Military history

THE HISTORICAL ROOTS OF THE THIRD REICH

In the delirious days of the annual rallies of the Nazi Party at Nuremberg at the beginning of September, I used to be accosted by a swarm of hawkers selling a picture postcard on which were shown the portraits of Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Hindenburg and Hitler. The inscription read: “What the King conquered, the Prince formed, the Field Marshal defended, the Soldier saved and unified.” Thus Hitler, the soldier, was portrayed not only as the savior and unifier of Germany but as the successor of these celebrated figures who had made the country great. The implication of the continuity of German history, culminating in Hitler’s rule, was not lost upon the multitude. The very expression “the Third Reich” also served to strengthen this concept. The First Reich had been the medieval Holy Roman Empire; the Second Reich had been that which was formed by Bismarck in 1871 after Prussia’s defeat of France. Both had added glory to the German name. The Weimar Republic, as Nazi propaganda had it, had dragged that fair name in the mud. The Third Reich restored it, just as Hitler had promised. Hitler’s Germany, then, was depicted as a logical development from all that had gone before—or at least of all that had been glorious.

But the onetime Vienna vagabond, however littered his mind, knew enough history to realize that there had been German failures in the past, failures that must be set against the successes of France and Britain. He never forgot that by the end of the Middle Ages, which had seen Britain and France emerge as unified nations, Germany remained a crazy patchwork of some three hundred individual states. It was this lack of national development which largely determined the course of German history from the end of the Middle Ages to midway in the nineteenth century and made it so different from that of the other great nations of Western Europe.

To the lack of political and dynastic unity was added, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the disaster of religious differences which followed the Reformation. There is not space in this book to recount adequately the immense influence that Martin Luther, the Saxon peasant who became an Augustinian monk and launched the German Reformation, had on the Germans and their subsequent history. But it may be said, in passing, that this towering but erratic genius, this savage anti-Semite and hater of Rome, who combined in his tempestuous character so many of the best and the worst qualities of the German—the coarseness, the boisterousness, the fanaticism, the intolerance, the violence, but also the honesty, the simplicity, the self-scrutiny, the passion for learning and for music and for poetry and for righteousness in the eyes of God—left a mark on the life of the Germans, for both good and bad, more indelible, more fateful, than was wrought by any other single individual before or since. Through his sermons and his magnificent translation of the Bible, Luther created the modern German language, aroused in the people not only a new Protestant vision of Christianity but a fervent German nationalism and taught them, at least in religion, the supremacy of the individual conscience. But tragically for them, Luther’s siding with the princes in the peasant risings, which he had largely inspired, and his passion for political autocracy ensured a mindless and provincial political absolutism which reduced the vast majority of the German people to poverty, to a horrible torpor and a demeaning subservience. Even worse perhaps, it helped to perpetuate and indeed to sharpen the hopeless divisions not only between classes but also between the various dynastic and political groupings of the German people. It doomed for centuries the possibility of the unification of Germany.

The Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which ended it, brought the final catastrophe to Germany, a blow so devastating that the country has never fully recovered from it. This was the last of Europe’s great religious wars, but before it was over it had degenerated from a Protestant–Catholic conflict into a confused dynastic struggle between the Catholic Austrian Hapsburgs on the one side and the Catholic French Bourbons and the Swedish Protestant monarchy on the other. In the savage fighting, Germany itself was laid waste, the towns and countryside were devastated and ravished, the people decimated. It has been estimated that one third of the German people perished in this barbarous war.

The Peace of Westphalia was almost as disastrous to the future of Germany as the war had been. The German princes, who had sided with France and Sweden, were confirmed as absolute rulers of their little domains, some 350 of them, the Emperor remaining merely as a figurehead so far as the German lands were concerned. The surge of reform and enlightenment which had swept Germany at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries was smothered. In that period the great free cities had enjoyed virtual independence; feudalism was gone in them, the arts and commerce thrived. Even in the countryside the German peasant had secured liberties far greater than those enjoyed in England and France. Indeed, at the beginning of the sixteenth century Germany could be said to be one of the fountains of European civilization.

Now, after the Peace of Westphalia, it was reduced to the barbarism of Muscovy. Serfdom was reimposed, even introduced in areas where it had been unknown. The towns lost their self-government. The peasants, the laborers, even the middle-class burghers, were exploited to the limit by the princes, who held them down in a degrading state of servitude. The pursuit of learning and the arts all but ceased. The greedy rulers had no feeling for German nationalism and patriotism and stamped out any manifestations of them in their subjects. Civilization came to a standstill in Germany. The Reich, as one historian has put it, “was artificially stabilized at a medieval level of confusion and weakness.”22

Germany never recovered from this setback. Acceptance of autocracy, of blind obedience to the petty tyrants who ruled as princes, became ingrained in the German mind. The idea of democracy, of rule by parliament, which made such rapid headway in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and which exploded in France in 1789, did not sprout in Germany. This political backwardness of the Germans, divided as they were into so many petty states and isolated in them from the surging currents of European thought and development, set Germany apart from and behind the other countries of the West. There was no natural growth of a nation. This has to be borne in mind if one is to comprehend the disastrous road this people subsequently took and the warped state of mind which settled over it. In the end the German nation was forged by naked force and held together by naked aggression.

   Beyond the Elbe to the east lay Prussia. As the nineteenth century waned, this century which had seen the sorry failure of the confused and timid liberals at Frankfurt in 1848–49 to create a somewhat democratic, unified Germany, Prussia took over the German destiny. For centuries this Germanic state had lain outside the main stream of German historical development and culture. It seemed almost as if it were a freak of history. Prussia had begun as the remote frontier state of Brandenburg on the sandy wastes east of the Elbe which, beginning with the eleventh century, had been slowly conquered from the Slavs. Under Brandenburg’s ruling princes, the Hohenzollerns, who were little more than military adventurers, the Slavs, mostly Poles, were gradually pushed back along the Baltic. Those who resisted were either exterminated or made landless serfs. The imperial law of the German Empire forbade the princes from assuming royal titles, but in 1701 the Emperor acquiesced in the Elector Frederick Ill’s being crowned King in Prussia at Koenigsberg.

By this time Prussia had pulled itself up by its own bootstraps to be one of the ranking military powers of Europe. It had none of the resources of the others. Its land was barren and bereft of minerals. The population was small. There were no large towns, no industry and little culture. Even the nobility was poor, and the landless peasants lived like cattle. Yet by a supreme act of will and a genius for organization the Hohenzollerns managed to create a Spartan military state whose well-drilled Army won one victory after another and whose Machiavellian diplomacy of temporary alliances with whatever power seemed the strongest brought constant additions to its territory.

There thus arose quite artificially a state born of no popular force nor even of an idea except that of conquest, and held together by the absolute power of the ruler, by a narrow-minded bureaucracy which did his bidding and by a ruthlessly disciplined army. Two thirds and sometimes as much as five sixths of the annual state revenue was expended on the Army, which became, under the King, the state itself. “Prussia,” remarked Mirabeau, “is not a state with an army, but an army with a state.” And the state, which was run with the efficiency and soullessness of a factory, became all; the people were little more than cogs in the machinery. Individuals were taught not only by the kings and the drill sergeants but by the philosophers that their role in life was one of obedience, work, sacrifice and duty. Even Kant preached that duty demands the suppression of human feeling, and the Prussian poet Willibald Alexis gloried in the enslavement of the people under the Hohenzollerns. To Lessing, who did not like it, “Prussia was the most slavish country of Europe.”

The Junkers, who were to play such a vital role in modern Germany, were also a unique product of Prussia. They were, as they said, a master race. It was they who occupied the land conquered from the Slavs and who farmed it on large estates worked by these Slavs, who became landless serfs quite different from those in the West. There was an essential difference between the agrarian system in Prussia and that of western Germany and Western Europe. In the latter, the nobles, who owned most of the land, received rents or feudal dues from the peasants, who though often kept in a state of serfdom had certain rights and privileges and could, and did, gradually acquire their own land and civic freedom. In the West, the peasants formed a solid part of the community; the landlords, for all their drawbacks, developed in their leisure a cultivation which led to, among other things, a civilized quality of life that could be seen in the refinement of manners, of thought and of the arts.

The Prussian Junker was not a man of leisure. He worked hard at managing his large estate, much as a factory manager does today. His landless laborers were treated as virtual slaves. On his large properties he was the absolute lord. There were no large towns nor any substantial middle class, as there were in the West, whose civilizing influence might rub against him. In contrast to the cultivated grand seigneur in the West, the Junker developed into a rude, domineering, arrogant type of man, without cultivation or culture, aggressive, conceited, ruthless, narrow-minded and given to a petty profit-seeking that some German historians noted in the private life of Otto von Bismarck, the most successful of the Junkers.

It was this political genius, this apostle of “blood and iron,” who between 1866 and 1871 brought an end to a divided Germany which had existed for nearly a thousand years and, by force, replaced it with Greater Prussia, or what might be called Prussian Germany. Bismarck’s unique creation is the Germany we have known in our time, a problem child of Europe and the world for nearly a century, a nation of gifted, vigorous people in which first this remarkable man and then Kaiser Wilhelm II and finally Hitler, aided by a military caste and by many a strange intellectual, succeeded in inculcating a lust for power and domination, a passion for unbridled militarism, a contempt for democracy and individual freedom and a longing for authority, for authoritarianism. Under such a spell, this nation rose to great heights, fell and rose again, until it was seemingly destroyed with the end of Hitler in the spring of 1945—it is perhaps too early to speak of that with any certainty.

“The great questions of the day,” Bismarck declared on becoming Prime Minister of Prussia in 1862, “will not be settled by resolutions and majority votes—that was the mistake of the men of 1848 and 1849—but by blood and iron.” That was exactly the way he proceeded to settle them, though it must be said that he added a touch of diplomatic finesse, often of the most deceitful kind. Bismarck’s aim was to destroy liberalism, bolster the power of conservatism—that is, of the Junkers, the Army and the crown—and make Prussia, as against Austria, the dominant power not only among the Germans but, if possible, in Europe as well. “Germany looks not to Prussia’s liberalism,” he told the deputies in the Prussian parliament, “but to her force.”

Bismarck first built up the Prussian Army and when the parliament refused to vote the additional credits he merely raised them on his own and finally dissolved the chamber. With a strengthened Army he then struck in three successive wars. The first, against Denmark in 1864, brought the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein under German rule. The second, against Austria in 1866, had far-reaching consequences. Austria, which for centuries had been first among the German states, was finally excluded from German affairs. It was not allowed to join the North German Confederation which Bismarck now proceeded to establish.

“In 1866,” the eminent German political scientist Wilhelm Roepke once wrote, “Germany ceased to exist.” Prussia annexed outright all the German states north of the Main which had fought against her, except Saxony; these included Hanover, Hesse, Nassau, Frankfurt and the Elbe duchies. All the other states north of the Main were forced into the North German Confederation. Prussia, which now stretched from the Rhine to Koenigsberg, completely dominated it, and within five years, with the defeat of Napoleon Ill’s France, the southern German states, with the considerable kingdom of Bavaria in the lead, would be drawn into Prussian Germany.23

Bismarck’s crowning achievement, the creation of the Second Reich, came on January 18, 1871, when King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Germany had been unified by Prussian armed force. It was now the greatest power on the Continent; its only rival in Europe was England.

Yet there was a fatal flaw. The German Empire, as Treitschke said, was in reality but an extension of Prussia. “Prussia,” he emphasized, “is the dominant factor … The will of the Empire can be nothing but the will of the Prussian state.” This was true, and it was to have disastrous consequences for the Germans themselves. From 1871 to 1933 and indeed to Hitler’s end in 1945, the course of German history as a consequence was to run, with the exception of the interim of the Weimar Republic, in a straight line and with utter logic.

Despite the democratic façade put up by the establishment of the Reichstag, whose members were elected by universal manhood suffrage, the German Empire was in reality a militarist autocracy ruled by the King of Prussia, who was also Emperor. The Reichstag possessed few powers; it was little more than a debating society where the representatives of the people let off steam or bargained for shoddy benefits for the classes they represented. The throne had the power—by divine right. As late as 1910 Wilhelm II could proclaim that the royal crown had been “granted by God’s Grace alone and not by parliaments, popular assemblies and popular decision … Considering myself an instrument of the Lord,” he added, “I go my way.”

He was not impeded by Parliament. The Chancellor he appointed was responsible to him, not to the Reichstag. The assembly could not overthrow a Chancellor nor keep him in office. That was the prerogative of the monarch. Thus, in contrast to the development in other countries in the West, the idea of democracy, of the people sovereign, of the supremacy of parliament, never got a foothold in Germany, even after the twentieth century began. To be sure, the Social Democrats, after years of persecution by Bismarck and the Emperor, had become the largest single political party in the Reichstag by 1912. They loudly demanded the establishment of a parliamentary democracy. But they were ineffective. And, though the largest party, they were still a minority. The middle classes, grown prosperous by the belated but staggering development of the industrial revolution and dazzled by the success of Bismarck’s policy of force and war, had traded for material gain any aspirations for political freedom they may have had.* They accepted the Hohenzollern autocracy. They gladly knuckled under to the Junker bureaucracy and they fervently embraced Prussian militarism. Germany’s star had risen and they—almost all the people—were eager to do what their masters asked to keep it high.

At the very end, Hitler, the Austrian, was one of them. To him Bismarck’s Second Reich, despite its mistakes and its “terrifying forces of decay” was a work of splendor in which the Germans at last had come into their own.

Was not Germany above all other countries a marvelous example of an empire which had risen from foundations of a policy purely of power? Prussia, the germ cell of the Empire, came into being through resplendent heroism and not through financial operations or commercial deals, and the Reich itself in turn was only the glorious reward of aggressive political leadership and the death-defying courage of its soldiers …

The very founding of the [Second] Reich seemed gilded by the magic of an event which uplifted the entire nation. After a series of incomparable victories, a Reich was born for the sons and grandsons—a reward for immortal heroism … This Reich, which did not owe its existence to the trickery of parliamentary fractions, towered above the measure of other states by the very exalted manner of its founding; for not in the cackling of a parliamentary battle of words but in the thunder and rumbling of the front surrounding Paris was the solemn act performed: a proclamation of our will, declaring that the Germans, princes and people, were resolved in the future to constitute a Reich and once again to raise the imperial crown to symbolic heights … No deserters and slackers were the founders of the Bismarckian state, but the regiments at the front.

This unique birth and baptism of fire in themselves surrounded the Reich with a halo of historic glory such as only the oldest states—and they but seldom—could boast.

And what an ascent now began!

Freedom on the outside provided daily bread within. The nation became rich in numbers and earthly goods. The honor of the state, and with it that of the whole people, was protected and shielded by an army which could point most visibly to the difference from the former German Union.24

   That was the Germany which Hitler resolved to restore. In Mein Kampf he discourses at great length on what he believes are the reasons for its fall: its tolerance of Jews and Marxists, the crass materialism and selfishness of the middle class, the nefarious influence of the “cringers and lickspittles” around the Hohenzollern throne, the “catastrophic German alliance policy” which linked Germany to the degenerate Hapsburgs and the untrustworthy Italians instead of with England, and the lack of a fundamental “social” and racial policy. These were failures which, he promised, National Socialism would correct.

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