E. Belfort Bax

The Soul of the German People

(4 September 1919)

E. Belfort Bax, The Soul of the German People, Justice, 4th September 1919, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

French journalism has been rich in allusion to “l’âme Allemande” during and since the war. Unfortunately, the psychology of the French journalist in his disquisitions on this theme have for the most part, as might be expected, been apt to lack the cool impartiality of science. This is not peculiar to France. British contributions on the same subject from the pen of the popular writer have betrayed the same fault. The “soul” that one and all seem to have in view is the “soul” of the official bureaucratic and military caste. They ignore the “soul” of the man in the street, of the nameless workman, the small middle class man, the peasant, the man of the professional class. The President of the Wurtemberg Diet was in a sense right when he pointed to the thousands among those who are not responsible for the war, and its consequences. To speak of the mentality of such as criminal or cruel, considered in itself, to anyone who knows anything of the German character, is not merely contrary to fact but absurd: Yet had these good people not been at the disposal of their evil rulers the events of the last five years could hardly have taken place.

A Peculiarity of German National Character

How, then, may it be asked can we condone their actions and omissions in the matter of the war? The answer to this question lies as I take it in the recognition of a psychological peculiarity in the German national character. This defect lies not in any intrinsic viciousness, as most writers on the subject in the Allied countries would have us believe – i.e., as vice of character is generally understood – but it is rather in what otherwise might be regarded by many persons as a defect on the side of virtue namely, in a peculiar malleability or docility of temperament which makes its possessors the slaves of so-called discipline, of obedience towards all authority whatsoever it may be, an obedience which has a ‘tendency to lead to an idolatry’ of those in power. It is this particular faiblesse of character which has enabled the men of a half alien race (the Prussian) possessing opposite characteristics to impose themselves and their outlook on life upon the German people so markedly during the last half century. The true German, the German of the descendants of the Teutonic race of Tacitus’ time, was as a rule of a certain gentleness and amiability of character which would willingly live and let live.

Autonomy for the Germanic Races

Germany freed from Prussian control for generations, with a different and even opposite orientation in the upbringing of its youth and of its educational policy generally, would give us far different results in the matter of national character than those which the Germany, of from 1870 to 1914 has had to show. But the desideratum for Central Europe, as we know it at present, is not confined to the mere freeing of the German people from the yoke of the Prussian hegemony, but includes also the independence (or at least the relative independence) of the various stems of the German people, of any Central power whatever. The freedom required severally by Bavarians, Saxons, Swabians and the rest, to develop their special characteristics as races, is impossible as long as any strong centralised power in Middle Europe exists. For my own part, I should prefer not merely an extended local autonomy, but complete independence for each German State, and freedom to dispose of itself as it wished, alike as regards its domestic and its foreign pokey. But if the sentiment anent German political unity is too strong to admit of this, in spite of the disaster of the war, the culminating issue of the gift of “German unity”, graciously bestowed by the Prussian Bismarck – upon the Teutonic races of Central Europe, (bien entendu to the exclusion of those of Austria), then in Heaven’s name let it be as loose and even as nominal bond as is compatible with the retention of the fetish of national unity at all. If the intellectual powers latent in the German race are to be brought to full fruition for the benefit of mankind, then freedom of development and of expression for every side of the German intellect, independently of all external pressure, is essential to every one of the different stems constituting the great Teutonic family. It is to be hoped that every far seeing German will recognise this before it is too late, in this period of reconstruction in which Europe and the world generally is alleged to be entering.

The German as a Man and Brother

Not the least regrettable result of the delay in the re-establishment of peace has been the keeping up among other nations of the bitter hatred of the Germans as Germans. The crimes of the late German army and the late German Government, even admitting they may have been abetted by a numerous portion of the German people, blinds the mass of men to the fact of the tens of thousands of men and women in every district of the country who have had no share in bringing about the late war or countenancing the atrocities which accompanied it in so far as they knew of them. We suppose the above was natural so long as peace was not settled, and hence the German nation remained “the enemy”. The uncertainties of the situation of course are given as an excuse for a continuation or in same cases even aggravation, of the journalistic campaign against the German people as a whole. That a section of the nation, especially in Prussia and the north, is still warlike-minded may be true, but it is further true that there is undoubtedly a strong anti-militarist spirit present, especially in Middle and Southern Germany including Austria. The precise strength of this feeling may be doubtful, but there is evidence enough to indicate that it is not negligible quantity. That the opposite sentiment may exist to a great extent among those at present in power is no conclusive argument against what we have said. We know well enough that there are bad Chauvinist elements in office in Germany. But although we cannot leave this fact out of consideration, we should not allow it to influence unduly our feelings towards the German people as a whole.

A Germany Freed from Prussian Domination

We have got to recognise sooner or later, and sooner rather than later, that the average German man and woman in spite of the corruption, for well nigh fifty years of Prussian discipline and organisation with its military spirit, nevertheless au fond remain human beings no worse, if no better, than ourselves. Once the evil influences of the past four or five decades are finally got rid of and it is difficult act see how, under the present circumstances, they can resume their sway there is no reason to suppose that the of German characteristics, say, of Goethe’s time which many of us have admired and love, will not again resume their ascendancy and create a new Germany. The present relentless attitude of hatred and exaggerated suspicion however, cannot fail to delay this result, and even add fuel to the fire of military and national swagger.


Last updated on 28.5.2007