'The German Myth'

Wedgwood on the Lost Cause:

All normal human beings are interested in their past. Only when the interest becomes an obsession, overshadowing present action and future conduct, is it a danger. In much the same way healthy nations are interested in their history, but a morbid preoccupation with past glories is a sign that something is wrong with the constitution of the State. It is found among scattered and broken peoples, among the declining and impoverished, among  the parvenu or recently restored. I am not here speaking of a merely learned preoccupation with the past, but rather of that romantic concern with ancient splendors which is expressed by injudicious reproduction of ancient architectural styles, the creation of unnecessary monuments, and the prostitution of historiography to modern 'patriotic' purposes.

That would, of course, be Germany's Lost Cause. The essay is "The German Myth" and it looks at how Germans, pre-Hitler, tried to fashion a past while trying to fashion a state. I don't know how much I ultimately trust the piece--Velvet Studies, the collection which contains "The German Myth," is published in 1946 and it bears all the markings of that moment. 

In another essay on Germany, Wedgwood concludes by saying, that the German people are "a problem which all but defies solution," that they "have not in the course of their history shown the least political insight," and that:

They are not merely bad neighbors, they are in the last resort bad citizens, lacking self-assurance and self-respect. For fifteen hundred years they have found themselves unable to accept their position in the European continent. What that position will be in the future no longer rests with them.

In the real pain of post-Nazi Europe, you can understand this sentiment. But the essay has to be read from that angle. 

Still I love that opening graph. Words to live by. History is unavoidably political.
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors at a world-class life sciences lab are trying to change the way people think about their health.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in National

From This Author

Just In