Golo Mann: The History of Germany since 1789 – Part I


Born Angelus Gottfried Thomas Mann, he was the third son of the novelist Thomas Mann and his wife Katia Mann.

One of six children of Thomas Mann, he described the drawbacks of growing up with a famous novelist for a father.

Katia Mann with her six children

“We almost always had to keep quiet — in the morning because our father was working, in the afternoon because he first read, then napped, and toward evening, because he was again occupied with serious matters. And there would be a terrible outburst if we disturbed him, all the more hurtful because we almost never provoked him intentionally.”

(Source: The New York Times )

I got to know him because of his father, one of the giants of world lieterature, and bought his book “The History of Germnay since 1789” years ago, when I was living in England, and forgotabout it withour reading it. All of a sudden, the book appeared in front of me one afternoon as if it had a voice, and without any further delay I Started reading it. It was an instant love affair, that continues until today, after almost two months of reading it.

Golo Mann

In today’s post I want to start sharing with you some quotes from the book, which I consider one of the best history books on Europe. The original’s title is “Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts”, first published in German in 1958. I use the English translation by Marian Jackson, reprinted by Penguin Books in 1990. For ease of reference, in each quote I will use  the page number of the 1990 reprint.

There will be two parts, the first covering the period from Napoleon to the end of Bismarck’s rule.

I am not aiming at reproducing the great intensity of the book, or summarize it. All I want is to present some elements of the work that are representative of its author and his views, which I find stimulating and challenging.

As an introduction to the period from 1789 to 1890, I offer the following timeline.

1813: Battle of the Nations at Leipzig; Napoleon is defeated

1848: a year of European revolutions; the Frankfurt Parliament convenes

1863: the Social Democratic Party of Germany is formed

1866: the kingdom of Prussia defeats the Austrian Empire in the battle of Koeniggaetz

1870: Bismarck emerges victorious from short war against the French

King Wilhelm of Prussia is proclaimed German Emperor

1871, January 18: GERMAN UNIFICATION – King Wilhelm of Prussia is proclaimed “German Emperor” in the Hall of Mirrors at the Chateau des Versailles. The German Empire is a confederation of 25 constituent states

1871: Bismarck becomes the first Chancellor of unified Germany

1875: Thomas Mann is born

1890: Bismarck resigns; Caprivi is sworn in a the next Chancellor

1898: Bismarck dies

Nations have always managed to find some rational necessity, some ideological reason for murdering each other (p. 28)

Nothing in history really starts at one particular moment (p.38)

The people’s of Europe have always learned from each other, and imitation is not necessarily follish (p. 59)

The moments in history in which noble enthusiasm reigns are short and one must be grateful for any lasting achievement from such a period (p. 67)

The mind of the individual is not a textbook, it is full of contradictions (p. 71)

… but eras follow each other without a break and clear divisions exist only in our minds (p. 85)

Ferdinand Lassalle

Our age is confused and devoid of ideas; it does not know what it wants and therefore anything seems possible (p.121)

A man without a home, without roots, cannot be effective, but he can see and speak, and that is what Heine did. (p. 142)

It is characteristic of men who have been disfranchised to take more than their share when they are liberated and to do to others what has been done to them (p. 169)

What anyway did right mean where interests conflicted, where two peoples were imbued with equal determination to survice? (p.171)

Anger unsupported by power can achieve nothing (p.178)

“The great questions of the age”, said Bismarck in 1862, “are not decided by speeches and majority decisions – that was the big mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by blood and iron”. (p.204)

Ferdinand Lassalle once said: “Basically constitutional questions are not questions of law but of power; a country’s real constitution exists only in the actual prevailing political conditions. Written constitutions are only of value and permanence if they exactly express the existing distribution of power in sociaty”. (p. 214)

It is wrong entirely to condemn any class of human beings. The world is not a just place and when just men reach the top they are usually not as just as they promised to be while they were oppressed (p. 215)

Some men who are at odds with their age show that they belong to it by the extent of their opposition to it. (p.236)

Nevertheless he (Schopenhauer) was a Christian and distinguished between two basic tendencies in Christianity: an optimistic one promising paradise on earth, which he regarded as Jewish in origin, and an ascetic one proclaiming the misery and treachery of this world, teaching resignation and compassion. Something of this, which he found best expressed in the pantheism of the Indians, is present in his own work, and that is why a man who hated politics and modern society, a Christian commmunist like Leo Tolstoy, looked up to Schopenhauer as his master. (p. 239-240)

Yet he (Schopenhauer) wrote more beautiful and more forceful German than anybody who came after him; from the depths of German tradition, mysticism, romanticism and music came the moods which he skillfully combined into the four movements of his great symphony. (p. 240)

Arthur Schopenhauer

Everything that he (Bismarck) had tried to prevent or to delay, the worst that he feared, happened in the end: world wars, world revolution, the literal desctruction of the state which he idolized, with the result that the younger generation growing up today hardly knows the name of Prussia. Moreover, this happened not so very long after his death. People who knew him well actually experienced it; for example the wife of his son, who poisoned herself in 1945 a few hours before soldiers of the Red Army reached the family castle. A fate which serves to illustrate the futility of all political endeavour. Or should we say the futility of false, unjust and in the in the last resort unnatural political endeavour? Our story must seek to answer this question, although there will not be a clear yes or no. (p. 261-262)

He (Bismarck) denied energetically that Austria in the Balkans was defending German interests against Russia: “The mouth of the Danube is of very little interest to Germany”. Prussia had no reason to help Austria “to procure a few stinking Wallachians”. (p. 271)

His (Bismarcck’s) great achievement was not that he created German unity; that had been longed for and talked about for fifty years. What makes his achievement so very clever, daring and unnatural is the fact that he brought about German unity without the elements associated with it for fifty years: parliamentary rule, democracy, and demagogy. (p.287)

Bismarck saw the possible when it appeared and rejected the impossible. …If all but one player play a half-hearted game, the one who takes his game seriously is likely to win. (p.288)

The superior opponent attacks, and the attacker is almost always superiro; but he must know how to stop while he is still superiro. (p. 294)

Bismarck did not believe in elaborate constitutions. Like Lassalle he believed in the reality which alone would show what the constitution was and could be. (p. 307)

Often we are most eloquent about the virtues we lack…….The nature of politics does not permit a vacuum of power. (p. 312)

Payment for political services must be received in advance, not in retrospect. (p. 315)

But the frontiers between defence and attack are uncertain; and once the monster of war has been born it starts a life of its own not easily controllable by party political strategy. (p. 319)

Fuerst Otto von Bismarck
Fuerst Otto von Bismarck

Too much elaborate theory may harm a cause, as it has probably harmed American constitutional life to the present day. Too much brutal pragmatism has the same effect. The Reich suffered because bits that did not make a whole were hastily and roughly thrown together, the Prussian military monarchy, federation and universal suffrage. (p. 329)

Historical power is never without historical guilt (p. 345)

But the element which Stoecker (Adolf Stoecker was the court chaplain to Kaiser Wilhelm II, and founded the Christian Social Party in the 1870s) knew how to mobilize and which remained a sinister driving force in German politics was anti-semitism. It was an age-old, evil force which ahd existed in latent form from Christian, even pre-Christian, times onwards, concealed or under control and almost forgotten, only to break out again into brutal misdeeds. (p. 391)

For twenty -five years Bismarck had been Europe’s first statesman, at times its arbiter. His personal qualities entitled him to a place among the ranks of the great rulers of the past, Wallenstein, Cromwell and Napoleon. But whereas in comparable crises they did not hesitate to resort to extremes, to civil war and rebellion, all the Prussian Prime Minister could do was obediently to draft his letter of resignation (Bismarck resigned on 18 March 1890) the moment an undeserving young man asked him to do so. (p. 410-411)