Georg Lukács The historical path of Germany 1942

The historical path of Germany

Written: 1942 in Tashkent
First published: as Der historische Weg Deutschlands in Wie ist Deutschland zum Zentrum der reaktionären Ideologie geworden? (Veröffentlichungen des Lukács-Archivs), 1982
Translated: by Anton P.

Generally speaking, the fate, the tragedy of the German people lies in the fact that it entered into the modern bourgeois line of development too late. But this is too much of a generalization and needs to be made historically concrete. For historical processes are extraordinarily complicated and contradictory, and it can be said of neither an early nor a late entry per se that one is better than the other. We have only to look at the bourgeois-democratic revolutions. On the one hand, the English and French peoples gained a big lead over the Germans through fighting out their bourgeois-democratic revolutions in the seventeenth century and at the end of the eighteenth respectively. But, on the other hand, it was precisely as a result of its retarded capitalist development that the Russian nation managed to transfer its bourgeois-democratic revolution to the proletarian one, thereby sparing itself sorrows and conflicts which still exist in the German nation today. We must always take into account, therefore, the concrete interaction of socio-historical tendencies; but with these reservations, we shall find that the decisive factor in the (modern) history of Germany to date lies here, in the delayed development of capitalism with all its social, political and ideological consequences.

The major European peoples formed themselves into nations at the start of the modern period. They constructed unified national territories to replace feudal fragmentation, and there sprang up a national economy pervading and uniting the entire people, a national culture that was unified in spite of all class divisions. In the development of the bourgeois class and its struggle with feudalism, it was always absolute monarchy which came into temporary being as the executive organ of this unification.

It was in this period of transition that Germany began to pursue a different, opposite course. This is by no means to suggest that it was able to withdraw from all the exigencies of the general capitalist line of development in Europe and grow into a nation in a wholly unique manner, as was claimed by reactionary historians and the fascist historians after them. Germany, as the young Marx so vividly put it, “shared the sorrows of this development without sharing in its pleasures, its partial satisfaction.” And to this observation he added the prophetic forecast: “Hence one fine day, Germany will find herself on the level of the European decline before ever having reached the level of European emancipation.”

To be sure, mining, industry and commerce grew profusely in Germany at the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the modern period, but more slowly than in England, France or Holland. As Engels points out, a major disadvantage of the German development of that period was that the different domains were less strongly linked by unified economic interests than were the different parts of the major civilized countries of the West. For instance, the Hanseatic League’s trading interests in the North and Baltic Seas were virtually unrelated to the interests of centres of trade in southern and central Germany.

All of these factors had the consequence that the great class struggles of the beginning of the 16th century, in which, as in the West, national unity emerged as a problem to be solved (culturally in humanism and the Reformation, politically in the peasant war; think of Wendel Hippler’s draft constitution) [1], ended with the defeat of the progressive classes. A modernized feudalism superseded a purely feudal fragmentation: the petty princes, as victors and profiteers in the class struggles, stabilized Germany’s divided condition. And thus, like Italy from other causes, Germany became an impotent complex of petty, formally independent states as a result of the crushing of the first major revolutionary wave (the Reformation and Peasants’ War). As such, it was now the object of the politics of the emergent capitalist world, the great absolute monarchies. Mighty nation-states (Spain, France, England), the House of Habsburg in Austria, ephemeral major powers like Sweden and also, from the eighteenth century, Tsarist Russia were to decide the fate of the German people. And since Germany, as a political pawn of theirs, was at the same time a useful object of exploitation, these countries saw to it that her national fragmentation was preserved for years to come.

In becoming the battleground and victim of the conflicting interests of the major European powers, Germany went to the wall economically and culturally as well as politically. This general decay was manifested not only in the universal impoverishment and ravaging of the country, in the backward development of both agricultural and industrial production, and the regression of once flourishing towns, etc., but also in the cultural physiognomy of the whole German people. It took no part in the great economic and cultural upsurge of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; its masses, including the mass of the emergent bourgeois intelligentsia, lagged far behind the development of the major civilized countries. The reasons were primarily material ones. Accordingly, the Germans could have no hand either in bourgeois-revolutionary movements which aimed at replacing governance through absolute monarchy (not yet realized for a unified Germany) with a higher political form better suited to capitalism in its more advanced stages. The petty states, whose existence the rival major powers were artificially conserving, could exist only as hirelings of those powers. To resemble their great models outwardly, they could maintain themselves only on the most ruthless and retrograde draining of the working people.

Naturally no rich, independent and powerful bourgeoisie will spring up in such a country, and no progressive revolutionary intelligentsia to match. The bourgeois and petty-bourgeois classes were economically much more dependent on the Courts than elsewhere in Western Europe. Hence there developed among them a servility, a petty, mean and wretched spirit hardly to be found in other European countries at this time. And with economic development stagnant, there was in Germany little or no trace of those plebeian groupings outside the feudal hierarchy of estates which constituted the most important propulsive force in the revolutions of the modern period now dawning. In the Peasants’ War they still played a crucial role under Munzer; [2] now they comprised, where they existed at all, a servile and venal social stratum that was declining into a lumpenproletariat. Certainly, Germany’s bourgeois revolution at the start of the sixteenth century created an ideological foundation for a national culture in the uniform modern written language. But this too underwent a regression, becoming crabbed and barbarized in this period of profound national humiliation.

Not until the eighteenth century, especially in its second half, did an economic recovery set in. And it went hand in hand with an economic and cultural strengthening of the bourgeois class. The bourgeoisie, however, was still far too weak to remove the obstacles to national unity, or indeed even to raise this question in serious political terms. But the backwardness was beginning to be generally sensed, a national feeling was awakening, and the longing for national unity was constantly growing, although there was no chance of political associations with specific programmes on this basis, even on a local scale. Nevertheless the economic necessity of embourgeoisement was appearing more and more forcefully in the feudal-absolutist petty states. That class compromise in which Engels saw the social stamp of the status quo in Germany, as late as the 1 840s, was starting to take shape between the nobility and the petty bourgeoisie, with the former playing the leading part. Its form was bureaucratization which, here as everywhere else in Europe, became a transitional form of the dissolution of feudalism, of the bourgeoisie’s struggle for political power. Granted, this process of German fragmentation into largely helpless petty states again took very lowly forms, and the essence of the compromise between nobility and petty bourgeoisie was that the former occupied the higher and the latter the lower bureaucratic posts. But despite these mean and backward forms of social and political life, the German middle class was starting to arm itself for the power struggle at least in the ideological sense. After having been cut off from progressive movements in the West, it was now making contact with the English and French Enlightenment, digesting it and even in part amplifying it of its own accord.

It was in this state that Germany spent the period of the French and Napoleonic revolutions. From the political angle, the German people was still the object of the rival power blocs, the modern bourgeois world emerging in France and the feudal-absolutist Central and Eastern European powers ranged against it with English support. The great events of the period hastened to a remarkable extent the development and growing consciousness of the bourgeois class, fanning the flames of national unity more strongly than ever. At the same time, however, the politically fateful consequences of fragmentation were emerging more sharply than ever. In Germany there were still – objectively speaking – no unified national politics. Large sections of the avant-garde bourgeois intellectuals welcomed the French Revolution with enthusiasm (Kant, Herder, Burger, Hegel, Hölderlin, etc.). And contemporary documents such as Goethe’s travel reports show that this enthusiasm was by no means limited to the celebrated top minds of the middle class but had roots in broader sectors of the class itself. All the same, it was impossible for the democratic revolutionary movement to spread even in the more advanced West of Germany. Although Mainz joined the French Republic, it remained totally isolated, and its downfall at the hands of the Austro-Prussian army evoked no echo in the rest of Germany. The leader of the Mainz rising, the important scholar and humanist Georg Forster, died as an exile in Paris, forgotten and neglected.

This fragmentation was repeated on a larger scale in the Napoleonic period. Napoleon succeeded in finding supporters and allies in the West and South of Germany and also, in part, in Central Germany (Saxony). And he was aware that this alliance – the Rheinbund [3] – could only be assured of any degree of survival if the dissolution of feudalism was at least embarked on in the states supporting him. This happened to a large extent in the Rhinelands, far less so in the other states of the Rheinbund. Even as reactionary, chauvinistic a historian as Treitschke [4] was forced to observe of the Rhineland: “The old order was abolished without trace, the chance of restoring it went begging; soon even the memory of Kleinstaat times evaporated. The history which is a really living memory in the hearts of the rising generation of Rhinelanders only began with the incursion of the French.

But since Napoleon’s power was not sufficient to reduce the whole of Germany to a similar dependence on the French empire, the country’s fragmentation was only rendered still deeper and stronger in consequence. Napoleonic rule was felt by broad sectors of the people to be an oppressive foreign domination. To combat it there started, especially in Prussia, a national popular movement which reached a climax in the so-called wars of liberation.

Germany’s political fragmentation was matched by her ideological disunion. The leading progressive thinkers of the age, notably Goethe and Hegel, sympathized with a Napoleonic unification of Germany and a liquidation carried out from France of the relics of feudalism. In accordance with the problematical inner nature of this view, the concept of the nation dwindled in these thinkers to a mere cultural idea, as is best seen in the Phenomenology of Mind.

But just as full of contradictions was the thinking of the political and military leaders of the wars of liberation, who sought a release from the yoke of France and the creation of a German nation by way of a Prussian uprising in league with Austria and Russia. Men like Stein, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau wanted to introduce the social and military benefits of the] French Revolution because they saw clearly that only an army organized on such lines could take up the contest with Napoleon. But they not only wished to achieve this without a revolution. They also wanted, through continual compromises, to accommodate Prussia – albeit a Prussia reformed by them – to the feudal leftovers and the classes representing the leftovers economically and ideologically. This yielding to Germany’s current backwardness was forced upon them, but at the same time the agents of the process transfigured it ideologically. One of the consequences of accommodation was that the longing for national liberation and unity often turned into a narrow chauvinism, a blind and petty Francophobia, and it also failed to produce a real ideology of liberation among the masses now mobilized. This was especially the case in that there was no avoiding an alliance with those circles of reactionary Romanticism which interpreted the anti-Napoleonic struggle as a struggle for the complete restoration of conditions existing before the French Revolution. Naturally such contradictions were also manifest in the philosopher of this trend, Fichte in his later years, although he was much more radical in the political and social sense than many of the national movement’s political and military leaders.

There was, then, a profound disunion within the spiritual and political leadership of the German people and a very widespread ideological confusion with regard to the aims and methods of the campaign for national unity. Yet, in spite of it all, national unity became the object demanded by a large mass movement embracing important sectors of the German people during this period – for the first time since the Peasants’ War. Thereupon the issue of national unity became (as Lenin first clearly formulated it) tl:te central question of the German bourgeois revolution.

If we consider German history in the nineteenth century, we can assure ourselves at every stage of the truth and accuracy of Lenin’s observation. The struggle for national unity did indeed govern the whole political and ideological development of nineteenth-century Germany. And the particular form in which this question was finally solved left its stamp on the whole of German intellectual life from the 1 850s to the present day.

Herein lies the fundamental singularity of Germany’s development, and it may be readily seen that this axis around which everything revolves is no more than a consequence of its retarded capitalist development. The other major nations of the West, especially England and France, had already attained to national unity under an absolute monarchy, i.e., in their cases, national unity was one of the first products of the class conflicts between bourgeois and feudal life. In Germany, on the other hand, the bourgeois revolution had first to fight for national unity and lay its corner-stones. (Only Italy experienced a similar development; moreover its intellectual consequences show, despite all the historical differences between the two countries, a certain affinity which has had notorious repercussions in the very recent past.) Particular historical circumstances, into which we cannot go in detail now, also dictated the realization of national unity under an absolute monarch in Russia. And the revolutionary movement’s development in Russia, the Russian Revolution show too all the consequences that will arise in such circumstances, consequences basically different from those obtaining in Germany.

Accordingly, in countries where national unity is already a product of earlier class struggles under absolute monarchy, the task of bourgeois-democratic revolution consists only of completing this work, of more or less purging the national State of existing feudal and absolutist bureaucratic leftovers, and of aligning it with the purposes of bourgeois society. This happened in England through a gradual reconstruction of the older national institutions and in France through a revolutionary transformation of the bureaucratic-feudal character of the State machinery. Naturally there were serious relapses here in periods of reaction, but there was no impairing or jeopardizing of the national sense of unity. Class struggles lasting for centuries had laid this foundation, which left bourgeois-democratic revolutions with the advantage that the accomplishment of national unity, its adaptation to the exigencies of modern bourgeois society could form an organic and fruitful link with the revolutionary struggle against feudalism’s economic and social institutions (the peasant question as the core of bourgeois revolution in France and Russia).

It may be readily seen that for Germany, the differently shaped central question of bourgeois-democratic revolution created a whole series of unfavourable circumstances. Revolution would have to shatter at one blow institutions whose gradual undermining and demolition had taken centuries of class struggles in, for instance, France. It would have to produce at a stroke those central national institutions and bodies which in England or Russia were the products of a development lasting centuries.

But this not only made the objective task harder to solve. The central revolutionary proposition also had an unfavourable effect on the attitude of the different classes to the problem and created constellations obstructing the radical execution of bourgeois-democratic revolution. We shall just pick out a few of the most important factors. Above all, there was a manifold blurring of the sharp antithesis between the feudal leftovers (the monarchy and its machinery as well as the nobility) and the bourgeois class because the more strongly capitalism develops, the greater the need will become, even for classes interested in preserving the remnants of feudalism, to realize national unity – their own version of it, that is. Let us take as a prime example Prussia’s role in the creation of national unity. Objectively, Prussia’s particular constitution was always the greatest hindrance to a real national unity, and yet that unity was attained with Prussian bayonets. And from the wars of liberation to the creation of the German Empire, the bourgeois revolutionaries were always confused and misled by the question of whether national unification was to be reached with the aid of Prussian military power or by crushing it. From the standpoint of Germany’s democratic development, the second course would unquestionably have been the commendable one. But for crucial sections of the German middle class, especially in Prussia, there was available a convenient road of class compromise, an escape from the extreme plebeian consequences of bourgeois-democratic revolution, and therefore the possibility of achieving their economic goals without a revolution, albeit on the basis of a surrender of political hegemony in the new State.

But equally unfavourable conditions obtained even within the bourgeois camp. The revolution’s central issue was national unity, and this bolstered the hegemony of an upper middle class always inclined towards class compromises. It meant that it was less threatened than in eighteenth-century France and nineteenth-century Russia. To mobilize the petty-bourgeois and plebeian masses against the compromise aims of the upper middle class was much harder in Germany. The prime reason for this was that the bourgeois revolution’s central issue of national unity presupposed a far more highly developed awareness and alertness among the plebeian masses than did, for example, the peasant question, where the economic contrasts between different classes were incomparably more obvious and thus more immediately apparent to the plebeian masses. Because of its seemingly purely political nature, the issue of national unity often hid from sight the immediate and directly intelligible economic problems, which remained latent in the various possibilities of solving the issue.

This situation presupposed in addition a far greater insight into complicated external political relations than the other central questions of bourgeois revolutions. Naturally, there is a connection between foreign and domestic affairs as far as every democratic revolution is concerned. But the insight, for instance, that Court intrigues with feudal-absolutist foreign powers were endangering the revolution was incomparably easier of access to the plebeian masses in the French Revolution than was the real relation between national unity and foreign policy to the German masses at the time of the 1848 revolution. Above all it was· hard for the German masses to see that a revolutionary war against Tsarist Russia would be necessary to the achievement of national unity, as Marx constantly preached with great lucidity in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. This difficulty and the concomitant upper-middle-class hegemony, including that which existed with regard to class compromises and a betrayal of democratic revolution, were further reinforced by the fact that the danger facing any bourgeois revolution, viz., the turning of national wars of liberation into wars of conquest, was more imminent and fraught with still greater domestic consequences here than in bourgeois revolutions of another type.

For all these reasons, the masses were far more quickly and intensively influenced by chauvinistic propaganda in Germany than in other countries. The rapid turning of a justified and revolutionary national enthusiasm into reactionary chauvinism facilitated, on the one hand, the deception of the masses at home by the upper-middle class and the Junkers allied to the monarchy. And on the other hand the democratic revolution was deprived of its most important allies. Thus in 1848, the German bourgeoisie was able to exploit the Polish question in a reactionary chauvinist spirit while the plebeian masses – again, despite timely and accurate warnings from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung – failed to put a stop to it and to convert the Poles from revolutionary Germany’s natural allies into real partners in the campaign against reactionary powers on both a German and an international scale.

These adverse circumstances were created by the nationally fragmented situation in which Germany found herself at the time when bourgeois-democratic revolution was the issue of the day. As far as the subjective factor in the revolution is concerned, it was a disadvantage for the bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, plebeian masses and proletariat to enter the revolution without political preparation. The fragmentation into petty states was extremely unfortunate for the revolutionary-democratic training of the lower sections of the people, for the development of revolutionary-democratic traditions among the'’ plebeian masses. Their sole political experience consisted merely of minor and trivial local struggles within the bounds of the Kleinstaaten. The collective national interests, being abstractly suspended above those struggles, could thus very easily turn into clichés. And this cliché-making by the leading bourgeois ideologists, expressed in its crudest form in the Frankfurt National Assembly [5], could – consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or involuntarily be directed into reactionary channels with the greatest ease.

A fact which helped to exacerbate this situation was that at the start of the nineteenth century, the south German duchies formed the centre of the country’s political-democratic movement, so that it was precisely democratic trends which were most afflicted by this pettiness, trifling and cliché-making. To be sure the Rhinelands, the most advanced region of Germany economically and socially, belonged to Prussia, but they formed a kind of enclave within it. They lay far away from the centre of political decision-making, the Berlin of the Court and petty bourgeoisie. And since the remnants of feudalism had been abolished here by Napoleon’s regime, they had quite different immediate interests from the backward, still markedly feudal areas of Prussia proper.

Thus a tactical consideration added to the adverse circumstances. As a result of the national fragmentation, the bourgeois-democratic revolution was unable to find a particularly decisive centre such as Paris formed in the eighteenth century. The major reactionary powers, Prussia and Austria, had their concentrated bureaucratic and military power. In the face of this the revolutionary forces were more than divided. The National Assembly sat in Frankfurt; Cologne was the centre of revolutionary democracy. The critical struggles in Berlin and Vienna occurred spontaneously, without clear ideological leadership, and after the defeats in the capital cities it was possible for the movements which flared up in Dresden, the Palatinate, Baden, etc., to be put down one by one.

These factors determined the destiny of democratic revolution in Germany, not only with regard to national unity but in all areas where it became necessary to abolish the feudal leftovers. Not for nothing did Lenin describe this course as internationally typical, unfavourable to the genesis of modern bourgeois society, and as the ‘Prussian’ road. This observation must not only be restricted to the agrarian question in the narrower sense, but must be applied to the whole development of capitalism and the political superstructure it acquired in Germany’s modern bourgeois society.

Even in Germany, the feudal remnants could only slow down the spontaneous growth of capitalist production, not prevent it. (Napoleon’s continental blockade itself called forth a certain capitalist upsurge in Germany.) But this spontaneous development of capitalism did not arise in Germany in the period of artisan labour, as it did in England or France, but in the age of modern capitalism in the real sense. And the feudal-absolutist bureaucracy of Germany’s petty states, above all the Prussian bureaucracy, was obliged actively to take the initiative in underpinning the capitalist development (expansion of the German Customs Union [6] under Prussian leadership as the first economic basis of national unification).

But the ‘Prussian course’ of Germany’s development also had more direct consequences. Because economic unity had come about in this way, we find in capitalist circles a widespread dependence on the Prussian State from the outset, a constant making of deals with the semi-feudal bureaucracy. They entertained the prospect of asserting the bourgeoisie’s economic interests in peaceful agreement with the Prussian monarchy. Hence Engels’s subsequent comment that 1848 did not present the Prussian bourgeoisie with any cogent need to solve the question of power in the State by revolutionary means.

But the fact that this process was belated in Germany, that it took place not in the artisan period but in that of modern capitalism had another important consequence. Undeveloped though German capitalism was in the mid nineteenth century, it was no longer confronted by socially amorphous masses which could – at least temporarily – be lumped together with the bourgeoisie as a ‘third estate’, as the French bourgeoisie had been before the French Revolution. It faced a modern, albeit likewise undeveloped, proletariat. We can best appreciate the difference if we reflect that in France, Gracchus Babeuf instigated a rising with a consciously socialist goal only some years after Robespierre’s execution, whereas in Germany the revolt of the Silesian spinners broke out four years before the 1848 revolution and the first complete formulation of revolutionary proletarian ideology, the Communist Manifesto, appeared on the eve of revolution itself.

This situation, derived from Germany’s delayed capitalist development, produced a proletariat that was already emerging of its own accord but was as yet unable, however, to exert a decisive influence on events (as did the Russian proletariat of 1917). The effect of international events in the class struggle made the situation acuter still. Granted, on the one hand, the February revolution in Paris helped to spark off the revolution in Berlin and Vienna. But, on the other hand, the class struggle strongly in evidence there between bourgeoisie and proletariat had a discouraging effect on the German bourgeoisie and promoted its inclination, already present for the reasons we have stated, to compromise with the ‘old powers’ with the greatest determination. In particular the battle of June and its sorry outcome became an event crucial to the development of the German class struggles. From the outset, Germany lacked that irresistible unity of an anti-feudal people which had boosted the French Revolution, while at the same time the German proletariat was still too feeble to make itself the leaders of the whole nation as did the Russian proletariat half a century later. Accordingly the dissolution of the original anti-feudal unity ensued more quickly and went through the opposite process to the French. Admittedly 1848 was the German equivalent of 1789; but the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the lower classes was closer to French conditions in 1830 and 1848 than to those of 1789.

Here, needless to say, it is impossible to relate the history of Germany in the nineteenth century in however abbreviated a form. We can but briefly outline the most essential elements in the development of social trends. Germany’s plebeian sectors did not have the power during this period to fight for their interests by way of revolution. Thus the compulsory economic and social advances came about either under the pressure of foreign relations or as a compromise by the ruling classes. No internal class struggle was responsible even for the south German and central German constitutions in the ducal states, the starting-points for democratic movements and parties in Germany after Napoleon’s overthrow. They were the product of a need to administer in some kind of uniform manner the heterogeneous feudal territories swept together in Napoleonic times and confirmed by the Congress of Vienna. The character of the central institutions meant that they had no deep roots in the nation and that the people could never regard them as its own personal creations, which was why they were so easy to abrogate both before and after 1848. And, when a serious revolution broke out in that year, it was possible for the effects of economic backwardness and national fragmentation that we have briefly depicted to leave the plebeian masses enfeebled and to lead the bourgeoisie to betray its own revolution, thus sealing the victory of feudal-absolutist reaction.

That defeat was crucial to the whole of Germany’s later political and ideological development. In the terminology of the day, the proposition in respect of the central problem of democratic revolution read: ‘Unity through Freedom’ or ‘Unity before Freedom'? Or in respect of the concretely most important problem of revolution and Prussia’s future position in Germany: ‘Absorption of Prussia by Germany’ or ‘Prussianization of Germany'? The quelling of the 1848 revolution meant that, in both cases, the second solution was the one adopted.

To be sure, the triumphant reactionaries would have been delighted simply to return to the pre-1848 status quo. That, however, was impossible from an objective economic and social standpoint. The Prussian monarchy had to change, and had to do so – as Engels stressed time and again – on the lines of creating a “Bonapartist monarchy.” This apparently gave rise to a parallel between the development of France and Germany. It apparently meant that Germany’s development was now catching up politically with France’s. But this was only seemingly so. For in France Bonapartism was a reactionary backlash beginning with the june defeat of the French proletariat, and its ignominious collapse led to the glorious Commune of 1871. And with the Third Republic, France reverted to the normal road of bourgeois democratic development. Bismarck’s Germany was, as Engels accurately demonstrated, a copy of Bonapartist France in many respects. But Engels pointed out very firmly at the same time that “Bonapartist monarchy” in Prussia and Germany marked an advance compared to conditions before 1848 – an objective advance in that the bourgeoisie’s economic demands were met within this regime’s framework and a freer avenue was opened up for the evolution of the forces of production. But these economic advances were realized without a triumphant bourgeois revolution. The national unity that had arisen consisted of a ‘Prussianization’ of Germany which carefully preserved both the aristocratic bureaucracy and all the machinery to keep its political hegemony intact (three-class suffrage in Prussia, etc.). Given Parliament’s total lack of power, universal suffrage for the empire was still just a quasi-constitutional, quasi-democratic facade. Hence Marx, in criticizing the Gotha programme, could rightly describe a nationally united Germany as “a military despotism embellished with parliamentary forms and with feudal additions thrown in, already influenced by the bourgeoisie, bureaucratically structured and under political surveillance.” [7]

We have located one of the most important weak points of the 1848 revolution in the lack of democratic experience and tradition, in the want of a democratic training of the masses and their ideological spokesmen through major internal class struggles. It is understandable that events after 1848, the conditions of ‘Bonapartist monarchy’, the creation of Germany unity ‘from the top’ through Prussian bayonets, again failed to provide any conditions favourable to the origin of revolutionary democratic traditions or a revolutionary democratic training of the masses. As a result of its impotence, the German Parliament was automatically condemned to sterility. And since every single bourgeois party had its basis in a compromise with ‘Bonapartist monarchy’, the extra-parliamentary struggles of the masses, as far as they could spring up in the first place, were similarly doomed to sterility. The few real democrats left over from the pre-1 848 period remained isolated, lacking in influence and unable to educate a succeeding generation of democrats. The fate of Johann Jacobi, who as a convinced petty-bourgeois democrat accepted a Social Democratic mandate out of despair and protest without holding any socialist views at all, and who could subsequently make nothing of his mandate, is typical of the situation of the few strict bourgeois democrats in Germany.

An important ideological obstacle to the origin of democratic traditions in Germany was the ever-increasing, large-scale falsification of German history. Here again we cannot even outline the details. It was – to summarize very briefly a matter of idealizing and ‘Germanizing’ the retarded sides of the German development, i.e., of a version of history which extolled precisely the retarded character of Germany’s development as particularly glorious and in accord with “Germany’s essence.” It criticized and repudiated all the principles and products of Western bourgeois democratic and revolutionary developments as un German and contrary to the character of the German ‘national spirit’. And the seeds of progressive turns in Germany history – the Peasants’ War, Jacobinism in Mainz, specific democratic trends in the era of the wars of liberation, plebeian reactions to the July Revolution in the revolution of 1848 – were either totally hushed up or so falsified as to strike the reader as terrible warnings. From now on, 1848 was called the “year of madness” in German bourgeois terminology. The reactionary periods in Germany’s history, by contrast, were made to look splendid and illustrious.

Here, only the labour movement could have provided a centre of political and ideological resistance, as the Neue Rheinische Zeitung did in 1848-9 and as Lenin and the Bolsheviks did on Russia’s behalf. But the general trends of Germany’s development were operative in the labour movement as well. Before Bismarck rounded off national unity it was a matter of course that the central question of democratic revolution should become the essential cause of a split in the emergent labour movement. On the one hand, Lassalle and Schweitzer after him stood for the Prussian Bonapartist road. Here the unfavourable circumstances of the German development had a momentous effect. Lassalle, with whom the mass movement of the working class began after the 1848 revolution, was far more under the ideological influence of the reigning Bonapartist trend than histories of the German labour movement would have it. His personal and political move towards Bismarck in the last years of his life was by no means a chance aberration, as it is often depicted, but rather the inevitable logical consequence of his whole philosophical and political position. Lassalle took over from Hegel in a wholly uncritical fashion the reactionary idealist concept of the State’s primacy over the economy, which he mechanically applied to the proletarian liberation movement. He was thereby rejecting those forms of the labour movement which, through an independent stand by the proletariat, might have led to a struggle for democratic elbow-room and a democratic confrontation with the bureaucratic State of Bonapartist Prussia. Economically, too, the workers were to expect their liberation to come from the Prussian State, from the State of Bismarck. In this context, the one-sided emphasis on universal suffrage as the central demand likewise acquired a Bonapartist accent, all the stronger in that the internal organization of the ‘German General Workers’ Union’, with its combination of Lassalle’s personal dictatorship and occasional referendum polls by the “sovereign people,” similarly exhibited a markedly Bonapartist character. It was possible for Lassalle to send the statutes of his ‘empire’, as he himself put it, to Bismarck with the comment that the latter might perhaps be envious of them. It is not surprising that on this basis, Lassalle now even proceeded to ‘social kingship’ and a direct underpinning of Bismarck’s unifying policy.

Meanwhile Wilhelm Liebknecht who, under the influence of Marx and Engels, recognized and criticized the errors of Lassalle and his school, was also unable to sustain the proper line. Succumbing very often to the ideological influence of democratic petty-bourgeois trends from Southern Germany, he opposed the Bismarckian solution and Lassalle’s defence of it not with the old revolutionary democratic line of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, but with a petty-bourgeois democratic federalism of “South German” anti-Prussian character.

In the course of the German labour movement’s later development, the reinforced reformist movement was also operative in this question. Engels criticized with ruthless venom the opportunistic failings of the Erfurt manifesto in this respect. Above all he stressed what the programme lacked: the call for a resolute struggle for the real democratization of Germany; for a revolutionary democratic completion of national unity, which in Bismarck’s solution was reactionary and therefore remained incomplete. After Engels’s death, reformism became stronger and stronger and fell increasingly in step with the compromising liberal bourgeoisie. The real battle for Germany’s radical democratization – for the ideological and political underpinning of revolutionary democratic movements – found a diminishing echo in German social democracy; the isolation of Franz Mehring, the sole strict representative of such traditions, may be ascribed not least to this situation. And the reformist distortion of Marxism was not only confined to the overtly opportunistic Right wing, which even went so far as to support colonial imperialism. It also embraced the so-called “Marxist Centre” which, while using universal revolutionary catchwords, made its peace with Germany’s existing state of affairs very much in the spirit of Realpolitik. In this way the German labour movement was prevented from becoming a rallying point and cynosure for the democratic forces sporadically in evidence, and from training and leading these. And in opposing reformism’s opportunist tendencies, large sections of the dissident Left lapsed into a sectarian attitude to the problems of bourgeois democracy and in particular to the national question. That is a major reason why they – and later on, in the war, the Spartacist League – were unable to radiate any influence of the kind the Bolsheviks had in Russia.

It was in such circumstances that Germany entered the imperialist epoch. As we know, it was accompanied by a major economic boom, an extraordinarily strong concentration of capital, etc.; Germany became the leading imperialist state in Europe and also the most aggressive imperialist state, the one pressing most fiercely for the redivision of the world. Again, the character of German imperialism was a consequence of the belated but very swift development of capitalism. When Germany became a major capitalist power the carving up of the colonial world was already nearly over, so that imperialist Germany could only create a colonial empire to match her economic weight on the basis of aggression and the takeover of existing colonies. Hence there arose in Germany an especially ‘voracious’ imperialism, greedy for spoils, aggressive, vehemently and ruthlessly pressing for the reapportioning of the colonies and vested interests.

This economic situation contrasted very remarkably with the German people’s great democratic-political immaturity in this period. But its immaturity was not only an extremely important political factor and meant not only that the cavalier and adventurous foreign policy of Wilhelm II could carry the day without major internal friction; it also had ideological consequences of importance to the problem we are studying. No state of affairs is ever stable, it must always go on moving either forwards or backwards. And since no progressive democratic further development of the German people ensued in the imperialist age, for the reasons we have shown, a further retrogression was bound to set in. This was connected with a general politico-ideological trend existing during the imperialist period on an international scale. On the one hand, there reigned a far-reaching general anti-democratic tendency; on the other, where there existed a bourgeois democracy, imperialist conditions inevitably gave rise to a certain disappointment with democracy on the part of the masses and their ideological spokesmen because of its de facto meagre power over the bourgeoisie’s private executive, and because of certain anti-democratic phenomena necessarily associated with it under capitalism (the election machinery, etc.). Hence it was far from being an accident that precisely in democratic countries, there set in a widespread criticism of democracy extending from overtly reactionary movements to within the labour movement (syndicalism in the Mediterranean countries).

The general drift of this criticism was unquestionably Romantic-reactionary. Hence we must bear in mind that it often contained a justified disappointment with bourgeois democracy, a disillusioned and sometimes relatively forward-looking experience of its social limitations. Let us recall Anatole France’s mockery of democratic equality before the law, magisterially prohibiting rich and poor alike from sleeping under the arches. And let it be noted: when Anatole France wrote that, he was still far removed from socialism, which makes his statement typical of the critical attitude towards democracy of progressive intellectual circles in the West. A characteristic mixture of accurate criticism and muddled reactionary tendencies may also be observed in Bernard Shaw. The most complicated and, for a time, most influential assortment of such trends appeared in Georges Sorel, ideologist of syndicalism.

Particularly in their reactionary nuances, these tendencies had an important and far-reaching effect on the German intelligentsia of the imperialist age. When, however, they were taken up in Germany, they underwent a profound social change. For whereas in the other Western countries they expressed a disappointment with the bourgeois democracy already attained, in Germany they became an obstacle to its attainment, a renunciation of persistent struggle on its behalf. These tendencies were mingled, in Germany, with the old official propaganda of the Bismarck period, which located in Germany’s backwardness the expression of ‘Germany’s essence’, the specifically German quality which it propagated in history, sociology, and so forth. During the Bismarck period the democratic and indeed, in part, liberal intelligentsia rebutted such a view of society and history (Virchow, Mommsen, etc.), but they were weak internally and lacked influence externally.

Criticism of democracy was now accepted in Germany as an advanced Western intellectual trend. With the aid of different historical and ideological rationales, a capitulation ultimately came about to those ideologists who were enervating the struggle for democracy and sapping it of its ideological and political vigour. Let us take, to cite one characteristic example, the most important bourgeois sociologist and historian of the Wilhelmine age, Max Weber. For patriotic reasons Weber was against the Wilhelmine system, clearly perceiving its dilettantism and its inability to compete diplomatically with French or English democracy. Accordingly, he became an increasingly firm supporter of the democratizing of Germany. But since his thinking was deeply pervaded by the disillusioned Western criticism of democracy, Weber only regarded this as the ‘lesser evil’ compared with the existing system. We can observe similar contradictions in other politicians and thinkers of the time – varying, to be sure, from individual to individual – as in Friedrich Naumann. Clearly it was impossible for a radical bourgeois-democratic movement or even party to originate on such an ideological basis. (With Naumann this switch from Left-wing criticism to Right-wing principles and praxis is especially striking.)

There thus appeared among the leading German intellectuals of the Wilhelmine period a repetition of the ‘German Misere’ on a higher scale: ultimately, in the majority of cases, a philistinism without real public concerns. The Western critique of democracy led most of them to see something special in Germany’s undemocratic development, a higher stage compared to the problematic undemocratic democracy of the West. There thus arose a climate of narrow pen-pushing capitulation to Germany’s existing political system, very often a snobbish, aristocratic attitude which, while criticizing bourgeois life and culture in a sometimes acute, often even witty and telling way, kow-towed to the Wilhelmine system’s titled bureaucrats and officers and idealized their undemocratic machinery with its semi-feudal leftovers. (These tendencies are particularly apparent in Sternheim, the witty satirist, and the democratic politician Rathenau.)

The idealizing of bureaucracy’s ‘competence’, ‘expertise’, ‘impartiality’, etc., in contrast to the ‘dilettantism’ of party politicians and Parliament was another general trend in the anti-democratic movements of Western Europe. ( Faguet is just one example.) It expresses very clearly the reactionary character of the movement as a whole. Sometimes consciously, but mostly unconsciously, the writers who proclaimed such ideas were the hacks of imperialist monetary capital, which sought and very often achieved the continuous assertion of its specific interests through its sub-committees, through stooges rendered independent of elections or ministerial changes. (Consider the internal power structure in the Foreign Ministries, the oft-changing parliamentary leaders and unchanging Secretaries of State, principal spokesmen, etc., in the bourgeois-democratic countries of Western Europe:) Because this tendency cropped up in a Germany that was not yet democratic, it reinforced ideologically the successful resistance of the Imperial and Prussian civil and military bureaucracy to any attempt at a progressive restructuring of State institutions. Quasi-parliamentarianism degenerated into total impotence; but its obligatory, patent sterility did not motivate an extension of democracy. It led, on the contrary, to its further paralysis and stasis and to a greater powerlessness. Needless to say, German imperialist monetary capital was as much capable of exploiting this situation as that of Western Europe was of exploiting the parliamentary system.

For the German development, however, this constellation signified the growth of remnants of the ‘German Misere’ into a particularly reactionary imperialism unaffected by any kind of democratic controls. This trend had a particularly devastating effect in Germany because it not only helped to preserve the old servility of the average, and even the spiritually and morally highly developed intellectual, but also gave it a new ideological sanction. The absolutist leftovers, which Bismarckian “Bonapartism” conserved and modernized simultaneously, found a special buttress in the politico-moral intellectual culture of bureaucracy. The bureaucrat considered it his particular ‘pride and honour’ to carry out the orders of higher authority in a technically perfect way, even if he disagreed with their substance. And this spirit, which was confined to the bureaucrat class in the narrowest sense in lands with old democratic traditions, spread far beyond the bureaucracy in Germany. To submit unreservedly to the decisions of authority was regarded as a special German virtue – in contrast to freer democratic thinking elsewhere – and extolled more and more loudly as the hallmark of a socially higher stage of development. Even Bismarck, who personally and in his institutions greatly promoted this transference of politico-social abasement from the petty States to the united, powerful nation, this perpetuating of the nullity of public opinion, occasionally criticized the German’s lack of Zivilcourage (individual sense of public duty). For the reasons we have indicated, this tendency degenerated during the Wilhelmine period into nothing short of a Byzantinism of the intelligentsia, a very widespread middle-class servility that was boastful outwardly and cringing inwardly.

This was, we repeat, a sometimes involuntary intellectual sell-out to the history-fudging propaganda of the glory of German backwardness. Although it had already started in the age of Bismarck, it now embraced even the most advanced and highly developed sections of leading bourgeois intellectuals in a ‘more refined’, ‘higher’ form that was sometimes subjectively oppositional, objectively always quasi-oppositional and hence of all the more service to imperialism. Here the social affinity and also the spiritual parallel between ‘higher’ and ‘ordinary’ reactionary ideology is quite palpable. Just as Schopenhauer’s Buddhist quietism, say, matched petty-bourgeois apathy after the 1848 revolution, and the transformation requested by Nietzsche of the relationship between capitalists and workers into one between officers and soldiers corresponds to specific capitalist-militaristic wishes in the imperialist age, so the same applies here. In establishing these parallels, we are on no account disputing the difference in intellectual level. That, on the contrary, will continue to be a prominent consideration. Not, however, chiefly because of the intellectual standard, but because it enlarged the social scope of the reactionary currents, and because these currents engulfed sectors which they did not reach with “normal” intellectual methods and which had precious little time for their usual demands. Only in their ultimate social consequences – and these were crucial to Germany’s fate, intellectually as otherwise – did they lead into the same reactionary stream. When, for instance, Plenge [8] opposed the ‘ideas of 1914’, as the higher and ‘German’ ones, to the 1789 ideas at the start of the First World War, it meant that a large portion of the best German intellectuals had already sunk to the level of Treitschke’s propagandistic history. This unscrupulousness and loss of intellectual and moral standards can be observed in a particularly crude form in the pamphlets appearing at the outbreak of war. Take, to select one very characteristic example, Werner Sombart’s [9] contrasting of ‘heroes’ (the Germans) and ‘dealers’ (English democracy).

The collapse of the Wilhelmine system in the First World War and the setting up of the Weimar Republic also brought no radical change for the better with regard to Germany’s democratization and the origin of deep-seated democratic traditions among the broad masses, beyond the class-conscious proletariat. In the first place, this political democratization stemmed less from the inner power of popular forces than from a military collapse. Large circles of the German bourgeoisie accepted the Republic and democracy partly because the situation compelled them to, partly because they expected to gain advantages in foreign affairs, more favourable peace terms with President Wilson ‘s help, etc. (This was a major difference from the democratic republic in the Russia of 1917. There, large petty-bourgeois and peasant masses were firmly democratic from the outset, although a very similar climate to Germany’s could be noted among the upper middle class and the leading members of petty-bourgeois and peasant democracy were betrayers of democracy. The schisms among the social revolutionaries, for instance, clearly reflect the democratic mood among the petty-bourgeois and peasant masses.) Secondly, Germany’s retarded development had repercussions here as well. Right at the outset of the bourgeois democratic revolution in 1918 the proletariat was waiting as the decisive social power. But owing to the strength of reformism and the current ideological and organizational weakness of the labour movement’s Left flank, it was unequal to the problems of Germany’s regeneration. Therefore bourgeois democracy was, as Engels had prophesied long before, essentially a union of all bourgeois forces against the impending danger of a proletarian revolution. Here the experiences just undergone of the Russian Revolution of 1917 had an enormous effect not only on the bourgeoisie itself but also on the reformist wing of the labour movement. Accordingly, this wing in fact supported unreservedly the democratic coalition of all bourgeois forces against the proletariat — indeed it formed its real centre, its dynamo.

Hence the Weimar Republic was essentially a republic without republicans, a democracy without democrats, just as the French Republic was – in historically totally different circumstances, of course – between 1848 and 185 1. The Leftist bourgeois parties allied with the reformists did not serve the cause of revolutionary democracy. While parading the republican and democratic banners, they were in essence ‘parties standing for order’, which meant in practice that as few changes as possible were made to the Wilhelmine social structure (preservation of the Junker officer corps, the old bureaucracy and most of the petty states, no agrarian reform, etc.). In these circumstances it is not surprising that there very soon arose a deep disappointment with democracy among the popular masses who, as we have seen, had never
received a democratic training and fostered no live democratic traditions, and that they turned away from democracy relatively quickly. This process gained in speed and depth for the particular reason that the Weimar democracy was forced to implement and engender the greatest national humiliation experienced by Germany since the time of Napoleon, the imperialist peace of Versailles. To the democratically uneducated popular masses, therefore, the Weimar Republic signified the executive organ of this national humiliation in contrast to the times of national greatness and expansion associated with Friedrich II of Prussia, Blucher and Moltke, i.e., with monarchist, undemocratic memories. Here again we can observe the big contrast between the German and the Franco-English development, where revolutionary democratic periods (Cromwell, the Great Revolution, etc.) were the periods of greatest national upsurge. The circumstances of the Weimar Republic’s origin supported the old view of an anti-democratic development that was ‘specifically German’ and uniquely suited to ‘Germany’s essence’. They supplied a seemingly obvious pretext for the tale that German national greatness could come about only on anti democratic foundations. Reactionary philosophy, history and journalism richly exploited this situation, and the Left wing of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois intelligentsia could find no effective countermeasures.

So among broad sections of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, the old prejudice gained ground in the course of the Weimar Republic that democracy in Germany was a “Western import,” a harmful foreign body which the nation had to expel for its own good. An indication of the lack of tradition in many subjectively convinced democrats is that for their part, they made the allegedly exclusively ‘Western'character of democracy the basis for their propaganda. By tactlessly and untactically placing in the forefront their anti-German sentiments, their enthusiasm for Western democracy, they were involuntarily helping the reactionaries in their antidemocratic yarn-spinning. (This ideology is seen at its clearest in the ambit of the Weltbühne.) [10] A further point was the nihilistic attitude of large· sections of the radical bourgeois intelligentsia to the national humiliation (abstract pacifism), a nihilism which also found its way into the labour movement, although in different forms. (This tendency was particularly marked in the German Independent Socialist camp, but under the influence of Rosa Luxemburg’s ideological errors even the German Communist Party was not untouched by national nihilism at the start of its development.)

Nevertheless the overt attempts to restore the Hohenzollern monarchy came to nothing (the Kapp Putsch of 1920). [11] The party propounding this restoration, the ‘German National’, was never able to grow into a really major and decisive mass party, although its representatives retained most of their positions of power in the civil and military machinery because of the Weimar Republic’s anti-proletarian, anti-revolutionary tendencies. Only when the disappointment of enormous masses reached a climax, as a result of the major crisis which set in from 1929, did the reactionaries succeed in gaining a foothold among the masses: in the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party,” in Hitlerian fascism.

Since we do not have to describe the history of Germany and the revolutionary movement in Germany here, but the history of the origins of the fascist ideology, the prerequisites and conditions of its temporary rule and the reasons for the slight, timid and ineffective resistance to it, these few indications must suffice here.

Now our task is, on the basis of the historical sketch of the development of Germany given here, to follow more closely that ideological turnaround in German ideology which led to the destruction of the once dominant humanism and thus ideologically paved the way for fascist barbarization.


1. The nobleman Wendel Hippler (1465-1526) was a peasant leader in the German Peasants’ War of 1525, and the author of the Heilbronn Program, one of the programmatic texts of the peasant rebellion and a proto-constitution for a unified German nation.

2. Thomas Munzer (1488-1525) is the most celebrated leader of the great peasant revolt of 1525 in Germany.

3. The Confederation of the Rhine was a confederation of German client states at the behest of the First French Empire. It was formed from the former states of the Holy Roman Empire following its dissolution by Napoleon, after he defeated Austria and Russia at the Battle of Austerlitz. The Treaty of Pressburg, in effect, led to the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine, which lasted from 1806 to 1813.

4. Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) was the foremost conservative historian of the 19th century and an early proponent of the myth of the Sonderweg (the “unique and higher” historical development of Germany in contrast to the liberal West).

5. The Frankfurt National Assembly was the first freely elected parliament for all of Germany, including the German-populated areas of Austria-Hungary, elected on 1 May 1848 during the revolutions of 1848.

6. The German Customs Union (Zollverein) was a coalition of German states formed to manage tariffs and economic policies within their territories. Organized by the 1833 Zollverein treaties, it formally started on 1 January 1834. However, its foundations had been in development from 1818 with the creation of a variety of custom unions among the German states. By 1866, the Zollverein included most of the German states. The foundation of the Zollverein was the first instance in history in which independent states consummated a full economic union without the simultaneous creation of a political federation or union.

7. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875

8. Johann Plenge (1874-1963); German sociologist, originally a Marxist but later a nationalist and regarded one of the most important intellectual forebears of Nazism. In his book 1789 and 1914 he contrasted the ‘Ideas of 1789’ (liberty) and the ‘Ideas of 1914’ (organization). Plenge argued: “under the necessity of war socialist ideas have been driven into German economic life, its organization has grown together into a new spirit, and so the assertion of our nation for mankind has given birth to the idea of 1914, the idea of German organization, the national unity of state socialism.

9. Werner Sombart (1863-1941) was a German economist and sociologist, who during the Weimar Republic advocated for the concept of “Germanic socialism” which was later appropriated by the Nazis.

10. Die Weltbühne (The World Stage) was a left-liberal weekly magazine during the Weimar Republic published by Kurt Tucholsky and Carl von Ossietzky.

11. A coup attempt led by monarchist military officer Wolfgang Kapp in March 1920, which failed due to the swift proclamation of a general strike of the German labor force against it, and the refusal of the vast majority of the German Army to support the coup leaders.