The German Catastrophe

German Catastrophe

Meinecke, Friedrich.  The German Catastrophe:  Reflections and Recollections.  Trans. Sidney B. Fay. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1950.


In the shadow of Nazi Germany’s defeat, the 84-year-old Meinecke sets out to discover and explain the longer roots of Hitlerism’s origins in Germany’s history.  He seems to be hoping to answer the questions:  Was Hitler a logical outgrowth of Germany’s development in the 19th century?  To what extent was totalitarianism a peculiar German phenomenon rather than an aspect of general European development?

Book Summary/ Author’s Argument(s):

Meinecke’s search for Hitlerism’s origins takes him back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  The problems of booming population and innovations in power (both technological and political power) saw two “great waves” rise to answer these problems: socialism and nationalism.  The first wave, socialism, sought to care for the needs of all members of society, to safeguard their standard of living.  The second wave, though initially a liberal movement aimed at the individual’s right to freedom, eventually morphed into something more sinister: once individual freedom was secured, nationalism sought only political power for itself (1-3).  To combine socialism and nationalism was no easy task; Friedrich Naumann dreamt of creating a national socialism that would not only secure the individual’s rights and safety, but also its welfare.  This dream failed to come to fruition.  Another dreamed to construct a national socialism:  Hitler.  Meinecke acknowledges that in order to combine nationalism and socialism, the firm power of the state is needed.

After explaining the relationship between nationalism and socialism, and their peculiar manifestations in Germany (they mingled and fought more than in other countries, 7), Meinecke looks at “the historical force which helped most strongly in the building of the Third Reich:” militarism (47).  The Modern technological militarist spirit of Hitler’s Germany had a prototype in the Prussian militarism created by Friedrich Wilhelm I, Meinecke states (39).  The rise of militarism also a central them of Meinecke’s book:  a duality of nature resembling Hegel’s dialectic view of history.  Two forces are always struggling for primacy.  In this case, a humanistic socialism was defeated in the revolutions of 1848, and a calculating and powerful nationalism (expressed by the “blood and iron”-type policies of Prussian/Bismarckian militarism).  This militarism, which was a synthesis of intellect and raw power led to a tendency to be subservient, Meineicke argues (11).  However, this subservient nature was obscured by militarism’s apparent success (proof of which was the power and discipline it enjoyed in forging the Reich in 1871).  Militarism led to a loss of culture and produced narrow-mindedness, Meinecke goes to on say.  Again, you see a dichotomy emerge:  Kultur vs Civilization.

So, out of the same bourgeoisie that produced Naumann’s dream national socialist movement came the hardening nationalism of the Pan German and Fatherland Party movements.  World War One was the turning point for the German people, Meinecke insists.  One the one hand you have Kulturmenschen who upheld the values of Goethe (a central hero in Meinecke’s book), which were the virtues of the individual, humane care of the social needs of the masses; on the other hand were the needs of the state, where organization was the essence of existence, thus leading to an indifference towards humanity.  In this case, individuals were simply citizens of the state.  The existence of extremely nationalistic organizations (the Pan German movement and the Fatherland Party are named explicitly) and the “stabbed in the back” theory were the fatal turning point in the evolution of the German bourgeois.  This idea that “the military was working, but social radicals stabbed Germany in the back” closed the bourgeois’ mind to democratic ideals and pushed them to powerful militarism.  This situation, plus bad social conditions (including but not limited to the decrees of the Versailles Treaty) were necessary for the existence of Hitler.

Meinecke then spends time examining some of the aspects of Hitlerism (namely how power was the end goal for Hitler’s state, and in a chapter titled “The Positive Aspects of Hitlerism,” he states that while Germany may have experienced prosperity under Hitler (socialism), the state only sought prosperity in order to achieve power, not for the welfare of its citizens).

But more interesting is Meinecke’s wrestling with the question of whether or not Hitler was a logical outgrowth of Germany’s development in the 19th century.  Hitler’s national socialism, he says, did not evolve from solely German circumstances (how to deal with the problems of the 18th/19th centuries mentioned above), but, as an answer to those problems, it did represent an obvious deviation from the general European path (Sonderweg).  In order to explain himself, Meinecke explains that society needs to retain a careful balance between rationality and irrationality (perhaps what he refers to in other places as civilization and culture, respectively).  Rationality refers to logic & power (modern nationalistic movement) while irrationality refers to emotion & feeling (the humane socialist movement).   Where Germany’s path diverged from Europe’s was when rationality stomped out irrationality with Prussian militarism.  The character of Hitler’s Germans resulted from a continuous shifting of ideals Goethe’s time, a disturbance of the equilibrium between rational and irrational.  

This may lead one to assume that Hitler’s national socialism was indeed the next “logical outgrowth.”  But here, Meinecke’s reasoning changes suddenly, stating that “a chance chain of events” led to Hitler.  This is backed by his explanation of “chance” in historical development, which can be translated perhaps as “the role of personality” in history.  The main “chance event” was the fact that Hindenburg was weak and named Hitler chancellor of Germany in January 1933, Meinecke asserts.

The book ends with reflections on the future of Germany and how it can find “redemption” under the foreign rule of the Victors.  In the future, the only place of power that Germany should find should be in some type of European Federation.

My Comments & Questions:

While it is interesting to read the thoughts of someone who had just lived through the foundation of the German Reich and seen the downfall of the Third Reich, I found Meinecke’s book more problematic than helpful.  His dualistic understanding of reality and the forces of history is oversimplified, I feel.  Also, it seems that everything has the seed of its own undoing (nationalism was started as a liberal force, but its greed for power led to its abuse).  Lastly, his sudden shift of perspective – from large “waves” or historical forces, to the importance of personal attributes – is troubling – and seems to come at just the right time to “get the German people off the hook.”  He speaks of the Third Reich as a period of “inner foreign rule” (103), which exemplifies a view that would become popular in Germany:  that the horrors of WWII were led only by a small handful of Nazis at the top who coerced and tricked the mass of the innocent people.


For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, German History | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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