THE HISTORICAL CONTROVERSY over who was “responsible” for the outbreak of war in 1914 will doubtless never be settled, so clearly did so many of the participants contribute to igniting the catastrophe. German rearmament and the kaiser’s determination to build a navy equal to Great Britain’s, as well as the country’s territorial ambitions on the Continent and abroad and her overall “militaristic” spirit, have for a century been cited as being among the war’s principal causes. In a more general way, German Kultur—which German writers and politicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sharply and proudly distinguished from world Zivilisation—was more important than any of these things; indeed, Kultur was fundamental to all of them. The essential importance of the myth of Kultur and of the “special path” its adherents and promoters believed it offered the German people is emphasized by Willi Jasper, a modern German scholar, in his excellent new book Lusitania: The Cultural History of a Catastrophe, in which the author examines the moral and cultural atmosphere conducive to the murder-by-U-boat of 1,197 innocent civilians aboard a great British liner with an international passenger list. (See Books in Brief, p. 24.)
While the great majority of Europeans in 1914 greeted the war with patriotic rejoicing, the Germans (as Jasper notes) outdid everyone else with the fervency of their jubilation. Earlier Freud had diagnosed a death wish in the modern German soul that seemed to him to indicate the rebarbarization of Germany; later, Clemenceau observed that “The German loves war as a form of self-love and because a bloodbath awaits him at the end. The German welcomes that end as if it were his dearest friend.” In fact, much more was involved in the business than abnormal psychology. The slow formation of middle-class democracy in Germany relative to what had already occurred in France and Great Britain gave the German intellectual elite far greater influence than educated elites elsewhere enjoyed, and this class was keen to invest the war with a philosophical and indeed religious significance, notably by endowing Goethe’s Faustwith military significance. (The Military Faust appeared anonymously in 1891, and a “Knapsack Faust” was distributed to the German troops during the war.) A restless and bored generation that had experienced only peace since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was susceptible to such ideas, which seemed to reproach them for their indifference to the evils of the wider technological and materialist “civilization” they found meaningless, and infinitely inferior to Germany’s proud “cultural” tradition. Ernst Jünger, for example, complained that “We have branched out in too many directions” and argued,
It is on the tightrope walk between being and non-being that the true man reveals himself, for here his fragmentation becomes whole again, merging together in a few subversive activities of violent force. All the variety inherent in each and every form is reduced to a single meaning: battle.
Several months after the war commenced, 93 German artists, academics, and intellectuals undersigned a manifesto, “To the World of Culture,” which advanced a proud defense of Germany’s role in the hostilities.
Nor is it true that the struggle to defeat our so-called militarism is not also a struggle to overthrow our culture, as our enemies hypocritically claim. Without German militarism, German culture would long since have been wiped from the face of the earth. German militarism has emerged from German culture in order to protect it in a country that for centuries has been plagued like no other by pillaging raids.
To the majority of the German people, the war was a violent exercise in the Romantic and Kantian nationalist spirit of the previous century, setting the “Deutschtum” against French democracy and British liberalism, culture against Western civilization. For them, the German army was fighting on behalf of “national greatness” and the God-given destiny of the Teutonic race to rule in Europe—and beyond.
To men and women of the 21st century, such claims are more than Romantic; they are medieval, even barbaric. The unpleasant truth is that they were mirrored, though in altered form, in the justifications the Allied powers—the United States in particular—offered for their participation in the Great War, the principal difference being that, while Germany’s propagandistic defense was nationally and culturally particularistic, that of the Allies—again, the United States especially—was abstract: the imperative to defend and promote World Democracy. Of course, everyone understood that “World Democracy” meant “American Democracy” established throughout the Western nations, exactly as Germany wished Deutschtum, or its spirit, to be. Indeed, President Wilson’s vision of the democratic ideal was in its disembodied way as Teutonically absolutist as any the Germans imagined and tried to realize. Yet Germany’s “ideas of 1914,” like France’s of 1789 and America’s of 1917, have an immediately contemporary parallel, in addition to the historical one. That is Washington’s “ideas of 1991”—and since.
The comparison, of course, is not exact. Today’s American political and cultural elite do not speak and act in the name of Anglo-Saxon democracy, or of American Anglo-Saxons, or even of Americans at all, as Woodrow Wilson did, and as the German elite acted and spoke in the name of the Teutonic race. They are far too inclusive, nonspecific, and abstract in their advanced liberalism to identify themselves and their political aims and ends in racial or cultural terms. Above all, they are far too canny to commit such heresy. They speak instead, to America and to the world, as globalists, humanitarians, democrats, cultural relativists, and equalizers. But when addressing a domestic audience, there remains one of Imperial Germany’s principal ideals they do not hesitate to advocate, and that is the same ideal of national greatness in the sense in which the Democrats, the Republican establishment, and the neoconservatives understand the term, though not apparently Donald Trump even when he speaks of “making America great again.” (In respect of this difference, one need only consider the national-greatness party’s professed inability to comprehend how Trump’s “isolationist” tendencies comport with his determination to build back America’s military defenses, positions in which they see only a laughable inconsistency since, to them, the sole purpose for a strong military is an offensive one.) Every American president since George H.W. Bush has been Kaiserlich where national greatness was concerned. Yet there are obvious similarities as well between the Kultur of Imperial Germany and that of present-day America.
Like the intellectual, political, and military elites in Imperial Germany before 1914, their American counterparts of the early 21st century are convinced of the superiority of American culture, of the justness of the international mission national superiority confers upon it, and of its historical destiny to dominate and to lead the world. The Germans thought war the means by which that destiny would be fulfilled. Contemporary American leadership thinks peaceful example preferable to war, but it is demonstrably willing to employ military force if example, moral exhortation, and cajolery fail it. Like the imperial Germans, imperial Americans appeal to the history of their country and to the metaphysical idealism and popular national myth they imagine shaped it. Both subordinate religious faith to secular idealism, though nationalistic Americans and their government frequently advert to pseudo-Christian ideas and the rhetoric of denatured Christianity in behalf of the nationalist cause, as imperial Germans and the German government cultivated the support of Catholic Church, the Evangelical Church, and even the synagogues. The obvious difference here is that early in the 20th century “Christendom” still adhered to substantive Christian faith, while a century later America’s official religion is Christian universalism without Christianity. And while the invocation of Christianity, whether of the Roman or the Lutheran kind, was of immense usefulness to Germany from the late 19th century until 1918, today the appeal of American belligerents to universalist ideals professedly uncontaminated by nationalist interests, material and otherwise, is more useful still. Imperial Germany, in short, pursued hegemony in the name of German nationalism, while Imperial America pursues the same goal under the auspices of internationalism. This is a more than sly game played by our lords and masters—the would-be Masters of the Universe—in Washington, but the end is the same, and smo are the means, which are, finally, military ones.
The sleight-of-hand employed is to pass off “universalism” and “universal values” as truly universal, while in fact they amount to “Americanism” and “American values,” even when they are invoked by Washington’s Americanized Western allies and by its kept pugs and satrapies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Had the imperial Germans proceeded before and after 1914 according to the same strategy, they might have got a great deal further than they actually did. But doing so would have meant abandoning their claim to national and cultural superiority, something they were both too proud and too honest to do—unlike America’s devious, dishonest, greedy, power-hungry, and hypocritical ruling class. It is the difference between the behavior of proud and honorable Prussian Junkers and that of grasping ignoble little Snopeses, of lecherous bullying Elmer Gantrys.
Pre-war Germans were (in many ways justly) proud of their Kultur, whereas 21st-century Americans of an ideological disposition deny that “we” have a culture that is really “ours”—“we” being, in addition to a “nation of immigrants,” a universal culture founded on a set of abstract humanist and democratist “propositions.” The irony is that German 19th-century Kultur really was a true culture, while modern American “culture” today is in fact Kultur in the pejorative aggressive sense in which anti-Germans for the past century have used the word. Woodrow Wilson took the United States to war in Europe for the purpose of making the world safe for democracy. Since 1917, a long line of American presidents has done the same thing, not just on the Continent but around the globe. The result of their interventions, for the most part, has been to make the world safe for what imperial Germans denigrated as technological and materialist civilization and dangerous to what they called culture—including American culture, which has pretty much been annihilated in the process.
Is 21st-century America capable of an act of aggression comparable to the sinking of the Lusitania? Are our “leaders” capable of facing themselves in the mirror and recognizing Kaiser Wilhelm, Ludendorff, and Hindenburg, and the other German militarists Wilson and the rest of the Allied leaders condemned a century ago? Surely, there is ample material here for revisionist historians brave enough to accept the challenge to develop it.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture OCTOBER 01, 2016