I picked this book up because Pflanze mentioned it in his biography of Bismarck. The question that anyone had to ask after World War II was whether Bismarck planted the seeds for Hitler’s later rise to power, and apparently Friedrich Meinecke — an esteemed German historian whose life stretched from the creation of Germany under Bismarck to its downfall under Hitler — had asked this very question. I assumed that a historian (of all people) in the immediate aftermath of the collapse (of all times) would have some morally and intellectually probing thoughts on the matter.
It’s really sad that he doesn’t; I hate to say it, but The German Catastrophe is nothing so much as a work of moral cowardice. Germany — no, Germans — had just thrown the full power of the modern industrial state at the task of destroying human beings; this calls for an exhaustive moral accounting, which Meinecke is simply not willing to provide. The German people, he tells us, were fundamentally good, and he knew all along that they would emerge from the Hitler disaster. To the extent that he seeks out answers, he finds those answers in chance and historical contingency. If Hindenburg had not named Hitler chancellor, the Nazi movement might have faded out on its own. If Hindenburg’s mental faculties had not been on the decline, he might have been a stronger leader. And so forth.
I’m not denying the importance of chance in history. But if you’re going to pin the 20th century’s most important event on chance, you had better convincingly argue that you’ve excluded all other avenues first, and Meinecke doesn’t do this. He certainly doesn’t take the time to explain why Bismarck’s state is not at fault; he’d rather venerate the man and the Prussian state than study its failings in any depth. To the extent that he mentions Jews at all, it is to hint — none too subtly — that their own greed after World War I may have drawn the German people’s ire.
I’m also not singling out Germans as history’s most barbarous people, nor am I singling out the Holocaust as the only historical event that requires deep soul-searching. The United States still doesn’t appreciate the effects that slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, restrictive covenants, and the rest of the arsenal of racism have on the everyday lives of black people. We still don’t appreciate how deeply the legacy of slavery is baked into the very basic structure of our society, and we live in a land where actual legal slavery is nearly a century and a half behind us; you’d think we’d have the appropriate objectivity at this remove. So I can certainly understand why a German historian within five years of the end of the war would be unable to study his homeland’s destruction with probing detachment.
Which is why Meinecke’s book, written in 1950, is better viewed as a balm to wounded German souls while their country was still under Allied occupation than as a serious work of history. He meant to tell the German people that they were fundamentally good and that they would soon recover. Viewed as a homily, it may have had the intended effect. Viewed as a work of moral discovery, it is appalling.