On the German National Character

First published in Deutsches Adelsblatt, XLII (1924).

 

The character of a people is the product of its destinies. In the last analysis it is not soil, climate, sky, and sea that determine this character. Nor is it race or blood. These things are merely the raw metal that gets hammered into shape by historical reality. Least of all is a peopleís character the result of its culture, that which it has acquired through speech, writing, and reading. Such things cannot even be regarded as outer trappings.

In history, character is wrought more by suffering than by success. Roman character was not a consequence of the victories won in the great era following the Battle of Sentium. Rather, the victories presupposed the existence of this character, which was formed in the previous long centuries of misery when the Roman people constantly lived on the verge of annihilation.

The white peoples of today, even the oldest among them, are not more than one thousand years old. They have come into being since the time of Charlemagne, when Germanic tribes mingled with the scattered remains of past nations, thus creating a handful of new lines. What has since happened to them can be read in their national characters, which may exhibit weak or strong, sublime or ridiculous, profound or shallow traits. There it can be seen whether they feel at home or estranged in the world, whether they seek their fortune in it or suffer by it. Yet even the intense gaiety of some regions, even the laughter of the inns and folk festivals still bears testimony to streams of blood and tears, to countless massacres, heartbreaking disappointments, the sacrifice of whole generations, and repeated failures and defeats. "World history," which gave these peoples their character as heroes, martyrs, or fools, is a single great tragedy. And as long as it continues it will remain one. It is simply that most of us are too cultured to believe it.

There are peoples whose character is simplicity itself. Others are unable to figure themselves out, not to speak of anyone else understanding them. The Englishman is a puzzle to no one. English history moves in a straight line -- amid much bloodshed, to be sure, but without sharp turns or hesitations. The Englishman harbors no troubles within his breast; all his problems can be found on a map.

All the more enigmatic are the Germans. From the start they have spent their lives pondering their problems, each one occupied with his own and many with those of their fellow countrymen. Have they found an answer? It has been suggested that the German people lacks a character entirely. Perhaps that is correct. It has not one, but several characters -- as many as there are Germans, perhaps more. All other national characters are reflected in ours. We have among us Roman and Greek, English, Spanish, and Norse types, and we are constantly longing for a true home in some distant clime.

The reasons for this are evident if we glance at history. All other peoples have a history, a path leading from a beginning to an end. In this sense our history is different. Ours is an often repeated attempt to find a beginning. Englandís destiny had its distinct and significant beginning with the Norman Conquest; Franceís began with the Franks, Spainís with the Visigoths. German destiny had its dubious start with the unification of Saxons, Swabians, Bavarians, Franconians, and Thuringians under a mystical crown. The "face" of Germany looks like the map of 1400 or 1700.

Too much character then? Yes, that too. We are characteristic to the point of lunacy. Our intelligentsia is a veritable collection of eccentrics. Such profound thought-systems! Such Weltanschauungen! Such political ideas! Each writes his own German, each behaves in his own way, each believes and desires something different. But is that our true nature, or is it a role we are playing for our own benefit while we wait for the real thing? The soul of the German people is filled with surprising and dumfounding capabilities for excellence and failure. Many have claimed to understand this soul, but none has figured correctly. Hence the suspicion felt toward us on the outside, and the even stronger suspicion we hold against each other. We are insecure in a world where everyone wants to be sure of his neighbor.

Other peoples, during the course of their history, have used up or worn off certain character traits they acquired in the dark, remote times of their beginnings. We are still in possession of these traits, for we lack a history. We have retained the vestiges of Nordic instincts as portrayed in the Icelandic sagas: unsociability, taciturnity, the hermit instinct, doggedness, obstinacy; we have more mavericks than masterminds. Would we as a people, with better luck in political affairs, have been able to create unaided the genteel society of the eighteenth century? Good form, as an imperative, as an exalted duty or as a challenge, is contrary to our nature. We are in the habit of letting ourselves go -- poetically, intellectually, and socially, in full view of ourselves and others. We do this least frequently in music; but we have experimented with the verse forms of all times and all peoples, and the most extravagant fantasy is our proper domain. No other people could have profited more from careful upbringing by a refined society. But then there is our seriousness, our tenacity, our quiet, patient adherence to duties once assumed, our devotion to everything we have been able to preserve in spite of our lack of self-confidence. Our capacity for work, particularly that of our economic and technological leaders, is inimitable. Future generations will look back with incredulous admiration on the reconstruction we have accomplished within just four years of such a catastrophe.

And now to the decisive factor: our boundless urge to follow and serve, to worship anyone or anything, to believe blindly and with doglike loyalty, all advice to the contrary notwithstanding. This too is a vestigial trait from the distant past. In modern situations it can either be great or desperately comical, but it dominates the history of our sovereigns, churches, and parties. In no other country is a "cause" or a leader, not even the caricature of one, so sure of a following. For one who knows how to use it, this is a latent source of immense power. We have had too little historical experience to be skeptical about this. Every peasant in the Balkans, every American longshoreman has more political know-how than we do. Are we children? Perhaps. Grown-up children of this sort have more than once altered the path of history.

But we must not forget one other aspect: our sluggish blood, our Gemüt, our irresoluteness. Nietzsche once wrote, "A German is capable of great things, but it is improbable that he will do them." Difficult to set in motion, having little self-assurance, disinclined to pathos in ourselves, we are a far cry from the theater-like political scene of Southern Europe, where the play can still go on in spite of failures. All in all, no other people today is more in need of a leader in order simply to have faith in itself. And yet no other people can mean more to a great leader. In the right hands, all of its faults will turn to merits. What the outcome of this might be is impossible to foretell with the customary methods of political prognostication.

At times when government and diplomacy are conducted along strict traditional lines, as they were in the eighteenth century, such a national character as ours is doomed to prolonged slumber. Germanyís political potential had been forgotten, and Napoleon was very much surprised when he suddenly met up with it. Today there are no longer any venerable forms of political existence whose age is an almost unassailable power. Violence has come into its own, opportunism as well. History is returning to the freedom of its primitive instincts, and the lands and the seas are the spoils.

Does that make us a timely people?


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