Don't Do It Again! A Liberal Looks at Germany


SUCH knowledge of my own countrymen as I have acquired while reaching a ripe middle age convinces me that one of the most cogent reasons against the imposition of harsh measures of repression on the German people as a whole is that the British people will after a very short period refuse to enforce them, and that the counter-reaction may again, as in the few years preceding the present conflict, lead to an attitude of leniency which is almost indistinguishable from careless indifference to consequences.

I lived for more than five years in Berlin after the First World War, spoke German with reasonable fluency, and made a large number of friends and acquaintances among Germans of all classes; I have also made not infrequent visits to Germany since I ceased to live there in 1930. And I have known scores of those Germans, both Jewish and Gentile, who have given up everything to escape from the Nazi madhouse and sought asylum elsewhere with what, alas, is the precarious status of refugees.

In the light of impressions formed during residence in Germany, I have been led to review both the causes of that country’s renewed lapse into barbarism and the most helpful means of averting a third world war. (It is, I presume, by now common ground that any war under modern conditions threatens to become a world one.) I fully recognize that to treat these subjects exhaustively would require an ocean of ink and forests of paper material, but I believe that it is not a barren waste of effort to isolate certain important elements in an exceedingly complex situation.

One factor in Germany ‘ between the wars’ to which sufficient attention has not been devoted is its political immaturity. Germany had had, in the late Hohenzollern epoch, some semblance of a parliamentary system, and superficially, when once the Kaiser had disappeared and a republic been instituted, the transition to full responsible democratic government of the people by the people appeared a simple process of political evolution. The naturalness and deceptive simplicity of democracy in British eyes, and doubtless in American eyes, are the product of centuries of tradition and, what is perhaps even more important, of training. We overlook our own history; we forget the enormous part played in the education of the people in responsibility and in the training of administrators and legislators by a system of local government which itself has a long history; we blink the fact that parliamentary democracy, as the AngloSaxon world understands it, has so far proved workable in very few places in the world.

Germans had no tradition of popular government, and no practical experience which would help them to make it function; even local government had been inspired by the monarchical pattern of the various German states. It is not improbable that Germany would have enjoyed a much larger measure of political and social stability if the transition from absolute monarchy to democracy had not been so violent, but attained more gradually by the establishment of constitutional monarchy as practised in the British Empire. Given conditions as they were, given the fallacious ascription to the ex-Kaiser of responsibility for the war, and the patent impossibility of his mere supersession by another member of his house, the gentler transition would still seem to have been absolutely excluded by the nature of the irresistible forces at work, but the experience should warn us that a change in the form of government will be a specious improvement unless it is accompanied by a continuous process of adaptation and education.

A point forcibly brought home to at least one observer was the necessity to parliamentary government of that much maligned animal, the politician. It was no accident that the one statesman in republican Germany who stood out by his achievements — namely, Stresemann — had had an intensive training as a party politician in the Reichstag before and during the war; as a result he had learned, within limits, to manipulate men and their opinions in order to secure their parliamentary assent and support for the measures which he desired to further. He had acquired, again within limits, that sense of timing, often confused with mere opportunism, which is essential to the success of political strategy. He might, had he lived, and in spite of the suspicions which were cast on the purity of his motives and his international good faith after his death, have held Germany together during the testing years of the economic blizzard; and, thanks to the international position which he enjoyed as one of the architects of Locarno, he could probably have extracted concessions from Great Britain and France which would have strengthened his internal position, concessions which were denied to his successors, or, if granted at all, granted unwillingly and after such a delay as to deprive them of half their value.

There were statesmen in Germany other than Stresemann who were no politicians; there were politicians (Schleicher is perhaps the outstanding example) so lacking in statesmanship that they have the appearance of mere intriguers. A people accustomed to obey directions rereceived from an elite of sorts were suddenly called upon to guide their own destinies and work out their own salvation under constant external pressure. The statesmen of Great Britain and France showed no realization of the callow nature of the republic or the difficulties under which successive German Chancellors labored. They did nothing by well-timed concessions to strengthen the parliamentary regime; appeasement, which became a word of ill omen when it necessarily appeared indistinguishable from the product of fear, a movement of retreat, and a composition with blackmail and felony, was never wholeheartedly tried with republican Germany.

Some major concessions there were, but not of a character or so timed as to compensate for past mistakes. Concessions in the reparation question, for instance, were little more than an acceptance of the inevitable when irretrievable mischief had already been done; concessions in the occupation question were linked up with and dependent upon a fictitious final settlement of reparations and not granted on their own merits. It is at least possible that a gift to Bruning of a fraction of what Hitler was afterwards allowed to take without more let or hindrance than was contained in a diplomatic note of protest might have maintamed him in power and secured the continued existence of the tottering republic. One of the tests in which allied statesmen should have been forced to qualify was the history of the Sibylline books.


Let us turn to another factor which has not received due attention — the social stresses caused by Germany’s defeat and the social disintegration in which the aggravation of these stresses culminated. The peace settlement in itself — inevitably and properly — made Germany a poor country. The standard of comfort and the values of private fortunes underwent a steep decline forthwith; the restoration of the economic situation both of individuals and of the state required more work and more intensive work. It was an incidental aggravation of the difficulties inherent in the circumstances that a large section, and in many ways the more stable section, of the community was set adrift without the equipment and the knowledge necessary to keep it going.

The army, the navy, the civil and diplomatic services, the ownership and management of landed estates, had been the accepted vocations of the upper classes in Germany; to these we may add the learned professions, in which, however, the privileged classes had to face less restricted competition. With the establishment of the Weimar Constitution and the entry into force of the Treaty of Versailles the military career was substantially at an end; it could absorb only a fraction of the old military class; and it demanded from that fraction a professional devotion and efficiency which further reduced its absorptive power. Other state positions were no longer reserved for members of the old ruling caste, who found their origin and political associations a handicap where before they had conferred a privilege. Business, trade, and commerce were the openings called upon to absorb this class of ‘new poor,’ and any man over, let us say, twenty-five in 1918 had little chance of finding his feet in this sphere unless endowed with exceptional gifts. These banausic pursuits had been left to the Jews, whose success in them had largely contributed to Germany’s industrial and commercial strength and reputation for scientific progress. That they had so successfully cultivated the vineyard which the German Gentile had despised, and the only one to which entry was unhampered, is one element in German anti-Semitism which should not be overlooked.

There was, therefore, a substantial section of the German upper middle classes which became almost overnight disoriented, bewildered, and in a sense homeless. Its situation became immeasurably worse when inflation devoured what was left of savings and to all intents and purposes destroyed the middle class. Not long ago, at a meeting which was discussing the policy to be exercised in relation to Germany after this war, a supporter of General de Gaulle urged that all possible steps should be taken to foster a class of peasants (who were supposed, in spite of the example of Bulgaria and perhaps of Russia, to be difficult to lead into war) and to encourage the growth of a middle class. We often long to restore what we have unheedingly broken, but it was not clear that the speaker realized the extent to which Anglo-French reparation policy, one of the major factors in inflation, was responsible for the disappearance of what he now desiderated.

It is no accident that Hitler’s appeal before he reached power was mainly to middle-class sentiment; the appeal of the agitator is always to the dispossessed, and the upper middle classes in Germany were the dispossessed, while the lower middle classes, then in process of re-formation, and the well-to-do industrialist and business man feared being dispossessed by that Bolshevism from which Hitler was to deliver them and into which he has led them. Hitler is himself in part, at any rate, a product of the era of inflation; his evangel could only have been successfully preached to, and his policy could only have been carried out by, people debauched by the demoralizing effect of currency depreciation on a grand scale, which penalizes social virtue, makes thrift a folly, and rewards antisocial acts. Public and private morality alike in Germany had had no chance to recover when exposed in 1930 to the full blast of an unprecedented economic depression.

We have been glancing at events and tendencies which were by no means within Germany’s sole control, and for which the great mass of the German people cannot be held responsible. Great Britain and France (and more indirectly but not less really the United States) have a measure of responsibility to shoulder for a condition of affairs which was only inevitable if we accept a determinist view of history. Impossible reparation demands prevented the restoration of German credit until a dangerously late stage, and the trade policies of the creditor powers ensured that the clumsy structure of international indebtedness should produce an almost utter breakdown in the production and exchange of wealth. Had German credit been nursed from the beginning, had Germany been given a possible task to perform, had the French realized that the demand for large payments and the desire to keep Germany weak were irreconcilable aspects of policy, — above all, had the creditor nations recognized the simple truth that they must import more than they export or pile up claims on the outside world at compound interest, — Germany might have avoided economic breakdown, social disintegration, and political chaos; we should at least have pursued a policy better designed to assist her to avoid them.

As things were, the history of Germany’s economic breakdown and its political consequences has, on a backward glance, some of the inevitability but little of the grandeur of a Greek tragedy. The millions of unemployed for whom Hitler found work on armaments were not thrown out of work, and reduced to a despairing readiness to listen to any charlatan, by German mistakes alone, or even primarily.


In the years immediately succeeding 1919 there was no widespread popular resentment either against the Allies or, indeed, against the Treaty of Versailles outside the Reparation Chapter. Skillful propaganda in Germany, and careless and ill-informed criticism outside that country, have by now created the impression that the treaty was a harsh and repressive instrument which deserves root-and-branch condemnation. It had grave faults in its financial and economic provisions, but these could have been corrected subsequently, given a proper allowance of understanding and common sense. The territorial provisions, which have borne the brunt of Hitler’s assaults, were eminently defensible, and caused relatively little heartburning. The Anschluss movement was almost purely manufactured agitation; it was not spontaneous in Germany, and, if less artificial in Austria, it was because that country would have obtained all the benefit which the transaction might have offered. So far as popular feeling was concerned, the fate of German minorities that fell under the rule of what the ruling classes of Germany regarded as lesser breeds without the law was regarded as painful, but concern for them would never have done much to precipitate a war or, without mendacious propaganda, to poison international relations. Perhaps the one territorial provision which threatened to become a running sore was the Polish Corridor, for the ‘sledded Polacks’ were not beloved of their exmasters; but it was not so desperate a grievance that the German people did not acquiesce in what they must have regarded as Hitler’s genuine acceptance of the status quo when he seized power.

Nor was there any feeling that Germany had not been fairly and squarely beaten in the field of battle. The legend of the ‘stab in the back’ had no chance to become implanted firmly in the public mind until the open discussion of other readings of history became a dangerous occupation. It is again being currently said that the mistake was to stop the war before German territory had been invaded; it is at least doubtful whether the overrunning of Germany by French and British soldiers and a march into Berlin would have done much more than the known shattering of the German army’s power to resist. Those who had fought knew that they had been defeated, and none better than the military leaders. The feeling uppermost in the minds of the rank and file, a feeling intensified by the misery of the post-war years, was unwillingness ever to be involved in war again. We may be fairly certain that the fanatical Nazi troops are youthful; it is only young men who have been subjected throughout their formative years to the careful psychological training of the Nazi regime who can have taken the field with any lightness of heart or expectation of glory; they are examples of a conditioned reflex.

So far as the great mass of the German people was concerned, dissatisfaction with the Diktat was the cumulative product of subsequent events — and not so much of the treaty itself as of its execution. Let us briefly enumerate the more important of these events. The first in order of time was the partition of Upper Silesia — a vexed problem the solution of which left the Germans with the feeling that there was one law for the victor and another for the vanquished.

The next, and in many ways the most important, was the occupation of the Ruhr to enforce reparation claims. The occupation was almost certainly a breach of international law, and, however it was designed, it was so patently destined not to secure payment but to sabotage the means of payment that democratic Germany could not but regard it as an attempt by French imperialists to obtain what they had vainly sought at the Peace Conference — control of the Rhineland. That natural fear was intensified by Poincare’s ill-advised support, under cover of the occupation, of the Rhineland separatist movement.

A third grievance which became more serious as time passed was the relatively defenseless state of Germany among neighbors who were armed to the teeth with modern weapons of attack. Disarmament had certainly been accepted willingly by the German masses, but it was an honorable understanding that it was merely the first stage in universal disarmament. When, after ten years, Europe as a whole showed no great anxiety to share the benefits to be obtained by relieving overburdened budgets of inflated military programs, the conclusion again drawn was that Germany, having overthrown the absolute monarch, having lost her colonies, having mortgaged her future to pay reparation, was not to be admitted as an equal in the administration of Europe’s and the world’s affairs, but was to be left without any of the force lacking which diplomacy as it used to be understood, and seemed again to be understood, could not be effective.

But the greatest and most fatal of grievances throughout the decade after the conclusion of peace was the reparation burden. It would take a volume to cover this factor and there is no space for anything but dogmatic statements, which could admittedly be disputed. The sums demanded of Germany were absurd, the sums for which she was nominally liable were grotesque. The attempt to extract the impossible not only impeded the restoration of German credit but resulted in the effective obtaining of much less than would have been forthcoming in response to more reasonable demands. Every honest offer by Germany — so, at any rate, honest Germans thought — was taken as an indication that with good will they could have offered much more. Arguments that seemed good in the mouths of French and British when discussing their debts to America were not admitted as valid when applied to the payment of reparation by Germany; sauce for the goose was not sauce for the gander. Finally, the natural and artificial impediments to the export of German goods and services were such that every penny Germany paid to the Allies was borrowed, and the process meant the accumulation of an external debt at compound interest. When the artificial prosperity engendered by lavish American lending burst like a bubble towards the end of 1929, Germany’s economic and financial situation was as vulnerable as it could be.

As depression spread and deepened, every nation, acting under a panic influence of sauve qui peut, indulged in policies which only aggravated the economic ills from which all were suffering. In a world stricken with tariffs, restrictions, and impediments to the production and international exchange of goods, currency instability, and inflated external debts, the only remedy which statesmen could prescribe was a hair of the dog that bit them. The condition of Germany, with unemployment mounting to a dangerous level, became worse and worse until after three years it was desperate.

This was the ground on which the Nazi seed began to bear a harvest, but it should never be forgotten that at no time when a free election was held did Hitler command a majority of the votes of the German people. Admittedly he came near it in 1933, but, in spite of all the headway that extremists had been able to make in years of distress, Hitler’s career would have been relatively brief if he had developed and divulged (otherwise, of course, than in Mein Kampf, which was considered almost a jeu d’esprit) his full policy before he had thoroughly enslaved his own compatriots.

He was powerfully aided not only by his ability to exploit the accumulation of grievances above enumerated but by a consistent weakness in the policy of Germany’s ex-enemies. Except by attempts to repress Germany herself they had done nothing to foster the belief that a new international order had been originated at Geneva; the battle was still to the strong, and the race to the swift. The lesson of Corfu was not forgotten; the writ of the Allies did not run in the Baltic republics; Italy contracted out of international measures for the protection of racial minorities; France could invade the Ruhr, flout British views, and damage British interests without incurring more than an academic protest from British statesmen, whose attitude appeared to be dictated at least as much by a recognition of French military strength as by a desire not to embarrass an ally; Japan could defy the United States and Great Britain and a world represented in the League of Nations, embark on the barefaced conquest of a neighbor, and ‘get away with it.’

In 1933 there existed a Nazi conviction and a British state of mind the conjunction of which was fraught with great peril for the world. The Nazi conviction was that force, and force alone, paid, and that the democracies would not resist it; we had done something to encourage that view. The British state of mind was that Germany had had a raw deal and labored under certain grievances that must be removed; our conscience was bad. The existence and significance of these two psychological factors were vividly brought home to me when Hitler invaded Austria. When the news came through I rang up a friend who was an editor of an important Conservative journal and expressed my horror and apprehension; he obviously shared my feelings and sympathized with my view that something would have to be done, but made the illuminating comment that ‘we should have to wait for a better wicket.’ Shortly afterwards I was in Germany, and in the course of a discussion of recent events one of the most enlightened and intelligent Germans of my acquaintance made the following comment, equally illuminating: ‘The worst of it is that that large section of the German public which hates Naziism as much as you or I is being forced to conclude, in the absence of opposition to lawless acts of force, that after all perhaps the Nazis are right and that armed power is the only thing that counts.’

Austria, the denunciation of Locarno, the militarization of the Rhineland, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the invasion of that country, and the attack on Poland were all of a piece and formed a natural sequence; the Japanese attack on China, the conquest of Abyssinia, the war in Spain, and the seizure of Albania were part of the same pattern. So conscience did make cowards of us all, and Heaven knows that Poland was not the ideal wicket for which my conservative friend had been waiting.


What conclusions, however tentative and general, could the above reflections suggest regarding the future treatment of Germany, after that country has suffered the decisive defeat which is as necessary for its salvation as for ours?

Let it be said at once that there are few — and the writer is not one of them — who, however sharply they distinguish between the German government and the German people, would not insist on the total disarmament of Germany. Children should not be trusted with edged tools, and German docility and mass stupidity have created enough widows and orphans to make us take every precaution against a thrice-told tale of aggression. The practical problem, if Germany be viewed for the moment in isolation, should not present any great difficulty. Warfare at present, and until science makes new and revolutionary discoveries, requires a strong air force and a large amount of heavy equipment. If we prohibit the manufacture within Germany of any aeroplanes, tanks, and heavy guns, it ought not to be difficult to make the prohibition effective enough to prevent evasion on a dangerous scale. The limitation of naval forces to a minimum, with the total exclusion of submarines, should render Germany innocuous at sea.

Nor would it be wise on this occasion to give the Germans any pretext for saying that German disarmament was conditional on general disarmament; when this war is over we shall have learned that force is required to ensure observance of the law, — on this side of Paradise, at any rate, — and someone will have to shoulder the responsibility and expense of maintaining that force. You cannot recruit a reprieved murderer into the police force, even after he has served a sentence; the most you can do is hold out hope that his sons will grow into good citizens, subject to no special disabilities of status, and that when a new generation of Germans have shown themselves fit for membership in an association of civilized nations they may share its duties and responsibilities. In the meantime it is an obvious corollary that the armed powers must solemnly engage themselves to see that an unarmed Germany is treated with scrupulous justice; arma inter leges silent must prove as good an aphorism as its converse.

But the mere crippling of German aggressive power is not in itself enough, if for no other reason than that, in the absence of hope and of absorption in peaceful pursuits, German ambition and desire for revenge might once again form an association with Russia which could largely circumvent disarmament and defy all forms of control. The whirligig of time brings in its surprises as well as its revenges. It will be necessary to remember more clearly than in 1918 that a new alignment of forces may disturb any closely calculated balance of power, that life must be worth living if war is to be avoided, and that our whole policy should be directed to the eventual and conditional incorporation of Germany into a peaceful world — not merely a peaceful Europe, for that geographical area has long ceased to be more than a sub-unit. With this end in view we have economic and psychological problems to face.

There are those who believe, and the writer is among them, that economic unrest is more frequently the parent than the offspring of political discontents, however often, when once the cycle of generation is in movement, they reproduce each other, and that the origin of this war is preeminently to be found in an economic catastrophe that was almost the direct result of inflated reparation claims, aggravated by dead-weight debts to the United States. Whether this view is extreme or not, there will be few who will advocate the renewed imposition on Germany of impossible burdens. Indeed, with the bitter lessons of the 1920’s before our eyes, we may be inclined on this occasion to minimize Germany’s capacity to repair the damage inflicted on Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Greece, and Yugoslavia. Whatever can be done with German (and Italian) labor and materials to restore those stricken countries should be exacted; if for economic or political reasons any of them refuse, as France refused after the last war, to avail themselves of reparation in the only form in which it is readily payable, they should be left to their own resources.

We shall have to go further, however, than merely refraining from impoverishing Germany. France under Poincare seemed unable to choose between reparation, which she could obtain only if Germany were prosperous, and security, which she deemed unobtainable unless Germany were economically weak. It will be our interest to encourage a disarmed and powerless Germany to seek prosperity and contentment, remembering that deep-seated and continuous depression in Germany cannot be combined with well-being in Europe. We shall have to recognize, firstly, that the fiscal frontiers of Europe are as much an anachronism as fiscal frontiers between the states of the American Union would be, and, secondly, that a peaceful Germany is entitled, if only by her geographical situation, to great economic influence on the Continent. We shall have to unscramble Hitler’s eggs, but we should not be blind to the fact that, by wrong methods and for wrong reasons, he has gone a long way to the unification of Europe — has, in fact, almost realized Napoleon’s dream. The same consummation must be sought by peaceful means, not by bilateral trade treaties founded on intimidation and faked exchanges, and not with a view to the economic and political exploitation of the weak, but with the aim of a harmonious development of the complementary activities of free peoples.

To sum up this aspect of a reasonable post-war settlement, we must refrain from imposing any special handicaps on German economic activity and from taking any steps to prevent the restoration of German prosperity, unless we are prepared to forgo prosperity in Europe as a whole.

There are advocates, and even some German advocates, of the dismemberment of Germany and the dethronement of Prussian power. One of the tragedies of the last war was the dismemberment rather than the federal reconstruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The victors are often wrongly saddled with responsibility for that dismemberment, when the worst that can be said against them is that they did not strive very officiously to keep Austro-Hungary in existence. The centrifugal forces then operating were of long standing and immensely potent; the exact reverse is true in Germany. Even if that view is not accepted, it cannot be denied that the forcible disruption of Bismarck’s structure would be a festering sore in Europe, and a standing challenge to all patriotic Germans (we shall not be able to extirpate real patriotism, even if we are foolish enough to desire it) to reverse the situation. Secondly, any splitting of Germany into its component parts (not, of course, including Austria, which presents a special problem) that would be in the least degree effective in weakening German capacity to make trouble would involve economic dislocation of an order that war-shattered Europe could scarcely afford. A mere nominal re-creation of the German states would do little to secure their independence, while divided control of German communications, finance, and economic life in general would be ruinous.

The last and greatest task will be political and psychological. We shall have to prescribe for a nation guilty of criminal lunacy, but not, as a nation, proved incurable. We shall have to treat people who, even if themselves sane, have lived for eight years in a madhouse, one, moreover, where all the doctors were demented and all the attendants sadists. Reform and the prevention of further crime, rather than retribution and revenge, must be our main objectives. Let us by all means exercise summary justice on the doctors and warders if their unhappy victims have not relieved us of the duty, but let our first concern be to throw open doors and windows; let us make it our painstaking object, by most skillful and scrupulously honest means, to reveal to the German people the truth about the history of Europe in the last ten years — and the unvarnished truth must include a recognition of our own shortcomings. We shall have to de-intoxicate a whole generation whose minds have been systematically poisoned.

The task before Germany’s conquerors will be to secure that country’s moral reconstruction. It will be a slow task, and it wall expose them to setbacks and disappointments, but it will be infinitely retarded if we do not recognize that it must be a gradual process of reeducation into a civilized and Christian way of life, and if we are not prepared to trust and collaborate with some Germans who will be our best missionaries. We cannot impose a form of government — we can, indeed, be in a certain measure skeptical about forms of government; but our attitude to Germany in the years to come will necessarily be determined by the degree in which her self-chosen government embodies and expresses a popular will.

Above all we must support by every means in our power a democratic government when and if it is found in Germany. We must show a much livelier realization of the fact that Germany is a comparatively new nation with no parliamentary or democratic tradition, and we must never again find ourselves in the deplorable position of refusing to democratic Germany what we tamely allowed militarized Germany to seize; we must never again give the German people, and even those elements in it who are very unwilling to be convinced to that effect, reason to believe that force does pay and that reliance on a source of international justice provides no dividend.

The kind of peace we shall have to make is one which will not merely give vent to natural feelings of righteous anger, our hatred of Nazi devilry, our hasty and indiscriminate identification of Germans and Hitlerites, but also satisfy the conscience of the world through years of post-war weariness. We must be immune from twinges of remorse that will sap our resolution in moments of crisis. We need not, if we dare not trust ourselves so greatly, temper justice with mercy; we may, if we will, practise just severity — so long as justice, incorruptible by fear, partiality, or indifference, is made steadfastly to prevail.