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Shirley Lawrence

Origins of German National Traits

Historic Roots of National Peculiarities

(January 1947)

From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 1, January 1947, pp. 12–16.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“... this taste for war, this adulation of power, this belief in German supremacy and in peace only if it is a German peace – these are not the private characteristics of a small group of corrupt or demented men. These are the common postulates of Germanism, so common that few Germans have even dreamt of examining them.” [1]

In the light of a previous article concerning the distortions and vulgarizations inherent in the official theory of a “unique, brutal and aggressive German national character,” we should like here to continue our discussion of the meaning of national character and challenge the prevailing myth of Germany’s so-called “collective guilt.” We believe there are no racial or national groups which exist as entities and which determine the characteristics of the group members. It is true that certain behavior traits may be more frequently found among individuals of one nationality than those of another, but the overlapping is great. We believe further that the world is divided into nations, each with a typical cultural and historical background; that national characteristics among nations therefore differ as individuals interact with their respective environments; that, similarly, there are differences within each nation; that there are mores common to the whole of a nation and there are those common only to subgroups.

It would be interesting at this point to turn to Marx’s theory of human nature implicit in his social philosophy in order to see what light it thrown on the entire problem. Marx not only propounded a social theory but strove to be effective in the practical world as well; he sought to influence widely variegated groups. Marx was aware that the socialist idea must be tested by its implied judgment of human nature. He once remarked that he who would pass on the social scene must “first become acquainted with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified historically in every age.” He believed in the dual aspect of human nature, in “generic” man and in “historical” man, the former embodying universal traits of human beings, the latter embodying the plastic constituents which change with the environment and hence with human activities. [2]

The concept of generic man as one and invariant enabled him to justify his social theory in terms of a set of traits belonging to a homogenous mass. Generic man is not English or Chinese, bourgeois or slave, black or white, ancient or modern man, but the qualities they have in common. But the concept of historical man as plural and changeable made it possible to explain the variety of traits in different ages and places. It provided the foundation for the contention that some old traits could be abolished and new traits developed in accordance with the requirements of progress. Man has always lived and acted, not in nature and society in general, but in specific, natural environments and in given societies. To the multifariousness of that environment he has reacted by improvising convenient habits, traits and customs.

Marx did not develop any blanket ideas on national traits, nor did he regard them as permanent and unchanging. National character must reflect the particular experiences and adjustments of a social group as it functioned within a particular physical and historical environment, the nation. Marx conceived of the modern nation as the complex product and function of environmental, economic, historical and other influences. The physical character of the environment, the degree and fashion of its development; the general features of the prevalent method of production, together with the special local divergencies and peculiarities; the number, functions and interrelationships of the important classes and especially the character of the ruling or dominant class; the institutional political experiences of the past; and the distinctive culture and traditions – all these factors affected the character and development of the nation.

Marx Not Anti-National

Marx accepted national peculiarities and differences as substantial factors in history. He was equally impatient with conservative critics who regarded all radicals as anti-national and with those radicals who dismissed the importance of nationality. The Communist Manifesto answered the common taunt that the socialists proposed to abolish nationality as unworthy of serious consideration and that the charge was of a piece with the notion that socialism would abolish all personal property, put an end to liberty and culture and destroy the family. Far from wishing to uproot these values and institutions, Marx and Engels proposed to give them in life what they now were only in theory. What Marx foresaw was not the complete disappearance of all national distinctions, but specifically the abolition of sharp economic and social differences, economic isolation, wars and exploitation of one nation by another.

Nor did Marx’s prediction of economic uniformity and interdependence involve the obliteration of all frontiers; economic uniformity would not necessarily bring in its wake political, cultural and legal uniformity. The same economic base might show infinite variations and gradations due to innumerable circumstances, natural conditions, group relations and outside historical differences. Thus Marx never established an automatic and even correlation between economic and non-economic factors. He felt that within the same type of economic structure, there are important differences from one country to another, and that there is room for variety in the world even if its economic systems should approach uniformity.

* * *

Out of this conglomerate picture we can say with some assurance that national character is not illusion, as some would have it, but reality. It can be considered a composite reflection of those factors embodied in the total development of each nation. Individuals are born into a particular society which has institutions, customs, norms and cultural patterns which are transmitted by the family and by others in authority, which the individual internalizes but upon which he can also react, or rather, can change. This cultural heritage consists of the dominant modes of reacting over a long period of time in a dynamic continuum and includes the historical, productive and social forces in a country. National character can change with social change; therefore in some respects it is transient. Other factors which determine national character besides the social structure, such as language, geography and various cultural traditions, can be said to be less susceptible to change and would probably continue after social changes took place. Thus there may be certain dominant social traits in the folkways of a nation, but they are never homogeneous. Inherent in the concept of national character is variation.

That the German have national characteristics different from American can readily be seen in this frame of reference. What is meant for instance by the American “go-getting” or Horatio Alger spirit, which is stereotyped to be sure and belongs actually to another era, but which still possesses some descriptive validity? It implies that the comparatively new, efficient and wealthy capitalist culture we live in, with its philosophy of free enterprise and laissez-faire, fostered such attitudes. We were a nation of boundless frontiers, and this produced an exuberant spirit of expansion and equalitarianism. Other peculiar aspects of American life have been its mobility, the stress on individual initiative, a belief in the “ladder of opportunity,” the possibility of rising above one’s position, emphasis on status and prestige, a certain standardization of ways of spending one’s leisure time and of cultural pursuits in general, a kind of political naiveté and backwardness of the population, a rather marked degree of social conservatism and a hostility to radical political ideas and movements. Here we see various “cultural lags” operating. From Middletown [3], an excellent study of personality in a typical American community of the twenties, we learn that earning a living is the dominant problem. The authors point to the almost universal “dominance of the dollar” and to the fact that people are “running for dear life to make the money they earn keep pace with the rapid growth of their subjective wants.” Again all are not swept up in such attitudes.

In Germany (after 1870), the political doctrine of the ruling class was the monocratic state based on allegiance to a dynasty and a hierarchy which pervaded the whole structure of the nation. Its economic doctrine was patrimony, the benevolent state, with the economic interest subordinated to the political interest. Unlike the United States, where free enterprise flourished, the state intervened actively in the development of industry. Authority, duty, honor and the dictum that the individual is the servant of the state, were its social doctrines. The Bismarckian state combined the monarchical concepts of feudalism with the growth of a highly centralized capitalism.

During this era Germans have been characterized as methodical, efficient, preoccupied with status, ethnocentric, of a philosophic bent, and have been said to have a characteristic belief in the importance of duty. Dependence on superiors has also been said to be a strong element in German life. Everyone was supposed to have had a calling or position and the nobility so common in America was rare. Centralization pervaded all spheres. But is all this something innate? Does it make the German less human? And does it really describe the range of his characteristics? We do not think so. We feel these traits which have become stereotyped and meaningless, and other traits, to the extent they existed at some time, some place or in some group, must be understood as flowing from the cultural and historical process interacting with individuals and groups. That the overfine theorizing and sentimental idealism of some philosophers and historians (Fichte, Treitschke, Nietzsche et al.) was tinged with fantasy and with an emphasis on heroic individuals and with theories of superiority, can then be seen as a reflection of the backwardness which Germany endured for so long. The backwardness of the country was rationalized into a species of superiority. This development is not uncommon among historically backward or oppressed nations.

National character is now seen as the product of the reciprocal relationships between individuals and an economic, historic and cultural tradition. This is not to say, however, that it plays the principal role in the historic process. For us the fundamental forces in this process are the interactions between the prevailing mode of production in every historical epoch, and the ensuing social and political organization. That is why classes occupying the same role in the productive process in different countries show greater similarity concerning organization, status and respective political roles than do different classes within the same country. Still the classes within one nation are similarly sensitized to distinctive habits, attitudes and prejudices, all encouraged by existing social norms. It is in this sense that Marxists accept national character to be in conformity with and not in contradiction to historical materialism.

* * *

How German Character Developed

In relation to the other nations of Europe, Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century was characterized by economic, political and social backwardness and by the lack of industrialization and unification. Several important characteristics set her apart from other Western countries: monarchical, aristocratic and feudal institutions had survived in powerful measure. Capitalism was still relatively undeveloped and the bourgeoisie and the industrial proletariat were still politically weak. The petty bourgeoisie, on the other hand, was uncommonly strong. Finally the country was politically disunited compared with other nations of Western Europe. No less than thirty-nine practically independent states were formally grouped in a loose confederation. (One may measure the distance separating her from England and France by Marx’s view that the revolution of 1848 would begin as a German edition of the revolutions of 1669 and 1789, though he had unwarranted hopes that it would be shortly followed by a proletarian revolution.)

The roots of this condition reached deep into the past. The development of the centralized monarchy, which had done so much to consolidate France as a nation and to undermine feudal institutions, had not been accomplished in Germany. The epochal shifting of world trade routes from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean had dealt a heavy blow to Germany, for her position in the center of the continent had formerly been a great economic asset. The Germans were driven out of shipping by the Dutch and the English. No city acquired importance as an economic center of gravity for the whole country; Germany was, in a sense, landlocked. There was little internal mobility as travel from one principality to another was difficult. Consequently Germany was also extremely provincial.

The Thirty Years War which was fought by the great powers of the seventeenth century on German territory destroyed means of production as well as people and left the country prostrate for generations. The war confirmed the impotence of the Holy Roman Empire and Germany failed to develop the centralized state which Marx regarded as the concomitant of modern production. The same disunity blocked the way of effective revolutionary action on a national scale.

Though the bourgeoisie was weak and divided and the industrial proletariat was as retarded as the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie held an extremely important position in the country. Exceedingly increased because of the stunted development of the large capitalists and manufacturers, it formed a majority in the larger cities and dominated the smaller ones. “Humble and crouchingly submissive under a powerful monarchical government, the petty bourgeoisie turns to the side of liberalism when the middle class is in the ascendant; it becomes seized with violent democratic fits as soon as the middle class has secured its own supremacy, but falls back into the abject despondency of fear as soon as the class below itself, the proletariat, attempts an independent movement.” [4] The oscillations of this considerable segment of the population had national significance.

The same historical facts thus affected Germany differently than they did the Western European nations. England and France achieved national unification in the sixteenth century; Germany, even as late as the middle of the nineteenth century was a conglomeration of hundreds of principalities. France and England were world empires and subjected to an intensive process of cultural diffusion; Germany was landlocked. Industrialization began in England in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and in France at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Germany did not undertake industrialization until the middle of the nineteenth century.

While the French and English form of liberalism failed to make any deep or lasting impression upon Germany, the nationalist sentiment readily conquered the whole country, leaving its mark also on the Socialists. The achievement of unification through the erection of a powerful military, dynastic state under William I and his able Chancellor, Bismarck, and the defeat of France in the War of 1870, strengthened rather than weakened German nationalism. Her economic growth was now phenomenal. She was now a great power in Europe. But side by side with her economic progress there remained the cultural and political institutions of an old militaristic, authoritarian era.

The growth of industry from 1871 to 1914 was to a considerable extent state inspired. Loyalty to the state, cooperation with compatriots and a desire for national greatness were all stimulants to economic growth. Monopolistic production came early; with the development of cartels and the swiftly growing power of the big banks, economic direction became more and more concentrated. Economic Germany was under the absolute power of a group of men barely fifty in number. In Germany, developments which in England spread over a century, and in America over forty years, took place in a decade or so. In America, power passed over ultimately from industrialists to bankers; in Germany, the banks had power almost from the beginning of modern industry.

Thus Germany’s economic development showed a collective energy and skill such as no nation had previously displayed. The instability of this structure lay in the sudden change of habits of life from East Prussian agricultural subjection to the comparative emancipation of modern industry; in the case of large numbers of wage earners, from traditional, respectable poverty to sudden precarious luxury; among business men, from Lutheran God-fearing piety to the freedom q£ plutocratic Berlin. In countless hitherto simple families, this came about too quickly to be assimilated adequately. The result was a kind of hysterical intoxication and a belief in boundless possibilities of power and the superiority of everything German.

Period of the Weimar Republic

After defeat in the war the German Republic was proclaimed and provided with a democratic constitution by the Weimar Assembly in 1919. Despite intense political and economic crises, it managed to survive for fourteen years. This period presented many new features for the Germans. For the first time a liberal régime was at the helm which freely accorded a wide range of democracy. A new liberal and socialistic spirit prevailed which reflected itself in extremely modern and progressive intellectual and cultural currents.

However, the economic foundations did not afford a base for political stability. The class struggle tore the Weimar Republic into shreds. It could not pursue any consistent policy even in respect to reforms. Unable to resolve the economic problems, it could not withstand the opposition which beset it from the nationalist right and the proletarian left.

Endangered by the proletarian revolution in 1919, the Social-Democratic ministers called, upon the old army elements to restore order. As a result, “the Kaiser went, the generals remained.” In addition to the generals, many more of the old regime remained. The conservative and loyal personnel of the state bureaucracy remained intact and the controls of industry and banking remained in the same hands. This gave the ruling class the springboard necessary for its complete return to power.

In Germany, which had put in its claim for a place in the sun too late and therefore found itself lacking raw materials and markets, capitalism could not even begin to extricate itself from the economic crisis without replacing the democratic state by a dictatorial state, which alone could strip the masses of all means of defense. “If the economic evils of our epoch, in the last analysis result from the fact that the productive forces of humanity are incompatible with private ownership of the means of production as well as with national boundaries, German capitalism is going through the severest convulsions just because it is the most modern, most advanced and most dynamic capitalism on the continent of Europe,” wrote Trotsky in 1932. [5] Hitler became the favored candidate of the ruling class, of big business, for the position of leader of the nation in the renaissance of German imperialism.

In the face of a movement that threatened a coup d’état the Social Democrats stood firm on the ground of constitutional legality! Yet their mass base remained all but intact. This raised an interesting question about the German proletariat which Trotsky posed and answered as follows:

In their lucid moments the leaders of German Social-Democracy must ask themselves, “By what miracle does our party, after all the damage that it has done, still lead millions of workers? Certainly, great importance must be given to the conservatism innate in every mass organization. Several generations of the proletariat have gone through Social-Democracy as a political school; this has created a great tradition. Yet that is not the main reason for the vitality of reformism. The workers cannot simply leave the Social Democracy in spite of all the crimes of that party; they must be able to replace it by another party. Meanwhile the German Communist Party, in the person of its leaders, has for the last nine years done decidedly everything in its power to repel the masses, or at least prevent them from rallying around the Communist Party ... The situation in Germany is as if purposely created to make it possible for the Communist Party to win the majority of the workers in a short time. Only, it must understand that as yet, today, it represents the minority of the proletariat, and must firmly tread the road of united front tactics. Instead of this, it has made its own a tactic which can be expressed in the following words: not to give the German workers the possibility of carrying on economic struggles, or offering resistance to Fascism, or of seizing the weapon of the general strike, or of creating Soviets – before the entire proletariat recognizes in advance the leadership of the Communist Party. The political task is converted into an ultimatum.

We see then that Hitler could never have set marching such forces if the proletariat had not previously been paralyzed by the policies of its two leading parties and conditioned for the Nazi conquest. The middle classes, victims of the crisis of capitalism, were discontented with their condition, material as well as moral. They dreamed of a radical change. They made a turn to the left in 1923 but the leaders of the working class parties showed themselves incapable of satisfying the concrete hopes of the masses. Fascism exploited the discontent of these various social strata and aroused them against the “Marxists,” i.e., the organized proletariat.

The proletariat, however, remained loyal to its own parties. In the last free election in Germany in November 1932, the overwhelming majority of the proletariat gave their allegiance to the Socialist and Communist Parties. The speedy growth of the Nazi Party came at the expense of the bourgeois parties, whereas the workers’ parties maintained their following to the end.

The development of the German proletariat is one of the richest chapters in revolutionary history and a direct contrast to the popular myth of the German character. The Social Democratic Party, founded in 1869 under the leadership of Bebel and the elder Liebknecht, did not share the patriotic enthusiasm of the period and had in its first twenty-five years a wholehearted Marxist character. Gigantic historical forces – the continued success of the capitalist economy from 1870 to 1914, the consequent rise of an aristocracy of skilled labor and party and trade union functionaries which controlled the party, and the rise of an openly reformist wing – had transformed the party into one of liberal reform, an agency for the support of bourgeois reformism and of the First World War.

But this social patriotic disorientation was only temporary. The revolution of 1918 showed irrefutably the abyss between the ruling class and the proletariat, thereby disproving the propaganda which blamed the German people for the First World War, This revolutionary energy was crushed again and again by the opportunism of the leadership of the Social Democrats with its “legalism” and later by the disastrous theory of social fascism put forth by the Communist leaders. Fascism became a big movement and came to power only when the working class showed itself incapable of taking into its own hands the fate of society. The working class did not struggle for it was numbed and exhausted after a series of defeats and betrayals.

Roots of National Character

Enough is now known about the development of Germany, of the causes of her pursuit of a form of development different from that followed by the Western nations, and of the historical roots of German fascism – to pierce the mist enshrounding the fabulous monster erected by Allied propaganda in the course of two world wars. German national character is seen as a much maligned and vastly misunderstood concept, which in its contaminated form is strategically projected from time to time, whenever it serves the interests of the powers that be. The national characteristics of Germans (as of all national groups) are the result of the interaction of individuals with the peculiar economic, social, historical and cultural processes of their environment. The characteristics attributed to the Nazis are indeed brutal and terrible but they did not permeate the whole of the people.

In the course of this and a previous discussion we have attempted to illuminate several historical and psychological problems concerning national character.

Human nature everywhere displays much unity and much diversity. We do not agree that there are innate or universal “instincts” or character traits apart from their historical context. In Western civilization variations are to be found between nations and within a country as well. National character implies the presence of large elements of repetition and coherence in the culture and involves the prevailing and dominant modes of reacting of a group over a period of time where the social norms are transmitted by those in authority. However, national characteristics are not homogeneous, for dissident elements necessarily exist. Thus certain traits are common to the entire country and some only to particular groups. National character implicitly denotes variation and change as well as uniformity.

We have sought to show that all Germans did not embrace fascism; that the proletariat supported its own parties but that their leaders failed them; that it was big business which subsidized Hitler’s movement and the middle class which supplied its mass base and which sought refuge in fascist mysticism and social ideology as recompense for its economic misery; and that even under Hitler there was opposition. Likewise, fascism is not merely a German phenomenon but in essence is international – it is capitalism at its most brutal stage. No country has a tradition or national psychology rendering fascism inevitable or impossible. Germans therefore do not have a distinctive character which has always been evinced in authoritarianism, militarism or any of the other traits ascribed to them, for other nations share abundantly these traits. Certain dominant attitudes certainly mark the German character in each particular historical period, because of Germany’s own peculiar development These are not qualitatively different though from the characteristics of people of other nations, for all lie within the same range of human potentialities. There is room for variety in the world.


1. Mumford, Lewis – Letter to a German Professor, Saturday Review of Literature, Dec. 8, 1945.

2. Bloom, Sol – The World of Nations.

3. Lynd, R. & H. – Middletown.

4. Marx, K. – Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany. [This work was actually written by Friedrich Engels for the New York Daily Tribune on Marx’s behalf, but this only became clear after this article was written. – Note by ETOL]

5. Trotsky, L. – Germany, What Next, 1932.

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