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The Course of German History

A.J.P. Taylor

New York: Capricorn, 1962 [1946]; Pp: 231

Review © 2001 Branislav L. Slantchev

In the 1961 preface, Taylor informs us that his intention was to "plot the course of German history [which] shows that it was no more a mistake for the German people to end up with Hitler than it is an accident when a river flows into the sea" (p. 7). This is a rather bold statement that has a somewhat deterministic, even teleological, taste and it would take the author a lot to prove it. I, for one, am quite unsympathetic to accounts to chart an inevitable march of events, and it seems somewhat strange that Taylor, who in his excellent, if not entirely correct, THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR argued persuasively that Hitler's policy was little more than a series of opportunistic leaps facilitated by the ineptness of British and French diplomacy, should take such a strong line. His argument essentially reduces the problem to one of geography: "Germany's greatest problem has been to find a settled place in Europe" (p. 8) and he is at pains to demonstrate how this produced a nation at once so barbarous and technically advanced, a civilization with great cultural achievements and appalling lapses of humaneness.

His main theme is that Prussia did not want a united Germany for that would mean the inevitable decline of its dominant Junker class. Bismarck's policies are all interpreted as attempts to forestall such union. On the other hand, the fast economic development eventually burst in 1873 and the result of the crisis was autarky, the marriage of iron and rye, or the militaristic union of the agrarian (Junker) and industrial sectors. Since European territory could not be had short of general war, Germany had to either stagnate in the Reich created by Bismarck or overthrow the European order (p. 135).

The Holy Roman Empire. Taylor begins by tracing a purported political, ethnographic, and national German continuity that had lasted for a millennium. Strategically, the German peoples have always been wedged between the civilized West, which they tried to imitate, and the barbarian East, which was pressing them from behind. Taylor also detects a determination to exterminate the East (p. 14). Such sweeping generalization, based on the invasions of the Teutonic Knights, are suspect for Germans fought quite often everywhere, just like everyone else. The so-called Reich, which is cited as the political entity that symbolized unity, was little more than a convenient fabrication with no nationalist core whatsoever, let alone a "national character," which Taylor finds (p. 16).

Putting these quibbles aside, Taylor's emphasis on the economic decline and the consequences of Luther's reformation seems well placed. The opening of the route to India around the Cape led to the collapse of Germany as the commercial trade center of Europe (why this happened is never really explained). The Protestant reforms of 1519-20, however, divided the lands in addition to placing the authority to rule squarely in the hands of absolute rulers (pp. 19-20). In the end, Germany was little more than a patchwork of small domains, ruled by princes with little chance of independent survival and, curiously, their very existence needed the intervention of outside powers, the first of which resulted in the Treaty of Augsburg (1555). The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 is more of the same: France and Sweden guaranteeing the princes against Habsburg conquest (p. 22). "The Thirty Years' War was not fought by the German people, least of all was it fought for religious reasons. It was fought by and against the German princes... In every age rulers, fighting for their survival or for the extension of their power, have to talk the claptrap of the time: in the seventeenth century the claptrap happened to be religious" (p. 23).

The Rise of Prussia. In a stunning display of lacking restraint, Taylor depicts the rise of Brandenburg, with its "most backward and despised of the Electors" (p. 26) as nearly the sole cause of all subsequent grief in Europe. Prussia, "excelling in nothing but savagery and conquest" was, as everyone knows, propelled (but barely) into the ranks as the least of the Great Powers by its determined King, Frederick II, by mobilizing almost the entire resources of state for the support of the army. He could not have done it without the Junkers, described as the most important factor in German history (p. 28). The unique combination of a landowning efficient aristocracy that had nothing in common with the leisured class in France or Britain, allowed the Hohenzollerns to carry out reforms without relying on the middle class, and create the absolute "Junker monopoly of civilian and military office" (p. 29). Since the Junkers felt no unity, and even despised the "burghers", the greatness of Prussia only produced further German disunity (p. 30). However, until the calamitous events of the French Revolution, neither Prussia nor Austria could assert its dominion over the petty German princes.

The Confederation of the Rhine. In 1803 Napoleon redistributed the ecclesiastical states and the Free Cities among the secular princes, which completed the subjection of Germany to absolutism (pp. 35-60). French rule was associated with liberal reforms, and so nationalism took an illiberal character. In 1807 at Tilsit, Napoleon and Alexander partitioned Europe although the Tsar did save Prussia from obliteration. Stein's reforms (1807-12) produced a harsher, more effective and extensive government than before. "In other countries the revolution gave the people universal suffrage; in Prussia it have them universal military service" (p. 42). Even in 1813, there was no popular movement in the struggle with the French at all, and indeed, orders of the French authorities were respected up until the Allies took over (p. 45).

At the Congress of Vienna, Prussia recovered the Grand Duchy of Posen and was saddled with the left bank of the Rhine, which she did not want and which did not want her; "...it was, as it were, a practical joke played by the Great Powers on the weakest of their numbers" (p. 47). Austria and Prussia cooperated in Germany, where the loose confederation was designed to keep the smaller states out of the way while the two blocked France. According to Taylor, the radical movement in 1819-20 was a joke and the repressive Karlsbad decrees was an overreaction by Metternich prodded by Frederick William III, who was afraid of repeat of the 1806 disaster (pp. 52-3). The heyday of constitutionalism in Germany saw both particularism (since liberals were afraid the a unified central power would squelch their liberties) and hostility to democracy (for their national sentiment). "The story of the German federal organization was thus one of unbroken failure" (p. 57). Although Austria was dominant until 1848, two developments worked for Prussia's advance: the philosophy of Hegel and the Zollverein in 1834 (p. 61). It is notable that the princes joined in order to divert their middle classes from Jacobinism, not to unite Germany: in 1866, almost all members fought against Prussia. "The Zollverein was not evidence that the Prussian rulers aimed at the leadership of united Germany. It was rather witness to the sacrifices they would make to prevent a united Germany" (p. 64).

The Revolutions of 1848. This was the year when "German history reached its turning point and failed to turn" (p. 68). The conflict was between the princes and the radical middle-class, which had no support from the peasants (army conscripts). "The successful revolutions were in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin" (p. 71) which upset the triangular balance in Germany and permitted the liberal movement to flourish until Frederick William IV recovered his nerve. The Frankfort National Assembly ended the brief period of liberalism in 1848 when it authorized the Prussian intervention in Posen (July) and sanctioned war on Denmark for Schleswig-Holstein, delivering itself into the hands of the Prussian army. Upon war threats by England and Russia, Prussia defied the Assembly and concluded an armistice with Denmark (pp. 82-3). By the end of the year, both powers were back, but one lesson was learnt: "Prussia could dominate Germany, but only on condition of serving the national German cause" (p. 86). More profoundly, since the revolution ended with the success of the state, industrial capitalists associated themselves with state leadership, unlike their laissez-faire Anglo-Saxon counterparts (pp. 88-9).

Since Austria was engaged in Italy and Hungary, the princes sought Prussian protection for their rule and formed the Erfurt Union. However, as the Habsburg monarchy settled its affairs under Schwarzenberg, her withdrawal ended and with Russian support (Nicholas loath to see a united Germany) compelled Prussia to renounce the Union in 1850. After the humiliation of Olmütz "Germany was kept disunited by Russian decrees" (p. 92) for Austria failed to gain admission to the Zollverein. Within four years Austria, which depended heavily on Russian support, was to obliterate the advantage by her erratic behavior during the Crimean War, which "gave the death blow to the European order which had been created by the Congress of Vienna" (p. 97).

Bismark and the Conquest of Germany. Bismark became PM of Prussia in 1862 and inaugurated his policy of "blood and iron" (p. 101). Being a Junker himself, he worked exclusively for the preservation of the (artificial) dominance of this class. "One aim Bismarck never pursued: that o uniting all Germans in a single national state. Greater Germany would mean the end of Junker Prussia" (p. 102). After the successful war against Denmark, Bismarck tried to win Austrian support but, failing that (and realizing that the Habsburgs could not count on Russia), he turned to isolating Austria. To this end, he allied himself with Italians, Magyars, and German radicalism (p. 107). Even then, when war broke out in 1866, German opinion was on the Austrian side. Following her defeat, Austria withdrew from Germany and was kept aloof by Magyars (who feared a loss of their power) and its own Germans (who were afraid of Slav dominance). "Prussia's triumph was a triumph of will, not of material superiority, a triumph of planning, of forethought, of conscious direction" (p. 114).

Bismark was acceptable to the Junkers because he defeated liberalism and was acceptable to the middle classes because he united Germany (p. 116). Success is a wasting asset and so Bismarck set out to find a balance between the landowners, who wielded military power, and the capitalists, who had economic strength (p. 120). The crash of 1873, a normal occurrence by economic standards, caused the industrialists to clamor for protection, and Bismarck obliged. Without protection "Germany would have been so deeply bound to the world market as to be incapable of war" (p. 125), which was exactly what Bismarck wanted to prevent. With the new duties imposed in 1879 (NB: this is full six years after the purported cause!), the decisive step toward autarky was taken. Taylor exaggerates this by stating that since German industry was the most modern in Europe, it needed not fear foreign competition, and therefore the tariffs were a form of economic conflict, "a weapon of war" (p. 126). Here's the famous marriage of iron and rye that "made the survival of Germany conditional on the conquest of Europe." Because the funding for the army had to be approved every seven years, Bismark whipped up fears to justify the expenses: fear of France, Russia, and England. "The Bismarckian system aimed at security and peace; but it left the ruling classes of Germany no alternative --- to preserve themselves they had to enter on a path of conquest which would be their ruin" (p. 138).

William II and the First World War. William II dismissed Bismarck in 1890 and threw caution to the wind ("full steam ahead"). The successor, Caprivi, was also dismissed in 1892 because he had allowed the Centre (Roman Catholic) and the Social Democratic vote to grow. Hohenlohe treated the Centre as a governing party and Taylor blames the "sectarian" party for keeping the Reich going (p. 145). The heavy industries, sheltered by the high tariffs of 1879, grew quickly and by 1900 Germany outpaced Britain in iron and steel production. Finding an outlet for this production thus became a major problem. Even the intellectuals joined the push to foreign adventure. Under Bülow, Germany conducted "world policy on the cheap" (p. 148) by obtaining concessions from China in 1897, renewing colonial claims in Africa in 1898, and embarking on the Baghdad Railway project in 1899. Protectionism continued as well, culminating in the high tariff of 1902 under Miquel. The construction of the Navy begun by Tirpitz was also without any "sensible justification" except that "the Reich had itself to become a gigantic and steady consumer of Ruhr steel" (p. 150). Financially, Germany also accumulated great deficit for the armaments were built on credit and without direct taxation (p. 152).

The foreign policy of threats and ultimata continued until the French called the German bluff in 1906 over the second Moroccan crisis. "From the moment when the Algericas conference broke up European war was inevitable" (p. 155) for the external challenge combined with the domestic challenge to the Chancellor. In 1909, Germany pushed her way into the Bosnian crisis and compelled Russia to back down, except this time Britain, France, and Russia came closer together, to the detriment of the Reich. Bethmann Hollweg became Chancellor the same year and until 1916 he assisted the military in tasks which he deplored. "A runaway horse or, more truly, an overpowered engine out of control; such was Germany in the last years of apparent peace" (p. 160). Most Germans wanted both a "place under the sun" for Germany (a strong international position based on power) and a constitutional rule of law without the arrogance of the military. This, obviously, was a contradiction in terms and the only thing that Germans could agree on was foreign war (p. 163).

Even though Germany could have gotten peace at any time between September 1914 and the summer of 1917, "the status quo was impossible: for it would have brought to an explosion within Germany all the problems which had led to the outbreak of war... Peace without victory was, moreover, impossible financially, for it would have left Germany overwhelmed with debt; it was impossible economically, for it would have arrested the expansion of German industry" (p. 167). Hence the unlimited objective of indiscriminate conquest. In August 1916, with the appointment of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the High Command took over the Reich. For political reasons, the latter championed the 1850 program of Greater Germany (p. 173) for "German war aims, far from being the desire of a limited 'governing class,' expressed the demands of the whole people... It was a people's war" (p. 174). The rapaciousness was exposed by the Brest-Litovsk peace which Germany imposed on Russia (p. 177), which hardened the Allies for total victory.

Versailles and Weimar. After the failure of the 1919 summer offensive, Ludendorff realized the war was lost and engineered the coming of power of Prince Max of Baden as Chancellor, who could negotiate with the Allies. Thus, he "was sole author of the 'October revolution'... [and] the Weimar republic came into being on Ludendorff's orders" (p. 179). The brutal suppression of the "November revolution" of Liebknecht and the Independent Socialists won favor with the Allies, who were fearful of the specter of Bolshevism, but also was the doom of democracy in Germany. Even the new constitutions, the "most mechanically perfect of all democratic constitutions" (p. 185) became the instrument for crippling democratic elements because the Left governments did not interfere with Right state governments and Right governments cared nothing for it.

The Treaty of Versailles, far from ruining Germany as often claimed, could have saved her and Europe had it been fulfilled. No German accepted the treaty and it was signed "solely because High Command was unable to resume the war" (p. 187). First, the trouble with meeting the costs of war which, in the absence of plunder, the Germans had to pay themselves. "Not the Treaty of Versailles, but the delayed strain and exhaustion of four years of military effort produced the economic difficulties" (p. 190). Since none of the 164 milliard marks had been raised by taxation, the "claims of reparations were trifling compared to the needs of Germany's internal budget" (p. 196). The inflation of 1921-3 left Germany free from debt but destroyed the savings and the middle class, depriving the country of the balance it could have provided. When the French occupied the Ruhr in 1923 brought the government of fulfillment headed by Stresemann, which stabilized the currency, paid out reparations, and even slowed down rearmament. "Far from being impoverished by fulfilling Versailles, Germany was made, by fulfillment, more prosperous than she had ever been in her history" (p. 199). Thus, the premature evacuation of the Rhineland in 1930 spelled the doom of the Republic because it left it without the necessary support by Allied arms. The appointment of Brüning as Chancellor in March marked its actual end (pp. 202-3).

The Demagogic Dictatorship. Brüning's simple policy of undoing Versailles made everyone talk about rearmament, Austria, and the revision of the Eastern frontier. No one realized the German safety was in remaining disarmed and accepting the finality of borders (p. 208). The only way to whip up support was demagogy, especially after the passing of the economic crisis of the late 1920s. Again the problem was that "the interests of the 'national' classes could never correspond to the deepest wishes of the German people" (p. 211). It was the Centre and the Social Democrats who gained mass support and caused the 1933 alliance of the Junkers and Hitler. Germany could become a democracy only by renouncing foreign ambitions but since nobody there wanted to do this, paradoxically, the Third Reich "represented the deepest wishes of the German people" in that it promised the undoing of Versailles (which could only be done through war, and which therefore required the totalitarian preparation). The Germans "desired to undo the verdict of 1918; not merely to end reparations or to cancel the 'war guilt' clause, but to repudiate the equality with the peoples of eastern Europe... No German recognized the Czechs or Poles as equals. Therefore every German desired the achievement which only total war could give. By no other means could the Reich be held together. It had been made by conquest and for conquest; if it ever gave up its career of conquest, it would dissolve" (pp. 213-14).


@BOOK{taylor-46:german,
    TITLE     = {The Course of German History:
                 A Survey of the Development of Germany Since 1815},
    AUTHOR    = {{A. J. P.} Taylor},
    YEAR      = {1961 [1946]},
    PUBLISHER = {Capricorn Books},
    ADDRESS   = {New York},
    NOTE      = {Pp. 231, index}
}