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Germany is making trouble again. This time it is not sending young men in uniform swarming across its borders to conquer Europe. Instead, it is using its position of economic dominance to cause young Muslim men from outside Europe to swarm across Europe’s borders. In World War II, Germany’s conquest of Europe and subsequent defeat left the continent in ruins. This time, however, Germany’s actions seem designed to bring about Europe’s destruction by inviting conquest rather than by initiating it.
First the Kaiser, then Hitler, now Angela Merkel. Over and over again and in different ways, Germany’s hubris has invented ways to take Europe down. How can we possibly be here again?
If you take a moment to ponder the title of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, you will notice that Germany is conspicuously absent from Himmelfarb’s subtitle and her book. This is an important clue about the shape of the West today. After all, the story of Germany comes close to defining the conflicts and agonies of the 20th century and gives clues about our present crises. It is a remarkable fact that twice in the 20th century Germany fought the three nations in Himmelfarb’s list in two enormously destructive wars. Those conflicts strongly suggest that Germany was the enemy, not just of those nation states, but also of the Enlightenment traditions those nations represent.
The Enlightenment was a period of political revolutions in Britain, America, and France. Those revolutions resulted from a radical change in thinking in those three countries.
Britain’s revolution came first, in 1688. It replaced the divine right of kings with rule by the king (or queen) in Parliament, a regime that is still recognizable in Britain today. The radically new American idea was forged in the American Enlightenment and recognizes the sovereignty of the people (the subject of my book, Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea). America’s original constitutional design is also still recognizable, though America in recent years has been living under an increasingly post-constitutional regime. France keeps trying to make its version of the Enlightenment project work politically, reflecting its inherent problems. France’s current attempt, the Fifth Republic, was established only very recently, in 1958.
During the Enlightenment era there was a crucial parting of the ways between Germany, on the one hand, and Britain, America, and France on the other. Here is Stephen Hicks in his fine book on postmodernism:
Anglo-American culture and German culture split decisively from each other, one following a broadly Enlightenment program, the other a Counter-Enlightenment one.
How would the 20th century have played out if Germany had belonged in Himmelfarb’s subtitle such that war between a 20th century France and Germany would have been as unlikely as war between 20th century France and Britain? That, it seems, would have averted both world wars and saved lives by the tens of millions.
Instead of being part of the Enlightenment project, Germany was the heartland of Romanticism, the 19th-century movement that followed the Enlightenment era. Romanticism was the rejection of Enlightenment thinking, and it started in Germany.
The 20th-century thinker who did the most to shape thinking about the history of ideas during and after the Enlightenment era was almost certainly Isaiah Berlin, professor of social and political theory at Oxford. In The Roots of Romanticism, here is how Berlin described the new consciousness of the people who were participants in and champions of Romanticism:
…common sense, moderation, was very far from their thoughts…there was a great turning towards emotionalism…an outbreak of craving for the infinite…admiration of wild genius, outlaws, heroes, aestheticism, self-destruction.
The Germans emerged from the Enlightenment era as the counter-Enlightenment people.
Berlin wrote that somewhere between the end of the 1760s and the beginning of the 1780s the idea of the romantic hero was taking hold of the German imagination. Note that this is precisely the period during which the American Founders were inventing America. During this period, heroic martyrdom became in Germany “a quality to be worshipped for its own sake.” Berlin described the romantic hero as “satanic”:
This is the beginning of…the Nietzschean figure who wishes to raze to the ground a society whose system of values is such that a superior person…cannot operate in terms of it, and therefore prefers to destroy it…[who] prefers self-destruction, suicide…
Why “satanic”? Berlin’s description of the romantic hero evokes the figure of Satan. Satan’s sin is pride. Propelled by a feeling of injured pride, he led a rebellion against Heaven. It also describes Hitler. He stirred up the Germans’ injured pride over their defeat in World War I, and led Germany into a war of unimaginable destructiveness which ended with the destruction of Germany and Hitler’s suicide. Once again, the Germans while seeking to salve a wounded pride through self-destructive means, seem poised to take the rest of Europe down with them.
For about a century after the Germans set out on their anti-Enlightenment path, the threat they posed to the West was limited because Germany did not exist as a single country. Before 1871, the area that would become Germany in that year consisted of a number of independent states varying in size and power, ranging from kingdoms and grand duchies to principalities, cities and ecclesiastical states. Although the number of German states had declined throughout the centuries, reduced by deaths of royal lines, annexation, and conquest, there were still around 300 German states by 1800. The new state, by unifying the Germans, soon acquired the power to threaten the West. When the Allies divided Germany after its defeat in World War II, it was again no threat–though certainly an unhappy place for those stuck living in the Eastern part of the divide. Now reunited, it is no coincidence that Germany is a problem again.
It is important to realize how much the Germans’ rejection of Enlightenment thinking, already strong, was intensified by their experience of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon ravaged and humiliated the German states. For Germans, Napoleon represented not just the French Enlightenment, but the Enlightenment overall. The Germans hated Napoleonic France and rejected the Enlightenment along with it.
The emergence of the United States, modern Britain, and modern France during the Enlightenment era, and Germany’s rejection of the Enlightenment provide the basis for understanding why Germany has been and continues to be a problem for the West.
If the West wishes to avoid a repetition of the destruction and disasters of the last century, it would do well to consult its own Enlightenment tradition and to marginalize the thinking of German Romantics, like Merkel, who recall an intellectual tradition that can demonstrate no positive historical achievement.
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