Metternich once quipped “Italy is a geographical expression”. Replace “Italy” with “Germany” and that quote would be equally applicable. Germany is a geographical expression. In 1805 there were over 300 political entities in German-speaking Europe. After Napoleon, these myriad polities were reorganised into 38 Germanic states in a loose, Austrian-led confederation. Eventually, Prussia grew increasingly powerful as Austria was forced to focus on the ever-growing number of problems in its formal empire. Bit-by-bit, Prussia expanded its territories. In 1871, a Prussian-led federal German empire was formed comprising 26 states.
The unification of Germany, even in the form of a federal empire, was a formidable challenge. Had it not been for Napoleon it was unlikely to have ever happened. Uniting over 300 polities would have been impossible, not even 1006 years of the Holy Roman Empire could do that. If anything, German-speaking polities were drifting apart, looking after their own interests – forming, re-forming, collapsing, merging, etc. A common received language did little to facilitate unity. Hamburg was a predominantly Lutheran entrepôt. It had little in common, be it economically or culturally with the predominantly Catholic, agrarian Bavaria. The great financial centre of Frankfurt had no common sense of purpose with ecclesiastical Trier. Only the common experience of Napoleonic invasion and occupation led people to think that the status quo ante was untenable.
It is impossible to understand the magnitude of the German economy without understanding its historical disunity. The United Kingdom was the first country to industrialise. Scotland and England were already united when industrialisation started in earnest. The British economy could support numerous industries, Britain’s inherent stability allowed it to easily become the first “workshop of the world”. The hundreds of German states could not support mass industries. They lacked the economic means and manpower to do so. What they could, however, support was intense specialisation. Saxony could produce fine porcelains. Berg, riparian, with massive coal deposits and near major iron ore mines could develop heavy industries and metal-working. Germany’s knife-making capital, Solingen, is part of this region now more commonly known as the Ruhrgebiet. This pattern was repeated throughout German-speaking central Europe and I won’t bore you to death with tedious detail. The point is that Germany had many centres of highly specialised industry rather than a number of great industries. When Germany coalesced into a federal empire in 1871, these industries were united under one flag. Suddenly, the German Empire was the world’s workshop. Britain could compete on price and quantity – just – but Germany had unparalleled capacity to produce top-quality products.
Much to his credit, Otto von Bismarck recognised the fragmented nature of German society. He was a pragmatist and realist of the highest degree and wasn’t prone to romantic notions like Vittorio Emanuele, Camillo Cavour or Giuseppe Garibaldi. Life for most Germans went on like it did before within a streamlined political and economic context. Prussians remained Prussians and still had their king, even if they had to share him with the other 25 states as emperor. Baden remained Baden and had its king, the infamously recalcitrant Bavarians retained their king and status as a “free state”. Some things were, of course, modernised. The new empire had a new decimal currency – the mark which broadly adhered to the common standards of the Latin Monetary Union. All coins from 1 pfennig to 1 mark shared a common design. All coins from 2 marks to 20 marks shared a common reverse, but had obverse-designs unique to each state. The name “pfennig” was carried over from the old fractional currency system. The 10-pfennig-coin was affectionately called a “groschen” until the bitter end. The German Empire even issued a special denomination not found elsewhere in the LMU – the 3-mark-coin that happened to be the same size as the old thaler and was affectionately called such until it was withdrawn in the 1930s. In 1872, the metric system became compulsory which finally fully unified weights and measures. From 1881 Germany developed a unified civil code which took effect in 1900. This has served as a model for much of the world and was a monumental achievement. It’s still rubbish and should be scrapped in favour of the common law. Harrumph.
What didn’t change was that Germany remained culturally, socially and even linguistically fragmented. Bavarians were loyal to their king and distinctly hostile toward Prussia. Saxons remained loyal to Saxony and their king. Trier had, as usual, no say and had to make do with being part of bogging Prussia – not entirely willingly, either! With time, the chauvinism and militancy of Prussia became a part of German cultural life. This toxic influence was instilled from an early age in schools. To once again paraphrase a famous quote originally used in the context of Italy, this time by Massimo d’Azeglio, “We have made Germany. Now we must make Germans”. The deed is done, now we must live with the country we have made. I hope, my dear readers, that you have noticed a contradiction. Germany remained fragmented, but Prussia’s toxic influence was spreading like a disease. Germany was a federal empire that was both supported and weighed-down by the sheer might of Prussia. It was a country that wasn’t a country, an empire that wasn’t an empire. It was merely a highly functional geographic expression with a very efficient constitutional arrangement and a common tone beaten-in unceasingly.
VE Day – 8 May, 1945: Germany accepted unconditional surrender. Or, rather, it was whatever passed as Germany after 13 years of Hitler’s absolute rule. Germany wasn’t the only state of its kind in Europe, nor was it the first. Mussolini established his fascist state in 1922. The Portuguese “Estado Novo” was officially declared in 1933, the same year that Hitler seized absolute control in Germany, but had grown out of the “Ditadura Nacional” which was established by Oscar Carmona in 1928 and, in turn, grew out of Carmona’s 1926 Coup d’état. More personally – my great-grandfather was a supporter of Francisco Franco and actively supported the Falangist side prior to and following his emigration from Spain – Spain established a fascist state in 1936. What made Germany unique was just how absolute Hitler’s rule was. Mussolini could not entirely control Italians – he had to temper his ambitions as he grudgingly accepted that Italians would never be entirely obedient. Franco, out of necessity and, perhaps, temperament allowed for a degree of freedom in Spain’s cultural scene. In fact, he actively supported highly innovative artists including Salvador Dalì – a man I utterly despise. Even Salazar, while stifling, didn’t quite dominate Portuguese life the way Hitler did. Hitler was the state. Hitler was Germany. There was no form of cultural expression permitted in Germany of which Hitler did not explicitly approve. There was no literature, no art, no music and no cinema of which Hitler did not explicitly approve. Hitler crushed Germany’s divergent and contradictory cultural modes utterly. Hitler’s absolutism was universal. Political domination alone couldn’t sate him. One could argue that no man reshaped a country’s identity more profoundly and that rapidly since Tokugawa Ieyasu. When Hitler died, when his regime fell there was nothing left.
In 1945 Germany was effectively non-existent. It was a mess of rubble and rabble. It was an absolute and utter void. There was no more culture, there was no more government, there was no economy – the only blessing that Germany had was the military might of the Allied forces. Without it, Germany would have descended into a cannibalistic frenzy. In the years after the war ended something was quickly built. In the West, a benign, liberal elected dictatorship was created. In the East, a Soviet-allied socialist state was built. Out of the absolute destruction an inherently pacifist, internationalist and anti-nationalistic society grew and matured in the West. Germany wasn’t simply part of a pan-European movement with federalism as its ultimate aim, it had no greater ambition than to submerge what little was left, what little hadn’t been destroyed by Prussian zeal and Hitler’s psychotic mania. To be German was to be European. The only contradiction to arise in this narrative is in the former DDR. In East Germany, generations were taught that socialism absolved what was left of Germany of its evil. People were taught that as a pacifist, socialist state the blood on their hands had been washed clean. This is, I think, one of Germany’s greatest paradoxes today. The economically and culturally stunted former-East Germany is the only part of Germany to have a broad consensus that national self-interest isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that being German AND respectable isn’t contingent on wishing to be absorbed into a pan-European super-state. The perennially self-aware Bavaria is a partial exception to this, but Bavaria’s divergence is parochial. Bavarians are perfectly happy to be Bavarian and the other 15 Bundesländer can lump it.
When others accuse Germany of wanting to rule Europe they fail to appreciate that there can be no “Bundesrepublik” outside the EU context. Even if the limits of what unity actually means can be debated, that Europe should be united is as much settled opinion in Germany as that Everton is bollocks in Liverpool. Even national self-interest, outside of a few pockets in the former DDR, is viewed within the context of the EU. Germany’s population is the largest of any EU country. Germany’s economy is the largest, most diverse of any EU country. The scale of Germany makes it as much the centre of the EU as its geography. It’s absolute commitment to the “European Project” seemingly renders it incapable of the pragmatism of the Dutch or Finns. Germany’s dominance wasn’t sought. For decades after the Second World War, Germany would meekly submit to France’s demands and France was in the position to subordinate Germany. France has declined so rapidly since the 1990s that it can’t even maintain its own position, much less subordinate Germany or lead an effective coalition of countries to check Germany’s ideological certainties that go against all reality and logic. Italy is too weak and unstable to govern itself, much less worry about serving as a counter-weight to Germany. Spain and Poland are too poor and reliant on the EU, which in turn is increasingly reliant on Germany, to serve as effective opposition. In yet another, perhaps the most profound German contradiction, Germany’s desire to meld itself into a European super-state has turned it into the European Prussia: the state that both anchors and drags Europe down.