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 early 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 latter.

Today in German History, March 25th

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The Signing of the Treaty of Rome. Image Credit Encyclopedia Britannica.

On March 25th of 1957, the nations of Western Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed the Treaty of Rome which formed the European Economic Community, which was established on January 1st of the next year. This community was meant to increase economic integration between member nations and thus further economic growth. A common market and a customs union were introduced to lower tariffs and other trade barriers so as to allow for the free and easy exchange of goods and services. The increased free trade benefited all of the nations, but especially West Germany with its growing manufacturing industry. The community helped return Europe to a position of economic prominence after the damage done by the Second World War and it increased relations between the nations which had so recently been at war. The EEC over time would expand to include more nations and was one of the first major steps towards the formation of the European Union. The European Economic Community was incorporated by the Maasricht Treaty into the EU and it was renamed the European Community by that Treaty.

I find it quite surprising that West Germany and France, the former of which had so recently invaded and occupied the latter, were able to so quickly repair their relations and were so willing to integrate their economics to such a great extent. To me it is encouraging that the former enemies were willing to put aside their differences and their past conflict and work for the betterment of all nations so as to preserve peace and increase prosperity. Other nations of the world, especially developing ones lacking in opportunities for trade, should look to Europe’s example of economic cooperation as a way overcome their domestic difficulties and ensure a brighter future for their populations.

Today in German History: March 24th

Today is the 87th anniversary of one of the darker moment in the history of Germany. On March 24th of 1933, the Reichstag and the Reichsradt, the two chambers of the Weimer government’s legislature, passed the Enabling Act. In just two pages the Act gave the Chancellor, Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers and near total complete control of the nation. The Act followed the Reichstag Fire Decree which had already taken away most civil liberties. The Enabling Act was signed by President Paul von Hindenburg, of First World War fame, on the 25th of March and on that day democracy in Germany ended. The Act was voted on and signed with members of Hitler’s SA paramilitary troops in the room and against the votes of the Social Democrat Party. The Communist Party also opposed the Act, but it had been prevented from voting altogether. The only obstacle that prevented Hitler from taking total control of the country was Hindenburg, but his death the next year would leave Hitler with no major enemies and allow him to merge the office of Chancellor and President into the position of Fuhrer.

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The second page of the Enabling Act.
Image Source: Wikipedia

It is critical that we remember this event because it provides a clear example of the dire consequences that result from a degradation of democratic institutions. Further, that the majority of the population did not oppose the Act shows the danger posed by a population becoming so fearful of an enemy. In Hitler’s case, it was the communists who were accused of burning the parliament building, and so distrustful of the established government that the population was willing to turn to the most radical of leaders to restore security and order. While America’s democracy is certainly stronger than Weimar Germany’s, it is still vital that the American people not become complacent in the belief that it could never happen here. History has shown us that if the people do not stay vigilant, even stable governments and strong institutions can be taken over and used by one individual to further his own goals.

Budgetary Crisis and German History

Right now, the House of Representatives is blocking a stimulus Bill which Republicans say will help prevent the Coronavirus from further damaging the economy. This is not the only time in recent history when Congress has failed to pass a spending bill. Readers will remember the several government shutdowns of last year. Stepping back from the controversy surrounding this and previous congressional crises, I think that this is a good opportunity to write about a time in German history when a similar thing occurred. Prussia, the predecessor to the modern German state, entered the second half of the 19th century with great political division. On one side were the Conservatives who supported the monarchy and wanted to strengthen the military and on the other were the Liberals who, while not necessarily anti military, opposed the monarchy and wanted military and political reforms that would decrease royal power. In 1862, the conflict between the two sides came to a head when the liberal legislature refused to approve King Wilhelm’s budget for the year and the King refused to make concessions to sway them. Prussia was thus left without military funding. To understand how bad this was for Prussia, one must understand how important the army was to Prussia. The military was integral to the Prussian national idea and was a critical aspect of Prussian life. Prussia has been described as “an army with a country”, and if the army was not funded Prussia would suffer a crisis of conscience as well as one of geopolitical standing. Realizing the severity of the situation, the King Wilhelm called Otto von Bismark, a staunch monarchist, back from his position as ambassador to Russia and made him Minister-President of Prussia.

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Otto von Bismarck picture years after the 1862 Budget Crisis. Image Source Encyclopedia Britannica.

Bismarck soon came up with the ingenious, if dubiously legal, solution of simply using the last year’s budget in place of a new one. The legislature could do nothing but protest, and the 1861 budget would be continuously renewed as year after year the legislature refused to approve a new budget. The crisis was thus averted, but the issue of the budget would only really be resolved by the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Prussia’s victory in that war created such a tide of support for Bismarck and the Monarchy that the Conservative Party won the elections that year and retroactively approved the use of the 1861 budget. Although Bismarck’s tactics may have been expedient, I think we can all agree that it is better in the long run that no President is able to use such tactics to go around opposition and institute his will against the wishes of Congress.

Today in German History: March 22, 1832

On March 22nd of 1832, John Wolfgang von Goethe died. Goethe was first and foremost a writer, and wrote many books, plays, poems, and letters. Famous works of his include the drama Faust, not to be confused with Doctor Faustus by Marlowe. Many of Goethe’s works fall under the Sturm und Drang, thunder and lighting, literary movement. Goethe was famous for his literature and was even made a noble by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. Goethe also took on a political role when he sat on that Duke’s Privy Council, a group of advisers. During his tenure on the Privy Council, he instituted reforms to the University of Jena and oversaw the construction of several buildings. Goethe also wrote multiple scientific treatises, including ones on biology and anatomy. A modern equivalent to Goethe would be a celebrity, maybe a famous actor or possibly a musician, who becomes widely respected for their work and involves themselves in politics and other subjects beyond their initial focus. Leonardo DiCaprio’s speeches to the UN on climate change are something of an example of this. In our era, literary celebrities have been replaced by pop and movie stars, but the trope of enlightened celebrity becoming involved in politics still exits.

Coronavirus, the First World War, and Germany

Given the current focus on the Coronavirus, and the widespread fear of it, it is relevant to German history and the present situation to discuss how the last great pandemic, the Spanish Flu, affected Germany and its efforts to win the First World War.

Obviously, the rapid spread of the Spanish Flu through the German Army and the civilian population had a deleterious effect on the German war effort. Perhaps most crucially for determining the outcome of the war, the virus played a major role in halting the German Spring Offensives against the Allies in France. The Allied troops were infected first by the virus, and by the time of the German final push against the Allied lines, were recovering and for the most part had returned to normal combat effectiveness. The Germans, in contrast, had only recently been introduced to the virus and so by the time of the final attack in July were still suffering its ill effects. Further, due to the allied blockade the Germans had been suffering food shortages and so had to introduce strict rationing on their forces. Hunger and deprivation made the German soldiers more susceptible to the virus than the comparatively well fed Allied troops. Around 500,000 German soldiers fell sick, and as many as one fourth of the troops in some units were unable to fight. The virus also indirectly contributed to the lack of supply that German units suffered from by disorganizing logistics departments and halting rail traffic as necessary workers fell ill. The Germans finally failed to break through the Allied lines as the exhausted and under supplied troops were staled and eventually pushed back by superior Allied forces.

On the home front, the Spanish Flu exacerbated the suffering of the German civilian population already beset by shortages and war-weariness. Like the soldiers on the front, the German population was underfed and only just sustained by German grain requisitions from defeated nations in Eastern Europe. The German population was thus vulnerable to disease, and over 420,000 German civilians died from the Spanish Flu. The German government attempted to suppress reports of the virus and hide its severity from the public, but the wide spread of the virus ultimately made those efforts in vain. The virus weakened the German war effort by killing a great deal of its productive workforce and further exhausting its population and undermining confidence in the government’s honesty and ability to protect its citizens. That along with the weakened support for the war that resulted from the failure of the Spring Offensives contributed greatly to popular demand for an armistice.

Today in German History: March 21

March 21st, 1871

On March 21st of 1871, Otto von Bismarck was made Chancellor of the German Empire. Bismarck, Prussian noble and prominent conservative, was instrumental in German unification. His orchestration of the Schleswig-Holstein War with Denmark and then the Seven Weeks’ War made Prussia the primary power in Germany. Soon after, he goaded France into declaring war on Prussia and so precipitated France’s disastrous defeat in the resulting Franco-Prussian War. Bismarck’s creation of the North German Confederation and his other efforts to increase interaction and cooperation between the German States provided the background that allowed for the surge of nationalism that resulted from victory in the Franco-Prussian War to push the German States to unify into the German Empire. As Chancellor, Bismarck would direct the foreign and domestic policy of Germany for the next two and a half decades. Notable domestic actions include the institution of the Kulturkampf, his effort to suppress Catholics and eradicate socialists. He also created the first modern welfare state in an effort to keep the workers from turning to socialist politics. In foreign policy, he chaired the Berlin Conference to organize the colonization of Africa and prevent wars between colonial powers. His efforts to ally with Austria, his old enemy, were successful. However, he failed to maintain the German Alliance with Russia. Bismarck’s successors failed to maintain the balance he created and ultimately turned the majority of the Great Powers against Germany.

March 21st, 1918

On March 21st of 1918, the army of the German Empire launched its last major offensive of the First World War. The Spring Offensive against the French and British armies in Northern France successfully broke through the Allied lines but stopped short of taking Paris and ultimately failed to end the war. Innovative tactics including the use of “storm troopers” to break through Allied lines allowed Germany to undo all of the Allied gains made since the First Battle of the Marne. However, the German Army was unable to break the Allied armies or keep its offensive forces supplied. Soon after the offensive stalled, US troops arrived in sufficient numbers to decisively tilt the balance of power on the Western Front in the favor of the Allies and that along with German food shortages, financial collapse, and domestic unrest forced it to capitulate and sign an armistice on November 11.