Germany, 1866-1945

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Many important works on the social, cultural, political, and economic history of modern Germany have appeared in the past ten years. Gordon Craig, a military and diplomatic historian, has produced an important synthesis of this recent scholarship. While the new social and economic emphases applied to modern history have made the discipline more analytical than before, Gordon Craig has reaffirmed the status of history as an art. The stylistic qualities and the suppleness of Craig’s narrative line combines a tragic story with trenchant analysis.

Craig effectively prefaces each chapter with selections from German poetry that capture the theme of the period. The author sets the tone of his story by characterizing Germany not as the usual Faust, but rather as Hamlet who symbolizes the fatally indecisive character of German liberalism. The character of this political and social liberalism proved to be manipulated by the rulers, fearful of the masses, timid and divided. In 1866 Hamlet gives way to Fortinbras, who symbolizes the arrogance and rigidity of Bismarckian and Wilhelmian Germany. The weaknesses of the Weimar Republic led to a longing for a new Fortinbras who leads Germany to disaster. The Kulturvolk (people devoted to culture) of the nineteenth century is transformed into a Machtvolk (people devoted to power) of the twentieth century. The emphasis of this book on political, personal, and cultural themes against a backdrop of social and economic forces puts Craig in the great tradition of liberal German historiography exemplified by Hajo Holborn and Fritz Stern.

At the outset of his excitingly written story Craig feels rightfully obliged to rehabilitate the “old fashioned” emphasis on the role of personalities from its near oblivion at the hands of social and economic historians. His story begins with the Prussian victory over Austria in 1866. This made possible Otto von Bismarck’s unique accomplishment of preserving the authoritarian structure of Prussia-Germany in a modern world that was evolving toward more libertarian structures. It is from the inadequacy of Bismarck’s solutions that many subsequent problems of German history derived. Craig’s assertion that had it not been for Bismarck, Germany would have been united but not in the same way, is an astute and balanced observation on the relationship of personality to larger historical forces. The fearful prediction of Friedrich Nietzsche that a nation’s misconstrued victory can sometimes be more dangerous than a defeat, is one of the many illuminating literary citations employed by Craig. These references cast light both on the great writers of the time and on the problems of the time they observe.

From 1871 on Bismarck became a “culture hero” and authoritarian attitudes and institutions became enshrined in the structure of the Second Empire. The author’s analysis of the formation of an authoritarian alliance of industry and agriculture in 1879 illustrates not only an economic and social event, but also Bismarck’s opportunity to consolidate the hold of his political system on the nation. Bismarck’s persecution of the socialists was also a partial success of the authoritarian regime, for it pressed into service such institutions as the bureaucracy and the police.

As in his Studies in German Statesmanship, Craig clearly analyzes the complexities of Bismarckian diplomacy. Germany’s alliance with Austria and Russia was designed to isolate France, but failed because Austria and Russia had opposing interests. The diplomats chosen by Bismarck tended to be mediocre yes-men who could later not agree on whether to favor Russia or Austria. By 1890 Germany chose Austria and a policy of overseas expansion.

The campaign of the ruling classes against the socialists failed to discourage the growth of the Social Democratic Party. However, Bismarck’s astute introduction of social insurance laws in 1883 helped to split the socialists, while the purge of the bureaucracy, the expansion of the reserve officers corps, and the support of the reactionary educational system all served to bolster the authoritarian regime. By 1890 the desperate Bismarck was contemplating a coup to abolish the pseudoliberal constitution. It is important to note here that at least one future German Chancellor, Franz von Papen, contemplated a coup in 1932, as did the conspirators against Adolf Hitler in 1944. German authoritarianism lent itself to such solutions.

Craig’s treatment of German cultural developments is superb. Not only does he display a great understanding of German poetry and drama, but he constantly puts his wide knowledge of the German social novel to good use. This helps to cast light on the relationships between German social and cultural developments. Craig’s study of the divergence of politics and culture in Wilhelmian Germany stresses both the alienation of literary figures from the regime and the increasing drift of scholars and professors in the universities toward nonpolitical irresponsibility and hypernationalism. A short but trenchant discussion of the struggle for women’s rights in the Second Empire does a valuable service of synthesizing current scholarship.

Craig provides a penetrating characterization of Kaiser Wilhelm II as an insecure and unintelligent amateur politician who was devoid of common sense and given to vacillation. Wilhelm’s need to give Germany a “place in the sun” was shared by the nation at large. This German craving for recognition was an important force in Germany’s drive for world power. Perhaps Craig should have more fully related the awesome facts of German industrialization to politics, society, and diplomacy.

The author’s portrait of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg as “the quintessential...

(The entire section is 2382 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Economist. CCLXVIII, September 16, 1978, p. 122.

New Statesman. XCVI, September 15, 1978, p. 336.

New Yorker. LIV, September 11, 1978, p. 162.

Spectator. CCXLI, November 4, 1978, p. 18.

Times Literary Supplement. October 6, 1978, p. 1113.