National Socialists would shift from the pseudoreligious invocation of Providence to traditional Christian forms: In his first radio address to the German people, 24 hours after coming to power, Hitler declared, "The national government will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. They regard Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life." German elites proved susceptible to this mystical brew of pseudoreligion and disguised interest. Churchmen, especially Protestant clergy, shared his hostility toward the liberal-secular state and its defenders; they were also filled with anti-Semitic beliefs, although with some heroic exceptions.
Let me cite one example of the acknowledged appeal of unreason. Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker, a Nobel laureate in physics and a philosopher, wrote to me in the mid-1980s saying that he had never believed in Nazi ideology but that he had been tempted by the movement, which seemed to him then like "the outpouring of the Holy Spirit." On reflection, he thought that National Socialism had been part of a process that the National Socialists themselves had not understood. He may well have been right. The Nazis did not realize that they were part of a historic process in which resentment against a disenchanted secular world found deliverance in the ecstatic escape of unreason.
Although modern German history offers lessons in both disaster and recovery, German has remained the language of politics in crisis. And the principal lesson speaks of the fragility of democracy and the fatality of civic passivity or indifference; German history teaches us that malice and simplicity have their own appeal, that force impresses, and that nothing in the public realm is inevitable.
Reconstruction is another lesson, for the history of the Federal Republic since World War II, a republic that is now 55 years old, exemplifies success despite its serious flaws and shortcomings. In postwar Germany, democracy grew on what was initially uncongenial ground, when Germans were still steeped in resentment and denial. American friendship supported that reconstruction, especially in its first decade. I fear that an estrangement is now taking place; at the least, we must all try to preserve in the private realm what may be in jeopardy in public life.
German democracy and German acceptance of Western traditions have been the preconditions for Germany's gradual reconciliation with neighbors and former enemies, with Poles and Slavs; for efforts at reconciliation with Jews; for a general acceptance of the burden of the past and a collective commitment to the future. This German achievement is remarkable -- but it too needs constant protection.
My hope is for a renewal on still firmer ground of a transatlantic community of liberal democracies. Every democracy needs a liberal fundament, a bill of rights enshrined in law and spirit, for this alone gives democracy the chance for self-correction and reform. Without it, the survival of democracy is at risk. Every genuine conservative knows this.