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Ludwig von Mises

3. On the History of German Democracy

A. Prussia

Among the most notable phenomena of the history of the last hundred years is the fact that the modern political ideas of freedom and self-government could not prevail among the German people, while elsewhere they could make themselves influential almost everywhere on earth. Everywhere democracy has been able to overcome the old princely state; everywhere the revolutionary forces have triumphed. Only precisely in Germany and in Austria?and besides there only in Russia?has the democratic revolution been defeated again and again. While every nation of Europe and America has experienced an age of liberalism in constitutional and economic policy, in Germany and Austria only slight successes have been accorded to liberalism. In the political sector, the old princely state, as represented at its purest in the constitution of Prussia under Frederick the Great, did indeed have to grant some concessions, but it was far from transforming itself into a parliamentary monarchy of, say, the English or Italian sort; as a result of the great political movements of the nineteenth century the authoritarian state appears here.

The democratic state, as we see it realized almost everywhere at the beginning of the twentieth century, rests on the identity of the rulers and the ruled, of the state and of the people. In it no government is possible against the will of the majority of the people. In it government and the governed, state and people, are one. Not so in the authoritarian state. Here on the one side stand the state-preserving elements, which regard themselves and themselves alone as the state; the government proceeds from them and identifies itself with them. On the other side stands the people, which appears only as object, not as subject, of government actions, which addresses the state sometimes pleadingly, sometimes demandingly, but which never identifies itself with it. This antithesis found its most eloquent expression in former Austrian parliamentary language in the contrast of "state necessities" with "people's necessities." The former were understood to include what the state and the latter what the people sought from the financial expenditures of the budget, and the deputies were at pains to be compensated for the granting of state necessities by the granting of people's necessities?which sometimes were necessities of the individual political parties or even of individual deputies. These contraries could never have been made understandable to an English or French politician; he would not have been able to understand how something could be necessary for the state without at the same time being necessary for the people, and conversely.

The contrast between authorities and people which characterizes the authoritarian state is not quite identical with the one between prince and people that characterizes the princely state; still less is it identical with the contrast between the prince and the estates in the old estate system. In their contrast with the modern democratic state, with its fundamental unity of government and people, however, all these dualistic state forms do share a common characteristic.

Attempts have not been lacking to explain the origin and basis of this peculiarity of German history. Those writers made it easiest for themselves who believed they understood the authoritarian state as the emanation of a special type of German spirit and sought to portray the democratic national state as "un-German," as not suitable for the soul of the German.[59] Then, again, the attempt has been made to draw the special political position of Germany into an explanation. A state that seems endangered by external enemies in such a way as the German state was supposedly cannot tolerate a freedom-oriented constitution at home. "The measure of political freedom that can be permitted in governmental institutions must rationally be inversely proportional to the military-political pressure bearing on the borders of the state."[60] That an intimate connection must exist between the political position and the constitution of a people will be conceded without further ado. But it is striking that efforts were made to bring only the foreign political position, but not the domestic political position, into explaining constitutional conditions. In what follows the converse procedure will be followed. An attempt will be made to explain that much-discussed peculiarity of German constitutional life by domestic political conditions, namely, by the position of the Germans of Prussia and Austria in the polyglot territories.

When the subjects of the German princes began to awake from their centuries-long political slumber, they found their fatherland torn to shreds, divided as patrimonial estates among a number of families whose external impotence was but poorly cloaked by their ruthless internal tyranny. Only two territorial princes were strong enough to stand on their own feet; their means of power rested, however, not on their German position but on their possessions outside Germany. For Austria this assertion needs no further justification; the fact was never disputed. It was otherwise for Prussia. It is common to overlook the fact that the position Of Prussia in Germany and in Europe always remained insecure until the Hohenzollerns succeeded in building a rather large contiguous state territory, first by the annexation of Silesia, which at the time was half Slavic, and then by the acquisition of Posnania and West Prussia. Precisely those deeds of Prussia on which its power rested?its participation in the victory over the Napoleonic system, the crushing of the revolution of 1848, and the war of 1866?could not have been accomplished without the non-German subjects of its eastern provinces. Even the acquisition of German land accomplished by the struggles waged from 1813 to 1866 with the help of its non-German subjects in no way shifted the center of gravity of the Prussian state from the east to the west. Still, as before, the undiminished maintenance of its possessions east of the Elbe remained a condition of existence for Prussia.

The political thinking of the German mind, which was slowly maturing for public life, could be modeled on none of the states existing on German soil. What the patriotic German saw before him was only the ruins of the old imperial magnificence and the disgraceful and slovenly administration of the German petty princes. The way to the German state would have to involve the overthrow of these small despots. All agreed on that. What, however, should happen to the two German powers?

The difficulty inherent in the problem may best be recognized from a comparison with Italy. Conditions in Italy were similar to those in Germany. Blocking the modern national state were a number of petty princes and the great power Austria. The Italians would have gotten rid of the former quickly, but of the latter?by themselves?never. And Austria not only held fast to a large part of Italy directly, it also protected the sovereignty of the individual princes in the remaining territories. Without Austria's intervention, Joachim Murat or General Pepe would long since probably have established an Italian national state. But the Italians had to wait until Austria's relations with the other powers offered them the opportunity to reach their goal. Italy owes its freedom and unity to French and Prussian help, and in a certain sense to English help also; to unite Trentino, too, with the kingdom of Italy required the help of the entire world. The Italians themselves lost all the battles they fought against Austria.

In Germany conditions were different. How were the German people to succeed in overcoming Austria and Prussia, the two mighty military monarchies? Foreign help, as given in Italy, could not be counted on. The most natural course would probably have been for the German national idea to acquire so much power over the Germans in Prussia and Austria that they strove for a united Germany. If the Germans, who were the majority by far in the Prussian army and represented the most important element in the Austrian army, had proved true as Germans the way the Magyars did in 1849 as Magyars, then there would have arisen out of the confusions of the revolution of 1848 a German Reich free and united from the Belt to the Etsch. The non-German elements in the armies of Austria and Prussia would hardly have been in a position to mount successful resistance to the assault of the entire German people.

The Germans in Austria and Prussia, however, were also opponents or at least only limited adherents of the German strivings for unity?and that is what was decisive. The efforts of the men of St. Paul's Church suffered shipwreck, not, as legends have it, because of doctrinairism, idealism, and professorial ignorance of the ways of the world but rather because of the fact that the majority of Germans supported the cause of the German nation only half-heartedly. What they desired was not the German state alone but rather the Austrian or the Prussian state as well at the same time?and this is not to mention those who actually considered themselves only Austrians or Prussians and not at all Germans.

We who today are accustomed to seeing the pure Prussian and the pure Austrian only in the conservative east of the Elbe and the Alpine clerical, we who in the appeal to Prussia or Austria can always see only the pretexts of enemies of the national state?we can only with difficulty concede even mere good faith to the black?and?yellow and black?and?white patriots of that time. This not only does a serious injustice to men about whose honorable striving there should be no doubt; this lack of historical perspective also blocks our path to knowledge of the most important events of German history.

Every German knows the passage in Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit in which the aging poet portrays the deep impression that the figure of Frederick the Great made on his contemporaries.[61] It is true that the state of the Hohenzollerns, too, which Prussian court historiography lauded as the implementation of all utopias, was not a whit better than the other German states; and Frederick William I or Frederick II were no less hateful despots than any W?rttemberg or Hessian lord. But one thing distinguished Brandenburg?Prussia from the other German territories: the state was not ridiculous; its policy was purposeful, steady, and power?seeking. This state could be hated, it might be feared, but it could not be overlooked.

If, thus, the political thoughts of even the non?Prussian Germans secretly strayed toward Prussia out of the narrowness of their political existence, if even foreigners judged this state not totally unfavorably, was it any wonder that the beginnings of political thought in the Prussian provinces clung more often to the Prussian state, which, with all its faults, still had the advantage of actual existence, than to the dream of a German state, which was unmasked every day by the wretchedness of the Holy Roman Empire? Thus a Prussian state-consciousness was formed in Prussia. And these feelings were shared not only by the salaried champions of the Prussian state apparatus and its beneficiaries but also by men of undoubtedly democratic sentiments like Waldeck[62] and hundreds of thousands like him.

It is common to describe the German question much too narrowly as the opposition of great-German and small-German. In truth the problem was larger and broader. It was first of all the gap that yawned between German national sentiment on the one side and Austrian and Prussian state?consciousness on the other.

The German unified state could have been built only on the ruins of the German states; whoever wanted to construct it therefore first had to root out those sentiments that were striving to maintain the Prussian and Austrian states. In March 1848 that seemed easy to do. At that time it could be expected that the Prussian and Austrian democrats, faced with the need to decide, would, even if perhaps after inner struggles, join the side of a great and unified Germany. Yet in both great German states, democracy was defeated sooner than one would have thought possible. Its sway lasted scarcely a few weeks in Vienna and Berlin; then the authoritarian state embarked on the plan that pulled the reins tight. What was the cause? The turnaround did come extraordinarily quickly. Right after the complete victory of democracy in March, the power of the new spirit began to crumble; and after a short time the Prussian army, led by the Prince of Prussia, who had fled the country only shortly before, could already take the offensive against the revolution.

There should be general agreement that the position of the eastern provinces of Prussia was decisive here.[63] If this is remembered, it will not be too hard to understand clearly the causes of the turnaround. There in the East the Germans were in the minority amidst a numerically superior population of foreign language; there they had to fear that the lmplementation and application of democratic principles would cost them the ruling position that they had so far possessed. They would have become a minority that could never have expected to acquire power; they would have had to taste that lack of political rights that is the fate of minorities of foreign nationality.

The Germans of the provinces of Prussia, Posnania, and Silesia could hope for nothing good from democracy. That, however, determined the positions of the Germans of Prussia on the whole, for the Germans of the polyglot territories had much greater political importance than corresponded to their numbers. These Germans included, after all, almost all members of the higher strata of the population of those provinces?the officials, teachers, merchants, estate owners, and larger industrialists. In the upper strata of the Germans of Prussia, the members of the threatened borderlands therefore formed a numerically far larger part than the German borderland inhabitants formed on the whole in the total German population of Prussia. The solid mass of inhabitants of the borderlands joined with the parties supporting the state and thereby gave them preponderance. The idea of the German state could win no power over the non-German subjects of Prussia, and its German subjects feared German democracy. That was the tragedy of the democratic idea in Germany.

Here lie the roots of the peculiar political-intellectual constitution of the German people. It was the threatened position of the Germans in the borderlands that caused the ideal of democracy in Germany to fade quickly away and the subjects of Prussia, after a short honeymoon of revolution, to return penitently to the military state. They knew now what lay ahead for them in democracy. However much they might despise Potsdam's despotism, they had to bow to it if they did not want to fall under the rule of Poles and Lithuanians. From then on they were the faithful guard of the authoritarian state. With their help the Prussian military state triumphed over the men of freedom. All Prussia's political questions were now judged exclusively according to the position in the East. It was what determined the feeble position of the Prussian liberals in the constitutional conflict. It was what caused Prussia to seek Russian friendship, so long as that could be done at all, and thereby thwarted the natural alliance with England.

It now occurred to the Prussian authoritarian state to apply its methods of gaining and maintaining its position in Germany to the solution of the greater German national problem also. The weapons of the Junkers had triumphed in Germany. They had crushed the German bourgeoisie; they had excluded the Habsburg influence and elevated the Hohenzollerns high above the smaller and middle princes. Prussian military power suppressed the non-German elements in the Slavic eastern provinces of Prussia, in North Schleswig, and in Alsace-Lorraine. The bright splendor of the victories won in three wars shone on Prussian militarism. As it had crushed with power everything trying to hinder it on its way, so it believed it should also use armed force to solve all newly arising problems. By the power of weapons the hard-pressed position of the Habsburgs and the Germans in the Danube monarchy should be sustained and conquests made in the East and West and overseas.

The liberal theory of the state had long since exposed the error in this reasoning. The theorists and practitioners of power politics should have remembered Hume's famous arguments that all rule rests on power over minds; the government is always only a minority and can govern the majority only because the latter either is convinced of the legitimacy of the rulers or considers their rule desirable in its own interests.[64] Then they could not have overlooked the fact that the German authoritarian state, even in Germany, rested in the last analysis not on the power of bayonets but precisely on a particular disposition of the German mind, which was caused by the national conditions of settlement of the Germans in the East. They should not have deceived themselves over the fact that the defeat of German liberalism was attributable solely to the conditions of settlement in the German East: the rule of democracy there would have led to driving the Germans out and depriving them of rights; hence a predisposition toward antidemocratic currents had been created in wide circles of the German people. They would have had to recognize that even the German authoritarian state, like any other state, rested not on victories of weapons but on victories of the spirit, on victories won by dynastic-authoritarian sentiment over liberal sentiment. These relationships could not be misinterpreted worse than they were by that German school of political realists that denied the influence of every intellectual current in the life of nations and wanted to trace everything back to "real power relations." When Bismarck said that his successes rested only on the power of the Prussian army and had only derision and scorn for the ideals of St. Paul's Church, then he overlooked the fact that the power of the Prussian state was grounded on ideals also, although on the opposite ideals, and that it would have had to collapse immediately if liberal thought had penetrated the Prussian army further than it actually did. Those circles that were anxiously striving to keep the "modern spirit of demoralization" away from the army were better informed in this respect.

The Prussian authoritarian state could not defeat the world. Such a victory could have been achieved by a nation hopelessly in the minority only through ideas, through public opinion, but never with weapons. But the German authoritarian state, filled with a boundless contempt for the press and for all "literature," scorned ideas as a means of struggle. For its adversaries, however, the democratic idea made propaganda. Not until the middle of the war, when it was already too late, was it recognized in Germany what power lay in this propaganda and how vain it is to fight with the sword against the spirit.

If the German people found the allotment of territories of settlement on the earth unjust, then they should have sought to convert the public opinion of the world, which did not see the injustice of this allotment. Whether this would have been possible is another question. It is not wholly improbable that allies for this struggle could have been found, united with whom much, perhaps even everything, could have been attained. It is certain, however, that the undertaking of a nation of eighty million to fight against the whole remaining world was hopeless if it was not pursued with intellectual means. Not with weapons but only with the spirit can a minority overcome the majority. True practical politics is the only kind that knows how to enlist ideas in its service.


[59] Max Weber provided a destructive critique of these theories in Parlament und Regierung im neugeordneten Deutschland (Munich: 1918).

[60] Cf. Hintze in the collective work Deutschland und der Weltkrieg (Leipzig: 1915), p. 6. A penetrating critique of these views, which rest on a proposition of the English historian Seeley, appears in Preuss, Obrigkeitsstaat und grossdeutscher Gedanke (Jena: 1916), pp. 7 ff.

[61] The criticism that Mehring makes (Die Lessing-Legende, third edition [Stuttgart: 1909] pp. 12 ff.) does not weaken the force of this passage as evidence for the views of the old Goethe.

[62] Cf. Oppenheim, Benedikt Franz Leo Waldek (Berlin: 1880), pp. 41 ff.

[63] Cf. Bismarck, Gedanken und Erinnerungen (Stuttgart: 1898), vol. 1, p. 56.

[64] Cf. Hume, Of the First Principles of Government (Essays, edited by Frowde), pp. 29 if.

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