Published Date

December 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 26: Can the Germans Be Re-educated? (1945)

On the other side of the picture Germany and the Germans show up as one of the most productive groups in Western culture and civilization. Their creative ability was not always confined to Krupp and the general staff, to armies and war and the munitions of war. Nor will it die when those are obliterated.

In music the names of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms have few peers and no superiors. Great literary figures such as Schiller and Goethe belong, like Shakespeare, to the world. The Germans have had great artists, even if not the greatest. Our soldiers have seen the cathedrals German architecture built. The world’s thinking has been influenced by the great German philosophers and scientists. German universities in the nineteenth century were the mecca of scholars from all lands.


Leadership in education

It should not be forgotten that, after the Lutheran revolt, the Germans founded publicly supported schools earlier than any other people. The schoolmaster has always been a power in the land. He, for there are few, if any schoolma’ams in Germany, was reverenced and respected in his community. Indeed the German state rested, in the past, on a tripod: the soldier, the bureaucrat, and the schoolmaster. Even in the darkest days of the Thirty Years’ War the schools were kept going in some districts. The University of Berlin was founded when Napoleon had Germany in his grip.

At the end of the eighteenth and during the nineteenth century some German districts, particularly Prussia and Saxony, developed public-school and teacher-training systems which were copied in some and admired in most other civilized countries. In the year 1843 Horace Mann, the “father of the American public school,” praised German education as being superior to that of all the other countries he had visited in Europe.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Germans accepted widely the advanced ideas of the great Swiss educator Pestalozzi. The German educators Froebel, the “father of the kindergarten,” and Herbart influenced educational theory and practice all over the world. During the nineteenth century Germany produced more educational literature than any other country.

Religion and materialism

The German people have also shown a great interest in religion. Germany, through the work of Luther, was the cradle of the Protestant Reformation. Whatever one’s religious convictions may be, it cannot be denied that the Reformation caused a great revival in religious life and thought, even among the Catholic groups which had to defend their tradition against the religious revolution. The Reformation divided Germany, which already suffered from political disunity, into two religious camps and, in connection with dynastic conflicts, brought about the Thirty Years War, the historical consequences of which have been mentioned on an earlier page.

On the other hand, the rivalry of the two great religions denominations in Germany was not always hostile in nature. There was much cross-fertilization between the two groups, and some of the modern German religious poets and thinkers have profited equally from both the Catholic and the Protestant traditions.

In spite of all this intellectual activity, however, careful observers inside and outside Germany noticed, from about 1870 on, changes in the psychology of the German people. They became increasingly materialistic. In a way this was true of all great nations. But in Germany the rapid development of industry, together with swift victories in a series of European wars, strengthened the alliance between the new capitalistic and the old feudal classes. Their influence overpowered opposing groups and led Germany to become a strong contender in the struggle for world markets and imperialistic expansion.

Once their militarist mania has been cured, one of the main goals in the re-education of the Germans will be to restore in them the consciousness of their cultural tradition. This, of course, cannot be done simply by telling them that they ought to play music and read Schiller and Goethe.

How Did Hitler Bring Out the Worst in Germany?

Many volumes of sense and some of nonsense have been written and will be written to explain how men like Hitler and Himmler and Goebbels rose to power and how the German people yielded to tyranny, cruelty, murder, and concentration camps imposed even on themselves. The fact that we try to explain these evils means that we believe the German people capable of better things and that we have hopes they will eventually recognize the sorry years of Hitler’s rule as a nightmare for them as it was for the rest of the world.

The Nazi conquest of Germany

When one reviews the reasons most generally offered to explain how the Nazis conquered Germany, they make some sense but not complete sense. As you list them—for instance unemployment, business depression, and a terrible inflation that wiped out the old middle class—you are forced to say, “But these things occurred in other countries and they did not, except in Italy, bring gangsters to the top.”

The remaining reasons explain how the Nazis kept on top as much as how they got there. An unscrupulous and unparalleled propaganda system closed all avenues of information except those controlled by the Nazis. Free press, free discussion of social and political problems, even uninhibited discussion of art and literature were ended. Reading foreign newspapers and listening to foreign radio broadcasts were forbidden. “Purges” wiped out overt opposition or cowed it into silence. The lowest of human instincts were given free rein among the members of such organized groups as the Gestapo and the S.S.

In order to inject their views into the young and turn child against parent, the Nazis seized the schools and made membership in the Hitler Youth obligatory. All independent teachers’ organizations were abolished in favor of a National Socialist League of Teachers. Teachers had to take an oath of personal loyalty to Hitler. The schools were reorganized on authoritarian lines, the textbooks rewritten, and the courses overhauled to emphasize “Germanism,” the mystic ties of “Blood and Soil,” the virtues of war and conquest, the need of Germany for more space, the Nazi doctrines of race superiority and race purity, and so on. In short, the entire German educational system, from the kindergartens through the universities—and outside the classroom too—was organized to mold every German into a confirmed Nazi.

The Nazis clothed their outrages against the German people in disguises that fooled not only outsiders but Germans as well. Through subsidies and a program of rearmament they provided work for the unemployed. They salved the national sense of frustration by the steps, one at a time but ever bolder, by which they undermined the territorial and military limitations laid on Germany at the end of the last war.

When Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, Europe hesitated—then did nothing. The Führer’s fear of a vigorous military reaction had been great and his relief was immense when the democracies did not move. He was on his way. By concession after concession, European statesmen of an older school tried to appease him and buy “peace in our time.” They found that his demands grew with each concession. Bread and glory made it easy even for reluctant Germans to swallow lies and join in heiling Hitler.

Nazi ideology

Fortunately for any hope of German re-education, the Nazis had no profound philosophy. They were opportunists and the patchwork of scrambled ideas they called their ideology had no single source.

After Nazi ideology was roughed out in Mein Kampf by Hitler and his collaborators, they were happy to have German intellectuals discover that its basic concepts were derived from such esteemed German thinkers as Herder, Fichte, Hegel, and Nietzsche. In the exaggeration of the Führerprinzip, the idea of a dominant leader, it linked up with the history that glorified Frederick the Great and Bismarck. In a nation where uniforms and heel clicking are important, where questions of rank and status permeate civilian life, it was logically inevitable that the pyramid be capped with an “all highest” whether his name was William Hohenzollern or Adolf Hitler.

Two other ideas taken from the past, especially the last century, were (1) the dominance of the state over any individual’s interests or rights and (2) the glorification of military might. By a propaganda that stopped at nothing, Hitler used temporary distress and past history to create a kind of religion of racial superiority and to make himself its high priest.

How shall we judge the Germans?

The German nation, like any other, has its good and its bad side, its good and its bad citizens. Hitler brought to the top much that was bad in the Germans and everything that was aggressive and socially immoral in their past. He suppressed ruthlessly all that was good either in Germans or Germany’s past. He involved all in common guilt and common ruin.

The road back will be long and difficult. If we regard it as hopeless and adopt toward all Germans the attitude the Nazis adopted toward conquered peoples, then we have only beaten Hitler in a material sense. In the realm of the spirit he will have conquered us. The history of mankind teaches that under certain circumstances men’s instincts of cruelty and lust for power can be easily evoked, especially when they are rewarded. But there are also many signs that some Germans consider Hitlerism an alien form of government and the gravedigger of their own better traditions.

In judging the German people, or any other people, we cannot base an opinion on just one brief space of time. In the sum total of their history the Germans show the defects and the gifts which can be found in other nations too. Despite the horrors of the Nazi system and the deep impression which it has certainly made on the German mind, we have no proof that the creativeness once displayed by the Germans in education and science, for instance, has disappeared from the whole German nation. Rather we must suppose that the talents and inventiveness which the Nazis used for destruction still exist and can be turned back into satisfying and productive channels. The “militant slave mentality,” to use the phrase of a distinguished German exile, must be turned in time into a political morality that does not make force the only arbiter between men and nations.

Next section: Will Postwar Germany Want to Be Re-Educated?