Published Date

December 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

When you talk of re-educating a whole nation like Germany you need to know something about how the Germans got the way they are. You have to ask yourself how you are going to bring a whole nation to think differently about itself and its place in an orderly world.

Something bigger than rewritten textbooks and reorganized schools is needed to change a nation’s prejudices and opinions. Such things are based on the way a people think and what they have been taught—not only about the last twenty-five years but about centuries of their history.

German faith in German might was only in part the result of twelve years of education in tyranny and brutality under Nazi rule. That brief period may account for the fanaticism of the youths who had no other tutors. They were wax in Hitler’s hands.

In the adult population it was a little different. The liberals first were suppressed or exiled, the labor unions liquidated and the churches—both Catholic and Protestant—defamed. Then the great masses readily submitted to minority rule by gangster methods. A despotism that would have been unthinkable in Norway, Holland, England, or the United States was accepted by the masses of Germans and in the end they defended it to the death.

Many reasons have been offered to explain Hitler’s rise to power. The basic fact to be remembered is that there were in Germany no ancient traditions of self-government, constitutions, parliaments, or free press to oppose him. The answer to why the German nation could put its faith in force and try to make enslavement of its neighbors the solution of its international relations lies in large part in German history, especially the history of the last one hundred years. If we look at it the way Germans have looked at it since Bismarck’s day, we will understand better the problem of their re-education.


Before there was a Germany

Germany lies in the center of Europe. The Romans brought their law and language into France and Spain. They held England firmly for a while. But that part of Europe where Germany now lies was never brought under the civilizing rule of Rome. Trier on the Moselle, Cologne on the Rhine, and Vienna on the Danube were outposts on Rome’s northern frontier.

About 800 A.D., Charlemagne, whose capital was Aachen, pushed the frontiers of his empire temporarily as far as Berlin. When Charlemagne’s empire fell, after his death in 814, Europe showed dimly the lines of modern national divisions. Every nation in Europe has taken centuries since then to attain unity. Of the great ones, Germany traveled the longest road.

The dream of unity

For hundreds of years the Germans had the vision but not the reality of. national unity. Tribal lands became duchies and counties, which in turn divided and multiplied. Nearly a thousand years ago a Saxon duke called Henry the Fowler and his son Otto I battered the other German duchies into a kind of subordination. Then Otto and his successors let the possibilities of German unity slip away while they fought in Italy to gain the vain distinction of being crowned by the pope as emperors of a new “Holy Roman Empire.”

The last German-Roman emperor with any semblance of national acceptance, Frederick Barbarossa, died on a crusade to the Holy Land in 1190. The legend long persisted that this truly great ruler slept in the caverns of Kyffhaüser Mountain and would awaken some day to restore the lost unity and greatness of Germany. The dream was vain although the longing for unity was real. The crown of the Holy Roman Empire—whose subjects were mostly Germanic—passed to the Austrian Hapsburgs. Succeeding members of that fatuity wore it for 600 years until Napoleon in 1806 rudely knocked it off their heads.

Those six centuries did not bring about a Germany but only the Germanies. There were hundreds of regional divisions and loyalties—duchies and counties, and a score or more free cities like Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Lübeck. This was the Germany Napoleon overran (1806–13) and that, two centuries earlier in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), had been overrun by Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden, and the armies of a so-called German emperor, in Vienna. The devastations of that war were equalled or surpassed only by those the Nazis have brought upon Germany today or have wrought with their own hands.

Still the dream of unity persisted. It could not be realized around the greatest state, Austria, whose archduke was the nominal emperor and in his own territories ruled more Slavs and Hungarians than he did Germans. In the long run only some state north of the Danube, nearer the center of the wholly German land, could hope to assume the leadership. Several of the duchies had risen to be considerable powers. They had ancient ruling families who as electors went through the empty formality of choosing the shadow emperor in Vienna.

The state to lead the others might have been Saxony or Bavaria or Hanover. Their rulers had ambitions and all were autocrats. They had courts that imitated Louis XIV in Versailles. All played for his favor or sometimes English or other foreign support, working always for themselves and not for a greater Germany. For that they would concede nothing.

In time another north German state, Prussia—the one that was least German, the one that by its lands and location least favored—outdid them all in dynastic craft and conquest. Its ruler became in 1871 the emperor of a united Germany.

The rising star of the Hohenzollerns

How did it come about that a Hohenzollern from Berlin, the capital of Brandenburg-Prussia, was raised on the bayonets of all Germany to this high honor? How did a Prussian king become the modern Frederick Barbarossa and in 1870 fulfill the dream of a politically united, militarily unconquerable Germany?

The whole story covers more than a thousand years but the gist of it can be told briefly without distortion. Charlemagne in his day, around 800, set up guarding military posts, “marches” or “marks” they were called, ruled by a Markgraf (count) and a bishop. Sword and cross were the supports of his role on the distant frontiers.

One of these military colonies, the mark of Brandenburg, had its center where Berlin stands in a sandy plain on the sluggish Spree River. In the next centuries even the shadow emperors never forgot that Brandenburg was an important military outpost and they: tried to keep it in the hands of capable rulers. Often, however, they could do little to support even a strong Markgraf, and when the most vigorous line died out in 1219, two centuries of feudal anarchy followed.

Then in 1415 the first Hohenzollern was given the doubtful reward of being made elector (ruler) of Brandenburg. The Hohenzollerns came to a border province that had scant natural resources and no natural boundaries. Only fighting armies could mark and hold the frontiers of such a state. The chances of survival here, even more than elsewhere in medieval times, depended on force and cunning. Sometimes it was a matter of retreating in order to strike on some more favorable day when a treaty or family pact could be broken to advantage.

Prussian aggrandizement

Hohenzollern followed Hohenzollern. Some were weak and vain, but the one thing all dreaded was to be branded as a decreaser of the state. If they could not add territory one way, they tried another. As Brandenburg expanded, their neighbors became more jealous, more numerous, and more powerful. In 1618, on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War, the death of a distant relative gave the Hohenzollerns in Berlin possession of the Duchy of Prussia up on the Baltic far away and cut off by intervening Polish territory. And then they got some little territories on the Rhine and some bishoprics scattered between—nothing solid and connected.

All could be lost but more could be won only by successful wars and alliances. With Poland, Saxony, Sweden, Denmark, Hanover, and Holland as neighbors, with Austria and France watchful, it was a dangerous game. But now the Hohenzollerns produced within a century and a half (1640–1786) three rulers who knew how to use an army, a treasury carefully filled, and a tortuous diplomacy.

The greatest of the three was the last, Frederick II, called the Great. While we were fighting the French and Indian War in North America, he, with some aid from Pitt in England, beat the Russians, French, and Austrians who once had him cornered and ready to take poison. The Russians occupied Berlin briefly in 1760.

In the end Frederick the Great went on to share in the partition of Poland and to leave an army that was unbeaten and a people that accepted the dominance of the military in the nation’s life. His officers and many of his diplomats he drew from the Junker class of landed nobles. As a class they became more royalist than the king himself; As individuals they died for him on the battlefield.

Under Frederick the Great, Prussia outstripped all the other German states, and the glories of Prussian victories were appropriated by all Germans. Twenty years after Frederick’s death Napoleon crushed Prussia. But he crushed Austria and all the other German states, too, so that when Prussia rose up behind Napoleon’s armies during his fatal Russian campaign, it led Germany.

Liberal hopes vs. Bismarckian realism

The Germans again dreamed of a united Germany. Many hoped for a constitution and liberties for the citizens as a reward for their part in the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon. They reckoned without the princes and forgot that it was yet to be decided whether Prussia or Austria should lead a united Germany. They got only a hollow confederation while Prussia acquired half of Saxony and the Rhine Provinces. Prussian military power had earned it and given Prussia the watch on the Rhine against another Napoleon.

When in 1848 revolution spread from Paris across the Rhine, the liberals in Germany had high hopes that an elected convention meeting in Frankfurt would unite Germany and give it a constitution and a parliament and the liberties they saw in England. It was a vain hope. The frightened princes recovered their nerve and the Prussian army crushed the last uprising.

One Prussian Junker read the lessons of 1848 differently from the liberals. Otto von Bismarck wanted to see Austria driven out and Prussia become the leader of any future united Germany. The German princes and kings would be left with diminished power, in his scheme, but the people would be rallied by some concessions. Not by written constitutions but by blood and iron was Germany to be united and the imperial crown placed on a Hohenzollern head.

The army was reformed. Austria was isolated and in 1866 beaten in six weeks. Four years later, war with a half-prepared France ended in a peace dictated by Germany at Versailles. Militarism, the army, the principle of brute force in international relations had led from triumph to triumph: Frederick the Great and Bismarck had done what liberalism and parliaments could not do. Germany was -a great power.

Unity had been achieved but at the price of making the state and the army dominant over the individual citizen. A united Germany had been created by blood and iron, not ballots. Only by the same means, said its leaders, could Germany’s future be assured and its power increased.

Thus the rulers and the powerful military clique read the history of Prussia and Germany. Thus it was taught. The heroes of the nation were the makers of war and the victors in it. American soldiers have seen monuments to them and to Bismarck and Emperor William I all over Germany. They have seen few if any memorials to liberal, democratic, and pacific leaders.

Thus were generations educated before Hitler, an Austrian, ever raised his voice.

Thus was set the basic problem in re-educating Germany: How do you reshape a nation’s faith in armed force and the supreme state?

World War I and its aftermath

Defeat in the first World War did not permanently turn the German nation’s thinking to ways of peace. Germany in 1918 had not experienced invasion and occupation and, in spite of heavy casualties and the rigors of the blockade, was relatively undamaged. The myth was quickly spread that the German army was never really defeated, that it had been betrayed at home, that the nation had failed the army, not the army the nation. Mistakes had been made, it was said, that Germany could avoid next time. “Der Tag” would come again.

Hitler played upon beaten Germany’s sense of frustration and humiliation after fifty years of triumph. Economic distress and unemployment, not peculiar to Germany, played into his hands. Over and over he reiterated the myth of the undefeated army and how it had been “stabbed in the back.” The lesson to be learned from 1914–15 was not how to keep the peace but how to break it. The Jews and communists and then all liberals were made the objects of scorn and reprisal. To the Nazis and many other Germans the republican regime of 1919–33 was a shameful interlude.

The Third Reich swept away the Republic founded at Weimar and in the end challenged the world and all its civilized ways. Now the Third Reich is in ruins. The Germans who led it, the Germans who acquiesced in it during the brief day of its triumphs, and the generation of Germans whose minds are poisoned by the barbaric doctrines of Nazism are the Germans who must be re-educated, if the lessons are to last.

Decisive defeat this time

The first treasure, the one that had to be achieved before all others and before any others had a chance, was the thorough and crushing defeat of Germany in every center, every hamlet, the length of every highway from north to south and east to west. Never again can any German, present or future, have an excuse for thinking Germany was not beaten or is unbeatable. Never again must he think he is of a superior race or that dictators are safe leaders and democracies decadent. Something of what Germany has meted out to others, short of mass murders and starvation camps, must sternly and justly be meted out to her.

Now that utter defeat has punctured the idea that Germany could gain its ends by force—an idea the Germans learned from Prussia’s military successes and which defeat in World War I didn’t knock out of them—there may be place or hope for the things this pamphlet discusses. Our soldiers, along with those of Great Britain, Russia, and France, are among the first schoolmasters in the process of re-educating Germany. Their task will continue during the period of occupation. They will be the most numerous and ever-present representatives of nations and ideas that the Nazis have vilified as ruthless aggressors plotting to destroy the Germans as a people. That idea will be scotched by a stern but just rule. That some conquerors obey laws and do not reduce nations to slavery is another lesson the soldier is teaching the people of Germany.

And then what?

What next? Can the Germans be made to see that the real period of their shame is the one just closed? Can a nation that accepted might as right since Bismarck’s day, that made the state supreme over the individual, learn another and different lesson from history? Can self-government and the responsibility of rulers to the ruled be taught a people who now say of the fallen Nazis and their crimes: “We had nothing to do with it”?

If in twelve years gangsters can browbeat and propagandize a people into acceptance of Nazi doctrines, can the same people be educated to accept contrary ideals of national and international action? How long will it take? Who will do it? How can it be done? Will it stick? Or will the Germans some day believe that they were a heroic nation of warriors that only a whole world could conquer and that it was the conquerors who caused the ruin of their cities and shrines? Will Hitler be another Barbarossa?

It is still too early to say what the answers to these questions will be. It is safe to assume, however, that they will not be favorable to Allied interests unless we make, without illusion, a determined effort to understand the German people.

For the past 1,500 years, central Europe, from the Baltic to the Balkans, has been a cockpit in which a relentless, selfish, and brutal struggle for power has taken place. This struggle has pitted Christian against Turk and pagan, Catholic against Protestant, German against Slav, and German against his fellow Germans. For centuries, no permanent equilibrium was effectively established between these warring elements. Hence, no lasting sense of social or political security could develop comparable to that which grew up in England or America, where relative geographical isolation helped to promote political unity and encouraged security behind natural barriers of land and sea.

Past centuries of bitter struggle have left their imprint not only upon German temperament and character but also upon the German way of life. The type of democracy developed by the English-speaking peoples never had a chance to take root in Germany. The individualism which it bred requires centuries of relative political security to attain full growth. Such security is precisely what the German people have never had. Under these circumstances it would be a mistake to suppose that our own peculiar brand of democracy will be understood or appreciated by the average German. The most we can hope to accomplish will be to help the Germans to work out their own political salvation for themselves within the framework of the sort of peaceful world which the victorious United Nations wish to see established.

We would also be well advised to face the fact that: the future Germany will have to be founded upon such past German traditions as may be shared by the German people with the rest of the Western world, rather than upon any alien traditions imposed upon them from outside by a victorious enemy. Germans, in other words, must learn to encourage the development of those elements in their own past civilization most compatible with our way of life and with our aspirations for the future. That such elements have long existed within Germany cannot be doubted, but they have been suppressed in recent decades so ruthlessly that today they will be all but forgotten. Their rediscovery will assuredly prove difficult; at worst, it may prove impossible. Having looked on the dark side, and it is very dark, we now have some measure of the difficulty of solving the problem of re-educating the Germans. Happily the dark side is not the only side. Men of good will, who know that the future peace of the world may depend on their making the most of what is good and of what is, possible, may not lose hope. In this discussion we shall have to keep topside the best that is in us and the best we can find in a Germany that it is the despair of the world to understand.

Next section: Are There Factors Favorable to Re-Education?