Philosophy and Ideas

Beyond Good and Evil: Germany, 1914

kaiser billMesmerised by their teacher’s nationalistic eloquence, the high school students rose as one and marched off to enlist in the army as Germany declared war in August 1914. It was a pivotal scene in Erich Maria Remarque’s war novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), and was brilliantly realised in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film version. Faces flushed with idealism, their eyes aglow with patriotic fervour, the entire class embraced the war and the trials and triumphs that it promised.

Such students were inspired by the “Germanic Ideology”, promoted through the universities, schools and numerous youth groups, and pervasive across German society, as Hans Kohn showed in The Mind of Germany: The Education of a Nation (1960). A Weltanschauung fundamentally opposed to liberal democracy, it evolved in an age characterised by “the intellectual organisation of political hatreds”, as Julien Benda observed in The Treason of the Intellectuals (1927); and the widespread “cultural despair” analysed in depth by Fritz Stern in The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (1961). It was central to the “unspoken assumptions” underlying the war that James Joll identified in 1968, and as the conflict approached, it manifested itself as a “profound mood, a peculiar view of man and society which seems alien and even demonic to the Western intellect”, as George Mosse lamented in The Crisis of German Ideology (1966).

Regrettably, more recent discussions of the Great War have tended to ignore the central role played by this ideology and the earlier scholarship that explored it. They overlook the powerful grip it had on the German people and the continuity that existed between it and Nazi ideology, and they avoid facing the dreadful implications for the world if a Germany possessed by that ideology had prevailed in the war. Instead, such histories have tended towards anachronism, projecting backwards into the past an image of the Second Reich not illuminated by the barbarism of the Third Reich, but one informed by the apparent stability and moderation of contemporary Germany. They tend to view the war on the Western Front as a conflict between comparable regimes, and not an epoch-defining struggle between political systems and underlying cultures that were fundamentally divergent and incompatible. Ironically, this was the view of the conflict that was eagerly embraced by proponents of the Germanic Ideology themselves, who extolled the fundamentally different path down which a victorious Germany would take the world.

It was an assessment also accepted by their opponents at the time. Canon E. McClure focused on the two most prominent exemplars of the Germanic Ideology in Germany’s War Inspirers: Nietzsche and Treitschke (1914), while the eminent Oxford philosopher Ernest Barker also recognised the distinctive role that the adulation of power and the state was playing in Germany, and rushed to publish Nietzsche and Treitschke: The Worship of Power in Modern Germany in September 1914. The state in German thought, Barker pointed out, had become “absolute, ultimate [and] universal … a sort of transcendental majesty”. For the iconic figures of Friedrich Nietzsche and Heinrich von Treitschke:

power, more power, and always power was the gospel which they found and preached … Both alike made power their watchword; both alike loved war and striving for mastery and subjugation. Both hated England.

This refusal adequately to countenance the nature, power and implications of the Germanic Ideology has allowed Niall Ferguson to deny that “national character” had anything to do with “the biggest error in modern history”, as he described the war in BBC History (February 2014) and the two-part BBC documentary The Pity of War (2014), reiterating claims made in The Pity of War (2000), and “The Kaiser’s European Union” (1997/2011). Ferguson makes little or no reference to the ideological issues explored here and concludes that Britain should have “stood aside” in August 1914 and permitted Germany to win, thereby avoiding the Third Reich and allowing Europe to sail benignly onto the path of the present German-led European Union.

Other disappointing recent books include The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, by Margaret MacMillan; The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark; July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean McMeekin; and 1914: The Year the World Ended, by Paul Ham. They achieve only a well-informed predictability, and fail adequately to emphasise the tremendous stakes over which the Great War was fought. They ignore the implications for a future Europe of the hegemony of a victorious Germany dominated by Prussia, and of a political arrangement where, for example, the Kaiser could suggest to his Chancellor in 1906 that the way forward politically for the regime was, “first, shoot the Socialists, behead them and make them harmless, if need be through a bloodbath. And then [initiate] war abroad”; and where he floated the idea that such a war might involve an alliance with Turkey with a view to “revolutionising the Islamic world” as Fritz Fischer pointed out in “World Policy, World Power, and German War Aims” (1964). This was the same political system where 276 out of 397 deputies in the Reichstag after the last pre-war election in 1912 were from the opposition parties and twice passed no-confidence motions in the government, but to no avail because constitutionally power always lay ultimately in the hands of the Kaiser and those to whom he delegated authority, above all the military.

Such historians seek to “normalise” Wilhelmine Germany, ignoring the ideological and cultural pathologies of the past that historians of a previous generation were prepared to confront. Consequently, they ignore A.J.P. Taylor’s observation in The Course of German History (1961) that “the history of the Germans is a history of extremes. It contains everything except moderation, and in the course of a thousand years the Germans have experienced everything except normality”. Indeed, “nothing is normal in German history except violent oscillations”. Writing in the very dark shadow of the Third Reich, Taylor laments that “German” has meant “at one moment a being so sentimental, so trusting, so pious, as to be too good for this world; and at another a being so brutal, so unprincipled, so degraded, as to be not fit to live”.

Failure to observe this tendency towards extremism leads historians astray and they fail to ask critical questions, particularly concerning the ideological continuity between the Second and Third Reichs. For example, as Peter Viereck puts it: “The German enigma is not Hitler … The real enigma is the honest German majority that unleashes them rather than throwing them in jail”; and the reason for this lies in the complex evolution of the Germanic Ideology through the nineteenth century that he explores in Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind (1961). Similarly, according to Taylor in The Third Reich (1955), the real question in German history is:

why so few of the educated, civilized classes recognized Hitler as the embodiment of evil, [and why] university professors, army officers, business-men, and bankers [never] exclaimed: “This is the anti-Christ”.

Fritz Stern offered the answer:

Long before Hitler, long before Versailles, there appeared in Germany deep national frustrations, galling cultural discontents, which inspired nationalist fantasies and utopias which found ready assent among this German elite.

As Thomas Mann, who was full of war enthusiasm in 1914, reflected in 1930, there was a close “connection between the radical nationalism of today and the ideas of the romanticising philosophy” pervasive before the Great War: “a romanticism of professional Germanists, a superstitious faith in the Nordic—all these emanated from the academic-professorial classes” of previous decades. These professors cherished and passed on to their students in 1914, and later to Hitler and the Nazis, their chief goal, “the purification of Germany” and the total realisation of the all-consuming fantasies of radical nationalism. As Stern asks rhetorically: “the educated, civilized classes had been moved by the Germanic Ideology when it was only a dream [before the war]; is it strange that they continued to believe in it when it appeared as a live political reality” under the Nazis?

The Germanic Ideology was formulated and promoted by many writers during the nineteenth century, beginning with the German Romantics and the nationalism of Johann Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation (1808). It then built to a crescendo in the second half of the century with the work of self-styled prophets like Richard Wagner, Paul de Lagarde, Julius Langbehn, Houston Stewart Chamberlain (whose infamous celebration of the “Aryan race” in The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century was a major influence on the Nazis), and Moeller van den Bruck (whose book The Third Reich gave the Nazi regime its name), and others discussed below.

Central to the Germanic Ideology was a fierce belief in the uniqueness of the German people (the Volk), their pre-eminent role in the world, and their imperial destiny; combined with adoration of the state, contempt for liberalism, and deeply ingrained militarism. This was coupled with hatred and fear of the Slavic peoples, against whom, as Taylor points out in The Course of German History, “their weapons have varied [but] their method has always been the same—extermination”. This was accompanied by an anti-Semitism that conceived of the Jews as evil Untermenschen who were both the negation and nemesis of the Volk and destined to be eradicated.

This aspect of the Völkisch ideology centred on the notion that the great races of the world give expression to their transcendental essence “fused to man’s innermost nature, and representing the source of his creativity, his depth of feeling, his individuality, and his unity with other members of the Volk”, as Mosse explains. At the core of this conception is the belief that the quality of the soul of a people is determined by its native landscape. Consequently, “the Jews, being a desert people, are viewed as shallow, arid [and] dry … a spiritually barren people”, who may be contrasted to the Germans, “who, living in the dark, mist-shrouded forests, are deep, mysterious, [and] profound”. Moreover, because the Germans “are so constantly shrouded in darkness, they strive always toward the sun, and are truly Lichtmenschen”—people of light.

Propelled by this ideology and a nationalist idealism that merged into sacrificial self-adulation, German students threw themselves into the war from its very beginning, many inspired by the declaration issued on the eve of the war by 3100 German professors that drew a direct connection between militarism, nationalism and scholarship:

the army educates [students] to sacrificial faithfulness … our belief is that salvation for the very culture of Europe depends on the victory that German militarism will gain: manly virtue, faithfulness, the will to sacrifice found in the united, free German people.

Such ideals found their bloody apotheosis in the First Battle of Langemarck in October 1914 in what became mythologised as the Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres. Hitler, who served there, claimed in Mein Kampf that he heard the voices of the young student volunteers singing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”, “as Death plunged a busy hand into our ranks”. Paul Ham provides a vivid description of the ensuing carnage as the poorly trained students encountered the professional British army:

This attack was more unrelenting than anything the British had experienced. The Germans came at them with unthinking, suicidal courage … as if embracing death, as if to prove that their lives were expendable in the service of the state.

Amongst the 25,000 Germans buried at Langemarck are 3000 student volunteers, “romantic dreamers … believers in the glory of the Fatherland and prey to war propaganda that proselytised the minds of the young”. And indeed, this mass martyrdom did have a profound effect on the home front, exerting “enormous popular appeal [and] highlighting the enthusiasm and sacrifice of young warriors who had carried the ‘spirit of 1914’ onto the battlefield”, as Roger Chickering observes in Imperial Germany and the Great War (2004).

“It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life,” recalled the prominent German historian Friedrich Meinecke as he recalled that spirit, and relived his own exhilaration at Germany’s declaration of war, when he himself quickly published The German Exaltation of 1914. Later, in 1944 as his country reaped the whirlwind unleashed by the Nazis in their pursuit of Germany’s Völkisch destiny, Meinecke confessed that “even now [the memory] pours into my soul, with a surprising suddenness, the deepest trust in our nation and highest joy”. And it was not just the teachers and their students who reacted so enthusiastically at that epoch-shaping moment. As Roland Stromberg notes in Redemption by War (1982): “practically all high priests of German professorship responded with immense enthusiasm to the war and supported it with their pens, gladly turning from scholarship to propaganda”.

They didn’t have far to turn. One of the most influential professors was the historian Hans Delbrück, a pioneer of modern military history who observed that war should now be considered in terms of two types of fundamental strategy, wars of attrition and wars of annihilation, as the world was shortly to witness. He was also a politician, tutor and confidant to the royal family, and the successor to the towering figure of Treitschke as a professor of history at the University of Berlin, where his lectures were extremely popular. Regarding the Eastern question, Delbrück (who was regarded as a moderate) remarked that “in reality we would like to exterminate all the Poles”, but accepted that this was not presently possible, as Hans Kohn recounts. He saw the international situation in terms of the looming “War of the English Succession” that another Berlin historian Max Lenz had predicted at the time of the Boer War, and vigorously promoted the Kaiser’s grandiose and confrontational Weltpolitik, especially with regard to the naval arms race with Britain, where victory would mean “the end of [Britain’s] great power position”, and he foresaw Germany playing a lead role in alliances with Japan, Asia and Islam to achieve this.

Delbrück was supported by Meinecke and other influential professors, including Friedrich von Bernhardi, who was both a Prussian general and leading military historian, famous for Germany and the Next War (1911), which advocated ruthless aggression and insisted that treaties must be disregarded in the event of war. War was a “divine business” and a noble activity that played a fundamental and honourable role in human history. It was pacifism that was the aberration: “the desire for peace has rendered most civilized nations anaemic, and marks a decay of spirit and political courage”. Displaying a Social Darwinist perspective on the world, Bernhardi insisted that:

without war, inferior or decaying races would easily choke the growth of healthy budding elements, and a universal decadence would follow … New territory must … be obtained at the cost of its possessors … by conquest, which thus becomes a law of necessity.

He was quite aware of what he was asking: “We must rouse in our people the unanimous wish for power … together with the determination to sacrifice on the altar of patriotism” as the students did at Langemarck.

In August 1914 the themes of national struggle, historical flux and cultural decline were finding one of their most influential expressions. Oswald Spengler, a disappointed academic and itinerant teacher, was just completing the first volume of The Decline of the West, the publication of which was delayed by the war until 1918, when it became a sensation as it entered a world made even more profoundly pessimistic by the bitterness and humiliation of German defeat. As he revealed in his book:

the World War appeared to me as both imminent and the inevitable outward manifestation of the historical crisis, and my endeavour was to comprehend it through an examination of the spirit of the preceding centuries.

Spengler became convinced that it was an epochal event occurring “within a great historical organism … at a point preordained for it centuries ago”. He presented a vast and complex “morphological” vision of history as the endless rise and fall of societies, utilising the key Germanic distinction between the deep inner values and idealism of Kultur (associated with Germany) and the merely superficial appearances and materialism of Zivilization (associated with Britain and France and “the West” generally). For Spengler, the latter was the static, enervated form that Kultur assumes once it has lost its vitality, with the richness of its spiritual soul displaced by the dry rationality of mere intellect. According to Spengler’s analysis, the West was a thousand-year-old “Faustian” civilisation, characterised by endless striving and yearning for the infinite, but entering now into terminal decline.

These historians were joined by other leading academics. The philosopher Max Scheler absurdly depicted the impending war with Britain as the rising of the international proletariat in which a “downtrodden” Germany would play the leading role. Johann Plenge, an expert on Marxism and an important intellectual predecessor of Nazism, popularised the view that the war would see the victory of the “Ideas of 1914”, derived from the Germanic Ideology. In his book 1789 and 1914: The Symbolic Years in the History of the Political Mind (1916) he derided the “Ideas of 1789”, which had produced liberalism, capitalism, individualism, democracy and materialism, and he promoted instead the “Ideas of 1914”, which offered the antithesis, embracing socialism, idealism and a collective existence focused on “the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) of national socialism”, united under the state and across all social barriers in the pursuit of a common purpose—achieving “the highest form of life of the state that has ever been known on earth”. Plenge declared that in Germany “lies the twentieth century … we are the ideal people. Our ideas will be the goals of humanity”. Plenge’s ideas later played a vital role in Nazi ideology.

The sociologist Werner Sombart published Merchants and Heroes in 1915, invoking the KulturZivilization dichotomy and welcoming the “German War” as “the inevitable conflict between the commercial civilisation of England and the heroic culture of Germany”, as Friedrich von Hayek recalled in The Road to Serfdom (1944). Sombart expressed only contempt for the English, depicting them as a people who had lost all warlike instincts and wallowed in a “morass of comforts” that was now infecting other peoples. He also elevated the Germanic notion of the “Power-State” (Machtstaat) to its highest level: transcending individuals and even peoples, it existed only for its own sake and the exercise of power in pursuit of its interests. The citizen owed absolute duty and obedience to the state and had no rights or claims upon it—such presumption was typical of trading peoples who possess merely commercial values, and ill-suited the Volk, with its heroic ethos. The outbreak of the war was therefore to be welcomed, as it freed the German people to rediscover their “glorious heroic past as a warrior people”. Deriding pacifism, Sombart “stressed the ancient and dominant German tradition of love for war”, and embraced Nietzsche as “the seer who [announced] that from us would be born the son of God whom he called the Übermensch”. In the realm of culture, he insisted that true Germans “express themselves in the unanimous rejection of everything that even distantly approximates English or Western European thought”, and regard the Enlightenment “with deepest disgust … exasperation and resentment”.

In this fashion, as Kohn recalls, “German public opinion … was systematically prepared by historians and publicists for the War of the English Succession, for … a new division of the world, in which Germany had to play the leading role”, and this campaign proceeded under the spell of Heinrich von Treitschke, Meinecke’s and Bernhardi’s teacher and Delbrück’s predecessor at Berlin. As Modris Eksteins emphasises in Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989), the Prussian school of historians, led by Treitschke, formed “the vanguard” in a revolt against empiricism, which they identified with “liberalism and materialism and … Anglo-French hegemony in the world”. They turned from a concern with actual events in the past towards its prophetic and mythical reconstruction, “devoted much more to a heralding of the future than to an understanding of the past”. Key figures and events from Germany’s past (such as Arminius, Frederick Barbarossa, Otto the Great, the Teutonic Knights, Luther and Frederick the Great) became ideological resources to be mobilised in support of the aggrandisement of the German Machtstaat.

Treitschke’s History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century (1879–95) was one of the most influential books of its time, shaping the German people’s view of themselves before the Great War. An ardent German nationalist, virulent anti-Semite, and champion of Prussian militarism, Treitschke believed that “in the course of the world’s history a Divine ordinance is perceptible”, guiding the destiny of nations, and the historian must give witness to “the objectively revealed will of God as unfolded in the State”, as John Bowles records in Politics and Opinion in the Nineteenth Century (1963). Nation-states are the kolossal collective personalities of history to which the individual must subjugate all his own personal needs and desires. History itself is driven not by reason but by will, and the essence of the state is the unrestrained exercise of absolute power, realised in the Machtstaat, and “when the entire safety of our country is at stake, no consideration of what is just and unjust … must intervene”. Any act can be justified according to this calculus, for there is no higher tribunal than the eternal, ongoing empowerment of the Machtstaat, which must reach into every area of life, mobilising all the resources of the nation in the pursuit of its destiny.

War will never be banished from human affairs, Treitschke insisted. “The appeal to arms will be valid until the end of history, and therein lies the sacredness of war”. All history is the record of struggle between competing sovereignties. Indeed, “the grandeur of history lies in the perpetual conflict of nations”, and any nation-state worthy of its name must come into existence through “ordeal by battle”. “War is justified because the great national personalities can suffer no compelling force superior to themselves”. Nations blossom forth in a virile display, and the Machtstaat “is no violet to bloom unseen”, but must by its very nature impose itself on others. Consequently, “war is both justifiable and moral, and the ideal of perpetual peace is not only impossible but immoral as well”. This morality is one of brutal Social Darwinism, according to which “brave peoples expand, cowardly peoples perish”, and:

in the unhappy clash between races … the blood-stained savagery of quick war of annihilation is more humane, less revolting, than the specious clemency of sloth which keeps the vanquished in a state of brute beasts.

Inferior races and those whose “role in history is played out” will simply be overwhelmed and must disappear. In such a world the task for Germany is to realise its imperial destiny, and “the outcome of our next successful war must be the acquisition of colonies by any possible means”.

Treitschke found his ideal in the Teutonic Knights, whom he exalted in The Origins of Prussianism (1862), recounting with admiration how this sinister force, which had begun as a military order during the Christian crusades, embarked upon a “pitiless racial struggle” in the thirteenth century against the pagan Poles, Balts, Letts and Lithuanians in the Baltic region, largely exterminating the native Prussians and ultimately establishing its own empire, which prevailed until the Knights were defeated by Polish and Lithuanian forces at the first Battle of Tannenberg in 1410. In keeping with the idea that the mythologised past must be used to mobilise the people, Treitschke demanded that German youth learn of “the most stupendous and fearful occurrence of the late Middle Ages—the northward and eastward rush of the German spirit and the formidable activities of our people as conqueror, teacher, discipliner of its neighbours”. Heinrich Himmler was so impressed that he modelled the SS on the Teutonic Knights, of whom he had been a fervent admirer all his life, believing that he himself had been named in honour of one of the Knights’ founders.

So fresh in the German mind of August 1914 was Treitschke’s idealisation of the Knights as a “discipliner” of its neighbours that the decisive German victory against the Russians at Allenstein in late August was given the name the Battle of Tannenberg, explicitly to evoke the earlier battle and to announce the reversal of its outcome in what was seen as an eternal war between the German and Slavic peoples. This gesture appealed particularly to the Pan-German movement, which was profoundly influenced by Treitschke and played a major role in shaping German war aims as these were formulated in 1914 in anticipation of a German victory. The German politician and intellectual Friedrich Naumann hurriedly wrote Mitteleuropa (1915), which provided a geopolitical blueprint for a postwar German Imperium in Central and Eastern Europe that was later largely adopted by the Nazis.

Consequently, after the Great War the gigantic fifty-hectare Tannenberg Memorial was constructed. Ostensibly built to commemorate fallen German soldiers on the Eastern Front, it was principally constructed to evoke the castles of the Teutonic Knights, giving their memory a permanent presence on an artificial hill produced by massive earthworks to give the impression of a fortress rearing up from the soil of the conquered lands. Conceived also as a Völkisch “community of the dead”, it housed twenty unknown soldiers. The entire Nazi leadership made a special pilgrimage there in 1933. Later, Paul von Hindenburg, who had commanded the German forces in the battle and subsequently became Reich President, was buried there. Its role as a propaganda icon, rather than a genuine war memorial, was recognised by the Russians, who happily participated in its destruction at the end of the Second World War.

Along with Treitschke, the other great prophet of extremity at the beginning of the war was Friedrich Nietzsche, whose militant nihilism was domesticated by the Left in the latter half of the twentieth century and watered down into hackneyed elements of postmodernism. Nevertheless, for the pre-war generation, Nietzsche represented the epitome of amoral aristocratic radicalism and was “of towering importance”, as Stern points out; and it was noted that the assassin at Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip, had adopted Nietzsche’s self-immolating credo: “Insatiable as flame, I burn and consume myself.”

In Germany, Nietzsche’s potential contribution to the war was championed above all by his fiercely nationalistic and anti-Semitic sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who rushed to publish “The Genuine Prussian: Friedrich Nietzsche” in September 1914 to support Sombart’s campaign. The true Nietzsche, according to her, embodied “all that was finest in the Prussian tradition … discipline, breeding, order and duty … a patriot and a martial man”, as Steven Aschheim recounts in The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany 1890–1990 (1992): her Nietzsche “was not all that far from the heroic, political, Nazified Nietzsche” that the theorists of Nazism would soon formulate.

Nietzsche’s role in Germany was obvious to the British, as noted above, and one London bookseller even concluded that it was the “Euro-Nietzschean War”, as he struggled in August 1914 to meet the sudden demand for Nietzsche’s books as people rushed to read the works of the sinister philosopher whose ideas had inspired German aggression. The philosopher H.L. Stewart hurried into print, claiming in Nietzsche and the Ideals of Germany (1915) that the conflict was clearly between “Nietzschean immoralism” and “Christian restraint”. Referring to German atrocities in the opening weeks of the war in Belgium, he asked “whether the creed of Beyond Good and Evil has left no mark in the smoking ruins of Aarschot and the mangled corpses of the women of Dinant?”

In fact, Nietzsche’s texts did find their way onto the front line in the rucksacks of the eager young troops, and it is possible that the Nietzschean aspiration to live “beyond good and evil” did find expression in Aarschot and Dinant, and many other places as well as the war unfolded. There was a sharp increase in the sales of Nietzsche’s books after August 1914 and, according to Aschheim, Thus Spoke Zarathustra joined Goethe’s Faust and the New Testament as “the most popular work that literate soldiers took into battle for inspiration and consolation”, with 150,000 copies of an especially durable edition of Zarathustra being issued to the troops. As Aschheim points out, one contemporary observed that the “beautiful words” of Zarathustra appealed especially to the Germans who “more than any other Volk possessed fighting natures in Zarathustra’s sense”; another insisted that “the fact that German soldiers went to battle with the Bible, Faust and Zarathustra [demonstrated] the ‘idealist’ nature of the German people”. One young soldier wrote in a letter home of his adoration for his commanding officer, who personified the Nietzschean Übermensch to a degree that he could never expect to match. Yet another observed that Zarathustra was “eminently suitable [for] one’s potential hour of death”.

One astute observer of the Nietzsche phenomenon was the novelist Arnold Zweig, who was both a militarist and a Nietzschean at the war’s commencement. Like many young intellectuals, Zweig had experienced the “cultural despair” of the pre-war years. He found that Nietzsche provided a refuge from the philistine materialism of the Second Reich and promised “a Dionysian deliverance from this plight”, as Aschheim recounts. Later he recalled those ideas of Nietzsche that had most resonated on the front line: “his glorification of the ‘blond beast’; his struggle against enlightenment and reason … his highly charged negation of bourgeois ideals, Christian morality, and … the socialist masses”. “Above all”, Zweig noticed the power for the troops of Nietzsche’s “discarding of mercy and neighbourly love”. This was a convenient Nietzschean “revaluation of values” that would have facilitated the barbarity of the German army’s rampage through Belgium.

By ignoring the Germanic Ideology and the hold it had on the German people, recent histories of the Great War gloss over the ideological causes of the war and the passions that surrounded its outbreak. They also imply that Hitler and the Nazis were a sui generis product of the war, conjured up out of an historical and cultural vacuum, and not an expression of extremely powerful ideological and cultural forces within German society, which presumably, according to Niall Ferguson’s scenario, would have just evaporated if the Germans had been allowed to win the war and get it all out of their system. And they discount the alternative view, that the Great War was the first explosive martial expression of the Germanic Ideology, and that Hitler, the Nazis, and the Third Reich were manifestations of its resurgence less than a generation later.

Considered in this fashion, the resilience and power of the Germanic Ideology testify to its deep, almost unquenchable roots in German history, whilst also confirming its capacity—first demonstrated in the Great War—to mobilise the German people on a massive scale, later revealing in the Holocaust and the monstrosities in Eastern Europe the absolute extremity of its aims and methods as it raced towards its ultimate Götterdämmerung.

Mervyn F. Bendle has written extensively in Quadrant on the First World War, most recently “The Imperialist War That Wasn’t” in the June issue, and “The Military Historians’ War on the Anzac Legend” in April.


1 comment
  • [email protected]

    The influence of German nationalism has been vastly underrated in more then one field. A number of the most revered philosophers of the 19c were German, a huge number of the most revered, and cited biblical scholars of the 19c were German. Who knows what influence their fierce patriotism had on their studies.

Post a comment