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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

June 1925

Germany and Modern Civilization

by Reinhold Niebuhr

STUDENTS of contemporary civilization may find an analysis of modern Germany a particularly fruitful and rewarding study. Nowhere will they discover the forces which contend for mastery in a modern state more clearly defined or the moral impotence of modern industrial civilization more obviously revealed. The moral limitations of modern life, which in other nations, and particularly in America, are obscured by a tremendous wealth the production of which is almost the sole achievement of modern industrialism, are vividly delineated in this unhappy nation, which the war and the war's aftermath have robbed of the only blessings which modern civilization knows how to bestow. The poverty of Germany aggravates every vice and defines every weakness which she possesses in common with other Western nations. The German temper serves to outline the resulting picture even more sharply, for it is inclined to philosophy rather than to politics and is gifted and cursed at once with the virtue and the vice of consistency. In other nations, and particularly in England, a penchant for compromise serves to soften the asperities of class-and race-conflicts. In Germany, however, the various economic and political groups contend for their rights and support their prejudices with a vigor and venom which make ordered government well-nigh impossible, but which offer the interested observer a very clear picture of the vital factors and forces in a modern industrial state.

The political situation in Germany reveals a triangular conflict between three economic and political groups, none of which is powerful enough to gain permanent ascendancy in the nation. These groups may be roughly designated as the Nationalists, the Industrialists, and the Socialists. Each group has a quarrel with the other two, but also some affinity of interest or inclination with the second against the third. Thus Nationalists and Socialists are idealists of a sort who do not understand each other but both abhor the realism of the Industrialists. Industrialists and Socialists unite in supporting policies of European conciliation against Nationalist dreams of vengeance. Nationalists and Industrialists are combined to oppose the collectivist economics of the laborers. So the political life of the nation is fretted with endless conspiracies between the groups, in none of which a clear and victorious principle emerges to save the nation from endless conflict.

The Nationalists represent the old traditional Germany which hewed a place for itself in Europe by military power. They exhibit all the vices and virtues of the kind of patriotism which fashioned the modern nation out of the wreck of the Roman and the mediaeval empires. In them the traditional patriot is the more clearly typified because he is slightly caricatured. They imagine themselves cold-blooded Realpolitiker who deal ruthlessly with the hard facts of Machtpolitik. As a matter of fact they are naive romanticists whose sentimental attachment to the nation places them in opposition to the internationalism of "big business" as much as to the internationalism of the workers. Their patriotism is hopelessly anachronistic in the new Europe of economic interdependence. It is compounded of the narrow loyalties of the traditional European peasant and the robustious conceptions of national honor of the landed aristocrat. Living close to the soil, these classes do not understand the political needs of the great industrial centres which have developed in Europe in the past century; and from the vantage point of their agrarian prosperity they are able to defy these needs with impunity. The Nationalists naturally abhor all the political and economic arrangements which under the name of the "Dawes Plan" are for the time being preserving peace in Europe, at the price, of course, of the political and economic servitude of Germany. Momentarily in power at the head of a coalition, they refrain from doing violence to these arrangements only because the Industrialists, whose support they need, are committed to them. Naturally the Nationalists are monarchists. They have convinced themselves that the revolution was the cause and not the consequence of the defeat in 1918; by incessant reiteration they have raised the idea of a Socialist "stab in the back" to a political dogma.

A noisy right wing of the monarchists detached itself from the party some time ago under the leadership of Hitler and Ludendorff, but was fortunately reduced to impotence in the last election. These extremists have discovered an easy way of cursing the Industrialists and Socialists in the same breath by ascribing their pacific tendencies to a Jewish want of patriotism and to Semitic conspiracies against the State. The basis in fact for their curious and violent anti-Semitism is the undoubtedly strong Jewish influence in the ranks of both capitalists and Socialists. The Kaiser is persona non grata among them because he is believed to have been a vital factor in the industrialization of Germany.


THE Industrialists are politically articulate in the Volkspartei, of which Stresemann is the acknowledged leader. Under his leadership this party initiated those policies of Erfullung which finally resulted in the acceptance of the Dawes Plan. The Industrialists are the real Realpolitiker of modern Germany. Bereft of any sentimental attachment to either the nation or the ideals of peace, they follow the political course which their interests dictate. They are the perfect representatives of the secular spirit of modern industrialism. For the past few years they have pursued a policy of European conciliation, for they feared that the truculence of the Nationalists would only play into the hands of French militarism. Knowing that behind French chauvinism was the desire of French iron to gain control of German coal, they followed the course of saving the title to their resources by acceding to even the most exorbitant demands of French militarism--as, for instance, in the Micum agreement. Meanwhile they have tried to place the chief burden of Reparations on the backs of the workers, and have succeeded in destroying some of the most dearly bought advantages of Labor. Their conciliatory policies have had the active support of the Democrats and Centrists, who have a real interest in European pacification, and the passive support of the Socialists, who were ready to pay any price that war might be averted. Now that the Dawes Plan is a fairly secure working arrangement, the Industrialists are inclined to part company with their liberal and radical supporters, and they have in fact entered the Nationalist government. More or less monarchist at heart, they have supported republican parties only because the monarchists were hopelessly involved with the idea of a war of revenge. Now that there is no immediate danger of such a war, the Industrialists are inclined to exploit the Nationalist temper for the purpose of securing better trade-agreements with France.

It may be imagined that the path of the Labor Party in such a situation has not been an easy one. The conflict in the industrial community had to be abandoned in order to defeat Nationalist policies which were perilous to industrial employers and employees alike. The workers accomplished this purpose by maintaining an anxious neutrality toward the governments dominated by the Industrialists. Naturally this policy exposed them to the suspicion of connivance with the enemies of Labor--a suspicion which the Communists assiduously exploited, so that it seemed for a time as if the Communists might capture the trade-unions. In the last election the Socialists have, however, regained their lost strength and practically eliminated the threat of a Communist uprising. While the Socialists are not so uncompromising as the Communists in their class-war doctrines, they are more orthodox Marxians than British Labor; needless to say they are, as all Continental Socialists, thoroughly internationalist in their outlook. Practically ostracized from the cultural unity of the nation and denied access to the real treasures of their various national civilizations, Continental workers have been driven to develop class loyalties in compensation for and in opposition to the traditional national communities. The internationalism of the German workers drives the old patriots into veritable frenzies of righteous indignation, but they fail to see anything more significant in the revolt of the helots than evidences of Semitic conspiracies against the integrity of Germany.

Both the extreme nationalists and the internationalists dream of a day when order will be brought out of the chaos of conflicting loyalties by the forceful elimination of either the class or the nation as the object of general fealty. The dreams of neither are likely to be realized. Modern industrial nationalism is too arrantly secular in its aim, and the old traditional nationalism is too blind to the inequalities of class, to be able to regain the confidence of the worker in Europe. The industrial worker of the Continent is probably permanently alienated from the nation; but his dreams of destroying it by means of the class conflict are no more likely to be fulfilled than the dreams of the patriot. What happened in Russia will hardly be duplicated in any advanced industrial community in which the economic organization creates a much larger middle class than the Marxian prophecies contemplated and where the peasants are not so readily reduced to the ranks of the proletariat as Marxism assumes. Here the evidence from contemporary German history is significant and illuminating. If Communism could capture a nation it would have conquered Germany in the winter of her discontent, when poverty drove the workers to despair and forced many members of the middle classes into their ranks. Even under such conditions the forces of revolution could not succeed, though they were actively supported from Moscow. The German workers knew that a revolt of the Left would be as disastrous to them as a military coup of the Right.


IT seems, in short, that European civilization is destined to be harassed for years to come by a conflict between political and economic groups in which each group lacks the power to reduce the others to impotence and thus fashion a homogeneous civilization. This conflict does not appear so clearly in other European nations as in Germany, but it is nevertheless a common characteristic of European life. Since no group is strong enough to build a new order by force, one might hope that the community as such might fashion ideals and conceive principles which would transcend and finally compose the fruitless conflict. But there is no evidence, particularly in German life, that such a hope may be realized in any immediate future.

Two small political parties of Germany, the Democrats and the Centrists (Catholics), typify in a sense the political forces which are not immediately dominated by the political and economic interests of the three great groups. The Democrats, among whom Jewish intellectuals are conspicuous, represent the professional middle classes and intellectual idealists of various classes. They are sincere republicans and passionate devotees of the ideal of European peace. In domestic politics they exhibit tendencies closely akin to those of British liberalism, and are probably too involved with the individualistic ideals of the nineteenth century to play a determining role in a country in which tradition supports the modern tendency to collectivist economic theories.

The Catholic Party is the only political group in Germany which really transcends the class conflict. Claiming support of individuals in all economic groups, who are united in it by religious sentiment and ecclesiastic discipline, the Party has followed a political course which has been of inestimable value in preserving parliamentary government in a time when the violence of the class conflict threatened to destroy it. Of all non-Labor groups it has been most sympathetic to Labor. That is why governments which needed the benevolent neutrality of Labor have usually been headed by a Catholic chancellor though they were dominated by the Volkspartei. The Party has been vigorously republican, probably because it had no special love for the Protestant Hohenzollern dynasty. In its international policies it has worked as sincerely as the Democrats for European pacification. Its international outlook may be prompted by its international ecclesiastical connections, but there are other Catholic parties in Europe which are violently nationalist. More likely the explanation for its internationalism must be found in the traditions of the Holy Roman Empire, which, unlike the modern German empire, was not a nationalist state.

Though it could not be maintained that these two parties represent the only expressions of political idealism in the state or that their idealism is untainted by class interest, they are nevertheless, both in their strength and in their weakness, fairly symbolical of the position of intellectual and religious idealism in the modern state. If the Democratic Party may be regarded as representing intellectual idealism, it is significant that it is able to transcend national prejudices partly because of the Semitic genius for internationalism. That is a circumstance which is not lost on the Nationalist opponents. If the Catholic Party represents religious idealism, it is significant that medieval and not modern religion grapples with the social problems of modern civilization. In other words the typical citizen of the modern industrial state, who is more liable to be Gentile than Jew and Protestant than Catholic, lacks both the imagination and the spiritual passion to detach himself from the prejudices of his political or economic group or to act contrary to its immediate interests; nor is he seriously impressed by the counsels of races and religions which are not altogether indigenous to his own civilization. He discounts the virtue of their position because he suspects it of being conceived in opposition to his own civilization. The internationalism of both Jews and Catholics aggravates his own nationalism, because he believes that it is a form of vengeance against his refusal to accept them as fully accredited members of his society.


THE situation in Germany is of course only roughly typical of Western life as a whole. The position of the Jewish internationalist is more typical than that of the Catholic internationalist, for the Catholic Party of Germany is unique rather than typical. But in the inability of Protestantism seriously to influence the economic and social life of the nation or to make the inspiration of a spiritual interpretation of life available for the problems of social life, Germany is typical. The complete secularization of her life is typical. The modern mind has been obsessed with the task of conquering nature and completely lacks the imaginative faculty which is needed to develop the art of living together. The highest intelligence of modern life, which should have been devoted to the task of emancipating man from ancient hatreds and political frictions has been used to aggravate those hatreds by building up an industrialism which has added horizontal to the already existing vertical divisions of human society. European civilization is perishing in its fratricidal conflicts, with no arm strong enough to coerce it into some semblance of unity and no heart warm enough to win it to the ideals of brotherhood. Men are so imperfect that mutual love can be built only upon a mutual trust which assumes virtue in the neighbor and thus helps to create it; in their imperfections they are bound to wrong each other so much that the art of living together must finally depend upon the grace of forgiveness. A love which is based upon trust and which can issue in forgiveness requires a high degree of spiritual passion and imagination. The current religions of Western civilization are supplying neither the passion nor the imagination. They are too immersed in the problems of the inner life to concern themselves seriously with the needs of society, too infected with the secularism of the day to generate sufficient spiritual passion for the social task, and too involved with national and middle-class groups to gain a proper perspective of the needs of modern society as a whole.

It is significant that any realistic and necessarily pessimistic analysis of modern life is generally resented and little understood in America. We accept it either with incredulity or with pharisaic detachment. Whatever may be the matter with Europe, we do not feel that anything is seriously the matter with us. We do not realize that the forces which are so vividly outlined in Germany and other European nations are contending for mastery in our life as well as theirs, and that we possess no spiritual grace which they may lack. Our geographic isolation and economic opulence will save us for a while from sharing the fate of European civilization. We thus have time to fashion morally redemptive forces for modern life. But there is no evidence in our life that encourages us to hope that we will improve the time.

The race prejudices which we exhibit, particularly in our relations to Asia, and the unimaginative and timid attitude which we assume toward impoverished Europe, in which the fears of a political novice and the anxiety of a wealthy creditor are mingled, do not offer much hope for the future. The very fact that the sins of modern civilization which we share with Europe are more covert here than there only serves to add the sin of blatant self-righteousness to the other moral deficiencies of modern society. Europe may stumble to her doom in confusion while we walk into ours with pride erect; but nothing can finally save our Western civilization either in Europe or in America if we do not add to the achievement of the conquest of nature the moral achievement of a social order in which men may live together in peace in spite of the conflict of their interests, and in which men will learn to trust one another in spite of wrong which they have inflicted upon each other.

Copyright © 1925 by Reinhold Niebuhr. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1925; Germany and Modern Civilization; Volume 135, No. 6; pages 843-848.

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