Monday, 3 March 2014

German Tragedy

Reading German history is best avoided because it is so depressing. It is the story of a nation of talented people that keeps taking wrong turnings with disastrous results. Only its resilience has kept it great.

The Roman Empire could not conquer Germany. The two attempts failed (9 and 16 AD). As the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote about the Germans in 390AD “This savage nation, though afflicted by disasters from its very birth, recovers so readily that it seems always to have been unharmed” (The Later Roman Empire 28 v 8).

Eventually the Germans conquered the West Roman Empire. Odoacer the Scirian (East German) deposed the last Western Emperor (Romulus Augustus) in 476 and made himself ruler. Finally in 800 Charlemagne, King of the Franks (from Franconia in central Germany), was crowned new Western Emperor at Rome. This Holy Roman Empire (as it became known) was the “Thousand Year Reich” lasting until 1806. If it had got its act together, it would have become the nucleus of a united Europe. Instead, it took a series of wrong turnings that ruined Germany.

The first was in 843 when it obeyed (instead of abolishing) the Frankish law of partible inheritance by trifurcating the Empire between three brothers to create three countries: West Francia (France), Lotharingia (Lorraine) and East Francia (Germany). Worse was to follow. The Holy Roman Emperor (in Germany) created huge, hereditary stem duchies, which developed into totally autonomous states, whose rulers elected each new emperor and often divided their realms among successors. While England, France and Spain developed into united nation states, Germany instead dissolved into over three hundred autonomous units (Electoral Principalities, Prince-Bishoprics, Duchies and Free Cities) all owing merely nominal allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor. Having been defeated by Napoleon, the Emperor Francis II ended this sorry farce by renouncing the title of elective Holy Roman Emperor. Instead he assumed the title of hereditary Emperor of Austria.

After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Joseph, as Emperor of Austria, was offered the additional role of Emperor of Germany. Another wrong turning ensued. He refused the title, instead becoming mere President of the German Confederation of sovereign states. The Napoleonic Wars had aroused German nationalism and therefore, as Emperor of Germany and Austria, Francis could have created a united Greater Germany. It was left to Bismarck, Prussian Prime Minister, to forcibly unite Germany through “blood and iron” in 1871. He created the Second Reich with the King of Prussia as German Emperor. There followed yet another wrong turning. Bismarck entrusted all power to the Emperor. That was all well and good while his patron, Wilhelm I, lived. After Wilhelm’s death in 1888, that power was inherited by the unstable “Great Warlord” Wilhelm II.

As Disraeli stated in the House of Commons on February 9, 1871 “The balance of power has been entirely destroyed.” The power of the Second Reich terrified the other countries of Europe. The sabre-rattling of its Emperor Wilhelm II, provoked the formation of the Anglo-French-Russian Entente which led to the destruction of the Second Reich in 1918 which was then deprived it of its overseas empire. Burning with revanchism, the defeated Germans allowed extreme nationalists, led by Hitler, to take power in 1933. He founded the ill-fated Third Reich which demanded revision of the punitive 1918 peace settlement. More wrong turnings followed. In 1937, pursuing a policy of appeasement, Britain and France offered Germany the return of its overseas colonies (which they had annexed in 1918) if she would renounce territorial ambitions in Europe. Germany could thus have again become a colonial world power. Instead the offer was rejected. As Goering stated in 1938, “We (the Germans) would rather have Austria than the whole of Africa.” Another wrong turning soon followed. In 1941, the Third Reich mounted a suicidal attack on Russia, followed by an equally fatal declaration of war on the United States. Defeat and destruction inevitably followed. The Third Reich was destroyed and replace by two hostile German states created by occupying forces (NATO in West Germany and the Red Army in East Germany).

As Ammianus Marcellinus had stated, however, the German nation always recovers quickly from its disasters. By 1956, West Germany had overtaken the United Kingdom in economic output becoming the hub of the European Union. Meanwhile, East Germany attained a higher standard of living than its patron, the Soviet Union. Finally, in 1991 Germany was reunited againn. Yet another wrong turning quickly ensued.

In 1999, German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl abolished the sound German Deutsche Mark in favour of the unsound Euro. This resulted in Germany becoming funder of the spendthrift PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain).

Where will it end? Can Germany stop taking wrong turnings? Possibly it will at last find stability as the economic engine of an eventual United States of Europe. It is unlikely to happen, however, in the lifetime of adult readers of this blog when it was posted.

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