Thursday, February 06, 2003


Razib has posted an excellent but necessarily long post on whether our Anglospheric respect for individual liberties is of Christian or Germanic origin. He and I agree that Germanic origin maps respect for the individual a lot better than the prevalence of Christianity does.

Razib gives a rather more wide-ranging history lesson in support of his views than I have so far done (see the second half of my article here) but he seems to have more difficulty with the Prussian phenomenon than I do. Roughly, Prussia is the Northeastern part of Germany which, over the course of the 19th century, gradually came to dominate the whole of Germany. And the Prussian army had a famous tradition of requiring that its troops be Kadaver gehorsam (corpselike obedient) so how that squares with a Germanic respect for individual liberty does at first seem very difficult to explain indeed.

The point is, however, that, like many other groups, Germans encompass a wide variety of people within their ranks and Prussia is only one part of Germany (and in fact for most of its history it was only partly German -- including large numbers of Poles, Silesians and other non-Germans). Furthermore, the Prussian ascendancy was both very recent and very short-lived. It dates essentially from the French surrender at Sedan in 1870 and ended with the flight of the Kaiser to Holland in 1918 -- to be succeeeded by the very un-Prussian Weimar Republic. Those 48 years are undoubtedly of enormous significance to the world but all that they show essentially is that Prussian militarism had some initial success but ended up destroying itself.

Prior to Sedan, Germany was a disunited and decentralized agglomeration that generations of Prussians, French and others tried unsuccessfully to subdue. And after Sedan, unity of a sort was achieved and maintained only by the diplomatic genius of Bismarck. And after the remarkable restraint provided by Bismarck was dispensed with by the new Kaiser, the German Empire very quickly self-destructed -- in World War I. And Hitler�s attempt to revive it went the same way. So now Germany is back to something much more like what it always was -- a nation with a strongly decentralized power structure in the form of the various Land (State) governments. And that is of course exactly the same structure that certain other countries of mainly Germanic origin (the USA, Canada and Australia) have adopted too. And �devolution� is rapidly leading to a similar state of affairs in Britain as well.

In short, from a historical perspective, the Prussian ascendancy was no more than a short and atypical blip in the more than 2000 years of decentralized power in Germany so cannot possibly be the major source of any generalizations about Germany that we might wish to make.


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