Germany's Third Try



AUGUST, 1945



LET me begin by repeating that, when I generalize about Germans — and all political judgment involves some degree of generalization — I do not mean every German, but the majority of those with whom we have had to deal in the past and may have to deal in the future. It is by them that we must tot up the chances of acquiescence or resurgence.

The Germans have a saying, “All good things are three.” Proverbs and puns are everywhere obsolescent, but there is still a German tendency to repeat a catchphrase, Sprichwort, or cliché, provided that (a) it is of their own making, (b) it suits them. No good German likes listening to anything that does not suit him. That is why you heard so little in Germany of the “ unsuitable”— and unflattering — sayings and writings of Hölderlin, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche.

This characteristic accounts for the fact that Germans do not easily learn — politically at least. They do not learn because they cannot, or will not, unlearn. Once a cliché is in their heads, not even experience, let alone argument, will get it out again. They are singularly lacking in flexibility both of moral and of physical deportment. That, in the long chain of psychology and circumstance, is why they have made, and lost, two brutal and colossal wars of aggression. They just could not shake off the idea of world domination, once they had got it into their system or Weltanschauung— a word as “ridiculously dangerous” as I called the Nazis in their earlier days.

Let us continue the chain by which German reason is bound. I should have written “reasoning” rather than “reason,” because Germans have hated reason as much as their hero, Luther, did. He called her every name in his incredible repertory of pornography. Reason, being incompatible with their programs of political and territorial megalomania, has been necessarily relegated to the background. The trait shows how and why the Germans are so infinitely suggestible, so wide-open, not to truth or reality but to their own propaganda. They can hardly conceive things other than otherwise when things, including Providence, do not suit their books.

For example, the German Army was never beaten in the last war, declared the Socialist President Ebert. What jam for the militarist! What joy for the bourgeois! Immediately, and regardless of experience, the cry is taken up by the whole nation, Left, Right, Center; and a sufficient din always constitutes fact in the Fatherland. The denial of aggression or atrocity, the clamor for “living space,” the whole outcry against the Treaty of Versailles (the treaty did not suit them, and for that reason was clearly a scandal though it was obviously and infinitely more clement than the Treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest), are but a few among many crude examples. The Germans are indeed crude and inflammable — the latter because the former.

All this has a bearing on the prospect of Germany’s propensity to “try, try again.” A few more preliminary factors must, however, be mentioned before that prospect can be assessed. After the last war there was no German sense of responsibility and therefore no repentance. It is true that Allied propaganda made no real effort to bring home the sense of guilt. Britons and Americans have no aptitude for propaganda; and most people dislike what they do badly. They were both indisposed to the practice and suspicious of the word. Anyhow, they were tired both by and of war, and in particular of the wordy practice which it had engendered. So they went off the job.

Copyright 1945, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

The French stayed on it, but conducted their propaganda amiss to an unsympathetic audience, for Britain and the United States went largely and astonishingly pro-German soon after the last war. The French case was so ill put and received that French occupation of the Ruhr was treated as a crime. All that the French did was to take, under great provocation, action legitimate but unwise, because the German nationalists wanted them to take it, in order to alienate sympathy in Britain and the United States.

The Germans then tuned up harder than ever. There were two forms of German propaganda — one for home, one for abroad. The former was forthwith directed toward rousing indignation, hatred, xenophobia. For that purpose, for example, the myth of “the maintenance of the blockade” was shamefully misstated and exploited, by the double process of suppressing truth and suggesting falsehood. It obtained an immediate hold all over Germany and — more surprisingly — abroad. There has been no bound to Anglo-American gullibility, and the “Amerika Second” Germans will strive to keep it up. Only during the course of this war did the facts of German responsibility emerge. I have taken a considerable part in exposing the facts, and a devastating pamphlet on the subject has also been written by Herr Bernhard Menne.

Briefly, German propaganda at home at once began to prepare the nation for another war, and the Republic went the way of all German flesh. It skillfully linked grievance with invincibility. The German Army, it alleged, had been let down by a “stab in the back” administered by weakness on the home front — which must not happen again. Alternatively, the Army and the people would never have abandoned the struggle — never mind the contradiction; Hitler was not the first to realize that big lies “go over big” — if they had not been betrayed by Allied bad faith. They had ceased fire, confiding in President Wilson’s Fourteen Points — never mind that in 1918 the whole nation had united in laughing them out of court so long as it had a chance of winning. The peals of January were still in our ears when the appeals of October began.

Abroad, German propaganda simply went all-out to organize sympathy by brazenly denying every hard fact that told against Germany. And in the Englishspeaking countries “tired businessmen” were so tired that, having already by inertia lost the peace without knowing it, they wanted to be left in peace and get back to business as usual, including loans at 7 per cent to the still homicidal maniac. The Germans gasped, smiled, pocketed, armed, defaulted. The very tired businessmen looked the other way, or salved their consciences by the mumbo-jumbo of prosperity before security, and by the delusion that they were helping a struggling and deserving young German democracy.

In plain fact it was only a conscious interlude between the Second and Third Reichs, war criminals both. Yet such was the force of German iteration (here again the tactics of the Republic were the precursors of Hitler’s simple methods) that by bitter experience I found it almost as unpopular to doubt the “sincerity” — a favorite Japanese word — of that fraudulent regime as to question the efficacy, in a pinch, of a League of Nations composed of nations without arms. And for a long while too it was unpopular to challenge Hitler. I remember well drawing up, and getting dispatched to him, a questionnaire which did very definitely question his “sincerity.” And there was such a row about it at home that Hitler found it easy not to reply.


SOME, not all, of these factors may tend to repeat themselves, if we allow them to. That is why they are relevant to our present problem. Yet there are happily other circumstances entirely different this time, though throughout this second German World War both Britain and the United States have been handicapped by a section of German refugees in various democratic guises but uniformly at heart German nationalists.

In the first place, we have triumphantly carried through the policy of unconditional surrender, though these agitators strained every nerve to prevent it, by assuring us that we should thus forfeit the collaboration of a phantom German resistance movement. The Germans fought to the end as in 1918, but this time there will be no more babble of invincibility; surrender has been signed by the leaders of the German forces, who have been carried into captivity. In 1919 we allowed a conditional peace to be subscribed by civilian scapegoats, while the Army escaped without a stain on its scutcheon.

Even now — and let us make no mistake about it — the Wehrmacht is a popular idol, from whose worship the nation will not lightly depart. It has been hailed with flowers and lamentations as it has passed from the risks of battle into brief and safe captivity. It enjoys the sympathy of the people, and in their dim eyes it has only suffered another “stab,” this time from above, administered by an amateurish former corporal whose intuitions failed against an unfair mass of men and material. (When their own bombing was turned against them, that too became “unfair.”) If human “superiority” could have availed, mutter the Herrenvolk, ah, then — Anyhow they so nearly pulled it off twice.

Note that here again the Germans instinctively try to have it both ways. They exonerate their god, the Army, by blaming the corporal; but they have also created a Hitler legend by attributing to him a fictitious death in heroic battle. The raucous little halfman to whom they gave themselves of course met no such end; he died of hemorrhage or poison — perhaps even of a real “stab in the back” — well underground with a plump typist; and his body has been hidden or destroyed. He may return in still another metamorphosis, whose little linger will be thicker than Adolf’s flabby thigh.

Anyhow, a second Barbarossa myth may come in handy. At least they have got two strings to their bow, and they may pull a long bow on twin themes before many years are out. No Goebbels will be required to furbish the aureole, no learned Treitschke to persuade the universities that “Prussian military glory is a jewel as precious as the masterpieces of our poets and thinkers.” Even Goethe said that art and science “offer only poor consolation, and do not match the proud consciousness of belonging to a great, strong, respected, and feared nation.” When such men can express such sentiments, it is not surprising that smaller fry cannot grasp the good life unless it is accompanied by power.

All this must go into the balance sheet of our prospects, for it is another link in the chain. When you have listened to the small fry long enough, you understand that they do know the difference between good and evil, but not when the distinction turns to their disadvantage. They cannot see that there is anything wrong in taking advantage of weaker neighbors, especially if you can clothe wrong in the garb or garble of a doctrine. “Right — or law — is what suits the German people.” It took the Nazis to formulate the principle so crudely, but it was always there. I said at the beginning that they believe what suits them.

I also said that there was no repentance in 1918 or thereafter. There were only sore feelings, self-pity, a whining arrogance. Germans don’t know what it means to “meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.” Without repentance there could be no dignity. Neither is there repentance or dignity this time. On this point, at least, most reports are unanimous. There is some passable acting, but a conspicuous lack of “the real right thing,” on which alone confidence could be founded. An ineffective minority cannot be expected by any miracle suddenly to transmute the recalcitrant bulk.

No greater disservice can be rendered to the prospects of peace than by those who are now endeavoring to spread yet another myth: that the majority of the inmates of the concentration camps were Germans. They are even using the camps to prove that the Germans are good people after all. The truth is thatthere were, from the beginning, few Germans “inside” for a population of 68 million, because there was notoriously little opposition to Hitler; and that the bulk of the incarcerated were Jews or persons interned, not for deeds of resistance, but through suspicion of disaffection. To the residue all honor! Let us be fair to them but also to ourselves.

We have seen a few of the elements that make possible a third German attempt to dominate the world, if the chance comes or can be created. Some factors have not varied: the mentality of the Junkers and heavy industrialists — all doomed to be put out of possession or business, yet still capable of contributing to underground activities. The same role will be attempted by all convinced militarists — also to be put out of action by the complete disarmament of Germany and the elimination of all armed force except the police, which should include no former officers or regular noncommissioned officers.

Other factors are definitely worse and more ominous now than they were twenty-seven years ago. One is the increased brutalization and savagery of the present generation of Germans. In particular we must take account of the large numbers of SS and Gestapo forces, which did not exist in 1918 and which exceed in quantity and cruelty the illegal armies and black murder-bands of those days. To these must be added the nationally perverted Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls. Corruption is more deep-seated and more widespread. The teachings have become more inflammatory, the officials more steeped in malpractices.

Most sections of the people have shared in the loot and the slave-driving. There has been a broad relapse into barbarism too manifest and manifold to need expatiation. The human material for another eventual bid is more plentiful, the spirit more diffused and more damnable. The German evil has long been a crescendo. There can be no argument about this; in any case it would be clinched by the fact that the Nazis have planned to go underground —partly in countries beyond Allied control — and to prepare for another struggle. Their preparations would have been more thorough if the end had come less quickly.


THESE are some of the items in the debit column. Now for the comparative assets. This time the Germans have been beaten beyond denial, and in the process their country has been wrecked as never since the Thirty Years’ War. There can be no more illusions about “fresh joyous war,” or its “tonic” and “ennobling” effects. I do not overrate this asset. Memory is short where the spirit is unchanged.

On the other hand, the senseless prolongation of German resistance has resulted in the destruction of a large part of German industry. This will facilitate Allied control and elimination of German warpotential, as promised at Yalta. Recovery will, moreover, be slowed down by drawing off much remaining manpower to repair the victim countries. By the time the German industrial centers are rebuilt, the victims will have at least partly emancipated themselves from German economic dominance. German industry will not, therefore, revive in its former proportions. Certain dangerous industries will presumably have been eliminated altogether. One of Germany’s great arsenals, Silesia, will have been detached; the other,the Ruhr, will be permanently controlled. All these items diminish the possibility of aggressive resurrection.

Moreover, the Allies will be occupying all Germany instead of a mere corner. So long as this occupation lasts, even in an attenuated form, a third war should be impossible, though murder will be even more plentiful than between 1919 and 1924, when some 15,000 persons were “liquidated.” The “Werewolves” are unlikely to assume any formidable proportion for a year or two; but they are there, and must not be treated as a joke. On this heading it may be briefly said that there will be no third war if the Allies are resolute and stay on the job. The danger is that they will repeat their mistake of terminating the occupation prematurely. No definite prediction is therefore possible until they have made up their minds.

Nor can any estimate now be made of the German elements likely to lend themselves sincerely and effectively to the beginnings of a German democracy. In any case the word “democracy” will need a deal of defining. We can say only that the Germans have never yet known or liked it: the Weimar Constitution was not translated from paper into the soul of the people. Democracy is a process, and not the natural child of defeat. We do not know reliable names and figures to undertake the great task of building it from the ground up in Germany. I do not doubt the existence of some men of good will, but what will be their numbers, scope, abilities, and what the degree of obstruction or resistance?

I have always insisted that no reliable German democracy will be waiting just around the corner. (I notice that Pastor Niemoeller confirms this view, as indeed would any man of ordinary judgment.) Furthermore, we cannot yet measure the ultimate effect of dividing Germany into four zones of occupation. It seems probable that the Russian zone will be largely communized. The effect of such a development upon the other zones remains to be seen. I always said that rigid zones would be a mistake, and that all Germany should be occupied by all the Allies, not only by a Big Four. Already there is a marked tendency toward fraternization in the Russian zone, which will stultify non-fraternization in the British and American zones. Yet non-fraternization for a substantial period is as undoubtedly right as unconditional surrender, if the moral lesson is to strike home.

Furthermore, this monopolistic zoning system must necessarily also nullify any prospect of homogeneous re-education or reformation. We are only at the beginning of this confusion. There can be no coherent or positive similarity, let alone identity, of curriculum in areas guided respectively by individualism and authoritarianism. The best that we can hope for is some negative agreement on the exclusion of militarism and racialism. Even the former may not be wholly achieved if the German generals from Moscow can get a finger in the pie.

So long as the Germans can not be homogeneously re-educated, they will try to play off one system, and therefore one Ally, against the other. This old game can only hamper progress. The absence of any positive identity is bound to retard the process of re-education — none too bright in any circumstances. If therefore we can, in a generation, de-educate them of what it has taken them a century to imbibe, we shall have been remarkably successful. No calculation can be based on such a chance. It is a hope — no more. The leeway is immense. In this, as in every other field, we can only judge by experience.

Under this heading the matter of the war criminals must also be considered in its bearing on the future. Whole categories of Germans, male and female, are war criminals — for example, members of the SS and Gestapo, whom I have already mentioned. It will be fatal to security to leave these beasts at liberty. Yet they cannot all be executed or deported; all too many will in any circumstances slip through our fingers and go underground — not only in Germany. They are an inevitable menace, which must enter fully into our computation. The number of war criminals listed by the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal does not even begin to indicate the extent of this problem.

What, then, is the conclusion of the whole matter? That we know all the native elements which may provoke another conflagration, and practically none of those that may prevent it. We must thus rely upon ourselves. To that simple conclusion we were bound to be driven. We must therefore keep prolonged control of Germany. We must “stay the course,” and pay all the insurance premiums that safety demands. They will always be well within our means.

If we stay on the job this time — and we cannot without decentralizing Germany — she will not “try again,” for though the spirit may be strong, the flesh will be weak until it is atrophied by disuse. If we fail to do so, if we listen again to those who would throw in their hands and trust to luck and “good Germans,” we may again be sure of the consequences. The wherewithal abounds, and destructive science has more than kept pace with it. Let that, above all, be remembered.