The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 30, 2001

Germany through the centuries
Review by Parshotam Mehra

The Course of German History: A Survey of the Development of German History since 1815
by A.J.P. Taylon. Routledge Classics Imprint, London. Pages XXI + 281. Rs 281.

THE 16-state European Union with France and German as its most important constituents bids fair to become a new political entity that seeks to merge the identity of its individual members into a larger whole. And envisages in terms of the decade-old Mastricht Treaty (1991), and the not-unforeseeable future, a common foreign and security policy apart from a common economic, interior and justice policy.

Germany as indeed the rest of western (and a large chunk of eastern) Europe are on the threshold of a new political experiment. Which is not to gainsay that in the heart of Europe and a mighty force to reckon with shaping its destiny for good or bad, Germany has always occupied a pivotal place. Geographically, the people of the centre, the Germans, were the centerpiece of Charlemagne’s empire in the ninth century. And maintained their claim, sometimes more and sometimes less resolutely, for almost six hundred years thereafter. By the 15th century, it had acquired the almost official title of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation.


By the opening decades of the 16th century, Germany was a nation of great wealth, of high culture, assertively self-confident, standard-bearer of the Renaissance. High watermark of its great age was a rational and reformed religion, the religion of Martin Luther. The 17th century, however, was witness to massive French and Swedish interventions to humble the Emperor, an exercise which at the same time was to ensure the liberties of the German princes. For the peace of Westphalia (1648) was to regulate the political life of Germany for the ensuing century and a half.

The French Revolution (1789) altered Germany only less profoundly than it altered France: the old political order, and in some parts of Germany the old social order, was changed beyond recognition. Later the "myth" of the national uprising against Napoleon was fostered by German intellectuals who had been present at Leipzig (1814). And yet the originator of the myth was none other than Napoleon himself, alarmed to admit that he owed his defeat to his own blunders and to the strength of the three eastern powers (Russia, Austria and Prussia) whom he had despised and humiliated. To be defeated by an elemental upheaval of the peoples of Europe, Napoleon argued was less disgraceful; indeed almost noble!

The German Confederation which was to witness a 30-year Austro-Prussian partnership ended in 1848, the year of revolutions. Oddly, the explosion of 1848 occurred in the name of unity and yet the rulers, the reformers and the revolutionaries alike, were divided from each other and among themselves.

The real significance of the revolution in Germany, however, was not so much its failure at the time, as the effect of this failure on the future. After 1850, there began in Germany a period of industrial development; after 1871, an industrial revolution. And within a generation economic power passed into the hands of industrial capitalists, who, in sharp contrast to their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, sought state leadership and not a democratic set-up. And later, however grudgingly, accepted dictatorship. This was the fateful legacy of 1848.

The ascendancy of Austria (1849-60) posed a challenge to the king of Prussia who in order to preserve his own — and junker supremacy — sought out Bismarck. Clearly the issue which brought the latter to power was not the survival of Prussia in Germany but the survival in Prussia of the military monarch and the military caste. For Bismarck’s ascendancy meant the conquest of Germany by Prussia; a conquest of planning, of foresight and of conscious direction. As always, "war was the national industry of Prussia" and the Prussian staff officers brought to war, accuracy, precision and system.

Bismarck’s victory over France (1871) was qualitatively different from Napoleon’s victory over Germany (1805). For Napoleon’s armies marched under the banner of an idea; the German armies under none. If monarchist France stood for aristocratic civilisation and Napoleonic France for equality and civil liberty, Germany stood for nothing, except German power. The highest faculties of the mind, and these the Germans possessed, were put to the service of a mindless cause.

Of Bismarck and his legacy, there was little to commend. He had taught the Germans that conquest was the only cure for danger and he had whipped up the dangers to maintain his order. In the long run, the Germans would break the bounds which he had imposed and would seek to conquer all Europe. In the event, Bismarck, the greatest of political German, was to prove for Germany the greatest of disasters.

For William II, if "the future of Germany lay on the water", this was not the water of the Danube. Under him, as under the Iron Chancellor, while Germany restrained Austria-Hungary in the Balkans and preached cooperation with Russia, it refused to assist the German cause in Bohemia. Intoxicated by their power, the Germans did not feel the need for any allies and made no concessions to anyone. This was all there was to the "encirclement" of Germany.

The Bulow-Tirpitz system rested on the assumption that England, France and Russia could never unite; the reverse of its assumption at home that conflicting class interests could be indefinitely reconciled. Hence the collapse in 1906-07 of Bulow’s jugglery, and far more serious, the final ruin of the system of Bismarck.

By 1916 when Germany faced certain defeat in the east, the government of the Reich had become as shadowy and meaningless as the movement of constitutional liberalism which it had ordered out of existence 50 years earlier. The dismissal of Falkenhayn and the appointment of Hindenberg (August, 1916,) established the supremacy of the military leaders which Bismarck, and even his successors, had resisted. In the event, the Chancellor or, for that matter, the Emperor, ceased to exist as a separate force, their place being taken by the dictatorship of the army high command. This was to end only after the defeated German armies had marched home — and dispersed.

Before 1914 the Prussian landowners had viewed the separation of Austria from Germany as Bismarck’s greatest achievement, a guarantee of their own position. In the wake of their defeat (1918), while resisting the loss of their Polish lands, they were prepared to resist the loss of Austria too. The Treaty of Versailles was a defeat both for conservative German nationalism and for demagogic German nationalism. Therefore, it united them as never before and ensured that all parts of Germany would continue to overthrow the settlement of 1919 the moment the army leaders gave them the permission to do so. The Weimar Republic (1919-33) and the settlement of Europe alike reposed solely on the realisation by the German Generals of their country’s military weakness.

The "crisis" of 1930 was provoked by the Reichswehr and Bruning chosen as Chancellor for the sole purpose of speeding up German rearmament. The economic crisis was an afterthought, an accident which took the Reichswehr by surprise. Bruning’s own position was sincere enough: wishing to serve Germany, he could only serve the army. Moreover in promising rearmament he was pursuing a policy in which he himself believed. The economic crisis of 1929-33, alluded to above, did not deal a deathblow to the republic; at most, it drew attention to the fact that the republic was dead.

Any system can withstand fair weather; it is tested when the storm begins to blow. This test the German republic could not pass; with few supporters, and no roots, it fell at the first rumble of thunder.

German arms could boast the last year of victories (1944), but the victories were hollow; the British Isles were not invaded, the Soviet Union was not subdued. In the autumn of 1942, the tide of German success was halted at Stalingrad by the Soviets and at Alamein by British army; the two great powers had thereby paid the debt which they had owed to Europe since 1864. Unsuccessful in total war, the Nazis accomplished a miracle of total destruction; in their ruin they brought down the Reich which had lasted for more than a thousand years.

In July 1945, the leaders of the three great victorious powers met at Potsdam to plan the future of Germany. The "many great nations" whom Bismarck had dismissed with scorn now sat in the seats of Frederick the Great, of Hitler, and of Bismarck himself. German history had run its course.

One of Taylor’s best known books, "The Course of German History", has rarely been out of print since its first appearance in July, 1945. Its major thrust, that there were continuities in German history and that the Nazis were not an aberration but only an extreme version of Germany’s drive for mastery in central and eastern Europe. More, that the Germans as a whole were guilty of expansionist policies and that nearly all Germans had been committed to a Greater Germany.

Taylor’s "Habsburg Monarchy 1815-1918" which this reviewer read for his Master’s at Lahore saw the birth of "The Course of German History" between its two editions (1914 and 1948). The latter study was hailed by its critics as an "impatient book, vivid and tempestuous, pointed and pugnacious, concise and overzealous, severe and sarcastic, ambitious and angry". It remains a strong statement of the view that German history is exceptional; in his own words, it is "a history of extremes. It contains everything except moderation."

A.J.P. Taylor (1906-90), Britain’s well-known political and diplomatic historian of the 20th century, was also a noted journalist. A socialist by conviction, he was, by the 1940s, more an individualistic radical and even populist. He authored several bestselling books, including "English History 1914-1945", "The Origins of the Second World War" and "The Warlords".

With Taylor one reads history at its best: vivid, incisive, interpretative, provocative. And at the same time, eminently readable. Like all good history, it presupposes a thorough grasp of basic facts and important events.