This case study will have to analyze centuries, not just a few years, and study five failure points.
What do we mean by Germany?
The part of the world we now call Germany was populated by proto-humans at least 600,000 years ago. The first non-modern human Neanderthal fossil was discovered in the Neander Valley. Similarly dated evidence of modern humans has been found in the Swabian Jura, including 42,000-year-old flutes (the oldest musical instruments ever found), the 40,000-year-old Lion Man, and the 35,000-year-old Venus of Hohle Fels. The Nebra sky disk, created during the European Bronze Age, is attributed to a German site.
Germany has been a geographic/linguistic idea much longer than it has been a united political entity. The English word Germany derives from the Latin Germania, Julius Caesar’s term for the peoples east of the Rhine. The German word Deutschland (the German lands) is derived from deutsch, which is from the Old High German diutisc (of the people) used to distinguish the region’s language from Latin and its Romance descendants. Diutisc descends from proto-German þiudiskaz, which comes from þeudo, from the proto-Indo-European word tewtéh (people), from which the word Teutons also originates. The Romans first called the Eastern Franks Germans in the 1st Century BC. All of which suggests that there were Germans before there was a Germany.
Did Germany fail?
This approach requires a backward look at history, a reverse chronology. Bear with me.
Many would say that the Götterdämmerung of 1945 was only the fault of the National Socialist German Workers Party–NSDAP in German, Nazis in the vernacular–and not Germany as a nation or of Germans as a people. While this has been the common refrain since the Cold War started and the West needed German assistance to resist the Awful Red Things From Eastern Europe, it ultimately doesn’t ring true, The Nazis originated in post-WWI Germany, the movement didn’t come from elsewhere. It did sort of catch on elsewhere, but nowhere enough to take control of public affairs. To suggest that “Europe didn’t know what the Germans were going to do” or that “the Germans didn’t know what the Nazis were going to do” ignores the text of Mein Kampf, a best-seller in Germany for years before 1939. And before? That’s a little trickier, but let’s face it: Germany was a petri dish for any loudmouth who came along selling his “vision” for Germany…and the Germans bought it because Germans were accustomed to following loudmouths. They had before…
The German defeat in 1945, some say, had its beginnings in 1919, when France, England, and the United States shoved the Treaty of Peace Between the Allied and Associated Powers and Germany (commonly called the Versailles Treaty) down the German’s throat in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. The timing of the signing–the fifth anniversary of the death of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia–was coincidental, but the place–where Wilhelm I’s chancellor Otto von Bismarck proclaimed a second German Empire in 1871–was not. France, especially, wanted Germany humiliated, disarmed, stripped of their overseas empire, forced to pay heavy reparations, had their borders readjusted, and for select Germans to stand trial for war crimes (not like the trials 20 years later). After losing 1,5 million soldiers–25% of their men between 18 and 30–between 1914 and 1918, the French were in a bad mood, and no one was willing to argue with them. Germany had trouble finding someone in authority to sign it: one German leader resigned rather than sign. Though the fighting had stopped in November 1918, the French and British were willing to go back to war if the Germans didn’t sign.
Germany, though not occupied, was not in a position to fight again. The army had collapsed for several reasons, starvation being among them. Sapped morale was another. The High Seas Fleet had mutinied rather than go out for a death ride in October 1918–one event that triggered the collapse of the Hohenzollern throne. Going back to the trenches was quite literally unthinkable since the German Army had demobilized itself and large elements of it were brawling in the streets…because there was, as far as they could see, no German state to fight for after the abdication of Wilhelm II.
Wilhelm II was the third and last Emperor of the German Empire. His father, Fredrick III, died of cancer after less than 100 days of his reign. Wilhelm, though nearly thirty by then, was not temperamentally ready to be emperor. He wanted to rule as well as reign, where his father and grandfather had been satisfied to let Otto von Bismarck do most of the day-to-day work and the details of policy-making. After firing/retiring Bismarck (who, ironically, threatened to resign from his post numerous times before), Wilhelm II set about building a navy to rival his grandmother’s–Victoria I of Great Britain. The result was a naval race with Britain that Germany could never win, spending resources that Germany could barely afford–especially manpower. The result was a “risk fleet” that Germany hoped would deter Britain from going to war at all. While Bismarck could not have survived to 1914, a different chancellor might have persuaded Wilhelm to brake the runaway train that was the German Empire and Europe. A man with a spine might have been able to stop him from writing the notorious “blank check” he wrote in support of Austria-Hungary’s desire to crush Serbia in 1914. If nothing else, Bismarck might have taught Wilhelm some things about the purpose of the “concert of Europe” that he organized–especially the idea that so many treaties would make any major conflagration too risky. It might have been, but it was too complex to work. Reliance on so many treaties was dangerous in itself, but so was the system of intermarriages that the British attempted.
Bismarck and Napoleon
In a way, we can blame the irritable, mercurial Bismarck for part of Germany’s troubles in 1919. After all, he was the architect of what we now call Germany. He planned to make the four major German states in the Hohenzollern orbit–Prussia, Wittenberg, Bavaria, and Saxony–and dozens of principalities, bishoprics, electorates, and other leftovers from the old Holy Roman Empire (abolished in 1806) into a single unified empire. He set out to do it, using the power of Prussia, its General Staff system, and the so-called German Way of War: sudden movements tightly coordinated designed to intimidate enemies. This way of war–without the staff system–evolved during the 17th and 18th centuries, in a time when everyone wanted reliable-well-drilled Prussians to anchor their armies. The staff system evolved in the early 19th century after Napoleon handed the Prussians their heads. Prussia had developed this system primarily because it was Europe’s doormat: without natural boundaries, they were often overrun by more powerful–and more numerous–enemies. By institutionalizing military excellence, Prussia hoped to make their smaller armies more efficient and deadly.
Holy Roman Empire
Prussia had come to this lowly state for several reasons, not the least of which was that Napoleon had worn out just about everyone on the Continent, including the remnants of the old Empire. The Holy Roman Empire (Latin: Sacrum Imperium Romanum; German: Heiliges Römisches Reich, a term not used until the 15th century) was a multi-ethnic complex of quasi-independent territories in Western and Central Europe–with Germany at the core. It developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1809. Pope Leo II officially proclaimed it on 25 December 800, when he crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne (literally, “Charles the Great”) and declared him Holy Roman Emperor. The empire survived as a political entity based only on the strength of its emperor, elected from among the monarchs of the most powerful states. At its greatest extent in the 10th century, the Empire stretched from central Italy to the North Sea and held alliances by either marriage or politics from Ireland to Russia. By the 18th century, the Empire had shrunk to half of what it had been.
Voltaire was said to have quipped that the remnants of the old Empire were neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The fact was that that part of the world had been imperfectly Romanized–brought into the Christian/Catholic faith. The Eastern Franks had little of what we’d consider political organization until Charlemagne’s time, and even then, it had a habit of dividing and being conquered a great deal. That was part of the problem…
Geography and the Spread of Christianity
The geographic idea that we call Germany has always lacked significant geographic barriers like mountains or oceans, or even seas on either its eastern or western frontiers. Because it is situated at the edge of the vast grassland that stretches from the Pacific to the North Sea, central Europe has been subject to invasion after invasion for much of its history. Not every invasion was armed; indeed, most weren’t. Most of Germany’s invasions were mass migrations, driven by other mass migrations, crop failures, plagues, and pestilence.
One invasion that seemed benign was the “invasion” of Romanized Christianity, which reached Germany in the 4th century AD. It spread slowly but certainly from the Rhine to the Bug River, reaching modern Poland by about the 7th century, and was soon joined by the rapid spread of Christianity in the Scandinavian world starting in about the 8th century. Resistance to this new faith was somewhat spotty, but it was frequent and persistent. Much to the irritation of many evangelistic preachers, Germans along the Baltic Sea frequently continued to practice their older animistic religions alongside Christianity, seeing no contradictions. Those Germans were to become, in time, Prussians.
We need to make a distinction between religion, churches, and faith.
- Religion is a practice, a dogma, defined by a series of rituals and prescribed beliefs. As the Catechism suggests, religion is a life to be lived.
- Churches are organizations that construct buildings and can include those who attend religious rituals in these or other buildings.
- Faith is a non-falsifiable belief, to include deities, people (like leaders), organizations (like churches), and movements…like religions.
One can have one, two, or all three at once; they are mutually excursive, but none require the other two. This is how Germany–often dominated by Prussia–continued to practice pre-Christian rituals and believe in their old gods (Norse and not) before and after the Mass. It should be a small wonder, then, that the Protestant movements started in Germany. Germans could see corruption in one practice while keeping faith with another. Luther was just the most vocal. And Luther’s heresy triggered other Protestant movements and begat conflicts worldwide between Christians who believed this doctrine but not that one. Human violence backed by religious leaders has been consistently more violent, more destructive than those driven by other motivations.
Well, we have swept through a history of Germany from 1945 back to pre-history, and what did we see? A proud language group that Christianized itself– sort of, then militarized itself for its survival. Along the way, we saw several possible failure points…did you miss them?
- The Nazis, which I dismissed…kind of
- Wilhelm II, whose vanity created tensions and whose poor response to a local crisis helped trigger a global war
- Bismarck, who set up a system of treaties in Europe too complex to succeed, and Napoleon, who eliminated what civil system there was for organizing the German states and left a vacuum that was filled by the military
- The Holy Roman Empire, which looked better on paper than it did in reality
- The Christian evangelists, who failed to Romanize what would become the Empire, Prussia, and Germany completely.
Five possible failure points. Let’s see about them later.