The German Spirit

By Havelock Ellis

[The Atlantic Monthly Magazine, April 1915]

The great European war has aroused a natural curiosity to ascertain exactly what is the intimate German temper of mind which in its external national manifestations is now so mightily aroused. What is the spiritual attitude lying behind this ambition to dominate the world? What is the German spirit?

It is not an easy question to answer. The opinions of Germans themselves scarcely suffice to settle the matter. For they flatly contradict one another. Goethe, agreeing with Guizo, thought that the main characteristic of the German, in distinction alike from the French and the English, is the idea of personal freedom; and so penetrating and philosophic an inquirer as Fouillée has also more recently stated that it is individualism which marks the German. The same view is from time to time put forward by Germans to-day; no doubt it is the conclusion most obviously suggested by the greatest men of genius whom Germany in the past produced: by Luther, by Lessing, by Beethoven, by Goethe himself. Nowadays, however, it is much more usual to find Germans putting forth an entirely opposed conception. Thus Professor Münsterberg, writing as one who has been in intimate contact alike with the German spirit and the American spirit, while describing the latter as that which demands a state 'in order that each individual may find the perfect life and the greatest liberty,' declares, 'We Germans see the social world with the opposite attitude: in our view the individual exists for the state.'

There can be very little doubt that that opinion, so uncompromisingly expressed, is the opinion most observers to-day are inclined to adopt in regard to the German spirit. The subordination of the individual to the state—that, they seem to feel, is the spirit which animates the German, or at all events the Prussian who now dominates all other Germans—the spirit of the drill-sergeant who is sometimes said to be Prussia's most characteristic product. It is not a spirit favorable to the manifestations of genius, but it is a spirit supremely favorable to organization in every field. There is clearly an element in the German temperament which lends itself to this Prussianization. German life is a vast network of regulation which has been built up without protest. 'Verboten!' has become the national motto. It may be that, as an American admirer of Germany is constrained to admit, the German temperament needs prohibitions, and that the traveler in Germany wishes there were even more of them. Yet nothing seems so marvelous to the English mind as the boundless docility of the German to the pressure of this all-enfolding mesh of regulations. It is a pressure which rests ultimately on force, but there is little need to make that force felt, for the spirit of the barracks silently pervades every department of life, and even little schoolgirls (so unlike English or American schoolgirls) never wish to be boys, because 'it is forbidden for girls to wish to be boys.'

If however, we take a rather wider view, I believe we may harmonize these two contradictory convictions—that the supremacy of the individual and the supremacy of the state represent the typical German spirit—by seeing that they are both true. It is not unusual to find a similar state of things in a nation. The same country may at different periods, and in different aspects at the same period, show unlike and even opposed attitudes toward life. This is true, for instance, of Spain. The typical Spaniard is Don Quixote; he is also Sancho Panza; you may constantly see them both in Spain to-day. Probably one might also have seen them both there two thousand years ago, for Martial is a rather nobler Sancho and Lucan a rather less noble Quixote. The contradictory statements about the Spanish character made even by those who might be supposed well acquainted with it, are usually due to forgetfulness either of Sancho or of Quixote. There is a similar opposition in the English character, and its two opposing aspects may be said to be represented on the heroic scale in the two greatest English poets, Shakespeare and Milton. Milton belonged to a party which Shakespeare scarcely so much as mentions, and that party prohibited under severe penalties the performance of Shakespeare's plays. In periods of alternate triumph, and sometimes inextricably mingled, these two antagonistic parties—whether we bestow on them names that are pleasant or unpleasant—stand before the world to represent the genius of England.

It is much the same with Germany. Two antagonistic aspects of the German spirit have manifested themselves in German history. Just before the present war a patriotic German author of Munich (Kurt Martens) remarked that German diplomats lacked effectiveness because they oscillated in their manners between 'undignified affability and unseasonable brusquerie.' It would not have been a polite remark for a foreigner to make, but at all events it serves to illustrate the strikingly duplex character of the German spirit. Translated to a higher plane, we may enlarge that remark into the statement that the German spirit oscillates between extreme nationalism and extreme internationalism. The opposing claims for the dominance of the individual and of the state in Germany, the cosmopolitanism and the particularism of Germany, the oft-alleged charge of brutal arrogance combined with abject servility, may well represent varying aspects, from different angles, of the same national temperament, the obverse and reverse of the German spirit.


It would not be fanciful to find the ultimate root of this diversity in the highly mixed racial composition of Germany, especially as represented by the Teuton and the Slav. Such a view would, however, be difficult to work out in detail, for the racial origins of the most typical representatives of the German national and international tendencies have not always been such as we might expect. To some extent the races of Germany have been moulded by the traditions of Germany, and the history of the oscillation of the German spirit during the past two centuries becomes largely explicable when we realize how forces which in the first place, no doubt, were racial, have developed under the special geographical conditions of Germany.

There is no definite frontier of mountain or sea to Germany as a whole, and so it has come about that the German racial elements melt imperceptibly into the surrounding regions. It is this fact which serves to inspire the Pan-German, who has no such definite ground as the Pan-Slav for his propaganda, but is able to put forth a vaster because vaguer creed. There has long been a school of scientific investigation in Germany, with the late Dr. Woltmann as its most conspicuous and thoroughgoing champion, which finds the German in nearly every manifestation of European genius. In Italy, for instance, Woltmann argued that nearly all the men of conspicuous genius have revealed by their anthropological characters, or their facial traits, or their names, that they were really of German origin. Not every one in Germany accepts that view; more cautiously patriotic men of science consider it somewhat exaggerated. There is, moreover, inside and outside Germany, an entirely opposed view which represents Germans as tending swiftly to lose their Teutonic characteristics and melt into the surrounding population. But the Pan-Germanic view is the advance guard of a recognized tendency. Dr. Hans Meyer begins his important work. Das Deutsche Volkstum, with the statement, 'The German people extends far beyond the political boundaries of Germany;' and, as his accompanying map shows, Germany in this sense includes German Austria, German Switzerland, Luxemburg, the land of the Flemings (made to cover all Belgium), and Holland. The great Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, also, unhesitatingly includes the Dutch and the Swiss as representing the genius of 'Deutschland.'

It thus happens that the geographical situation of Germany and the resulting centrifugal diffusion of the Germanic population furnish a basis for a Pan-Germanism of the vaguest and widest character. These natural factors have rendered it easy for a German, when so minded, to claim world-extension and world-dominance for his own nation, without at all realizing the inevitable resentment and horror which such a claim must arouse in the world. From this Germanic point of view, Holland, Luxemburg, a great part of Belgium, and Switzerland, are at once naturally absorbed into Germany, while the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine becomes unimpeachable. Moreover, Great Britain and Scandinavia have always been regarded by Germans as in the wide sense 'Germanic' lands. Then it must be remembered that both Americas are largely permeated by people who are, in one sense or another, 'Germans;' and they, even unconsciously, are preparing the road for a final united World-Germany. Into Asia a wedge was long driven from both sides: from the east by the splendid settlement of Kiao-chao, and from the west by the route indicated by the Bagdad railway and the cherished friendship with the Turks, the only other European people possessing a militaristic 'Kultur.' In Africa likewise there was a corresponding approach from both ends: from the colonies in the south, and on the north from the proposed Moroccan influence which was manifested in the incident of Agadir. In most of these operations of Realpolitik we see the manifestation of one aspect of the German spirit; but it is an aspect which has dominated only in recent times.

In the eighteenth century, the central position of Germany in Europe, and the close contact due to the overlapping of the German people and their neighbors, led, we know, to a great expansion of cosmopolitanism and to the blossoming time of German genius. The German spirit suddenly opened like a flower to the light and warmth that were radiating from the nations around, especially from France and England. Most of the splendid names, in philosophy and music and poetry, which have made Germany great and beloved in the world, belong to this period. Moreover, they were distinguished, above all the representatives of other great flowering epochs of human genius, by their immense receptivity, and by the ardor with which they fructified the germs they so eagerly embraced from abroad.

Music moves naturally in a non-national sphere. Kant worshiped Rousseau, who had inspired him; Goethe owed a vast debt alike to France and to England; Schiller cultivated ideals which were completely international. Napoleon was idolized by some of the greatest Germans of the time, even although he was preparing to trample down and humiliate Germany.

That, indeed, on the face of it, was a discordant and disconcerting fact. It could not fail to be felt, even by the most cosmopolitan German admirers of Napoleon; Goethe was troubled by it, Beethoven resented it. And so we cannot be surprised that in after years men came to recognise that when, in 1806, the victorious guns of Napoleon ploughed the fields of Jena, the seeds were sown of Bismarck and Moltke. But in the meanwhile Germany had not only produced the best music in the world (though we must remember that German music was not produced by the most Germanic elements in the German people), but had given us in Goethe the greatest type of the modern man, a figure whose significance, as Nietzsche has truly said, the world has scarcely yet even begun to realize.

Germany is made of many large or small groups of varying racial and political complexion. But from our present point of view we may say that it exhibits two foci of spiritual activity, with a certain polar opposition between them: the region of the Rhine and the original Prussia. These may be regarded as the centres of German Internationalism and German Nationalism. It is no accident that, of the two supremely representative German men of modern times, Goethe belongs to the Rhine and Bismarck to Prussia. The Rhine has been the great highway of races and cultures from at least as early as Roman times, while Prussia has been, literally and metaphorically, the home of the Goths and Vandals (they were practically the same people and both spoke Gothic, if we may trust Procopius). There has never been any love lost between these two centres, each of which has in turn bowed to the domination of the other.

In the eighteenth century Prussia accepted the culture of the Rhine and Berlin paid homage to France; the Prussian became violently and aggressively French. Even at that period, however, Berlin was viewed with no great respect from the Rhine. 'You ought to go to Berlin,' said Goethe to Eckermann; 'one can learn much at Berlin; and,' he added ambiguously, 'one can also unlearn much there;'' though he could scarcely have foreseen what his great disciple Nietzsche seems to have foreseen, that perhaps one might unlearn the whole of civilization at Berlin. Already, however, before that saying was uttered, the tide was turning; the new craving for German nationalism demanded qualities that the west and south, with their own special traditions, at once international and particularistic, could not supply. Prussia could supply them. So for a century, that perhaps ended in the climax of last year, Germany and Prussia have been in a state of perpetual conflict. Germany has resented, sometimes even loathed, Prussia. But Germany has felt, in ever-increasing measure, that the qualities which Prussia can impart to her are essential to make her an effective force in the world. That conviction has now become so firm that even the bitter experience of the leadership of Prussia which the Great War has afforded is not likely to shake it.


Thus it has come about—although it has not always been so and doubtless will not always be so—that of late the spirit of Germany has been the spirit of Prussia. Germany has been Prussianized, and her docility, apt to be soft and diffusive, has been hammered and welded to the Prussian model. For, it must be remembered, on one side the German is singularly tractable and docile. What characterizes the German is obedience, said Biedermann. It was not until the nineteenth century, we may recall, that serfdom was entirely abolished in Prussia. Goethe had this aspect of the German in his mind when in Wilhelm Meister he makes Lothario, referring to the German's bravery, add, 'He must be rightly led.' And we think of the German soldiers of to-day, led by Prussianized officers, and obediently driving defenseless women before them as they marched against the enemy. 'Wir müssen,' they said, with tears in their eyes.

The result has been that modern Germany's 'Kultur'—if that is the word that it is desirable to use—is especially marked, as a whole and even in all its detail, by its new, artificial, and machine-made character, together with, as a result of that character, a certain violence of emphasis. The recognition of such qualities is not necessarily a depreciation; it is only the recognition that a method of living, however efficient, which has not slowly evolved, but has been made, very rapidly and self-consciously, must possess two aspects. Its effectiveness, due to technical qualities resulting from new scientific methods, cannot have the innate force and beauty of a civilization based on the slow development of ancient traditions. That is what Steinhausen means when, in his recent history of German Kultur, he remarks that the German has not attained to that fine style of living, that Lebenstil, which the French, the English, even the Dutch, possess.

The strength and the weakness of the German spirit of to-day lie in the fact that it has embodied itself in a highly organized and systematic Kultur, admirably adapted to further its own special needs and claims in the world. This Kultur, which differs altogether from what in the English-speaking lands we usually mean by 'culture,' and is much more like the bacteriologist's 'culture,' moves predominantly on the materialistic and technical plane. It operates first of all, not in the sphere of philosophy or literature or art, but in that of politics and the army and the fleet. Its organization is conditioned by the temper of the Prussian race, by the position of Germany in Europe and by the course of German history during the past century. It is fundamentally militaristic. It is on the foundation of German militarism, as Dr. Hugo Schweitzer has done well to remind us, that are based German social organization, German agriculture, German science, German industry, German philosophy, even German religion—for the German God, 'our good old German God,' is assumed to have no function in the universe save the overthrow of Germany's foes. All these elements are wrought together in the more or less deliberate formation of a militaristic state—what is not subordinate to that purpose being mere by-products—with the aim of national defense. And to the aggressive Prussian mind defense—as we have seen in the present war from the outset—is best secured by an active offense, the protection of the German hearth most firmly achieved by the destruction of non-German hearths. Hence it is that we have the immense value attributed to the state in Germany, and the complete subordination of the individual to the state.

This conception of the state is so important for the comprehension of the dominant aspect of the German spirit that it is necessary to set it forth clearly. It stands in striking contrast to the prevailing conception of the state in civilization, and at no point can we more clearly realize the difference between German Kultur and European civilization. An Englishman, for instance, no more dreams of worshiping the state than of worshiping his own trousers. Both the one and the other he regards as useful, indeed very useful; he would not be without either on any account, in fact he clings to them both with a rare tenacity. But he regards them as alike made for him and to his own measure. The idea that he was made for them and that he must abase himself in the dust before their divine superiority is an idea at which he would smile.

It is, indeed, only among primitive and even savage peoples that the individual is thus subordinated to the state. Such subordination is conditioned by the primitive necessities of war, and it survives into more civilized conditions only in association with militarism. That is what has happened to Germany. A primitive conception of the state and a secular tradition of militarism have in Prussia not merely survived, but become intensified in association with an unparalleled degree of scientific organization and technical skill, themselves based on the military state and reacting to its greater profit and glorification. It is, we may divine, a sinister combination. In the light of more recent events it is to-day significant that as many as forty years ago (in 1875) a calm and sagacious British observer, Sir Robert Morier, in writing to the Crown Prince (afterwards the Emperor) Frederick, pointed out that Germany was in danger of falling a victim to 'a pedantic ferocity, a scientific cynicism, an academic cruelty.* [* Some other remarks of Morier's in this letter may now seem worth noting. 'A nation cannot afford the luxury of cynicism, cannot risk to place itself outside the pale of the opinions of mankind, because a nation never dies, and the conscience of mankind never dies, and when the orgies of successful force have spent their strength the day comes when it has to live, not with its own recollections, but with those which mankind has preserved of it.' (Morier's Memoirs and Letters, vol. II, pp. 347-48.)—THE AUTHOR.] For the spirit of warfare, which may be quite sound and beneficial among savages, takes a different character when it has placed in its hands the technical and intellectual accomplishments of civilization.

It is true that the peculiar qualities of Prussian policy—the high military efficiency accompanied by indifference to moral considerations—were already completely embodied two centuries ago in the great Prussian hero, Frederick the Great. But that policy had not been erected into a principle by the royal author of the Anti-Machiavel, nor was it supported by any high culture; it was the policy of a small and still almost barbaric people, not of a great empire cherishing a claim to dominate the world. The emphasis which the conception of the state possesses in Germany is, it may be well to reflect, very largely due to the novelty of the German state in its present enlarged and imperial form. The German is so unaccustomed to the bigness of his state that he feels the need at every moment of asserting and realizing it. A nation that has developed slowly and naturally is not oppressed by the magnificence of its own state. But the German people, as an enthusiastic American admirer of Germany has said, 'have not developed into a nation; they have been squeezed into the mould of a nation.' They exist for the state and not the state for them. Their statism is a vicarious egotism. As a conscious and intellectualized policy it dates not from the invasion of Silesia but from the defeat of Jena. Fichte preached the state as a great educational force. Hegel regarded the state as itself the reality of the Moral Idea. For Treitschke the operations of the state constitute a supereminent Kultur.


To glorify the state is to glorify war, for there is no collective operation which can be so effectively achieved as war, and none which more conspicuously illustrates the sacrifice of the individual to the nation. The glorification of war in Germany has kept pace with the magnification of the state. War is regarded in Germany, not as a necessary evil, but as a good in itself, a great moralizing and purificatory force, which it is the special mission of Germany to exert for the benefit of the whole world. This has been the belief, not merely of soldiers, but of scholars and philosophers. Germany has never waged any war that was not a holy war, said David Strauss bravely at the time of the Franco-Prussian War; other countries, like France, fought only 'for the love of rapine.' Very much the same conception runs through Mommsen's Roman history: it is the glorification of might, even—and perhaps especially—when employed against right, for it seemed to him that there could be no true right without might. These assumptions are common and unquestioned even in the writings of the ablest Germans; they are the assumptions of a people whose genius for war is not accompanied, as it was among the Romans and among the Normans, by a genius for law. It is here that the German instinct of personality comes in, a force that belongs to the sphere of blind feeling rather than of clear vision. Here the German is a mystic at the same time as a warrior; for there is a Tauler as well as a Bismarck in the genius of the German. What Treitschke liked about Kultur was that it is at once so full of mystic fervor and yet 'so skillfully calculated for the political needs of the moment.' Treitschke, indeed, who has been above all the eloquent and inspired prophet and teacher of that aspect of the German spirit we are here concerned with, leaves no opening for doubt. The army itself, Treitschke declares, has taken on the character of a 'serious Kultur;' war, as Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and Clausewitz have taught Germany, is not a mere evil necessity but a great civilizing moral force, to be justified for its own sake alone. It is scarcely a step from that doctrine to the faith in the 'divine vocation,' as Treitschke termed it, of the German nation, 'to attack a neighbor when the favorable occasion presents, for the purpose of extending its own frontiers.' It will be, Treitschke believed, for the benefit of that neighbor, for Germany, with her exalted Kultur, knows far better what is good for other nations than they themselves know. 'We Germans,' wrote Treitschke in 1870, 'know the interests of the unhappy Alsatians far better than they themselves. We shall reveal to them their own true selves, even against their wishes.' Alas! that was more than forty years ago, and the revelation has not come to the unhappy Alsatians yet.

To the individualistic Anglo-Saxon mind, as to the Latin mind, such an attitude, so frankly acknowledged, seems unreasonable, if not ridiculous, though it must be remembered that there is no strong nation—not England, not even the United States—which has not sometimes acted on the faith that it knows better what is good for other people than they know themselves. But the permanent adoption of such an attitude is possible only on the basis of systematic militarism. 'We are a military nation,' said a German officer, just before the Great War, to a French journalist. 'At first we were so by necessity. But since a military state agrees with our temperament, we are now so by taste. Germany practices militarism as one may individually practice hygiene.' For the German who is inspired by the modern spirit of Germany war is a fundamental theme which lends itself to innumerable fantasias: it is politics; it is patriotism; it is hygiene; it is religion. To every German war appears as the underlying theme of his own particular activity. But I scarcely recall that any German has expressed this attitude with such concise felicity as a man—to whom also it was a profound faith—who was fighting on the other side. An Indian at the front was asked, not long ago, how he liked being in action. 'Oh, Sahib,' he answered, 'all wars are beautiful; but this war is heavenly.'


This is the eternal spirit of Prussia which has for the moment dominated the whole of Germany. It is not the spirit of those who seek to follow the paths of civilization and of humanity. Those whose faces are set forward on that road may differ as to whether or not war can ever be eliminated from human affairs, but they are in agreement that in itself war is not heaven but hell. They must, indeed, admit, if they are honest, that there is, after all, a sense in which war is not without its purifying and moralizing influence. To that extent the Germans are right. But they have, for the moment, overlooked the important fact that this purifying and moralizing influence is reserved for the conquered. The advantages of war for the conquerors are always very uncertain and very mixed. For the conquered war has sometimes been fortifying and ennobling in the highest degree. The Franco-Prussian War, which seemed to crush France, really gave her new strength, while it infected her conquerors with the virus which she had thrown off. Germans are themselves the first to recognize the immense advantages which they received from the defeat of Jena; and if another defeat should finally await them in the present war, they will be the first to recognize the blessings it will bring by awakening them from an evil dream.

For let us not forget that, just as the Germany of to-day is not the Germany of yesterday, so surely it cannot be the Germany of to-morrow. Even to-day there are Germans throughout Germany, indeed in Prussia, who see with clear eyes the fatal nature of the policy which has led away their rulers. Their voices may be hushed by authority, they may remain silent out of patriotism in the moment of crisis; but they represent a vast number of their still more inarticulate fellow countrymen, who love peace and home so devoutly that they have never realized their own national policy, and innocently believe that the great war has been inflicted on Germany by the machinations of her enemies. This mighty Germany of old will arise again, sooner perhaps than we anticipate, and put to flight the evil genius which for a while has guided its destinies. We have not measured the adaptability of the German—even though it has been clearly written for us in the history of German commercial development—and his capacity for accepting the facts of the world. Beyond and above the Germany of Clausewitz and Scharnhorst, of Bismarck and Moltke, of Treitschke and Eucken, there is the great and immortal Germany of Lessing and Kant, of Goethe and Wilhelm von Humboldt, of Heine and Nietzsche. It is a Germany that will be created anew, for the world has need of it, alike for the enlargement of the spiritual home of man and the better establishment of the temporal foundations of life. Long ago Leibnitz said that the mark of the German was Laboriositas. That has remained true even through the oscillations that the German spirit has passed through. The hand even of the greatest German may be rough and coarse—look at the cast of the hands of Goethe—but no people can work with such tireless and fearless pioneering energy in the world's service as can the Germans. For that might which they worship is not merely a force of destruction; it can also be a force of construction, once firmly held to the service of mankind. Then the whole world will gladly own that no nation has a better claim than Germany to rank among the servants of humanity and the fellow workers for civilization.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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