Georg Lukacs. Prussianism 1944


Written: 1944
Source: “Preußentum in der deutschen Literatur,” in Internationale Literatur 14.5 (1944). Reprinted as “Über Preußentum” in his Schicksalswende: Beiträge zu einer neuen deutschen Ideologie, Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin, 1948 (in German);
Translated: by Anton P.

It is understandable that the endangerment of world civilization by Hitler’s organized banditry gave rise to the question of how the profound decline of the German people could be explained. In doing so, of course, one runs into the problem of Germany’s repression. For long before Hitler, the genuinely progressive minds of Europe (not a few Germans among them) considered Prussia, with its social and political, moral and cultural essence, a dangerous foreign body in modern civilization. So it made sense to derive the severe poisoning of the German national spirit directly from this centuries-old chronic disease.

On closer inspection, however, it also becomes apparent here that all too direct connecting lines rarely coincide with the really decisive connecting routes. Of course, fascism inherited and developed everything bad that Prussia developed among the German people. On the one hand, however, we repeatedly encounter examples where representatives of an old Prussian ideology (for example pastor Niemöller, Ernst Wiechert) are in opposition to Hitlerism. On the other hand, the period from 1918 to 1933 clearly showed that the direct representatives of traditional Prussia were incapable of establishing a reactionary regime in Germany; that something new had to appear, the specific demagogy of Hitlerism, in which the Prussian spirit constitutes an important component, but only one component among many.


What should this supplement consist of? We believe: especially in reference to the dynamics of German history. One often sees correctly the polarity of Prussianism and democracy, but just as often one sees only insufficiently the wave-like interaction of the two principles in German history: the repeated attempts of the German people to shape their own fate democratically, the repeated failure of these attempts, the result of these defeats of the German people strengthening – but also internally and externally changing – the power of Prussia over the Germans and at the same time their inner degeneration. Only the history of this very complicated interaction explains the real connection between the German and Prussian spirit and at the same time the – very different – stages of the Prussianization of Germany. It goes without saying that we too can only emphasize a few points of view here, because even a sketchy outline of this development cannot be given within our framework.

So, like in an epic, we have to start in the middle. The real Prussianization of Germany begins with the victories of 1866 and 1871. Of course, Germany was prepared for this fate through the defeat of the 1848 revolution. This defeat is the greatest turning point in the fate of the German people since the Peasants’ War of 1525. At that time Germany was thrown back from its medieval problems into a rotten small-state absolutism. The result was a caricature of those developments which were inevitable in the great European states, especially in France, in preparation for modern social formations. In the 1848 revolution, for the first time in three centuries, the attempt was made to catch up with everything previously neglected and to bring Germany into the political-cultural community of the European free peoples.

The attempt failed. Objectively speaking, the defeat was not final; but the German bourgeoisie had neither the courage nor the strength to take advantage of the favorable opportunities presented to them. Now that the economic unification of Germany had become historically necessary, Prussia became its reactionary executor. On this basis, a political-social caricature of the modern state-social structure emerged, albeit a completely different one. Just like the absolutism of the small states three hundred years ago, so too was the Prussianization of Germany the organizational ideological expression of the wrong path that we can follow in German history. The fighters for democracy clearly saw the danger and therefore demanded from the beginning that Prussia be “absorbed into Germany.” But they did not succeed in preventing the Bismarckian Prussianization of Germany. German unity did not come about on the way to freedom and democracy; on the contrary: German unity under Prussian hegemony became an obstacle to the freedom of the German people.

With this decision a new period had come in Prussia itself and especially in its interrelationship with Germany. For a long time, almost until the eve of the unification of Germany, efforts to keep Germany dismembered had come from Prussia. Prussia was the main obstacle to national unity. The legend, especially spread by Treitschke, that Prussia strived for the unification of Germany from the beginning is historically completely untenable. Even when Prussia, for geographical and economic reasons, was forced to found the “German Customs Union” in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, even when it had already largely completed the economic unification of Germany, the leading Prussian politicians were still reluctant to historical developments. which they had initiated themselves – albeit unconsciously – through their economic measures. (Think of Bismarck’s struggles with Wilhelm I.)

Eighteenth-century Prussia, as one of the German territorial principalities, was ruled just as short-sightedly, dynastically, egoistically and particularistically as the others, and was just as incapable of even understanding a national idea, let alone promoting it in a practical and political way. With its greater military power, Prussia only becomes a more effective obstacle to national unity than the other principalities, which were mostly powerless petty states. The young Hegel therefore rightly sees Prussia as one of the non-German states that are tearing apart German unity; In his “Constitution of Germany” he lists Prussia in a line with foreign powers such as Sweden and Denmark. Almost all leading spirits of this time have a similar attitude; I only refer to Lessing, Klopstock, Winckelmann, Herder and Goethe.

This contrast played a major role in the criticism of Germany’s Prussianization, especially since the First World War. It mostly appeared in the formulation: Weimar versus Potsdam. The comparison is very impressive at first. It actually describes the two poles of the German essence, both the cultural peak and the low point of German development. In reality, however, the situation is quite different. Both Weimar and Potsdam were just the different political and cultural forms of expression of the above-outlined political and social backwardness and national disunity in Germany.

Above all, it should not be forgotten that the Weimar of Goethe and Schiller was by no means typical of the non-Prussian German small principality. We do not want to speak here of how much the legend also idealized Karl August’s Weimar (you can find a lot of material about this in Herder or in Goethe and Schiller’s letters). But under all circumstances it is an exceptional case that the political impotence of a German small principality, despite all the problems, had led to the establishment of a luminous cultural center; it is an exceptional case, in which this impotence did not result in a ridiculous imitation of the Versailles court, not petty political intrigues about the acquisition of scraps of territory, not the reign of mistresses, not a caricature army only worthy of producing “soldiers for sale” as in the small German states typical for this stage of development. How does Prussia differ on the one hand from the other German territorial principalities and on the other hand from the other absolute monarchies of the eighteenth century? Above all because it surpassed the former in size and power just as it lagged behind France or Austria quantitatively. This size permitted and at the same time required a European power politics, which the other small German states were incapable of. But the relative weakness vis-à-vis the great powers meant that Prussia always had much greater difficulties in obtaining financial, social and military resources than the stronger monarchies. Accordingly, the methods of monarchist-absolutist power politics were also more obsequious than those of the real great states: they were more brutal where the strength was sufficient, but on the other hand cursory-treacherous in relations with the stronger states (initially with Poland and Sweden, later with France and Russia).

The internal social structure of Prussia was generally not very different from that of the other absolutist states. But Germany’s economic backwardness resulted in completely different conditions here, and the shift was so great that it resulted in something qualitatively different. In short: the struggle of the absolute monarchy against the nobility was weaker and more indecisive in Germany, if only because the bourgeoisie was much less developed than in Western countries. The feudal nobility was therefore much less weakened and defeated, much less pressed into court aristocracy and at the same time civilized than in France; it retained much more of its feudal forest origins.

The backwardness of Germany was also expressed in the peculiarity of the absolutist bureaucracy. Bureaucratism, the first, primitive form of overcoming feudalism, was in Germany still burdened with feudal remnants. These remnants were naturally much stronger in Prussia than in Western countries. And since there was no revolutionary smashing of feudalism in later development, this primitive, semi-feudal form of organization of the unified modern state was retained even at much higher economic levels at a time when in Western countries feudalism as the basis of the state had long since been overcome by democracy.

This contradiction between the economic basis and the form of state organization is the further social determination of Prussian idiosyncrasy. Quite different conclusions can be drawn from this at different stages of development; the more developed a society is, the more reactionary, corrosive, caricaturistic the backward sides of this form of organization appear. When society was still less developed, the honesty of the civil servant prevailed, while in the more developed society the bureaucratic formalism – originally an important weapon in overcoming feudal patriarchalism and medieval legal anarchy – increasingly froze into a deadly void. But since elements of civil servant decency persist for a relatively long time even in developed capitalism, an important point of contact for the Romantic criticism of capitalism is given here, especially for Germany. The indignation over the moral corruption, over the low intellectual and moral level of the capitalization, which emphatically set in in the middle of the nineteenth century, often underscores the honesty, the aesthetically and morally easily preferable “attitude” of the civil and military bureaucracy under the special German circumstances against that of capitalism.

In spite of these contradictions, the steady playing off of Weimar against Potsdam is no coincidence, it is the wrong dilemma of previous German developments. A country without real public life, without an effective and powerful public opinion, without living and active political interests, without a national center, must either get stuck in the most distorted and degenerate, poorest forms of the absolutist period, or belatedly adopt modern ideas – even without a concrete examination of their real social applicability – to a certain extent and relocate intellectual struggles to the field of ideas.

The latter denotes the greatness of the classical period of German poetry and philosophy. It is therefore fascinating to contrast them with the narrow and arid spirit of Prussia. How much it is a question of the polarity of the national turmoil, of the undemocratic existence of the German people, is shown by the fact that the contrast between Weimar and Potsdam constantly appears in every artistic depiction of Germany’s inner social struggles in the eighteenth century, and so, by looking into this contrast, we are able to understand the phenomena of German life again and again. On the one hand as a moral-ideological disintegration in Prussia, in which a disintegration arises with every economic-cultural rise, because the Prussian state, the Prussian spirit leaves no scope for an appropriate acceptance of new cultural values, on the other hand as a bureaucratic barrier in humanistic individualism, which we have to find again and again even with such giants as Goethe and Hegel, although their greatness in world history consists not least in the fact that they fought in every respect against this current of German development. Weimar and Potsdam are therefore the two poles of earlier German development. As with a magnetic needle cut in two, both appear anew in every spiritual appearance of the Germany of that time.


There is a great deal of talk – especially in Western journalism – that Prussia is something spiritual, an intellectual-moral attitude. That is true to a certain extent. But it is even more correct to go back to the social basis and to see that the preservation of Prussia means stopping at the relatively primitive level of absolute monarchy, stopping at the bureaucracy as the dominant form of organization of the modern state, the new bourgeois society. Or, to put it negatively: that there are no democratic structures, no permanent control of the state apparatus by public life and that individuals are generally outside of politics, n contrast to the organically developed modern societies, in
which all problems of life receive a concrete social guideline from the public, the commandments of morality a concrete social content fulfillment.

Bureaucratism, on the other hand, is always formal. Formal leveling was one of the most important tasks in the fight against the anarchic variegation of medieval patriarchalism. At the highest level of spirituality, as ethics, it appears in the form of a purely formal ethics of duty, as the fulfillment of duty for the sake of duty, as unconditional submission to the moral commandment. From an objective social perspective, of course, this formalism is an illusion. Ultimately, it means that the official sees his “honor,” as Max Weber says, in the fact that he presents his criticism and his concerns, but also fulfills the task assigned to him against his convictions, that he subordinates his convictions to the decision of his superiors if he can’t get through with it.

It is of course not only a question of the inevitable moral and social degradation of freedom and the ability to make decisions, but also of politics, even strategy. Bismarck is the only statesman of a great calibre that modern Prussia has produced – but how many atypical traits are also characteristic of him (partly because of his semi-bourgeois descent). Yet Bismarck was only a statesman on a grand scale during the period of reactionary German unification. Stein, the pre-eminent statesman of Prussia at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was not a Prussian. And Bismarck himself noticed that the real strategists of the Prussian army, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Moltke, did not emerge from the school of domestic militarism; he only raised good ones, the school only brought up good, conscientious lower commanders, that is, military bureaucrats, not real military leaders).

The bureaucratic spirit, elevated to a worldview, has the consequence that all individual inclinations and opinions are pushed down to the level of mere subjectivity before the objectivity of the commandment and that the subject perceives them only in this way. An unbridgeable abyss seems to gap between the generality of objective duty, which is alien to the subject, and the mere subjectivity of the real individual. (If, on the other hand, the individual rebels in anarchist, Romantic or literary style and thereby denies any objectivity of duty, then clearly only a complementary antipode to this spiritual structure emerges, but by no means its real overcoming.)

These problems are posed quite differently in a free and democratic society. The more widely developed public life permits and requires a free responsibility of decisions for every individual in every decisive situation. That is why the commandments are content-wise in it, their content is consciously accepted or rejected, that is, it is the object of a choice, a decision, but not between a formalistic obligation and a subjective anarchy of feelings, but between two concrete social contents.

For our consideration, it is only a question of the sharp elaboration of the contrast between democratic and “authoritarian” lines of development. Everyone knows that democracies are, on the one hand, extremely different historically and socially, in all problems of social life and, consequently, the possibilities of the individual. The heroic heyday of the great French Revolution looked very different from, say, the everyday life of the United States. The Spanish Republic, heroically fighting for its freedom, presented a different democracy than that of Daladier’s France. And of course much more visible is the antithesis between the progressive sides of democracies to their opposite, the Prussian-German development, an antithesis seen more succinctly when examining the social nature (and not just their constitutional form) of the high points of the democracies, the periods of Cromwell or Washington, Robespierre or Lincoln.

On the other hand, it is also known that democracy in itself cannot be a panacea for the social diseases of modern social life. Corruption, rule by cliques, open or hidden violation of the law, and the use of political power to disadvantage the poor are just as possible in democracies as in undemocratically organized states. The difference consists “merely” in the fact that in the democracies the weapon of public opinion against abuses is available (again: depending on the gradations within its various types expressed above), while the bureaucracy of the openly or covertly “authoritarian” states almost always makes it possible to cover up their abuses, their illegal measures under the flag of the “state interest” from the criticism of public opinion.

This state of affairs has become so flesh and blood in a large part of the people in Germany that most of them regard the open exposure of the abuses in the democracies and the mobilization of public opinion to punish or remedy them, as disadvantageous and that often – self-deceitfully or hypocritically – the position is taken that such storms are politically and socially superfluous in Germany because the “healthier” German society is not as corrupt as that of the Western democracies.

From this attitude it follows that, with very few exceptions, nothing is more alien to the German intelligentsia than types of intellectual behavior such as that of Zola and Anatole France during and after the Dreyfus affair. To the great detriment of German literature and the German press, the tertium datur between an overly great willingness to reconcile with the state and social reality and individual anarchist rebellion has always been seldom and weakly represented to those who almost never known real freedom of democratic public life. This affects social morality above all through the lack of “civil courage,” which Bismarck already noted.

The widespread view that the intransigent harshness of the imperative is the essence of the Prussian spirit is wrong. We have seen iron hardness repeatedly in the history of human morality. In Rome, in the renewal of ancient morality among the Jacobins, in the (admittedly weakened and bureaucratized German) ethics of Kant and Fichte. One only has to think of the design of the Brutus conflict up to the foothills of the tragedie classique.

The relentless harshness of the Prussian ethics of duty is quite different, downright contrary. The ingenious and at the same time deeply Prussian poet Heinrich von Kleist felt this contrast to antiquity extremely sharply. When his prince of Homburg was arrested after the victorious battle for not fulfilling the order he had received, he spoke very clearly about the problem in a monologue and at the same time clarified Kleist’s views:

Mein Vetter Friedrich will den Brutus spielen ...
Bei Gott, in mir nicht findet er den Sohn,
Der, unterm Beil des Henkers, ihn bewundre.
Und wenn er mir, in diesem Augenblick,
Wie die Antike starr entgegenkömmt,
Tut er mir leid, und ich muß ihn bedauern!

(My cousin Frederick hopes to play the Brutus
By God, in me he shall not find a son
Who shall revere him ‘neath the hangman’s axe!
And when he stands before me, frigidly,
This moment, like some ancient man of stone,
I'm sorry for him and I pity him!) [1]

Kleist’s Prince Friedrich von Homburg is really the drama of the Prussian spirit. Not only – as is generally assumed – because in the end this Prussian spirit wins the full triumph, but because, perhaps against the conscious intentions of the poet, especially here the inner contradictions of the Prussian variety of the German spirit are most clearly and most poetically signified. Friedrich Hebbel, an ardent admirer of this drama, criticizes the beginning and the end because in both the prince’s somnambulitsm is shaped. He admits however, to a certain extent apologetically, that the inner drama is also possible without this beginning and this end. We believe that what we are dealing here with is not a brilliant poetic license by Kleist, but that especially in the prince’s night walk the irrational, subjective-pathological opposite pole of formal and abstract duty for the sake of duty is expressed in a great poetic manner, even if the generality of the main conflict is exposed as an equally abstract particularity. Admittedly, the Prussian Junker Kleist, caught up in traditional ideas, could not cope with his own vision. The two poles stand unreconciled, unconnected, and the poet’s attempts to bring about an intellectual reconciliation remain flat and eclectic.

"Das Kriegsgesetz, das weiß ich wohl, soll herrschen,
Jedoch die lieblichen Gefühle auch.”

(The law of war, of this I am well aware, should prevail.
Yet the loving feelings, too.) [2]

Thus, this most ingenious drama by the most ingenious Prussian poet exposes the contrast that shows itself in the most varied of forms and at the most varied of stages in Prussian-German history. It was repeatedly correctly observed that pietism appeared very early as a religious supplement to the Prussian militaristic, bureaucratic ethics of duty, that is, precisely the most subjective and individual form of Protestantism, which often even rose to the level of Herrnhut mysticism. During the World War, when Thomas Mann was enthusiastic about Prussia, an enthusiastic hymn to Eichendorff’s “good-for-nothing” appeared as an opposite pole.

It’s not a coincidence. On the one hand, the formalism of the bureaucratic Prussian ethics of duty can be reconciled with any subjectivism, provided that it does not disturb the smooth running of the hierarchical machine in human external actions. How far this creates unbearable tensions in people, how far it undermines the formalism of morality, is another question. On the other hand, the ethics of duty – with the punishment of complete human desolation – requires as an opposite pole an individualism that is as far as possible limited to the purely subjective, that does not disturb the circles of bureaucratic duty, that is as unsocial as possible.

So we see how typical the depiction of these extreme contradictions is with Kleist. Very contrary to his conscious convictions, Kleist gives an illustration of Mirabeau’s statement about the Prussian state from the end of the eighteenth century: a fruit that rotted before ripening. That was already true as a criticism of the Prussia of that time, but, interpreted in a somewhat broader way, it has the right meaning: since the historically due replacement of this system did not take place, every economic and cultural development of the people, every growth into modern economy, politics and culture had to happen showing the signs of putrefaction to an increasing extent in Prussia.

Kleist ingeniously foresaw this connection in his connection between Romantic pathology and Prussian military law, even though he also intended to write an “educational drama” on Prussia. But one must not forget that not only the opening scene of the drama, but also the grand finale shows the prince as a night walker. And if, according to Kleist’s intention, this conclusion is more decorative and artistic than should be pathological, then recourse to the abnormal outcome is a sign that he had at least perceived the problem of these relations.


This problem is continuously reproduced in life, and the great artists in Germany have often depicted it. It would be interesting and instructive to show the polarity of the Prussian-German character in different historical figures, in their psychology and morality. We are convinced that all the psychological “riddles” that Bismarck’s biographers try to interpret have their sources in this social structure with its psychological polarity. And the apparently striking figures of Prussian monarchs such as Friedrich Wilhelm IV and Wilhelm II explain themselves casually as decorative caricature expressions of the same problem. They wanted to combine what is “modern” for their period with the Prussian spirit. But with them it remains an empty decorative and reveals the cultural hopelessness of this mixture. The more modern life develops, the emptier, more formal and more violent the Prussian ethic of duty appears. On the other hand, from here the problems of modern life can only be grasped in a caricatural distortion. This cultural impasse presented by the Prussian spirit can be clearly observed in the life and works of precisely those important realists who were great admirers of Prussia for life or at times. We are thinking primarily of Theodor Fontane and Thomas Mann.

Theodor Fontane is the historiographer and ballad poet of Prussian greatness and through this has earned his first, though not his lasting, fame. Old Fontane also complains in a resigned, humorous poem that on his seventieth birthday the Prussian nobility whom he glorified did not appear, that only the new intelligentsia adored him as realists.

It’s not a coincidence. Fontane’s deep sympathy for the Prussian types arose from his critical position towards the German bourgeoisie of his time. In shaping the type he likes, however, he comes much less to glorification than to a sharply realistic modification of the questionable nature of the Prussian ethics of duty that we have outlined. Fontane sees a kind of mechanically functioning morality in his heroes, which has no connection whatsoever with their real inner life, in whose inner commitment they themselves do not seriously believe, but to whose commandments they submit – albeit only mechanically and conventionally – without exception.

So Fontane describes how the different types of Prussian Junkers modernize themselves, how they become people of today’s bourgeois society. But everything they feel and experience, what they have acquired in terms of culture, bounces off their mechanically-fatalistically functioning Prussian “attitude.” They may privately, in their feelings as humans, sometimes even be warm and internally decent, sensitive people, but the inhumanity of Prussian morality remains in their actions and reigns unconditionally, without people being able to build a bridge between their feelings and their deeds prescribed by the “attitude.” So behind the sometimes shiny, often decent, always tight facade, an inner world of complete lack of stability arises, of resigned despair, of sentimental or coldly nerdy cynicism. The values of life perish, genuinely felt bonds of love are dissolved, people are shot in duels, existences are stepped over without a real conviction, neither in good nor in bad, being present. By portraying all of this realistically, Fontane turns from the singer of Prussian glory into a profound skeptic, a humorous sarcastic observer of decomposition and decay.

The skeptical view of Prussia is most clearly expressed in his little historical masterpiece Schach von Wuthenow. Here the polarity of formal impeccability, Prussian rigor in attitude and inner lack of stability in all questions of life is carried to the extreme. The plot is simple and private almost to the point of triviality, purely coincidental: out of a momentary mood the hero seduces a girl from good society whom he is unwilling to marry out of aesthetic vanity. When Prussian duty appears through the intervention of the king, he submits and marries her, but only to shoot himself immediately after the formal wedding ceremony was over. Fontane relocates this apparently purely private and novelistically pointed episode to the Berlin of the time immediately before the Jena collapse of Prussia, to the year 1806. And the historical genius of the presentation, Fontane’s social insight, is shown by that in this conventional love story Prussia’s hollowness becomes apparent, which was shortly afterwards showcased in the defeat by Napoleon.

The inner link is the formal, false concept of honor of the life-dominating military bureaucracy. A reasoning, dissatisfied Junker officer sums up the experiences of the Schach case immediately before the Battle of Jena: “It says something about our times, but, of course, its meaning is restricted to one geographic area. What caused it makes it a most unusual case, one which could only happen the way it did in the capital and residential city of His Majesty the King of Prussia, or if anywhere else, at least not outside the ranks of our latter-day Frederician army. For that army has only arrogance instead of honor, and clock-work for a soul, a mechanism which will very soon have run down.” And he adds, referring to the war that has already broken out: “We shall perish through the same world of seeming through which Schach perished.[3]

Thomas Mann’s writings from the time of the first imperialist war clearly express his admiration for Prussia. If, however, the great pre-war novella Death in Venice is missing, then Thomas Mann’s attitude to the Prussian problem does not appear in the full light. The hero of this novella, the writer Aschenbach, wrote an epic about Frederick the Great. His literary nature also has a lot to do with Prussianism. He overcomes the anarchy of modern artistry through an “attitude” trained in Prussianism, whereby the Prussian spirit is already an aesthetic-moral principle, as an aesthetic-moral counterweight to modern decadent or bourgeois-sentimental endeavors when their opposite pole appears.

The action, which Thomas Mann carried out extremely finely, shows the mere appearance of the overcoming principle, showing that here, too, we are dealing with a polarity. The “attitude” is something purely formal and does not offer the slightest support for the conduct of life, if only somewhat serious abysses open up. When the hero of the novel is faced with an inner conflict, one dream suffices to understand his entire “attitude,” his whole painstakingly reconstructed way of life collapses shamefully, letting the painstakingly tamed spiritual underworld of instincts gain complete control over him. With deep psychological insight, Thomas Mann shapes the dangerous mental hollowness of the Prussian “attitude”: precisely because every moral value accent on the “attitude” falls and the subjectivity of instinctual life is treated merely as material to be tamed, in quiet times the apparent power of formally regulated life is limitless; but its real penetration of the overall psyche is so insignificant that it fails completely at the first onslaught. The “attitude” is not as hard as steel, as it pretends to be, it is just rigid and therefore collapses immediately, suddenly. Only through this psychology does Thomas Mann’s Frederick the Great become internally understandable in his mixture of cynical, cruel Realpolitik and decadent sickness.

During this period the old Fontane and Thomas Mann personally felt themselves to be great admirers of the Prussian spirit and publicly confessed to it – often endangering their fame. Nonetheless, what they wrote as authors, their literary criticism of Prussian life, is only a modern variation of Mirabeau’s saying. If one looks at Thomas Mann’s wartime confessional writings in the light of this criticism, one obtains a more correct, more complicated picture of his relation to Prussia than is generally proposed. Of course, Thomas Mann’s immediate political position has often been seen correctly. His point of view at the time can be briefly paraphrased as saying that any real policy can only be democratic, but for that very reason is deeply un-German; the German people is an apolitically conservative, which is why the so-called “authoritarian state” is its suitable form of government. If that is correct, what are the consequences? The eternity (the eternal Germanness) of Prussian civil and military bureaucracy.

Thomas Mann’s political polemics are linked to a cultural one, the central question of which is the contrast between culture (Germanness) and civilization (Western democracy). Here the straightforwardness, the kind of literary civilization that neglects the depths of life is contrasted with the aesthetes, moralists and artists, the school of Rousseau and the French Revolution with the school of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. But this contrast is by no means simplified in Thomas Mann’s work. In connection with Pfitzner’s Palestrina, the strange, widely luminous expression of a “sympathy with death” is mentioned, and the plan of the novel The Magic Mountain, which already existed at that time, is mentioned. Indeed, Thomas Mann goes further here and speaks outright of the “fascination with putrefaction.”

Disease, death and putrefaction are not accidental expressions in this context. After the war, Thomas Mann depicted their struggle with the principles of life in the great educational novel The Magic Mountain. It shows the togetherness of life with democracy on the one hand, and sickness, death and decay with the Romantic-authoritarian counterpart of democracy on the other, making it clearly visible that he has completely different value accents than at the time of the World War. Of course, this great writer never writes a one-sided trend novel, and the strength and weakness of both parts are well balanced with him. (He sees the weaknesses of the old mentality of democracy particularly sharply against the attacks of the against Romantic anti-capitalism). As a result of an instinctive-wise assessment of the balance of power in the immediate post-war period, the novel ends with a draw.

But Thomas Mann’s path in combatting sickness, death and putrefaction continues unstoppably. In the important anti-fascist novella Mario and the Magician the “subterranean” instinctual powers only appear in a caricature manner until he succeeds (in Lotte in Weimar) in drawing in the figure of Goethe the exemplary German who takes up the fight against the “German misery” (the decisive part Prussia and the Prussian-decadent polarity of bureaucracy and Romanticism have grown into world-historical greatness).

Is it a coincidence that this path of the author Thomas Mann was at the same time the path of the thinker and the politician from the “authoritarian state” to democracy? Is the overcoming of disease, death and decay, above all overcoming sympathy and fascination with them, at the same time the overcoming of the Prussian dichotomy, the false dichotomy of German development? We believe: Thomas Mann’s path to recovery is a microcosmically anticipated shortcut of the path to recovery that is necessary for the German people.


The development of polarity in the spirit of Prussia in its relationship to the German people had to be sketched out at least for that reason so that its real relation to fascism could become visible. Because from the simple Prussian bureaucratism, even if we take its degenerate form in the aggressive militarism of pan-Germanism, it is impossible to directly deduce the special mentality and morality of the Hitler era. Everything about pan-Germanism that threatened freedom, culture and civilization has passed into German fascism, but this contains some new components that can only be understood from the polarity we have analyzed, as the highest level of Mirabeau’s process of degeneration in Prussianism.

The new component is the mobilization of that “underworld” whose uncanny attraction Thomas Mann so magnificently portrayed psychologically. This mobilization took place on all lines in the time after the First World War. It takes place in the science and philosophy that directly or indirectly and consciously or unconsciously prepared fascism. In short, it consists in the fact that not only is no resistance attempted to “fascination with putrefaction,” but also no more conflict between its aesthetic-psychological attraction and the moral barriers of the formalistic “Prussian attitude” is that, on the contrary, sickness, death and decomposition are elevated to the highest values.

As in almost all moral problems of the imperialist period, Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy is the decisive turning point. With him the great “transvaluation of all values” takes place: in the superiority of the Dionysian over the Apollonian, in the rule of biologism over reason and democratic morality.

For the so-called theorists of the post-war period, the Baeumlers, Klages and others, Nietzsche is far from radical enough on these questions. They unearth all tendencies of the struggle against reason, all efforts to glorify subterranean instincts from reactionary Romanticism, bring up a renaissance of the arbitrarily misinterpreted Bachofen, around the principle of the purely instinctive, “purified” of all rationality and social morality, as chthonic, to establish the highest value: the principle of the dull, earthly, primeval. Reason and social morality are now no longer only questionable, as with Nietzsche, but downright criminal, a desecration of life, absolutely reprehensible. In this new “transvaluation of all values” disease, death and decay are raised to the throne as absolute rulers.

At the same time, Hitler himself mobilized socially and en masse all the instincts of the “underworld” that were awakened and let loose in the desperate, hopeless masses of the people by the economic crisis as a result of the severe crises of the post-war period. The theoretician of National Socialism, Alfred Rosenberg, consciously ties in with the Bachofen renaissance and criticizes its Klagesian form only insofar as he finds it too soft, too idyllic, too inactive.

This is where Hitler’s extrusion begins. The unleashing of the fiendish instincts, the breaking of those intellectual and moral barriers that a millennia-long process of civilization has erected, should, according to the will of Hitler and Rosenberg, not become a haphazard inundation, but a raging current that helps render the rapacious German imperialism to rule over the whole world. The mobilization of the underworld destroys all humanity, undermines all morality; everything through which man became man in the course of culture: it turns him into a mere instinctive half-animal again. When Hitlerism elevates the animal principle to a new “categorical imperative” by grafting the formalistic ethic of duty onto the unleashing of animal instincts, he transforms this semi-bestiality into the consciously diabolical.

Sickness, death and putrefaction, which have become the content of the new Prussia, create the basis for a uniformed, bureaucratic-militaristically regulated, bestial bloodlust. Hundreds of thousands of Prussian-drilled beasts and devils, incited to bloodlust, now set off against humanity in Prussian goose-step, in brown and black shirts. The eviction of the underworld transformed Germany into a gigantic enlarged image of Dante’s hell.

The formalistic hollowness of the Prussian “duty ethic” turns into a demagogic cynicism towards all social contents among the leading Nazis; it makes it possible for them to use every substance by the detour of instinct, coupled with this completely soulless militarism, in the service of reaction. A witch’s sabbath, directed by the Prussian corporal staff of the Nazis to serve reactionary imperialism: that is the last step in the decaying process of Prussia.

It is understandable that convinced Old Prussians, in whom there are still living remnants of past traditions, revolt against such a rebirth of their ideals. This rebellion is important and symptomatic, but it cannot produce any real results. Wiechert’s old Prussian pietism, for example, could only offer dull resistance to Hitler. As a fighting association against Hitler’s barbarism, it was not without value, but it could not, of its own accord, lead to a renewal of Germany. In the end he is even more powerless than the vague and disgruntled voices of those good Germans who around 1870 protested against the repression of Germany as expressed in Wilhelm Raabe’s line:

Stramm, stramm, stramm,
Alles über ein Kamm

(Stand firm, firm, firm,
See everything in the same terms) [4]

Those Old Germans protested, but practically could only take refuge in an individual eccentricity. With Wiechert (and with other vaguely dissatisfied writers, e.g. often with Fallada) this flight into individual eccentricity is necessarily even more powerless in the face of Hitler’s unleashed hell than that of Raabe half a century ago in the face of Bismarckian Prussianism.

There is no going back. The knowledge of the social foundations of the Prussian spirit and its necessary historical process of decay shows it clearly: only a democratic Germany can bring the German people to recovery today. But critics, who primarily attack the Prussian spirit, are on the right track. For the formal institutions of democracy are not sufficient for recovery; the spirit of democracy must also be mobilized against the spirit of Prussia in all areas of human life for the return of humanity to Germany. It is one of the most important lessons of the Weimar Republic that a republic without republicans can show no way out of this question.

Just as hopeless is to justify a rebirth of the old Weimar. Economically and socially, and thus also politically and culturally, Germany has long since outgrown the old Weimar as well as the Prussian framework. We have shown that the remnants of the small-state particularistic element as the magnetic south pole of the Prussian north pole were present during the entire development; therefore they had to take part in the process of decay of Prussia. With a certain inevitable exaggeration one could say that no such renewal of old Germany is necessary, for it was always present as anarchistic Romanticism, as an aesthetic moral “fascination with corruption” living in the individual. But now the place of an Amim or Brentano is taken by Hanns Heinz Ewers, the place of Kleist by Wildenbruch, that of Novalis or Schelling by Spengler or Keyserling.

Of course, it was a “Weimar” without Goethe and Hegel. And not by chance. For what remained in Weimar in world history arose in the constant struggle against the false dilemma of German development that we have sketched. Georg Forster and Georg Büchner, Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx, had been fighting for the democratic renewal of Germany in much older times from emigration. The anti-fascist German writers recently did this under difficult conditions, depending on the extent of their strength.

Only when there is a contemporary democratic basis for social life in Germany, only when a German democratic culture grows out of its own history, out of its own – existing but buried – traditions, can the valual pages of Weimar be eternal again in a way that is fruitful for the German people in general. Until then, this legacy remains a mere arsenal of the fighters against the German misery in its bloodiest and dirtiest, barbaric-diabolical form.

The old Prussia was a decomposing element of the otherwise collapsing “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation,” Bismarck’s Prussia a lazy compromise between economic modernization and political-social setback in German development with a modernized pseudo-democratic and pseudo-parliamentary facade. Hitler’s Prussia was the acute and disgusting, world-contaminating eruption of all the germs of German development that have accumulated over the centuries. Should this source of infection not finally poison the German people, should it not represent a constant danger to world civilization, the German people should turn around in the sense of overcoming the false dilemma, in the sense of the democratic tertium datur, the only feasible way.


1. Heinrich von Kleist, Der Prinz von Homburg, 1809

2. Heinrich von Kleist, Der Prinz von Homburg, 1809

3. Theodor Fontane, Schach von Wuthenow, 1882

4. Wilhelm Raabe, Horacker, 1875