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The Decline and Reincarnation of the German Reich : THE AILING EMPIRE: Germany From Bismarck to Hitler by Sebastian Haffner ; translated by Jean Steinberg (Fromm Interna t ionale Publishing Corp.: $18.95; 264 pp.; 0-88064-136-3)

October 29, 1989|Russell Jacoby | Jacoby's latest book, "The Last Intellectuals," recently appeared in paper (Hill & Wang/Noonday); he currently teaches at UC Riverside

After the death in 1896 of the great German historian Leopold von Ranke, Syracuse University established a memorial with his portrait, study table, chairs, books and pens. The action was not surprising; for much of the 19th Century (and at least until World War I), Americans believed that Germany represented the most advanced learning, science and scholarship. Young Americans seeking further education usually went to Germany, not England or France. When Freud visited the United States in 1909, he lectured in German, a small testimony to the familiarity with that language in professional circles.

Today the industrial prowess of Germany--at least West Germany--continues to dazzle. Americans appreciate German precision and engineering, but two world wars, Nazism and the death camps long ago ended a love affair with German culture and society. Reflections on German history bear a heavy burden, fathoming why a society so civilized became so lethal. What went wrong? The English historian A. J. P. Taylor once argued that all German history was a single story: From Luther to Hitler, Germans gravitated to authoritarian, nationalist and irrational leaders. Taylor himself, however, was not convinced by his own book, which he later criticized.

The question--what went wrong with German history?--presupposes that all is well with other national histories. But where or what is the benchmark? American slavery? Soviet labor camps? Recently the issue has re-exploded in Germany; some historians have sought to diminish the evil of Nazi genocide by arguing that Nazism and Soviet Communism were not all that different. They hint that Germans have been unfairly indicted for crimes all countries commit.

Sebastian Haffner, a Berlin journalist who has written a well-received book on Hitler, presents his thoughts on the course of German history. In 11 chapters, which were originally lectures for a German audience, Haffner surveys German history from the post-Napoleonic period to the present. He closes with some reflections on one legacy of World War II, a divided Germany; he believes that Europe would not allow a unified Germany even if George Bush would. "All European countries have had bad and often terrible experiences with the former German Reich . . . Alarm bells would go off if a new 80-million-strong power bloc were to rise up again at their borders." He muses that it may be for the best that the German Reich is beyond restoration.

Haffner does not find convincing the usual explanations for German "expansionism and subsequent decline." Some have argued that industrialization distorted German development. Yet Haffner notes that elsewhere industrialization did not lead to barbarism. He believes that these explanations are "grounded in specific ideological-political views and seek to buttress those views." Rather, he provides what might be called a political-geographic argument for an aggressive Germany. Germany always was surrounded by hostile states, and it lacked protective ocean borders. "The geographic situation of the Reich was not advantageous. There were no areas open to penetration . . . And there was yet another factor: its awkward shape." For Haffner, this geographic situation explains German expansionism.

Oddly, Haffner does seem aware that in dismissing social-economic explanations, he is returning to more venerable approaches: Traditionally German historians, beginning with Von Ranke, stressed the primacy of foreign relations and state policies, ignoring economic and social dynamics. Only in recent decades have young historians sought to do justice to material conditions.

Haffner hardly is striking out in new directions when he dispenses with this, which he does fairly consistently. For instance, he does not believe that "domestic causes" gave rise to the German expansionism of the period 1890-1914. However, his claim that domestically all was well is unfounded. Indeed, Haffner becomes eloquent: "All classes were prospering." The Germans were "basically a moderate people. Their highest aspiration was to live together as a nation under one roof, and that they achieved." Then what happened? Germans fell under a "spell" of nationalism. "It was as though they were telling themselves, 'We shall become a world power.' " This explains their imperial push.

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