Realpolitik At Stake

By L. M. Hollander

[The Nation; February 8, 1917]

By her decision to give free rein to submarine warfare, without regard for the dictates of international convention and of humanity, Germany has at length yielded utterly to the spirit of the most notorious of her political philosophers. We now behold the apotheosis of Realpolitik. Yet it is well to remember that, however widely disseminated among the German people this philosophy has become, it has met with severe critics at home, and that, in event of its failure to crush the Entente, it runs a great risk of being entirely discredited even in Germany.

Among the foremost critics of German imperialism is Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster, professor of ethics and social science at the University of Munich, whose exposure of the seeds of the national egotism in the policies of Bismarck has given rise to a furious controversy. As the discussion has received scant attention in this country, an abstract of Dr. Foerster's views may help to acquaint Americans with the great chances which Realpolitik is taking by its latest move. When the German Chancellor stated the other day that Germany was willing to stake all on the submarine campaign, he was probably as well aware as any that the existence of Germany was not so much at stake as her special brand of imperialism.


The controversy proper began with an article by Dr. Foerster which came out in the January, 1916, number of the German pacifist organ Friedenswarte, published by the well-known Alfred H. Fried, and at present appearing in Zurich. It is entitled "Bismarck's Werk im Lichte der grossdeutschen Kritik." In it he called attention to the half-forgotten politician and publicist Constantin Frantz (1817-1891), who in 1882 had subjected Bismarck's whole activity to a searching criticism. According to Frantz, Bismarck's greatest mistake lay in estranging the German nation from its proper mission. Ancient Germany was not a national but a super-national institution, German it was only in so far as the German nation functioned as its vehicle. And only a federative state like the ancient German Empire could for centuries function, in this manner, as the carrier of international tasks, its constitution furnishing on a small scale the prototype for the free, interactive development of independent nationalities. The federative system had struck deep roots in the national character, and thus Germany had been able to attach to herself politically a considerable number of foreign nationalities without subjugating them to one dominant national ideal.

This development was interrupted by the Religious Wars, and when Prussia, by a policy of blood and iron, forced the German states into a new union, the spirit of "particularism"—as the divergent strivings of the petty German states were called—again showed its head in bitter class struggles and partisan strife. Bismarck's attempt to remove this century-old national weakness by all too simple remedies did irreparable damage, and not least by totally confusing German .political thought for a generation.

Centralization, Frantz argued, is, to be sure, more effective than particularism; but federalism is more effective still. A progressive development in organization is rendered possible only by the federative system. The centralization of Germany begun by Prussia brought about a sudden break with the old international traditions of the nation. Instead of doing away with the German Confederacy, Prussia ought to have extended it to form a great Central European Union reaching from the mouth of the Scheldt to the mouth of the Danube. This alone would have been a sufficient basis for a lasting European peace; whereas the results of 1866 rather laid on Germany the curse of preparedness and "converted the whole continent into a drill-ground." Being situated in the centre of it, Germany was, of course, compelled to secure herself on all sides; but her defence would have been rendered immeasurably more secure if the old Germany had become the organizing nucleus of Europe and had federated herself with neighboring states, especially in the East. Bismarck's vaunted work, the erection of the new German Empire on a national basis, resulted, according to Frantz, first, in a diminution of territory (because Austria was forced out); and, in the second place, in a fatal surrender of the world-organizing mission so firmly embedded in the texture of German civilization. A really far-sighted Prussian statesman would have given the impulse by inaugurating a federation between Poland and Prussia in which the former could have preserved her autonomy and renewed her ancient kingship. An excellent opportunity for this move was offered by the Polish rebellion of 1862. Next, Prussia and Austria together could have reorganized the old German Confederacy, and entrance into it might easily have been asked by the Balkan states. In this fashion Germany might again have become a world Power, with its back protected against its most dangerous neighbor, Russia, and thus also might have been secure from attacks from the west.


Who can deny, asks Dr. Foerster, that Frantz gauged matters aright, and that the last decades have demonstrated the correctness of his views? One understands how shortsighted Bismarck's celebrated "Nationalpolitik" really was and to how large a degree he lacked any deeper philosophic insight into German history and the whole world situation. He always, boasted that he was a "Realpolitiker," who, without being influenced by doctrines or theories, was able, at all times to adapt his policies to the exigencies of a situation. But it happens to just such "practical" men that, precisely by reason of insufficient penetration into the causes of a situation, they remain attached to the passing conceptions of their own times and so build their entire edifice on a foundation of shifting sand.

German historians of recent times have, Dr. Foerster continues in substance, unfortunately dedicated themselves altogether to the glorification of the national principle. To the noble and finely cultured Ranke it seemed a matter of overwhelming importance that German-Prussian preponderance had supplanted that of France; but he never asked what the world had gained thereby, or whether Germany had not really jeopardized her most important preponderance; nor did it occur to him that sound world politics might in the future envisage greater tasks than fighting about "preponderance." Likewise he failed entirely to recognize the difference between the old and the new—between the old German Empire, which was born of the organizing spirit of Christianity, and the new Empire, whose spirit is heathen. To quote Frantz again: "As for Christianity, the German braggadocio of our times is a blow directly in its face.... In truth, to see progress in a Christian sense from 1866 to the exploits of 1870 one would need to have the faith of a court preacher.... A fact it is, unfortunately, that the great results of the last war, instead of quickening the Christian spirit, have, rather, given rise to a 'heathen spirit."


Dr. Foerster then makes the following prognosis of Pan-Germanism as developed by the alldeutsche propaganda: It is based on the correct idea that Germany must, in its mission as world-organizer, work beyond her own present frontiers. But it lapses into fantastic and Utopian dreams when it believes that this can be accomplished by national expansion and by assimilating neighboring nationalities and civilizations. A lasting world activity is possible at present, not by means of an imperium, but only through the welding into a whole of individual nations. Many Germans have looked to the war for freedom from the circumscribed horizons of the nation and have hoped that a broader programme for international civilization would follow the decision on the battlefields. "It is incredible," says Dr. Foerster, "what propaganda is being made in this sense among the growing generation in the schools at many centres of nationalism. As if the incessant noisy boasting about the glory of one's own nation had any cultural value and did not, on the contrary, leave one's soul unsatisfied, notwithstanding all the romanticism with which the cult of national egotism has been disguised!"

German youth was ripe, Dr. Foerster thinks, for a revolt against this spirit and for dedicating itself to the international mission. And the works of Frantz were far more suitable for teaching genuine German thought than the abstract national philosophy of a Fichte or a Hegel. Young men are encouraged to read Fichte's "Redden a die deutsche Nation." "Has no one the courage, then, to say it openly that Fichte's claims to greatness as a thinker and a personality cannot be based on these speeches, which, in truth, are astonishingly empty, shallow rhetoric, and contain no clear guidance for the personal and national will?"

During these months of war, Dr. Foerster concludes, we have heard and read ad nauseam that the world was to be saved once more by das deutsche Wizen. How many of those who ended their speeches or articles with this promise could say that they really had spoken in the old German manner in which these words were originally meant and through which alone they assume their true meaning! How many have, on the contrary, adopted the manner with which the world has become disgusted, the imperious tone of presumptuousness and of national conceit, the tone which is begotten in the one-sided faith in a policy of blood and iron! Would that the new generation, he exclaims, could start afresh in this respect!


Dr. Foerster's article at once brought upon him the whole pack of Pan-German newspapers, such as the Hamburger Nachrichten and the Ostpreussische Zeitung, which reviled the daring iconoclast. The attempt was made to bring him to book for high treason. When this proved not to be feasible, the faculty of the University of Munich sent out the following proclamation:

"Professor Dr. Fried. Wilh. Foerster has uttered views and used expressions about Bismarck, the German Empire, and its mission which must fill every German with indignation. The first section of the Philosophic Faculty unanimously express their strongest disapproval of the action of one of their number in voicing, in these serious times, and beyond the border of the Empire, opinions of such a kind and in such a manner; and its members will, with the utmost determination, resist any attempt to give currency by professorial authority to these opinions among students."

This, however, was going a bit too far for not a few German papers, among them even such as were opposed to Foerster. It was, after all, they held, a dangerous thing for science if opinions not in accordance with those generally accepted were to be silenced by threats and dictatorial decrees. The faculty, on the other hand, found a defender in the Deutsch-evangelische Korrespondenz, which held that "where high treason begins freedom of instruction ends"—a sentiment joyfully echoed in all the alldeutsche papers.

The editor of the Friedenswarte vigorously defended his publication against the insinuation that it was an ausländisches Blatt. On the contrary, it is a German periodical which had been published continuously in Berlin for seventeen years, from 1899 to 1915. Nor had it been the purpose of the publisher to remove it thence to Zurich, but ever greater difficulties were laid in its path. After a long struggle, when all other means had failed, the periodical, in the eighth month of the war, was removed to Switzerland. Nor did it thereby cease to be a German organ for pacifism. Not only do most of its readers reside in Germany and Austria, but its contributors are almost all Germans. It amounts, therefore, to a deliberate falsehood to charge Dr. Foerster as an aggravating circumstance, with having his article on Bismarck published in a foreign paper.

Dr. Foerster himself wrote an article, "Zur Abwehr" ["In Self-Defence"], in the July number, in which he turned his attention directly to "these gentlemen whose aggressive world-political agitation has now for a generation thwarted the sincerely pacific intentions of our Emperor and has in other countries produced an entirely incorrect impression of the aspirations of the German people.... These gentlemen have not yet had their eyes-opened to the fact that their time is long past and that a growing number of Germans are exasperated to see how certain kulturlose Hetzer [uncultured mischief-makers] in whose minds the best and most honorable traditions of the German race never became a living force have harmed our people, how fatally they have misguided public opinion, and how absolutely necessary is a political and sociological reorientation in the opposite direction."

To effect this, he continues, it will be necessary to envisage a new point of view certain fundamental problems, such as the Central European problem, and to arrive at a clarification of opinion even before the conclusion of peace. "So long as only Pan-German opinions are heard, our enemies will not cease to harbor unrestrained thoughts of destroying us. Certain annexationists among us, in working out their Utopian world changes, dispose of the precious blood of the German people as though it were ditch water; but just wait, there will be time of reckoning!"

And Dr. Foerster concludes his eloquent defence with the following words: "All those who desire peace but will not make a beginning by changing their habitual international manner seem, indeed, to assume that the war will last till ten minutes past seven and that peace will reign at eleven minutes past seven; until ten minutes past seven nations will hurl at one another all possible insults—and then, at eleven minutes past seven there will suddenly be peace. These believers in miracles forget that peace must be earned; not only by warlike exploits, but also by those silent acts of self-conquest through which a people becomes conscious of its own sins, shortcomings, and errors, and so produces an atmosphere in which the stubborn spirit of self-assertion may be vanquished and the thought of a new Europe may gain practical ascendency."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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