The Importance of Learning in an excess of time

While Coronavirus has certainly already done a great deal of harm and will continue to do more, it has also given us a once in a life time opportunity to gain knowledge and learn skills that we otherwise would never had had the time for. It is important that we do not waste this surplus of time. While entertainment and mindless relaxation certainly has it value, we should all spend some of this time enriching ourselves. In one of my recent posts, I listed a few books that I think provide a great deal of interesting information and help the reader better understand German History. More than just reading, though, I think that writing about history, not necessarily in any kind of formal manner, is critical to truly understanding it. The thought process that goes into writing improves one’s understanding of a subject far more than reading about it ever can. I hope that some of you will take this advice and read and write history in the coming weeks and months of quarantine. There is value in historic knowledge, but even more value in the ability to communicate that knowledge to others through the written word.

April 3rd in German History

Johannes Brahms | Biography, Music, & Facts | Britannica
Brahms, Image Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

A few weeks ago, I discussed the life and accomplishments of Beethoven on the anniversary of death. Today is the anniversary of the death of another composer who, while perhaps not as well known as Beethoven, is still famous in his own right and is still important today. One April 3rd, 1897, Johannes Brahms died. Brahms was a German composer and conductor in the Romantic period of music. This period lasted from the late 18th to the 19th centuries, and Brahms’s life, he was born in 1833, spanned the majority of it. While brahms’s is generally considered to be a traditionalist and his music based on standard classical roots, he is still recognized to be the basis for the work of many later composers and so contributed to the development of classical music. Brahms was born in Hamburg and recieved musical instruction first from his father. He studied the piano and composition with several teachers and in 1848 first performed in public. Over time, he composed more and more pieces and became a prominent figure in the musical world. His first symphony, Op. 68, came out in 1876 and he followed it up with a second symphony soon after along with concertos and Quartets. Brahms recieved many awards, including the Maximilian Award for Science and Art from the King of Bavaria. It is at this time that some quirks of Brahms’s personality become evident. He was an extreme perfectionist. He destroyed several of his own works that he felt were imperfect, and even his First Symphony, Op. 68, which was started in the 1860s was so heavily revised by him that it took over ten years to make. Brahms was also prone to surprise decisions, deciding to grow a beard in 1878 after a life of being-clean shaven. In the late 1880s, Brahms began to compose less and in the 1890s he essentially retired from composition. He died in 1897 of Jaundice.

Brahms’s impact on modern music and culture is still felt today. His pieces are still played in orchestras around the world and feature in classical music channels on radio stations. His pieces are also used in movies and other forms of media. It is noteworthy that the music of Brahms and his colleagues has persisted for so long after their genre fell out of the mainstream of popular music. Music from 150 years ago is more commonly played and heard than music from 80 years ago or even 60 years ago, and will probably still be a significant part of music 100 years from now.

German History Books that I Recommend The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France ...
My favorite book on the Franco-Prussian War, Image Credit: Amazon

While sequestration in one’s house for weeks and months at a time is certainly frustrating, it does give us a rare opportunity to expand our knowledge of the world. Taking a break from the discussion of German history for a day, I wanted to offer up some books on the subject that I have read that I think are interesting and informative. 

While researching the Franco-Prussian War, I read a great many books on the conflict and the years before it. The most significant of these was The Franco-Prussian War by Michael Howard. The book provides an unbiased, accurate, and very detailed analysis of the Franco-Prussian War. It analyzes the military and political situations of both nations, but spends the vast majority of its time on the course of the war, going into detail on even the most minor of conflicts. For those who are not looking for such an esoteric analysis of the war, but still significant detail and depth, there is the similarly named The Franco-Prussian War, by Geoffry Wawro. This book is about half as long but is still very informative and an interesting and challenging read. If one wants to learn about the diplomacy of the war, A Duel of Nations: Germany, France, and the Diplomacy of the War of 1870-1871 provides in-depth analysis of the diplomatic factors that caused the war and also France’s attempts to bring other nations in on her side and Germany’s efforts to keep nations like Italy and Great Britain neutral.

The war itself is only one part of German and French history in the 19th century. For information on the leaders of the nations at that time, I suggest The Long Nineteenth Century, the History of Germany from 1780-1918, by David Blackbourn. The book explains many of the trends in Germany history and details the events that determined the course of the nation from Napoleon to its unification to its defeat in the First World War. For France, there is Napoleon the Third and His Carnival Empire, by John Bierman or The French Second Empire, an Anatomy of Political Power, by Roger Price. The latter book goes into astounding detail on the way that Napoleon the Third’s France worked and how it developed over its twenty year existence. Finally, the leaders of the two nations are themselves very interesting. Bierman’s book provides a lot of good information on Napoleon, but his Prime Minister, Emile Olliver, is also important. Emile Oliver and the Liberal Empire of Napoleon the Third discusses who Oliver was and Napoleon’s use of him as a tool to unify France. For Bismarck, there is Bismarck: Profiles in Power, which examines the course of Bismarck’s life. Finally, for the military commanders I recommend the writings of Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian commander during the war, and The Two Marshalls for French Marshal Bazaine. I hope that the reader will look into these books and give one of them a read. If you do, please tell me what you thought of it and maybe recommend to me some books that you like. 

Today in German History, April 1st

Otto von Bismarck - Wikiwand

On April 1st, 1815, Otto Von Bismarck was born. Bismarck was, of course, the chief architect of German unification and the most famous practitioner of Realpolitik. Born a junker noble, he first became involved in politics during the Revolution of 1848 when he staunchly supported the monarchy against liberal reformers and revolutionaries. His actions earned him notoriety, but when the dust settled and the revolution failed, he was viewed as too radically conservative for a prominent position in the new government. He was made ambassador to Russia so as to keep him out of Germany. He was called back in the 1860s, though, during the budgetary crisis of 1860, which I have discussed in more detail in another post. He was able to go around the liberal parliament which was blocking the budget by using last year’s budget in place of a new one. In the following years he orchestrated wars with Denmark and Austria to establish Prussia as the dominant power in Germany. Finally, in 1870 he manipulated France into declaring war on Prussia, thus causing the entirety of Germany, except Austria, to go to war and decisively defeat France. Following the Franco-Prussian War, Germany united into one nation centered on Prussia. Bismarck, as Chancellor of the German empire, initiated programs to suppress Socialists and Catholics in his Kulturkampf. To prevent the population from turning to socialism he created the first modern welfare state. In foreign policy, he maintained peace by not engaging in overly aggressive expansionism and he convened the Berlin conference to organize the colonization of Africa. In the end though, his nuanced diplomacy and dislike of colonial expansion frustrated Kaiser Wilhelm the Second who dismissed Bismarck shortly after the death of Wilhelm the First. Bismarck’s successors would alienate Britain and Russia and so precipitate Germany’s downfall in the First World War. Bismarck is perhaps the best example of a leader who failed to protect his legacy. His successors undid much of his good work and started the process that would end in 1945 with the breakup of Germany. Such a phenomenon is common among American presidents. The current president has undone much of his predecessor’s policies. Current leaders should take note that preserving one’s accomplishment is just as important as making them..

Today in German History, March 31st

First Moroccan Crisis - Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia

One topic that often receives little attention in American History courses are the crises that preceded the First World War but were resolved. The most important of these crises was the Agadir Crisis of 1911 which saw France and Germany clash over France’s Moroccan expansion. That crisis, though, was only the last of multiple Moroccan Crises, the first of which occurred in 1905. The First Moroccan Crisis was an event that started on March 1st of 1905 with Kaiser Wilhelm the Second’s visit to the city of Tangier in Morocco. The Kaiser’s visit was in response to France’s proposing a series of reforms to the Sultan of Morocco that Germany viewed as conflicting with Morocco’s sovereignty and  French expansionism in the region. The Kaiser toured the city of Tangier and spoke with the Sultan, and declared that he supported Moroccan sovereignty. Subsequently, the Sultan rejected France’s proposed reforms and called for an international conference of all the major powers to meet to advise him on necessary reforms. The French Foreign Minister, Theodolphile Declasse, rejected the proposal for a multinational conference and the two nations began pursuing militarily. The German Chancellor, Gerhard von Bulow, also threatened war. The leaders of both nations, the Kaiser and French Premier Maurice Rouvier, however, did not want war and so the real possibility of one breaking out was not high. On July 1st, at the behest of Rouvier, the French acceded to the convening of an international conference. There were still instances of military posturing shortly before the conference as Germany called up its reserves on December 30th and France moved troops to the border on the 3rd of January. The Algeciras conference was held from January 16th to April 7th of 1906. Germany, however, found it had little support among the 13 nations present. Only Austria supported Germany against France, Britain, Russia, Italy, and Spain. The Germans were forced to sign a compromise on March 31st to prevent their humiliation. Peace, at least, was preserved for a time.

The First Moroccan crisis, and the subsequent crises that occurred before 1914, only further shows the inevitability of the First World War. That Germany and France could come as close as they did, with the nation’s mobilizing troops and moving them to the border, to war over proposed reforms to Morocco is telling. While war did not break out as a result of this crisis, the conflicting colonial ambitions and nationalistic tendencies that caused the crisis in the first place did not go away. Rather, they would result in crisis after crisis until finally war broke out over an assassination in the Balkans. The lesson to be learned from the First Moroccan Crisis and all of the other crises that led up to WWI is to not be exultant when two nations reach an agreement or stave off conflict, rather efforts to preserve peace must not be halted until the underlying causes of international tension are resolved.

The German Coronavirus Response

Soldiers of the German army at a coronavirus testing site in Sankt Wendel, Germany, on Thursday.
A coronavirus testing site in Sankt Wendel, Germany. Image Credit: Ronald Wittek/EPA

I thought it would be interesting to take a break from Germany History today and focus on the most pressing issue in Germany today, the coronavirus. Germany, like most nations around the world, has been hit by the coronavirus. The nation’s first was was recorded on January 28th when a man who works for a company that owns two plants in Wuhan tested positive for the virus. The German government, however, was able to contain the outbreak by quickly quarantining the man’s contacts. The virus, though, has since then spread via other outbreaks and at this point there are almost 64,000 cases in Germany. The nation has implemented similar lock down procedures to those in the US. Schools, most shops, and restaurants are closed. Further, gatherings are banned. The nation’s economy has also been damaged and many have lost their jobs. The current situation in Germany, however, is better than the one in Italy, Spain, or even the UK. Germany’s death rate of around .7%, as of Saturday, is far lower than Italy’s 11% or Spain’s 8%, and Germany has only half as many deaths and the UK does even with its far larger number of cases. The German government has done a better job of caring for the infected and also of slowing the spread of the virus, Germany reported its first case earlier than Italy and Spain did, and so can focus its already superior healthcare system on fewer patients. Perhaps most critically for the low death rate, the median age of an infected person in Germany is relatively low, 46. Italy’s median age is 63. A far larger proportion of Germany’s positive cases are young people. This is in large part due to Germany’s testing policies. The nation tests more people than Italy or Spain do, and it tests people who show few or no symptoms. Such people are generally young.

Germany must not become complacent, however, as the nation simply may be behind the curve relative to Spain and Italy. the nation does have a modern and well-funded healthcare system, but that system has not been tested before and may see shortages of beds and protective gear if the number of cases continues to rise. Even the lower fatality rate is only somewhat reassuring; it rose from .48% to .72% in just a few days last week. Germany will almost certainly fare better than Italy, Spain, China, and maybe even the US, but things will get worse before they get better and the nation must be ready for weeks and even months of economic shutdown and social isolation.

Today in German History, March 29th

Henry Morgenthau, Jr.1947.jpg
Henry Morgenthau, Jr, proposed the plan for the de-industrialization of Germany. Image credit: Wikipedia.

While the Treaty of Versailles was certainly not merciful to Germany, the retribution exacted by the Allied Powers after the Second World War was far harsher. The allied powers took a third of Germany’s pre-war territory, most notably the region of East Prussia. In doing so they destroyed Prussia as a subnational entity. The Germans who lived in those territories were pushed out of them by the advancing Soviet forces during the final year of the war, and so the territories were populated mostly by Poles. Germany was, of course, split up into four occupation zones, which quickly consolidated into two. These zones became West and East Germany, or the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, respectively. What is less known is that the Allies attempted to, and to some extent succeeded to, implement the de-industrializing of Germany so as to prevent it from becoming the dominant power in Europe again. On March 29th of 1946, the Allies implemented the first of their plans for German industry. It attempted to implement the Morgenthau Plan, which called for a destruction of German heavy industry and much of its supporting civilian industry. Under it, German heavy industry would be lowered by 50% of its 1938 levels, its steel production to 25% of its prewar levels, its car production to 10% of its prewar levels. The aim was to reduce Germany to a standard of living equivalent to that which it had in 1932 and make Germany a light industrial and agricultural economy which could not pose a threat to European peace. The plans, however, were quickly made more lenient as the Western Allies turned their attention towards the Soviets. If Germany were de-industrialized then it could not serve as a bulwark against Communist aggression. In the end, German industry was reduced but not by as much as the original plans had called for. Only 706 manufacturing plants in West German were destroyed by the completion of the last plan in 1950, instead of the 1500 called for by the 1946 plan. Even these plants were quickly replaced in the economic expansion that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.

I find the implications of the Allied postwar plans intimidating. We often view history as a series of continuous, almost inevitable, trends like democratization and economic growth. The Allied plans represented an attempt to reverse this course of history by undoing industrialization and turning the clock back. The very idea that an industrial nation can return to an agricultural economy is frightening. That something so mundane as politics can motivate the destruction of an economy that was the product of centuries of development suggests that any historical trend, from development to liberalization, can be halted and reversed by short-term geopolitical factors.

Economic Recovery and German History

Konrad Adenauer - Wikipedia
Konrad Adenauer, Orchestrator of the German Economic Miracle. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

As if the coronavirus alone were not bad enough, we also have to be concerned about the long term economic impacts of the disease and the near shutdown of the nation that is necessary to stop its spread. As a result of the halt of a great deal of economic activity, many companies may go out of business and workers will be laid off, the number suffering this fate depending on the duration of the pandemic.

Germany is no stranger to economic collapse. The German economy crashed during the First World War and again during the Great Depression and also during the Second World War. During WWI the British blockade and massive war expenditures proved too much for the nation to bear and it collapsed economically near the end of the war. This was exacerbated by the reparations imposed by Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. The German economy, in large part due to American investment and the easing of reparations, rebounded in the late 1920s in an era called the Weimar Golden Age. This was a short period of relative wealth and culture that saw a strengthened Weimar government. The Great Depression, however, put an end to the Golden Age and plunged Germany into the depths of crisis. The German people turned to radical parties and by 1934 Hilter had taken full control of the nation. Through several monetary schemes and government infrastructure spending, Hitler’s government was able to improve the economy and at least create an image of economic stability, although many believe that the German Economy, based on large part on loans and the use of MEFO bills to finance rearmament, would have collapsed in the 1940s if not for the Second World War pushing concerns of debt repayment to the wayside. Of course during the second World War Germany suffered devastation like it had never seen in its history, and the nation’s economy, especially its industry, was essentially wiped out by allied bombing campaigns and Soviet pillaging.

The Post-WW2 German Economic Miracle, or Wirtschaftswunder, was the most profound of all of the German recoveries. Under Chancellor Konrad Adenaur, the West German Economy saw low inflation and rapid growth for several decades. The German economy grew at a startling pace, rapidly restoring the nations to its prewar standard of living and surpassing it by the early 1960s. While the Marshall Plan certainly aided Germany’s recovery, it is worth noting that Germany recovered far faster than Britain did and Britain recieved the most Marshall Plan aid. The German economic miracle resulted from currency reform in 1948 and massive income tax cuts on the middle class. This allowed the educated German populace to quickly rebuild the nation’s skilled industries once allied programs of technology harvesting from Germany and the dismantling of the steel industry ended.

The German economic recoveries are not simply historically important and interesting, but sources of hope in the present situation If a nation reduced to ruin and occupied by its enemies can recover in little more than a decade, than a nation with all of its industries intact should be able to quickly recover from a month-long freeze on much, but not all, of it’s economic activity. Given that the economy will not collapse from a short-term halt, we should focus on stopping the virus rather than keeping the economy running at the cost of too many lives. 

Today in German History, March 27th

A painting of the Hambach Festival. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Perhaps one of the lesser-known events in German History, but still an important one, is the Hambach Festival. The Hambach festival was a political demonstration that took place at Hambach Castle in what is now the German state of the Rhineland-Palatinate. It was in support of German Democracy and German Unification. The Palatinate had formerly been under French control and was thus a refuge for liberal activists and writers. Recently, however, the region had come under the control of Bavaria, a conservative and catholic state which instituted harsh repressive policies to prevent the spread and advocacy of democratic and nationalist ideals. The immediate cause of the fair was the government’s banning of the newly established Association for Freedom of the Press and Speech. In retaliation to the banning, the members of the Association called for a fair; they called it a fair because demonstrations were banned. On the day of the march as many as 30,000 people, from various classes and including some French and Polish people, marched to the castle ruin and watched as their leaders and prominent activists spoke in favor of increased political freedoms, democracy, and national unity. Some even called for revolt, although that met form opposition from many at the fair. One thing that was almost universally agreed on, though, was the need for unified Germany. To quote one, “From various platforms eloquent speeches were made by Doctor Siebenpfeiffer, Wirth, Scharpff, Henry Brueggemann, and others, representing the sad condition of Germany, its insignificance in the council of European nations, its depression in trade and commerce, all owing to the want of national union.”

Unfortunately, the rally failed to achieve any of its goals and the only immediate result was further government suppression and the flight of many organizers of the fair. The Bavarian government sent troops to prevent a repeat event the next year, and the Carlsbad decrees were tightened, completely banning freedom of speech. It is important that we do not dismiss the Hambach Festival as simply a foolish attempt by idealists to achieve what was impossible at the time, though. While the demonstration failed to prompt immediate results, it showed Germany that the movement for democracy was not dead, that the desire for freedom would survive against harsh repression of the conservative order. Further, it showed the strength of the nationalist movement and desire for one German nation instead of 38 states. Finally, the solidarity between intellectuals and the working class foreshadowed the revolutions of 1848 and later demoncratic uprisings and movements, in which different classes worked together to further their common cause. Perhaps the most recognizable thing that the fair did do was establish for certain the black, red, and gold Tri Color as the symbol for the German Democratic movement. That flag which was carried by marchers to the ruin of Hambach Castle would eventually fly over the Reichstag when the dreams of the demoratic reformers were finally realized in 1918. If a nation once as authoritarian and repressive as Germany can become democratic, so can any dictatorship or semi-authoritarian regime  today. This is perhaps the most important takeaway from the liberal movement in 19th century Germany, and it should be a source of optimism for readers who look at the subjugated people of the world today and wonder how they can ever be free.

Today in German History, March 26th

Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphonies, Deafness & Facts - Biography
A Painting of Beethoven. Image Credit:

Today is the 193rd anniversary of Beethoven’s death, but I think that it is important that we remember his accomplishments during his life. Beethoven became a musical genius very early in life due in large part to the rigorous instruction of his Father. His music became well-known while he was , and he was considered a youth protege. He went on to compose many very popular pieces and play at the courts of nobles and monarchs, thus further increasing his notoriety. His contributions to music are almost unparalleled, his work having been a crucial part of the transition between the Classical and Romantic periods. He thus had a great deal of influence on German and more broadly on European cultural history.

Few people today know many classical musicians. Even names like Handel and List will often illicit no more than a confused expression when mentioned to even educated people. It is rare, though, to find someone from the Western Hemisphere who does not show at least some recognition when the name Beethoven is mentioned. One of History’s most famous composers, Beethoven is one of the few who has remained in the popular consciousness and is still featured in things as mundane as TV commercials. He is remembered not only for his music, but also for his personality and physical traits, something nearly unique among composers from his time. Although his isolation and later in life deafness may often be objects of mockery, they still show that Beethoven is remembered in a variety of ways today. That being said, his music is the thing he is most remembered for, and many of his pieces, like his nine symphonies and many concertos, are still played and feature in a great deal of cinema.

While I may not be able to convince the reader to listen to more Beethoven, I do hope that I can convince the reader to learn more about German Cultural History. German Cultural History is as important as its Political History, and Beethoven is as major a part of the former as Bismarck or Frederick the Great are of the letter.