Treitschke's Theory Of The State

[The Nation; January 25, 1917]

Politics. By Heinrich von Treitschke. Translated from the German by Blanche Dugdale and Torben de Bille. With an introduction by the Rt. Hon. Arthur James Balfour and a Foreword by A. Lawrence Lowell. 2 vols. New York: The Macmillan Co. $7.

Beyond the fact that von Treitschke was a German university professor who had succeeded, by some curious process, in instilling into the minds of his countrymen a peculiarly brutal and offensive theory of politics and government, few, we imagine, of those among us who of late have so often spoken his name would have been able to affirm anything very definite about the man or his work. One must know German extremely well to read any of his writings with ease; and the temper of the age, especially in the United States, has not been altogether favorable to the reading of long and serious works of any sort. The appearance of this excellent translation of the "Politics," however, makes it possible for those who cannot use German to learn at first-hand the nature of von Treitschke's teachings, and to judge for themselves how far those teachings, taken as a whole, accord either with the policy of Germany at the present time or with the policy which Germany or any other country ought to pursue at any time.

We say ought to pursue rather than may pursue because there is in von Treitschke's theory of the state an explicit as well as an implicit recognition of divine will and purpose. The state, he affirms, is power. From the standpoint of its subjects, as well as from the standpoint of other states, it is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Whatever the people may think about it at the moment, the state will, because it must, have its way. It is by the strong right arm of its power that the state maintains its dignity, independence, and solidarity, forces recognition from other states, wrests from its rivals the coveted place in the sun. But it does all this, not for selfish gratification, nor yet because of any fatalistic impulsion, but because it is enacting the very will of God. The divine intelligence which sees the end from the beginning, and orders all for the attainment of its purposes, has willed the state as the supreme embodiment, in social relations, of power. Hence it is that the state, instead of being a voluntary affair, is not only embedded in the nature of things, but is also the imposing embodiment of a supreme social morality. Whether we have a Kepler studying the stars through a telescope, or a von Treitschke scanning the operations of through history and philosophy, there is the same essential reverence of attitude. Each thinks the thoughts of God after Him.

The practical conclusions and moral precepts which von Treitschke draws from his study of this interesting structure of divine plan and inherent necessity, while sometimes startling if taken by themselves, are, from his point of view, both logical and obvious. The worst offence, for example, of which a state can be guilty is to fail to maintain and extend its power; and since the readiest means to such maintenance and extension is war, the state will not hesitate for an instant to go to war when its rights are assailed, and it will keep its army, and its whole social organization as well, in constant readiness for war. With supreme contempt von Treitschke sweeps aside every aspiration for peace, whether national or international, and not only champions war as the highest assertion of political morality, but insists that war must continue, and ought to continue, to the end of time, if the state itself is to endure. Further, since the state is power, the greater the power the better the state. Small states, accordingly, are always more or less contemptible, and must in due course disappear, not, again, for the mere selfish aggrandizement of the larger and truer states, but for their own good and the good of the world. And with power comes culture—that broad and generous intellectual interest, that keen appreciation of ethical values, that conscious and happy pursuit of the ideal in every social relation, which von Treitschke would have us believe Germany, of all the nations that have ever been, most perfectly illustrates. As to the structure of society, it is essentially aristocratic. The worker must work that the ruler may rule, and divine omniscience assigns to each his place. Incidentally, the author abhors the ''monstrous regimen of women," denies the worthfulness of woman's contribution to literature or art, deprecates her irruption into industry while admitting its limited necessity, and fixes her confines primarily at the home.

It would be a thankless task to list the numerous errors of historical statement which stud the pages of this extraordinary book, and which do little credit to von Treitschke's methods as a scholar. Some of the more glaring misstatements, especially in regard to England, and some of the equally glaring errors of logic, have been deftly punctured by Mr. Balfour, whose introduction to the present translation, while naturally hostile, is a model of graceful skill. Nor can it be worth while, we think, to spend much time in refuting the theory which these thousand pages of undeniably brilliant writing expound and enforce. One who assumes, however, to interpret the will of God to men, if so be it that he speaks not by inspiration, must put in evidence not merely his accuracy as to facts, but as well his sense of proportion and his breadth of view. That the state must possess the power necessary to preserve its existence and enforce obedience to its will; that the individual must, in general, subordinate his personal notions in political matters to the decisions of the state; that small states often exist by sufferance, and that some ought not to have attempted to exist at all; that men and women fall naturally into classes, or that the recognition of peace as an effectual substitute for war is still a dream, no sensible or informed student of history or politics, so far as we know, has ever denied. The fundamental vice of von Treitschke's theory of the state is that he selects from the experience of the past those incidents, obviously extremely numerous, which are primarily illustrative of the workings of power, and erects upon them, and upon them alone, a theory of political conduct couched in terms of universal imperative. The strong state, seizing, consolidating, and maintaining its power by force, and moulding the thought of its people, by its record of quantitative achievement, into acceptance of a social ideal which is, after all, only a vision of material conquest, has seemed to him good, and he has called it God; and since, for the masses at least, God must in some way be visualized, he summons his countrymen to bow, sword in hand, before the stained and cracked mirror of what he is pleased, to call history, and worship themselves.

Clearly, in this superficial world which von Treitschke sees and whose cruder operations he expounds and justifies with the zest and frankness of a Machiavelli there is no room for anything save force. All the finer impulses of intellectual speculation or moral aspiration which cross, with their strong white light, the darker field of history are to him negligible quantities. In spite of his sneers at an America of whose history and spirit these pages display abysmal ignorance, von Treitschke would have at least agreed with John J. Ingalls that the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule have no place in practical politics. It is needless to say that we do not so interpret history. Above the nation, said Goethe, is humanity; and there is weighty authority for affirming that it is man rather than the state that was made in the image of God. With fullest recognition of the indispensableness of force, and with all respect for the state as an embodiment of power, one yet must needs: read history over again if one has failed to perceive that moral and spiritual forces, the free range of mind in the endless areas of fact, the struggles of men for a better life than the state had thus far afforded them, the vision of the day when the dictates of conscience should replace the law of the jungle, have forever been curbing and directing the power of the state. The Machiavellian postulate of a public morality essentially different from private morality, which von Treitschke accepts with little more than a semblance of qualification, is, unhappily, a generalization only too well grounded in experience; but it is as valueless as a precept as a statistical record of crime would be in sustaining the proposition that a certain number of us ought to steal. There have been righteous wars, and so long as nationality endures righteous wars there will be; yet in the long course of history it is war, and not peace, that is the incident. One cannot but wonder whether von Treitschke himself, could he but see to-day the Europe which, in so many ways, illustrates his theory of the state, would still look upon the awful spectacle of embodied power which it presents, and say Amen.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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