Walther Rathenau.

The New Society online

. (page 5 of 9)
Online LibraryWalther RathenauThe New Society → online text (page 5 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

mentality, sense of honour, devotion, training, tradition. We can
never reanimate them and never supply their place. Ideas and dogmas
have long ago lost their cogency; the power they wielded through
police and school, the power which we tried to prop up by a
blasphemous degradation of religion and by developing the church as a
kind of factory, is gone, and it would be a piece of mechanical
presumption to suppose that we can breed them again for the sake of
the objects they fulfilled. If we live and thrive, ideas and faiths
will grow up of themselves.

We must of our own free choice lay upon ourselves a certain
life-potency or faculty which we shall freely obey, and which shall be
so broad and so buoyant that thought and creation can grow out of it.
A deed without precedent only in its voluntary, conscious
self-determination: for other peoples in earlier days also accepted
these faculties, not indeed out of conscious choice, but from the
hands of prophets, rulers and classes. Thus theocracy was laid upon
Israel; the caste-system on the Indians; the idea of the city on the
Greeks; empire on the Romans; the Church on the Middle Ages; commerce,
plutocracy, colonial dominion, on the modern world; militarism on
Germany. For these imposed forces men lived and died; they had only a
mythical conception of where they came from, and they believed and
some still believe them to be everlasting.

A thunder-stroke of destiny has at once stripped us bare and has
opened our eyes. The tremendous choice is before us. Are we to reject
it, and, blinded anew, to resign ourselves to the casual and
mechanical laws of action and reaction, of needs and interests, and
the competition of forces? Are we to recover ourselves, and enter into
the intellectual arena of the nations, to begin a new and enduring
life with no other guiding thought than that of self-preservation and
the division of property? In the harbour of the nations is our ship to
drift aimlessly while every other knows its course, whether to a near
or distant port? Is that penurious Paradise which we have described,
the goal of Germany's hopes and struggles?

Compared with us, the French movement of the eighteenth century had an
easy task. All it had to do was to deny and demolish. When it had
cleared away the wreckage of feudalism, at once a strong new class,
the bourgeoisie, sprang up from the soil, more vigorous than its
aristocratic forerunner, and it was able to take care of itself. And
the bourgeoisie was also a class of defined boundaries, and already
trained for its task; it had long ago taken over French culture, it
alone had for a century been the champion of French ideas, it had
acquired enthusiasm for the nation, for freedom, for militarism and
for money; the aspirations for equality and fraternity were not indeed
fulfilled, but the first mechanized and plutocratic state of the
Continent came into being.

Germany, as we have seen, is not in the same position. When we are
stripped we find no new stratum of culture growing up below the
surface; society is simply dissolved, and in its place we find the
masses, of which the most hopeful thing we can say is that they are an
ordered body. Tradition has been torn in two. No - we have to build
from the foundations up. But whether we shall build according to the
changing needs of the seasons, according to the casual balance of
forces, or according to an idea and a symbol - that is the question!

Our current Socialism has no qualms about bringing new nations to
birth with the aid of a few simple apparatus and radical eliminations;
it believes that the right spirit will soon enter in if only
institutions are provided for it. It would be too severe to describe
this way of thinking solely as contempt for or want of understanding
of a spiritual mission. Socialism in its prevailing form arises indeed
simply from material or so-called "scientific" conceptions (as if
there could be a science of ideal aims and values): but it has, though
only as a secondary object, annexed to itself the values of a
spiritual faith - the latter are, as the language of the market has it,
"thrown in." We have seen to what the material domination of
institutions and apparatus is leading us. To national dignity, or to
any mission for humanity, it does not lead.

What is unprecedented in our problem is not, as we have said, that a
people should beget out of itself its own idea and mission. From the
Jewish theocracy to the French rationalism, from the Chinese
ancestor-worship to the pioneer-freedom of America, all the cultured
peoples have brought this creative act to pass, although in formative
epochs leading classes and leading men have born the responsibility
and made it easy for their countrymen to become aware of their own
unconscious spirit, and through this awareness and consciousness to
isolate and intensify it.

What is unprecedented is just this: that the process should take place
as a deliberate act of will, in democratic freedom, without pressure
and compulsion of authority, in the consciousness of its necessity, on
our own responsibility. Germany is not at present growing leaders and
prophets, we are not in a formative stage, all authority has been
scattered to the winds. It is true that we have one stratum of society
which is capable of understanding the meaning of the task, but it is
deeply cloven, the hatreds and interests of its parties make them more
each other's enemies than the people's.

And yet it is this very class - not as possessor of means but as
possessor of the tradition, which is capable, which is indispensable,
and which is summoned to take in hand the transformation of the German
spirit, to free it from the bonds of mechanism, of capitalism, of
militarism, and to lead it to its true destinies. It cannot do this
for itself alone, amid the blind bitterness of the war of classes; it
cannot do it as a sovran leader relying on its deeper insight, for its
and every other prestige has gone by the board; it can only do it by
the way of service and sacrifice - it can only do it if the service and
the sacrifice are approved and accepted.

The masses will not understand this sacrifice of service; but the more
responsible of their leaders will. Not to-day, indeed, nor to-morrow;
but on the day when experience has shown them that I am telling the
truth. At first they will do as in Russia; when want becomes acute,
they will seek to buy experience and tradition at a high price from
individuals. But mentality and spirit cannot be bought - only labour
and dexterity. Then gradually men will come to understand that the
highest things are not marketable commodities, they are only given
away. And at last the responsible leaders, those who rule in order to
serve, will separate themselves from those of the Cataline type, who
serve in order to rule.

So long has the narrow, parsonical, cynical contempt for the
understanding of the lower classes prevailed - through our fault - a
reversal to blind worship of the masses, of the immature and the
unsuccessful, is not inexcusable. We are here to love mankind - all
mankind, the outcast as well as the weak - every man and all men. But
the masses are not quite the same thing as mankind. The masses who
congregate in the streets and at public meetings are not communities
consisting of whole men, but assemblages in which each man takes a
part and is present, indeed, with his whole body, but by no means with
his whole being. The masses are absent-minded; and presence of mind
only comes to them when through the lips of some true prophet the
Spirit descends upon them. But when that happens, they take no
decisions; they do not get beside themselves; rather, they sink into
themselves. Before the distortions of a mob orator, with his
extravagant promises, the masses become merely a driven crowd eager
for gain, not human souls. They are the concave reflector of passions
and greeds that rage in the focal point of the speaker's rostrum; they
return in concentrated form the rays that dazzle them. He who puts the
masses in the judgment-seat, who looks for counsel and decision at
their hands, has neither reverence nor love for man. Sooner or later
the truth of this will be realized by all honourable men among their

The day is also far when the upper classes will come to their senses.
They have never understood what the world is, nor what Germany is, nor
what has happened to themselves. They see houses and fields, streets
and trees very much as they were; they think, if they only play the
game a little craftily at the beginning, everything will remain as it
used to be, and they will come out all right in the end. It is just as
when some merchant goes bankrupt for a million; for the first
fortnight the servants wait at table as usual and the family eat off
silver plate; the ruin is still on paper. But in a year's time
everything is dispersed to the winds, and men have changed along with
their utensils. When one sees for what trivialities people are
fighting to-day one begins to understand how callously and shamelessly
they gave up a thousand times over that which they had sworn to defend
with the last drop of their blood; then none of them know what has
really happened. In a few years' time they will know; and then they
will fight no more for things that no longer exist; they will be
meditating a general sacrifice to save what can still be saved, and
what is worth saving.


Germany is a land without power, without poise, with its prosperity
shattered, its authorities and its external aims annihilated, its
intellect and its ethics at a low ebb. In such a condition, if we wish
to understand the only kind of life-faculty which can save us from
intellectual and spiritual death, give us force and inspiration to
shape for ourselves and for the world the new social order of freedom,
spirituality[17] and justice, and in the true sense to "save" us, we
must look ourselves and the German character in the face - this
unknown, problematic character, which for a century in contradiction
to its own inmost being, has been flattering and lulling itself with
hackneyed and complacent phrases and unproved judgments. For we can
undertake nothing and claim nothing which has not its prototype in our
own soul and is not founded in our own past, our own traditions.

There is no people, not even the French, which in recent decades has
administered to itself and digested so much praise as we have. We
never discussed ourselves but at once the stereotyped toasts began.
The more German culture declined, the more disgusting became our
babble about it.

The persons through whose mouths we let ourselves be lauded were
school-teachers without comparative knowledge, professional
banquet-orators, nationalists who praised in the service of some
interested hatred, and scholars with appointments who were simply
commissioned to demonstrate that the Hohenzollern system was the last
word of creation. No one dreamed of distinguishing this glorification
of the German people from the apotheosis of the dynasties - to which we
had vowed our heart's blood - and the profound insincerity of these
declamations was shown by the indifference with which the dynasties,
the main feature in the programme, were afterwards got rid of, and the
affair of the heart's blood shelved.

We know the stereotyped phrases. German faith, French knavery. The
world is to find healing in the German soul. We are the heroes - the
others are hucksters.[18] To be German means to do a thing for its own
sake. We are a "race of thinkers and poets." We have Culture, the
others merely Civilization.[19] We alone are free - the others are
merely undisciplined (or, as the case may be, enslaved). All this we
owe to the favour of God and our education under the (here fill in
Prussian, Bavarian or Saxon) reigning House, which all the world
envies us. Clearly therefore we are destined for world-dominion; we
have only to fall-to.

In one of these phrases, about doing things for their own sake,[20]
there is truth. All the more was it for us in particular a vice and a
sign of degradation to let ourselves be dazzled by the shadowless
transparency-picture of glorification that was offered to us. There
were interests concealed in the game, and much lack of moral fibre,
all of which we passed over in silence; it was out of place in our
festal oratory.

It would be an equal or even a greater vice, only reversed, if we were
now to despair of ourselves. Moderation was what we needed then; what
we need now is vigorous and conscious self-possession. To-day it is no
easy and attractive business to bring our strong qualities to the
surface; it implies an amount of conviction which it is hard to
attain, and self-depreciation means a pitiful faint-heartedness. But
all sham goods offered by babblers, by selfish interests, prophets of
hate and commercial travellers must go overboard.

We have never been a "race of thinkers and poets," any more than the
Jews were a race of prophets, the French and Dutch a race of
painters, or Königsberg a city of Pure Reason.[21] The old German
upper classes have, in three well-defined epochs, had force enough to
throw up individuals of mighty endowments for music, poetry and
philosophy; the former lower-classes, whose blood runs in nine-tenths
of our present population, have scarcely contributed anything to these
glories. They have in recent years shown themselves thoroughly
industrious, plastic, apt for discipline, order-loving, intelligent,
practical, honourable, trustworthy, warm-hearted, prudent and helpful,
and adapted beyond all expectation to the mechanization of life and
industry; of their power to produce talent we know little, except
perhaps in the domain of research and technique, which are less a test
of creative energy than of applied knowledge and methodical assiduity.

The important question as to what relations exist between the number,
quality and greatness of individual endowments and genius on the one
side, and the character of a people on the other, is still unexplored
and very obscure, although we possess a science which calls itself by
the quite unjustified name of national psychology.

While on one side we have rarely made any serious study of national
characteristics, but have confused them with achievements of culture
and habits of life that mostly proceeded from a thin upper stratum
alone, on the other we have as a rule tacitly set down individual
endowment (with a strong emphasis on our own) as illustrations of
national character. In this respect, too, we showed that laxity in
proving what we wanted to prove which abounds everywhere from the
point where calculation with things weighable and measurable leaves
off, and judgment begins. We think it an established fact - in
accordance with just this arbitrary test of genius - that genius
belongs _par excellence_ to the so-called blonde blue-eyed races of
the earth. The fact that among the score or two of geniuses of all
ages who have been determining forces in the world it is hardly
possible to find a single example of this blue-blonde race, but they
can be proved to have been almost all dark, did not affect the
question. On the other hand the English, whose influence on culture
has been surpassed by none, had their genius-forming power, in which
they are actually deficient, seriously over-estimated. It was the
reverse with the Jews. The fact that in spite of their small numbers
they have produced more of world-moving genius than all other nations
put together, and that from them has proceeded the whole
transcendental ethics of the Western world, has not prevented their
being pronounced wholly incapable of creative endowment.

We shall put aside all this rubbish and for the present decline to go
into theoretic questions. Great individual endowments are related to
national character - to the character of the mind, not that of the
will, which must be considered apart - as the blossom to the plant or
the crystal to the mother-solution; to determine the one from the
other needs something more than a mechanical generalization. There is
no such thing as a "race of thinkers and poets." This, however, we can
say: that a people which begets great musicians, poets and
philosophers is one which devotes itself to moods and to visions,
while another, as for instance the Latin group, which creates forms
and standards, is one that at the cost of mood and vision, incarnates
its sense of will.

Devotion, receptivity, the feeling for Nature, comprehension, the
passion for truth, meditative depth, spiritual love, are the fairest
gifts that can be granted to any people, and to us they have been
granted. But they exclude other gifts, which stand to-day in high
repute, and which we affect in vain. They exclude the capacity for
shaping forms and standards, the aptitude for rule, if not even for
self-government; in any case the qualities which go to the creation of
nationalities and civilizations.

It is no mere accident that in not one of the hundredfold provinces of
life, from art to military organization, from State-craft to
jointstock-companies, from saintliness to table-utensils, have we
Germans discovered a single essential and enduring form. And again,
there is scarcely one of these forms which we have not filled with a
richer and more living content than those who first discovered it.

For whoever bears the All within himself can be satisfied with no
form; he finds in himself at once vision and reality, thesis and
antithesis. He seeks for a synthesis, but all form is one-sided. He
conceives, chooses, comprehends, fulfils, breaks in pieces and throws
away. He remains a unity in constant change, like the year as it
proceeds day by day, hour by hour, and no two of them alike. He does
not force things - out of respect for creation.

But he who makes forms must use force. He makes himself the standard
and comprehends himself only. Everything else, everything that is
extra-normal, unconformable, unintelligible and not understood remains
for him something alien, trivial, inferior, or negligible. The maker
of forms can rule, even by compulsion, without being a tyrant, for he
is convinced of the value of what he brings and knows no doubts. He is
ruthless, yet only up to a certain limit, which is determined by his
sense of the inferiority of the other. The man who rejects forms,
however, cannot rule; the very penetration into the domain of another
seems to him a wrong to his own, the basis of which is recognition and
allowance. If he is forced to penetrate, he loses all balance, for in
wrong-doing he understands no gradations. Similarly he is incapable of
civilizing, for he cannot take forms seriously; he violates them
himself - how can he impose them upon others? In his inmost soul he is
naïve, for creation is seething in him; but in execution he is
conscious, critical, eclectic and methodical, in order that he may be
completely master of the one-sided element into which he has forced
himself. The man of forms, however, is, in his soul, rigid and
conscious, but in action naïve, because he does not know the meaning
of doubt.

Forms grow up like natural products in the course of centuries. They
assume the existence of uniformity in individuals, fathers reproduced
in sons with scarcely a variation. Egypt, Rome, and that modern land
of antiquity, France, are examples. For generations France has been
content with three architectural styles, which are really one and the
same style. The changes in the language are hardly perceptible. The
principal domestic utensils are almost the same as they were a hundred
years ago, fashion is merely a vibration. Foreign living languages are
little studied, their spirit is not understood, the pronunciation
remains French. Foreign countries are looked on as a kind of
menagerie; everything is measured by the native standard. Every one is
a judge of everything, for he holds fast to the norm. Within the norm
the French are keenly sensitive, their feeling for relations is very
sure; the slightest deviation is observed. To doubt the validity of
the norm is out of question; one might as well criticize the sun and
moon as the style of Louis Quatorze.

The final judgment of the British in the affairs of life is "this is
English," "that is not English." Foreign lands are a subject of
geographical and ethnological study. The whole mighty will of a
nation is here concentrated in the form of civilizing political
energy. Every private inclination is a fad, and even fads have their
fixed forms. An offence against table-manners is banned like an attack
on the Church. Nature is mastered with consideration and intelligence,
whether the problem is the breeding of sheep or the ruling of India.

The assurance, self-command and art of ruling which spring from forms
are lacking in Germany. Our strongest spirits are formless; they are
eclectic or titanic, whether they despise forms or choose forms or
burst forms. We have three homes between which we hover - Germany, the
earth, and heaven. We comprehend and honour everything - every land,
every man, every art and every language; and we are fertilized by what
is foreign; on the lower level we enjoy it and imitate it, on the
higher it spurs us to creation. We are docile, and do not hate what
rules and determines us, only what contracts us and makes us
one-sided; an autocratic government may be tolerated, even venerated,
if it knows how to be national and popular and does not interfere with
our elbow-room.

We have already touched on the volitional character[22] of the German
people, a character which has been gravely altered by the subsidence
of the ancient upper stratum of society, and by long privations and
miseries. The Germans of Tacitus were a freedom-loving and turbulent
people; of this not a trace is left. Any one who did not recognize
under the autocracy that we care little for self-determination and
self-responsibility may do so under the revolution, which merely
arises out of an alteration in external conditions. We are not even
yet a nation, but an association of interests and oppositions; a
German _Irredenta_, as it has been and unfortunately will be shown, is
an impossible conception. And since we are not a nation and represent
no national idea, but only an association of households, it follows
that our influence abroad can only be commercial, and not civilizing
or propagandist.

From this side we are able to understand the German history of the
past two centuries. Prussia, an extra-German Power, grown up in
colonized territory, organized itself into a bureaucratic, feudal and
military State. It succeeded in mastering half Germany and in loosely
linking up the remainder. By rigid organization, by its federated
Princes and by the strongest army in the world, it supplied the place
of the national character and will which were wanting. Mechanism was
pressed into the service, and bore the colossus into a period of
blooming prosperity. The system looked like a nation; in reality it
was an autocratic association of economic interests bristling with
arms. It was incapable of developing national forces and ideas, not
even in relation to its settlers in other lands; it was confined to
commercial competition; weak alliances were relied on to secure the
position externally; self-government was not granted, because the
military organization was the pivot of the whole system; the
drill-sergeant tone at home had its counterpart in the brusqueness of
our foreign policy; enmities grew and organized themselves, and the
catastrophe came.

For character of will we had substituted discipline. But discipline is
not nationality; it is an external instrument, and when it breaks it
leaves - nothing. Now since the Prussian system which called itself by
the mediæval title of the German Empire was, in spite of the
professors, no popular, national fabric, but a dynastic, military and
compulsory association, with a constitutional façade, the interested
nationalist elements took on the repulsive and dishonourable forms
that we all know. The most deeply interested parties, cool and
conscious of their strength, the Prussian representatives of the
military and official nobility, avoided all declamation and only
interfered when their interests were endangered. The greater
industrialists sold themselves. A higher stratum of the middle-classes
composed of certain circles of higher teachers and subaltern officials
took the business seriously, and in order to escape from their drab
existence created that atmosphere of hatred of Socialists, telegrams

1 2 3 5 7 8 9

Online LibraryWalther RathenauThe New Society → online text (page 5 of 9)