The Word 'Germany'
By Hilaire Belloc
[The Living Age, November 16, 1918; from Land and Water]
The enemy is being beaten. He is being beaten hands down. One can never tell what the political fortunes of a military problem may be, and often its mere military elements are obscure enough. But the mere military elements of our military problem to-day are quite clear.
The enemy had, by last winter, got rid of all military opposition in the East. He had caused the organized armed forces of his opponents to disappear from the Black Sea to the Baltic. He had there obtained a decision. How he got that decision has nothing to do with the military problem. The fact that he did not get it directly by victory in the field destroying the Russian and Rumanian armies, but indirectly through the break-up of the Russian State under the strain of war; the fact that the Russian State was disintegrated by an international gang with men like Braunstein at their head; the fact that Russia would not have broken up under a strong head (for that also is a fact)—all these facts do not modify the military element in a military problem. The enemy by last winter had got his decision in the East. A military situation is said to be decided when one of the two opponents is put out of action; and whether it is put out of action by envelopment, as at Sedan; by shock, as at Waterloo; by pestilence, as at Valnuy, the result is the same.
Now the enemy, having got his decision in the East, was released to throw his whole weight elsewhere—save for a few inferior divisions retained for police work upon the marches of what used to be the Russian Empire. 'Elsewhere' meant the Mesopotamian, Syrian, Balkan, and Italian fronts, besides the main western front between the Alps and the North Sea, where alone the war can be won. The Italian front sufficiently occupied the mass of the Austro-Hungarian army. The Bulgarians and Turks were both unable and unwilling to leave the Balkan, Syrian, and Mesopotamian areas. The main front, therefore, fell to the province of the Germans. Their new situation, their power of massing here in the West the total of their force, save for a few police divisions in Lithuania, Finland and the Ukraine, gave them an immediate superiority in numbers over the Franco-British line. To this advantage they added a new and superior tactical method, itself indirectly the product of their new superiority in numbers; for this new tactical method which was to prove so terrible a menace to us, was only made possible by the special training of many divisions spared from the fighting line, and withdrawn for rest, instruction, and reorganization.
With this new tactical method, and using their superiority in number, the Germans seized the initiative in the West and fought that great series of actions, no one of which achieved its true object, but each of which was victorious, in a greater or less degree, from March 21st-22d of this year to July 15th.
The only element unfavorable to the enemy during this process was the deferred but ultimate menace of the growing American contingent. He must put the Western armies out of action by rupture or envelopment, or by the political effect of menacing a capital, or by the interruption of maritime communications, before the growth of the American contingents should put him at last—say, by the late autumn of this year—at a serious and increasing numerical disadvantage.
He that possesses the initiative can command—or, at least, envisage—success even when his numbers have been passed by his opponents in the race. But if their numerical superiority is growing he cannot envisage such a success indefinitely. He may get his decision at a moment when his enemy is actually stronger in total numbers than he, but he must get it before the difference becomes overwhelming.
The Germans proposed what was to be their last, greatest, and most conclusive blow on July 15th. The Allies in the West were still less numerous than they, though rapidly growing. Had the great battle turned in favor of the Germans, the further growth of the Allied armies would have been useless. It turned against the Germans. By noon on the first day, Monday, July 15th, they had slipped on the threshold. At dawn on Thursday, July 18th, they allowed themselves to be surprised between Soissons and Chateau Thierry. Their whole offensive scheme was ruined, the initiative passed to the Allied Higher Command, and the war had changed for good. It was the turning point.
The Allies had not even yet superior numbers, but they had got the upper hand, with numbers rapidly piling up against the Germans, soon to attain a superiority. It was sufficient from that moment onwards to retain the initiative by an unremitting series of successive blows, and the rest would automatically follow. It is following now.
In the presence of this victorious future men discuss what policy victory shall determine. They express in various ways their conception of the peace, and debate the limits of reparation, and justice. But there runs through all—or nearly all—their different judgments one term which, if it is inaccurately used, vitiates all their conclusions. That term is the word 'Germany.'
We ought to be clear upon that term before deciding upon any policy. If in speaking thus of 'Germany,' we are among unrealities, if we are talking of something that is not there, or that may not be there after the war, then we are acting and debating in the void. We shall be like the French Revolutionaries who appealed to an imaginary English people ground down by a wicked tyrant called George III, whose Bastille was the Tower of London. Or we shall be like the people nearer home who thought that Poland was a certain province of Russia, or that the Russian people, oppressed by a Tsar, desired nothing more passionately than a Parliament with 'chair,' 'working opposition,' and 'front benches' all complete, and that, provided with this, they would be secure in freedom.… Three quarters of statesmanship lies in the appreciation of material. The other quarter is principle applied. Mistake the nature of your material, and your application-of principle fails.
Here are a set of phrases upon this material of our victory taken at random from recent public pronouncements in print and speech. They are, I think, typical:
We have no desire to crush. Germany.
Germany must pay the penalty of her crimes.
Even if it were advisable, it is not possible to destroy Germany.
We must allow, after all, for the existence of Germany after the war.
No League of Nations can be stable that does not include Germany.
Germany will not, for a generation at least, be admitted into the amity of civilized nations.
We have no quarrel with Germany, but only with German militarism.
Germany must never again be-allowed to monopolize the key industries.
Well, what is this entity 'Germany?' What do they mean who talk of it thus as though it were a certain permanent and clearly definable thing now present, existent, suffering defeat at last, but with its survival taken for granted?
This word 'Germany,' so used, connotes two perfectly distinct ideas, yet those ideas are confused as a rule in the minds of those who use the word. It is a pity, because it warps and vitiates all discussion upon the chief problem of the war.
The first idea connoted by the word is the German Empire as it had existed since 1871, and up to the fatal 28th of July, 1914. The second idea is the conception that this recent and rather artificial arrangement will comfortably endure after the war is won.
In other words, people talk about 'Germany' as though it were an ancient country like France or England, possessing a strong organic unity, and enjoying what all true nations enjoy, something of the responsibility and affection which you find in an individual. Well, that idea is completely false. How far rapidly increasing wealth and the memory of former striking victories (coupled with a considerable body of common modern habits recently grown up) may have welded together the different parts of this artificial state is a matter for debate. Some think that its cohesion in times of great prosperity and peace would disappear entirely under adversity. Others that it will remain, though weakened. But the point is that whether strong enough to outlast the war in outward aspect, or so weak as to disappear altogether, the bond is artificial; it is mechanical not organic.
The German Empire is not a nation. It is a large body of the German race organized under the spirit of Prussia, which is partly German in character and very alien in its strongest features to the general tradition of German civilization. It excludes the German people of the Middle Danube; it includes a great mass of Poles and a smaller number in Alsace-Lorraine who, in the first case, have nothing to do with the German race, but are bitterly opposed to it, and in the second case, though mainly of the German speech, are as much the enemies of Prussia as the French themselves.
Bismarck, the creator of this, let us hope, ephemeral and certainly maleficent thing, conjured with the ancient and tolerable ideal of German unity: The ideal of one great State wherein should be combined all those men who are at once of German speech (in its various dialects) and of so much as is in common among them of habits and customs. He used that tolerable ideal solely to the profit of the Hohenzollern dynasty which he served, and of that Prussia which, is not a nation but a system, a predatory system run by a clique into which he himself was born. He carefully arranged, did this man of genius, throughout all his schemes of the middle nineteenth century, that there should not be a German unity; he carefully calculated what proportion of Southern Germans—whom he knew to be the chief obstacle to the domination of Prussia—should be included in this sham German Empire of his. He carefully excluded Austria—that is the Austrian Germans, and he produced something which is not the free expression of the German mind, nor its unity at all, but a truncated thing which Prussia could permeate and control. It is the Prussian Materialist mood which has produced the horrors of this war, much more than the mere stupidity native to the German. It is the Prussian dryness and mechanical folly which has produced the defeat of the enemy, much more than the slowness of the German mind: though that also has helped. It is the native Prussian Atheism much more than the sloppy German vagueness which has condemned the chiefs among our enemies to the misunderstanding of mankind.
Well, when the battle is over and this unpleasing thing has been struck down, the glue which kept together the artificial combination called the German Empire will be dissolved. There must still be in Europe, and will continue to be, the imperfect, imitative, upon the whole genial, perhaps worthy German race. It is quite unfit to rule; it is still more unfit to conduct crusades. Indeed, with the latter form of human energy it is bewildered, and it cannot understand what there may be glorious about just war. But he is a fool who denies to that German race its secondary aptitudes; its kindliness, which is the good side of its stupidity; its confused visions, which are the good side of its sentimentality. It will not do very much for Europe in the future, nor, if you take a sane and comprehensive view, has it in the great flood of Christendom done very much in the past. It has produced no missionaries; very few artists; not a single native institution. It has borrowed, adapted, and served. But it is there. Those who say you cannot reckon after the war with a Europe without Germans talk such obvious sense that it ought not to have to be written: But those who say that you will have to reckon with 'Germany'—meaning, of course, the German Empire of the forty-three years before the war—are not talking sense. They are not talking nonsense because had Prussia won her prestige would have left her the master of that docile soft people whom she has used as the material of her rule. But they are talking what the late Samuel Butler called hypothetics—that is, they are talking of something that may be, not of something that must be, still less of something that is.
This war, like all wars, and especially all great wars, is a bringer in of realities, and among realities are the realities of race and nation and State. There is no German nation. There is a German race which has never been able to form a great State, and probably never could, for it has not within it that principle of self-discipline, that hard core in the soul whence great States arise. It must always be in flux, fluid, receptive of foreign influence, changing its domestic boundaries. But, quite certainly, this last particular arrangement of a portion of the German tribes under Prussia is not fixed. There is nothing permanent or necessary about it at all.
After the defeat of their chiefs we shall all see that quite clearly. Meanwhile, awaiting that defeat which now rapidly approaches, let us not live in the past. What the Allies will have to deal with when Prussia and her vileness have received their reward, will not be the Prussian thing which calls itself the German Empire. It will be the various but similar German peoples. It will be the German Cantons of Switzerland, the Austro-Germans in the Middle Danube; the Southern German States; the Northern Germans of the Baltic Plain; what may also be called in a large view of history, the German tradition. It is worthy of respect and even were it not worthy of respect it must be recognized. It is not ephemeral; it is not even what we are fighting. Prussia is what we are fighting. Those who have allowed Prussia to rule them and who have committed the abominations with which Prussia inspired them must, of course, suffer for some time the consequences of their misdeeds. But with Prussia defeated in the field they will be disenchanted. They will be at our mercy it is true, but we have no occasion to exercise anything more than justice against them. It is a Prussia—that is, the State organized for loot—that must and will disappear. For its assertion of existence is victory, and defeat will kill it.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald