“Being German,” wrote Thomas Mann, “means culture, soul, freedom, art and not civilization, society, the right to vote.” Following the collapse of Europe in 1945, a new Germany has risen from the rubble of Europe’s historic capitals and as the centennial of Mann’s brilliant analysis draws near, one wonders whether today we ought to say that being German means civilization, society, and the right to vote—not culture, soul and freedom? One thing is certain: Asking the question of what it means to be German is urgent if Europe is to survive the rough times that are ahead of her. To ask the question implies another: What has it meant to be German in the past? The former question often remains unasked because being German in the present has often meant attempting to forget what it meant to be German in the past. This, too, has run its course. German identity and Germany’s destiny in Europe requires a fresh revision and an urgent answer. As a German, it is only natural that I explore this question and how it relates to Germany’s destiny in Europe.

Mann’s own revision of his political thinking reflected the painful process of German culture dying so that German politics may live. His later work is not a repudiation of his German conservatism, but merely an expression of it in an age when nothing political was left to Germany beyond dwindling culture, soul, freedom, and art in favor of the predominance of vulgar politics. The popular and the vulgar dominated German politics in the twentieth century in proportion to the orderly, efficient, and moderate which dominated German politics in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century was the century of Bismarck and the rise of German national leadership on the European stage. The twentieth century was the century of Hitler and the annihilation of Germany and its subsequent struggle for repentance and revival.

Bismarck fought swift, successful wars for German unification and used a united Germany to become a force for peace in Europe. Bismarck is not remembered for his wars, only for the diplomacy which maintained the peace in Europe and for his foresight in presaging a senseless war that would annihilate Europe over some petty Balkan dispute. Hitler fought prolonged and catastrophic wars which led to the subsequent partition of Germany and to a fifty-year cold war on the continent. When Germany descended into democracy and revolution in 1918, the conservative German who wished to preserve the virtues of culture, soul and freedom was compelled to try to convince his countrymen to vote for them. Failing to do so, Thomas Mann became an American and Germany became Western.

Mann’s preference for what he called the “non-political” was in practice a politics of nobility. That it was an impossible politics in Germany for most of the twentieth century is to be attributed to what another great German conservative, Max Scheler, viewed as the gap between Mind and Will in the German nation. Whenever democratic politics are introduced into nations where the texture of the popular will is vulgar and incapable of self-government, there Tyranny will blossom with popular consent. German virtues such as obedience and an attachment to order become German vices under democracy. Hitler was the zenith of liberal democracy in Germany. The III Reich was the result of the first large-scale tragic failure of the modern Western practice of exporting democracy to foreign lands.

In our age, it has become commonplace to consider post-war Germany a success and a Western country (the two concepts being synonymous in common usage). But if Mann was right in 1918 (and he was, even if he could not bear to stand too long in the searing light of the truths he had unearthed about Germany), Germany is not a Western country. What we consider to be modern Germany is little more than a Germany forged at the behest of Adenauer. Adenauer’s Germany began to dissolve with the reunification and is now on its way towards extinction. The question of what will replace it is the predominant question of modern German politics—though it remains a question whispered, perhaps unasked even.

Adenauer was in many respects the polar opposite of Bismarck. Bismarck had succeeded in using Prussian might to undermine Austria as the leading Germanic state and combat Catholicism as the leading Germanic spirit and thus guarantee the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership. Adanauer was of the Catholic party and identified the Prussian foundations of German nationhood as the scourge of German politics. He accepted the disappearance of Prussia from the map of Europe as a means to a cultural reorientation of Germany away from militarism and towards civilization. When the Soviets, apprehensive that a divided and occupied Germany at the heart of Europe would leave no defense against potential Western aggression, proposed a reunification of Germany as early as 1952, Chancellor Adenauer followed his Western allies in refusing the initiative. This choice cemented the destiny of Germany in the twentieth century. It became a Western nation-state, cutting all of the cultural attachments to Prussia that were at its root, accepting Western military alliance in return for a rehabilitation of the German political and military elite. Adenauer even managed to gain Western concessions for German rearmament following on the heels of the Korean war, as Western states worried that the conflict in Southeast Asia would leave the continent without adequate defense against Soviet aggression. Adenauer thus masterfully accomplished a complete reversal of Germany’s political fortunes.

In 1939, Germany—allied to the Soviet Union—had attacked Poland—allied to the West. By the time of the Korean War, the West was aiming its nuclear arsenal at Poland, forgiving and rearming Germany and dissolving its alliance with the Soviet Union. The vast majority of Western intellectuals were incapable of grasping the true nature of what had happened during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. Their obtuse analysis lent credibility to George Orwell’s critique of the modern totalitarian state condensed in the infamous refrain from 1984: “Oceana had always been at war with Eastasia.” Here and there men of conscience and insight existed who were not swept up in the Cold War propaganda. Evelyn Waugh, to name one, whose fine World War II Trilogy—ending with the aptly titled Unconditional Surrenderwas a writer perfectly aware of the true nature of the Second World War. In tracing Guy Crouchback’s misadventures in the service of Her Majesty’s army, we see how the perception of the war as being fought for ancient principles of truth and justice against what Waugh called the whole of Modernity exemplified by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact dissolves quickly into a raw and ugly battle for preservation and power.

With Waugh’s work in mind, we must admit that the German view of war has always been, if not benevolent, then at the very least true. The Prussian strain of German thought clearly recognized that war is always, independent of the noble slogans attending it, a struggle for domination and survival. Insofar as the precise definition of war is concerned, Prussian militarism is in accord with the most radical forms of Christian pacifism. The key difference is not the definition of war, but the question of its desirability. For Prussia—war was life, for Christian Europe: War was death.

By purging the German soul of Prussian militarism, the Catholic Adenauer accomplished a great thing. However, by actively arraying the armies of the Western alliance against Catholic Poland, Adenauer continued the policies of Prussian-German eastern imperialism and delayed the potential unification of Europe in peace and reconciliation at least until the time of Chancellor Brandt. Brandt, while not of the 1968 generation of Germans who sought to make a clean break with the Germany of the past, was clearly attune to the yearning of a new generation of Germans to cast off the entire burden of German national history. In a sense, this generation was the German variation of a popular movement sweeping all parts of the world—for good and ill. The idealists of the 1960s appeared throughout the world—in the United States, Western and Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, China. The political contexts in which they labored were different, but what united this “New Left” was a desire to withdraw from the dance macabre of history itself, to forge a common understanding between cultures, to end war. Like all bourgeoisie revolutionaries, many of them simply extended the tensions and flared the conflicts which they had set out to tame. In Europe, however, this generation did in many ways contribute to the liberation of the Continent from the abyss of being a mere staging ground for Soviet-American rivalry. Brandt’s overtures towards Poland and Eastern Europe began the German movement towards reconciliation with her age-old enemies.

Certainly nothing Brandt or any other German did could ever mirror the magnanimity of the letter from Polish Bishops to their German counterparts where the Poles wrote “We forgive you, and we ask for your forgiveness,” but Brandt’s politics paved the way for an easing of Cold War tensions and the ultimate unification of continental Europe. That Brandt’s policies were aided by Nixon’s détente only strengthened the German hand in this regard. Historians of the Cold War, constantly harping on about how President Reagan “won” the conflict often misunderstand its nature and fail to recognize that the victory was common to all of Europe, including Russia – which was finally liberated from the prospect of atomic war that hung over it for so long.

This brings us to the Germany of today. With American power in Europe and in the world in a decline directly proportional to the extent that America employs military solutions to global political problems, the twenty-first century is beginning to take forms and shapes ominously reminiscent of the nineteenth, where international order was maintained via a complex multipolar balance of powers. Whether or not one finds it desirable, Germany is now the key component of Continental power. This is a function of two key elements: first, German economic strength, second Franco-German union. France is today the military arm of Germany. French economic interests are so well intertwined with those of Germany that French nuclear potency always shadows German diplomacy.

Yet German power is likewise a function of the historic weakness of Eastern Europe. The tragic truth of Aristotle’s maxim that nature abhors a vacuum is nowhere more evident than in the recurring failure of stable political order in historical Poland. All of the partitions of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century were the result of German ambition in equal proportion to Polish incompetence. The passage of time blunts the severity of Polish incompetence and the magnitude of German crimes against Poland over the course of two centuries lifts the burden of political responsibility from the Poles, but the present times clarify much.

Present Polish-German relations are formally proper. Yet without necessarily intending to do so, Germany exercises a colonial hegemony over Poland in proportion to Poland’s political weakness. The broader West would like Poland to play a central role in European Affairs, but Poland constantly blunders leaving the Western alliance no recourse but to turn towards Germany. Those Poles who presume the above analysis to be condescending to Poland are reminded of the words of Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski’s speech in Berlin in which he famously announced that he fears German tanks less than German reluctance and called for German leadership of the whole of Europe.

This is a typical and dangerous cycle of nature that eternally recurs in the heart of Europe. Poles organize a state, their state collapses into chaos and weakness and Polish elites attempt to rescue their power and fortunes by demanding of Poland’s neighbors that they benevolently intervene. It happened during the partitions when Polish statesmen begged for Prussian intervention offering concessions to Prussian territorial claims, others begged for Russian intervention. It happened when Polish elites invited a Sweed to rule them. It is happening in contemporary Poland where the content of political discourse over the last ten years at least has been whether the United States or Germany should control Poland’s fate?

It goes without saying that the only reason why Poland thankfully exists as a nation-state in Europe today is because Germany has learned the horrific cost of any attempt to abolish it in favor of alternative modes and orders. Germany has agreed to live with the perpetual instability and poverty of Poland because the alternatives of imperial partition lead always to the collapse of Germany. This is why the present war in Ukraine—entirely the fault of Polish incompetence which egged on a naive and impoverished Ukranian people to revolution—is being contained by Germany rather than exploited by Germany to make territorial gains.

Yet the contours of this containment have revived a dangerous nineteenth-century precedent under the guise of necessity: Now as then, a concert of Great Powers (France, Germany, and Russia) meet regularly to decide the fate of historical Poland (now called Ukraine, then called Galicia) without the participation of Poles, who invited their own exclusion by first initiating a revolution on their border and then begging for German rescue. The Polish elite’s wishes have been fulfilled: Their Prime minister was relieved of the hard task of leadership in favor of being honored and relocated to the Presidency of the European Council and as per the wishes of Poland’s former foreign minister (now a Harvard fellow), Germany conducts Eastern diplomacy on behalf of Poland and even stations troops in Poland. The partitions are formally a thing of the past, but even the former Polish Minister of the interior was shrewd enough to observe that “Poland exists only in theory” now. The wishes of the new current Polish government that Poland should effectively exist in practice have so far crashed on the rocks of the government’s gross incompetence.

Here, Germany finds itself like Goethe’s Faust confronted by the political Méphistophélès in the form of the eternal temptation of the East. Save the Poles from Russia! Save the Ukrainians from Russia! Save the Baltic states from Russia! And the gruesome finale: Save Russia from Russia! Today, this spectacle is being played out in the exact the same way it always has been, only our Age is blinded by the idiocy of modern democracy to this fact. We do not see the Devil tempting Germany to pursue ruin in the East yet again because in our times it seems impossible that calls to pursue democracy, gay rights, reproductive rights, human rights, and women’s rights could actually be Siren songs meant to destroy Odysseus.

Yet the content of German imperialism has always been idealistic. No German imperial enterprise was ever undertaken for any but the high-minded goals of its contemporary spirit of the times. The Catholic Teutonic Order slaughtered Polish Catholics for the greater good of Catholicism. The democratic Weimar Republic struggled against Polish claims to Silesia for the ideal of Wilsonian democracy and the right of the people to self-determination. The Third Reich fought to liberate Ukraine and the Baltic states from Communism and create a thousand-year peace in accord with scientific principles and Western Civilization. All of the ideologies which animated past German imperialism are now in disrepute. Yet, we are blind to the fact that this new ideology of liberal democracy will likewise one day become a slur. We are no different from previous generations who thought they had liberated themselves from human sin and were in possession of an idea worth risking for war.

Thus, the German Destiny once again lies before the German people to decide. Will they keep their famous German sense of reality and order? Or will they seek to cast off the burden of German character in pursuit of the folly of German idealism? The times have placed the fate of Europe in German hands. Europe is now turning to dust and slipping through German fingers because Germans have elected to pay for their past sins by becoming democratic idealists. Germans do not realize that in doing so—in putting the principles of revolutionary modern liberal democracy above the simple political duty of maintaining a tolerable European order—they are in fact sinning yet again. For repentance is not to turn from the wrong idealism to the right one. German repentance is to learn the lessons of Germany’s finest twentieth-century conservative thinker, Max Scheler: Reject the Will to Power for the Will of God.

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