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Habits of Thought That Shaped Germany

The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

By Norbert Elias

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Columbia University Press 433 pp, $35

'National character" is a concept with which many Americans, particularly, are uncomfortable. It seems to deal frankly in stereotypes and to flirt dangerously with prejudice.

And yet as we study the collective moral breakdown of the Nazi period in Germany, the question has to be confronted: Were there national habits of thought at work here that left Germany susceptible to Nazism as another nation might not have been?

This book, "The Germans," by the late Norbert Elias, answers that question with a clear "yes." But - an important but - the author speaks of "national habitus," rather than "national character." The author uses "national habitus" to represents habits of thought that can and do change in response to new experiences. Thus progress is possible for both individuals and societies.

He observes: "It shows the resilience of the Germans that they emerged from these shocks [the world wars] as a viable and capable nation.... It certainly says a great deal for the relatively high standard of civilization of contemporary humankind that, after two bitter and destructive wars which Germany fought - partly as a claim to natural, racially determined superiority - West Germany at least can lead a fairly normal existence as a well-off industrial state."

What historical factors have marked Germany over the ages? A sort of geographical unsettledness, for one, as the Germanic-language tribes floated unanchored between the Romance-language speakers to the west and the speakers of Slavonic tongues to the east. For another, the lack of defensible natural borders and the long history of warfare in Germany, which wasn't unified into a single modern nation-state until 1871.

The 17th century, for instance - elsewhere in Europe a period of cultural splendor, the age of Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Moliere - was for the Germans the time of the Thirty Years' War, the scars of whose devastation remain in popular thought, according to Elias.

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Germans experienced their history, ever since the glory days of the late medieval Holy Roman Empire, as a series of ruptures and breaks - most notably after 1918, when the dream of imperial glory under Kaiser Wilhelm collapsed. Such a pattern of long-term decline can take a people centuries to come to terms with, Elias maintains.

Also, the Germans lacked a centuries-long-established capital city as a focus of national identity - as the English had London and the French had Paris. Berlin, a Johnny-come-lately among European capitals, just a few years ago marked its 750th anniversary.

Perhaps the most important element in all this was the way military domination of Germany's still relatively undeveloped political structures kept out classical, humanist values and the people who represented them. Politics, to oversimplify grossly, was not something cultured people did. It was all too easy to leave it all to a strong leader who will "take care of the people."

And indeed, the big German political "success" before World War II was the establishment of the Second Reich under the kaiser and the Iron Chancellor, Bismarck.

Some of these broad themes are familiar territory, but Elias, a sociologist, knew this territory from the inside. Born in 1897 of German Jewish parents in Breslau, in what is now Wroclaw in Poland, he lived through much of the period he writes about. His mother perished in Auschwitz, but he escaped first to France and then to England, where he taught for years.

He supports his theses with extensive quotations from popular novels, contemporary newspaper society columns, and other primary-source materials somewhat off the usual historian's path. In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Elias discusses how the ruling military elites of Germany into the late 19th and early 20th centuries were still dominated by a "code of honor" in which insults, perceived and otherwise, were redressed in duels. He includes a harrowing account of a Berlin police chief fatally shot in a duel with a nobleman who took offense at being included in the chief's raid on an illegal gaming club.

If, as the author suggests, a foundation stone of civilization is the state monopoly on violence, something is obviously amiss when an agent of public order allows himself to be drawn into a duel to preserve his honor after presuming to hold a nobleman to the same legal standard as das volk.

This insightful work - a translation of essays written at different times and later collected into a single volume before the author's death in 1990 - has much to say about Germany. But it also has much to point out about other nations, especially the emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe, which have a lot to learn about nation-building. May their progress be smoother than Germany's was.

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