Post Mortems on Germany

The German Catastrophe.
by Friedrich Meinecke.
Translated from the German by Sidney B. Fay. Harvard University Press. 121 pp. $3.00.

Journal in the Night.
by Theodor Haecker.
Translated from the German by Alexander Dru. Pantheon Books. 222 pp. $3.50.


One feature of such an ideological war as World War II is the public act of penance exacted from the defeated, a kind of cultural or intellectual reparations. Professor Meinecke is the perfect vehicle for this purpose. The dean of German historians, eighty-seven years old, dignified and respected, he has the double virtue of being personally free of the Nazi taint at the same time that he is frankly and intimately involved in the spiritual history of modern Germany.

The history of the world, said Hegel, is the realization of the divine-human Spirit, and the Spirit is most perfectly realized in the State, specifically in the Prussian state. It is this philosophical tradition which Meinecke, with some apologies and slight misgivings, hopes to redeem from unjust reproach. Meinecke, however, is no blind disciple of Hegel, let alone of Hegel’s disciples: of Ranke, who had married “scientific history” to Hegel’s philosophy of history, and of Treitschke, for whom universal history was little more than a paean to Prussia. He is more sophisticated than Ranke, more subtle than Treitschke, and less grandiloquently dogmatic than Hegel. Where they emphasized the identity of Kraft und Kultur (force and culture) he has emphasized their duality. In good Hegelian fashion, he has expounded the idea of Staatsräson as the “life idea,” the “entelechy” of the state, but he has preferred to describe it as a compound of the ideal and the material, with the ideal—the reason of state—in danger of being corrupted by the material—the advantage of state. Meinecke is aware of nuances and complexities in political history which the unimaginative empiricist, and the too imaginative idealist, usually do not care to entertain. Yet the essence of Hegelianism remains undisturbed.

In The German Catastrophe (originally published in 1946), Meinecke seeks to explain the degeneration of the German state under Hitler. Like Goethe’s Faust (and it is Goethe whom he represents as the German spirit at its best, the genius of the old Germany and the hope of the new), Germany was the impetuous soul yearning for ideal self-realization who was led astray. But unlike Faust, who was led astray by an overzealous spirit, Germany came to grief because of an overly timid one, a spirit that had capitulated before the mechanical and utilitarian idols of bourgeois society. With no higher purpose to animate their emotions, the Germans were exposed to the temptations of irrational (as opposed to super-rational), self-indulgence. Reason of state became the advantage of state, and the advantage of state became the unreason of state. The synthesis of intellect and force, culture and state, disintegrated when the state became the instrument of naked power.

The synthesis had failed—but only historically, in a particular historical situation, not as an ideal or even as a practical possibility. Meinecke continues to cherish the conception of German nationhood, that mystical culture-state of the Volk. What is his ultimate exposure of Hitler? The fact that in the end he betrayed, not culture (although he did that too, of course), but the German people. Twice Meinecke indignantly quotes Hitler to the effect that if he went down, he would drag Germany down with him. And General Beck is reported as having said: “This fellow has no Fatherland at all.” Hitler, it seems, was a fraud, an impostor. Even his racial theories, Meinecke repeatedly observes, were more an expedient of power politics to be ignored when convenient (as in the alliance with Japan) than a genuine principle. It is curious to find this charge of insincerity, the relapse from principle, weighing as heavily upon Meinecke as the evidence of the fulfillment of the Nazi principle in the concentration camps and gas chambers.



Meinecke’s strokes are delicate, his lines are drawn fine. He admits that Nazism had its roots in German history, that even in the golden age of Germany’s emancipation as a nation there were the dark spots of disease, identified as excessive militarism and mass Machiavellianism. But he takes care not to deface the picture with too many or too bold markings. He will not obscure the “joyous creative energy” of the Bismarck period, or the “exaltation of spirit” of August 1914. The degeneration belongs to a later date, to Hitlerism itself. And even Hitlerism was no fatal, historical necessity. Meinecke, the most eminent representative of that school of thought called Historicism—the doctrine that finds the root of events in the soil of national history and traces them through the organic development of tradition—is obliged to account for the victory of Hitler by a conjunction of unfortunate accidents and the personalities of two men, Hugenberg and Hindenburg.

While the exponent of Historicism relaxes his pursuit of historical cause, the exponent of Ideengeschichte, the history of ideas, is reluctant to press ideas too far, to make them the responsible agents of good and evil. The idea of the nation is as valid as ever; only its distortion is invalid. Prussian militarism ran amok, but Meinecke stands by his judgment that the introduction of universal military service in 1814 was a glorious incident in German history. The folk idea has not been discredited; indeed we are warned not to interfere with the unique folk spirit of Russia. Nor does the corruption of authority vitiate for him the idea of authority. Nowhere has Meinecke repudiated his earlier testimonial to Burke’s “piety”: “the pious endurance of the world as it is, not excluding its abysses and dark sides, in the hope that an ultimate transcendental harmony through one’s own dutiful fitting into this life will give sense to it.” And in the present lyrical rhapsody to Goethe, it may be assumed that Meinecke recalls his earlier praise of Goethe’s “conservative adaptability to given authoritarian conditions,” as evidenced by Goethe’s remark, quoted approvingly by Meinecke: “It is simply in my nature that I shall rather commit an injustice than suffer disorder.”

The “German catastrophe” of which Meinecke speaks is not in the ideas which permitted Hitlerism to arise, but in the facts associated with Hitlerism. And more precisely, not in the fact of Hitlerism but in the military defeat of Germany. Meinecke reserves for Hitlerism the minor epithet of “misfortune.” The “catastrophe,” the “abyss,” was the prostration of the German state, the abasement of the German spirit and world mission.

Perhaps it is the natural vindictiveness of the victor that makes Meinecke’s act of penance seem suspiciously impenitent. It is small satisfaction to be told that the Germans “do not need any radical change in schooling in order to function effectively again in the Occidental cultural community.” The Western liberal might prefer so radical a change in schooling as that proposed by Nietzsche, when he recommended that the Germans cultivate “the art of forgetting.” When history congeals into national history—with its recurrent and tragic themes of state, folk, power, war, and conquest—forgetting might be the way of wisdom. As Goethe said, and it is fair play to quote him against his idolater Meinecke: “History, even the best one, reminds us always of a sepulcher; it keeps its cadaverous smell.”

It is the rare historian who is prepared to nullify history, the record of a nation’s past, for the greater glory of morality. Jacob Burckhardt, in the second part of the 19th century, accomplished this feat by reverting to the pre-Hegelian Germany of Kant, where morality was thought to adhere not to the nation but to the individual and the universal, and there was no “higher morality” than simple morality. From his “sulking corner” in Basel, as Treitschke contemptuously referred to it, Burckhardt issued his warnings against the military state that was becoming one great factory for the production of power, and against the folly of a people that hoped to be both politically and spiritually great. Not in politics, he predicted, but in religion, were genuine transcendental values to be found.



The religious thinker, it would seem, much more than the historian or philosopher, has access to the kinds of radical truths that can inspire a moral revolution. Theodor Haecker, the German convert to Catholicism and translator of Kierkegaard and Newman, died in 1944, before the defeat of Germany. Long before defeat, long before the war itself, Haecker assigned the German catastrophe to that day of apostasy, on January 30, 1933, when Hitler became chancellor. His Journal in the Night, a diary started in 1939, beautifully records the spiritual and intellectual travail of a soul in the “dark night of faith” that was Nazism.

Haecker had none of that lingering fondness for German history which softens the heart and dulls the moral sensibility of most Germans. As a nation, he found, the Germans were worse than all others. They had a “providential vocation” for the Reich—and only for the Reich. This was their apostasy. “Apart from the ‘faith,’ “ he wrote, “the only choice is between the ‘inadequate’ and the ‘absurd.’” The inadequate was the materialistic explanation that pretended to explain everything; the absurd was the nihilistic denial of all meaning, or the assumption of a private, esoteric theory of meaning. The absurd is the flight into nullity of the genius; the inadequate is the less dramatic but no less vicious retreat from the moral of the bourgeois and fascist. Haecker castigates the political man, who, loyal to the inadequate, uses the catastrophe as an excuse for the suspension of morality, and who replies to God’s call, “Adam, where art thou?” with the “alibi”: “I was at the world war.” For Haecker, war can never be a “higher good,” a paroxysm of the spirit as Hegel and sometimes Meinecke conceived of it. It is only an incident in the long reign of Satan as prince of this world.

The philosopher of history, lost in speculations about the “why” of origins and ends rather than the “how” of “suffering, striving, doing,” can contemplate Nazism as a misfortune, an aberration of man which temporarily unsettles the order of nature and the schema of history. Haecker cannot be so placid. For him, Nazism was the catastrophe that very nearly extinguished the soul of man.

In comparing Haecker and Meinecke, it is tempting to make much of the Catholic-Bavaria vs. Protestant-Prussia antithesis. More to the point, however, although historically related to this, is the temperamental distinction between the thinker committed absolutely to nothing but religion and morality and the political man (either the Hegelian or the Western liberal) for whom religion and morality are seen only as reflected through the often dense medium of politics and political affairs. What the religious thinker understands to be the most exacting responsibility of man, the political thinker may take to be the most wanton social irresponsibility. Yet irresponsibility sometimes has its endearing features. The German students in Munich who conspired against Hitler in 1943 had no political program or platform. They did not even condescend to stress such obvious injustices as the concentration camps. Their disaffection came instead from the highest and most abstract sense of outraged religion. Nazism was a spiritual abomination, a visitation of the Antichrist. On this ground, rather than on the ground of abused interests or oppressed nationality, did the anti-Nazi movement reach its climax in martyrdom. Compared with the generals’ revolt of the following year (in which Meinecke put his trust), the students’ revolt (which led to Haecker’s arrest) was politically a futile gesture. Nevertheless, and without making the mistake of dismissing the action of the generals as merely a palace revolution, it is to the students—and to Haecker rather than Meinecke—that we instinctively look for the genuine evidence of an anti-Nazi spirit.



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