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27 April 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 8:16am

From the NS archive: Why the Germans are not loved

14 November 1914: How Germany never outgrew its barbarian roots.

By Havelock Ellis

A little over three months after the start of the First World War, the pioneering sexologist Havelock Ellis turned his mind from his usual subject of inquiry. Instead of matters of sex and gender he examined instead, in haughtily sweeping terms, Europe’s dislike of the Germans. He traced this widespread antipathy back to the “Teutonic barbarians” who overran the late Roman empire. Barbarianism, he believed, was a trait the Germans had never outgrown and he bemoaned the fact that the country, aware of how little it was liked, sought to impose itself by force.


It may seem a futile question to discuss. “Circumspice”, one may be told, is the answer; you have only to look around Europe. Yet there is a certain interest in discussing this attitude of the world towards Germans when we realise that it is 2,000 years old. To seek to exacerbate passions that are already acute would be an unworthy task. The Germans are a great factor in the world’s life; they will not be exterminated, whatever happens; they even have a large part – as they like to remind us – in our own blood. We shall still have to live in the world with them, and may as well try to understand them. If the world has not loved them, that is scarcely matter for exultation.

In Germany itself this attitude of the world is not unrealised; indeed, it is often morbidly exaggerated. Thoughtful Germans have from time to time anxiously pondered over the problem. One such attempt to elucidate the matter, made a few years ago, seems worth bringing forward, because the events of today serve to put it in a new light. Professor Georg Steinhausen speaks with high authority. He is at the very centre of that “Kultur” we now hear so much about. He is, indeed, its historian as well as the editor of the Archiv für Kultur-Geschichte. Moreover, Steinhausen, even in discussing so delicate a topic as the world’s estimate of Germans, is reasonable and fair minded. He desires for his country a civilisation of finer quality, for Germany still lacks, he remarks, what the French, the English, even the Dutch, have achieved – an evolved spirit of civilisation, an independent art of living, a high Lebensstil. What such a man has to say is better worth hearing than the fanatical and less typical utterances of extremists, so wearisomely dinned into our ears of late.

“There is no people so unloved as we are. Why is it?” he asks. (He is writing, it must be remembered, five years ago.) Germany’s position in the world reminds him of England’s a century ago when she attacked unprotected Denmark, though he hastens to qualify this remark by adding that Germany has no such crime on her conscience; “Germany’s policy is the most peaceful and well-meaning in the world.” Steinhausen finds a partial answer to his question in the reflection that the reputation of nations is chiefly founded on their exterior qualities, and the good qualities of the German are interior. Even Tacitus, he remarks, who admired the courage and chastity of the Germans, regarded them as drunken and violent barbarians. Their cunning also impressed the Romans, and their aptitude for lying, as Velleius Paterculus records. In the fifth century the Goths were for Salvianus “Gothorum gens perfida”. Their frenzy of drunkenness has been specially noted from the first and all through, often with gluttony in addition. Gregory of Tours gave a disgusting picture of their drinking habits, so also Venantius Fortunatus and a long succession of writers, down, it may be said, to the present. Their uncleanliness also impressed Salvianus and others, while Sidonius complained that their women reeked of onions.

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Steinhausen is not, however, inclined to rely exclusively on the mere exteriority of the Germans’ bad traits. He finds another explanation, which had, indeed, already been put forward by Nietzsche: Europeans are the legatees of the ancient Roman Empire, and have thus inherited its profound horror of the Teutonic barbarians who in successive waves rolled over their civilisation. The Goths from Prussia who sacked Rome in 410, but spared the sacred places, were far outdone in the perpetration of horrors by their descendants who accompanied Charles of Bourbon to the later sack of Rome in 1527; and still later, in the Thirty Years War, the troops of Mansfeld, which were a terror to their enemies, were a still greater terror to their friends.

It is natural, therefore, that the Latin races of today, who are still closer to ancient civilisation, should grow impatient when they hear Gobineau and Houston Chamberlain declare that the German is the salt of the earth and European civilisation a Teutonic creation, declaring on their side that civilisation is a Mediterranean product, and that the Germans have merely been a destructive element. Such a criticism, the fair-minded Steinhausen admits, is in part not unjust. The Germans had their own sources of culture, and the modern world owes to the Germans (in the wide sense, including the English) much that it possesses. (It must always be remembered that to the Teutonic mind the English, though not “Deutsch”, are “German”. Hence the resentment felt in Germany at our “treachery” in turning against a race regarded as being of our own stock. They overlook the fact that “England”, and even “Deutschland”, are really inhabited by races of highly mixed composition, and neither exclusively “Germanic”, even in the widest sense.) But this debt to Germany only began in the middle of the 18th century. It has proceeded rapidly, and “today world-civilisation is no more Latin, but a great part Germanic” – that is, as we should express it, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic.

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Whatever the explanation of the world’s opinion of the Teuton, Professor Steinhausen admits and even emphasises that opinion; few of its more notable expressions seem to have escaped him. “Teutonici, nullius amici”, was the Latin saying of the 13th century. “The friend of none!” comments the professor. “A sad saying, but very significant. It corresponds to the judgment of many peoples concerning the medieval Germans.” A haughty self-consciousness was noted of them and embodied in 15th-century proverbs, as was their clownishness. They were not loved by their fellow-crusaders in the Holy Land: “grossiers et communs”, wrote the Troubadour Peire Vidal. The Germans, on their part, passed this attitude on, and in their turn have always called the Slavs “barbarians”. Petrarch continued the tradition, but in his hands it becomes a more refined and discriminating criticism; he admired Cologne, but he could only find signs of material prosperity, none of spiritual exultation. It was, Steinhausen points out, mainly “the coarse atmosphere of drunkenness and gluttony” which made Germany seem barbarous, so that, in 1471, Giantonio Campano said that it made him sick even to hear the word Germany. 

The Germans themselves admitted the truth of the foreigners’ charges. “Alas! I know well,” said Luther, “that we Germans are, and always will be, beasts and mad brutes, as the peoples around call us, and as we well deserve.” “Porco tedesco”, said the Italian proverb; “Allemands ivrognes”, the French, though at the same time their prowess was admitted: “Let him who wants to be hacked in pieces quarrel with the Germans.” Even the English, though they had the least right of all to make fun of “other Germans” on these grounds, joined in the general chorus. He quotes Shakespeare’s Portia on the German, the observations of the judicious Fynes Moryson – whose Itinerary, it may be added, was the Baedeker for Europe of the 17th century – and the epigram of John Owen that if in wine there is truth, certainly it will sooner or later be discovered by the Germans.

In the middle of the 18th century there was indeed a sudden fashion of admiration for the German poetry of the time, its sentiment and its naivety; but this fashion had almost passed by 1790. It was not until Madame de Staël’s revelation of the “German soul” in 1813, in De l’Allemagne, that Germany became really a fashion in France. The new industrial development has not made Germany more loved, says Steinhausen, though it has increased respect and admiration. Notwithstanding all the military and industrial and economic activities of Germany, there remains the feeling, he confesses, that the Germans are barbarous, more especially in the developments of Prussian militarism. (It may be noted that Steinhausen, probably because he himself belongs to Prussia, deliberately omits to consider the Prussianisation of modern Germany as a factor in the European attitude.) “All Prussians,” says Maurice Barrès, “are under the operation of beer, which lulls, without changing, their brutal souls;” and René Bazin remarks: “I do not hate the Germans – I even admire them – but the more I learn to know them the more I feel that they are different, that I belong to another race, and that I cherish an ideal which they cannot understand.” This feeling of superiority on the part of the Latins, as the judicial Steinhausen observes, is not without justification; it is based on their ancient civilisation, and on the possession of a cultivated art of living which, he admits, the Germans, for all their efforts, still lack.

“The Englishman, also, has a definite culture of life, and a civilisational style of living, without which life is unthinkable to him, and which no one denies. He, too, feels himself in consequence to be superior to the noisy and ill-bred German, unskilfully stiff, or formlessly jovial, or socially incorrect.” Such feelings, Steinhausen concludes, together with hatred of the feudal-military system, affect all peoples outside Germany, especially those proud of their “freedom” (it is the Professor who places that word in inverted commas). So it is that Ferrero in L’Europa Giovane calls Bismarck a barbaric genius only fit for Huns. Behind this exposition one detects a certain sadness. Steinhausen is on the side of that idealistic individualism which he evidently regards as the finest and deepest Germanic trait. To Germany’s other defects is to be added her extreme self-consciousness of superiority, and Steinhausen quotes a Serb as to the Germans “always crying aloud their own good qualities and running down foreigners whom at the same time they are ridiculously imitating”. This attitude has accompanied Germany’s sudden rise to prosperity, which again arouses, especially among the English, “envy and jealousy”.

In the end Steinhausen consoles himself with the thought that other nations are beginning to regard Germany as a model. The Russians are in science and in economics the pupils of the Germans. So also are the Balkan peoples. Germany’s friends are growing in Italy. The French are beginning to be just to Germany. The Belgian Maeterlinck has declared that “Germany is the moral conscience of the world”. The Americans recognise the blessings which Germany has brought. The Japanese appreciate and imitate Germany. “So we Germans need not take tragically the world’s lack of love for us. Politically it may today be dangerous. But against that danger our might will protect us.”

Doubtless there are some who will smile gleefully to observe how even that place of refuge which Professor Steinhausen imagines that Germany holds in the world’s heart has today fallen down at every single point like a house of cards. But it is matter for tragedy more than comedy. Whatever the might of Germany may prove to be worth, it remains a tragedy for itself and all mankind that one of the youngest and most vigorous of great nations – eagerly striving to snatch at that culture which is the mature growth of centuries – should seek to thrust its gifts on the world by brute force, while yet dimly realising that one of the greatest of national assets is love.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)