The consistent common element to the failure of Germany in 1945 seems to be…Germans. Why?
Before we go off and say, “it’s the Germans that caused their own problems,” we should think carefully about what made the Germans fail. This correspondent was at a convention a few years back, talking to one of the leading authorities on WWI about WWI. I had just finished my essay for The Meuse Argonne Companion (ABC-Clio 2011), and I was planning a Major Work on the US in WWI (that I never wrote). Exactly how we got to Germany’s seeming duality of faiths, keeping to the old Germanic myths while going to church, I cannot recall, but I do remember saying that the German lands seemed to have been “incompletely Christianized.” My interlocutor nodded and replied, “incompletely Romanized.”
What’s that to do with anything?
The Northern Crusades in the Baltic and what became Prussia (1147-1410) were violent struggles to bring Christianity to those who didn’t know it and lasted longer than those other Crusades against Islam that we learned about in grade school. Admittedly the “Crusades” appellation is a 19th-century handle, but the concept was the same: bringing Christianity to the pagans. Morality aside, the one thing that the Roman Church brought to the table then as now is a stable and consistent social organization and set of laws. Churches are far more than just places to go on Sunday; they are community centers. Also, for most European states, the Church controlled the civil courts and thus civil law, something no non-Christian faith did.
Small wonder that central Europe resisted for so long. Small wonder, too, that Martin Luther of Saxony-Anhalt (1483-1546) in what was then the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation triggered the Reformation and the creation of Protestantism. Crusading might have allowed Luther to be a monk, but the long resistance based in part on the disputation of central authority made the disparate, disputatious states of the Empire a hotbed of revolt. Rebelling against the Roman Church, however, triggered, among other things, the many French Wars of Religion (1562-98) and the Thirty Year’s War (1618-48).
The Thirty Year’s War was when the Swedes, French, Spaniards, and Italians were determined to fight it out right down to the last German.
All this started when a few guys were thrown out a third-story window in Prague (they survived the seventy-foot drop, by the way). This defenestration started the Bohemian Revolt, which caused Catholic and Protestant to mobilize on each other. The concept of “turnip winter” was born during this prolonged bloodletting, but it was more like a “turnip generation” for the Germans caught between the rampaging armies. According to some authorities, the soldiers took what they wanted because the various princes who organized them and brought them to fight couldn’t afford to pay them off. Eight million dead later–including six and a half million civilians–Europe signed all sorts of treaties declaring that it would never happen again. The Thirty Year’s War was the last of Europe’s wars triggered strictly by religion, but it was hardly the last of Europe’s wars.
Along with Saxony and Bavaria, Prussia-Brandenburg went their own way as far as foreign policy was concerned, paying lip service and taxes to the tottering Empire while Europe kept hiring well-drilled Prussian soldiers for their armies. They were well drilled because hiring out soldiers was a source of revenue for the cash-poor Hohenzollern monarchy. Everyone wanted some Prussians as a backbone or striking force or both. Of course, other states of the Empire with enough men to spare started doing the same, including the Hanovers, who took charge in England after the end of the Stuart dynasty in 1714. Then came Napoleon, and we already talked about what his effects were…one of them, anyway.
But there was another.
Many Germans looked at the themes of liberty of the French Revolution with some envy. They dreamed of removing the arbitrary rule of the ancien regime and replacing it with stability–the kind of stability Germans hadn’t known for generations. During the War of Liberation (1813-14) against France, Prussia-Brandenburg called on all Germans to rise up and throw off the French yoke. It worked. The Gold and Iron campaign of 1813 saw women and schoolchildren gathering precious metals to help pay for the armies. Men and boys joined the new Landwehr volunteer units popping up all over. The most famous of these was the Lutzow Free Corps units, made up of volunteers from all over the German-speaking lands. Eschewing the old Prussian blue or the many local alternatives, their uniforms were black, with red piping and bright brass buttons. The crowds loved them, and black, red, and gold have been the colors of German flags (except for the 1933-45 flags) ever since.
In 1871 the Prussian strongmen took charge of a united German Empire. Then in1918, the Weimar Republic was born, and then died in 1933. And then came the Armageddon of 1945.
The where of the failure of Germany is obvious: Germany’s leading candidate for national leadership, Prussia-Brandenburg, was aided by the German’s love of strongmen. Cash-poor because its poor soil could barely support subsistence agriculture, a monarchy, and commercial trade, Prussia used its army to raise money. Eventually, Germany used the military for everything.
Perhaps we can narrow down the question of when the failure occurred to those desperate times while multiple armies were rampaging across Germany during the Thirty Year’s War. No churches, no pagan gods could save millions from disease, starvation, or the rapine of sick and starving soldiers. But other armies could. Germany may not have existed as a state yet, but it did as a sentiment.
It may be a stretch, but this evaluation is going with Prussia-Brandenburg for where and the Thirty Year’s War for when.
Next time, we’ll look at similar cases…if we can find any.