1. What is the central focus of the book? How does the author thread a narrative through the sequence of distinct political phases between 1866 and 1945?
Toward the middle of the 19th century Germany was witness to profound political churnings. The century that ensued is perhaps the nation’s most eventful and yet the most tormented. The author’s account is an encapsulation of a nation’s struggle in finding its political spirit. The struggle is one between the pulls of modernity and republicanism on the one hand, and the allure of tradition and convention on the other. The century in question is the grand theatre when bold new strides were taken in making Germany a model democracy in Europe. Tragically, much of this progress is undone by the rise of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party and its usurpation of power in 1933. Although, the decade under Hitler’s premiership is a well-documented chapter in 20th century history author Gordon Craig brings a unique and fresh viewpoint on the episode.
2. How does the author treat the delicate and complex subject of the military operations of the Third Reich?
One of main obstacles that stood against the Nazi agenda was the conservative-militaristic order that prevailed during the Wilhelmine era. So Hitler was hell bent on destroying this institutional resistance. Adopting means that were not entirely ethical Hitler was able to wrest power in 1933. The six years that followed was devoted to elaborate social engineering whereby, Hitler’s policies moulded Germany into a perpetual war-ready state. This aggressive military posturing was not lost on major neighbouring powers. It was only a matter of time for the inevitable expansion to commence, and it promptly did with the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The unfolding of the Second World Wars saw the worst human casualties in human history. The most painful episode is that of the Holocaust, where 6 million innocent Jews were systematically exterminated as part of the Nazi party’s Final Solution program. Gordon Craig handles the subject with sensitivity and factual accuracy.
3. How objectively are the major leaders of the century portrayed by the author?
Gordon Craig presents in detail the portraits of two major political leaders of the period. The fist is Otto van Bismarck and the second is Adolf Hitler. He describes the former as a ‘great star’, duly acknowledging the tremendous impact his personality had on German nationalism. But Craig is not shy of highlighting the failings of this great character as well. For example, he notes how the stubborn trait in the Iron Chancellor held back Republican values in the polity. In assessing Hitler, the author observes how the Fuhrer disregarded the rich roots of German intellectual culture to direct the nation toward a narrowly conceived liberal modernity.
Craig places the relevance of these two political leaders in the context of their institutional, economic and social conditions they inherited. For instance, in terms of the social impact, the rights, roles and responsibilities of women underwent drastic changes during the span of the century, reaching a peak during the Weimar years. The Weimar years represented the peaking of German arts and political rights. Equally impressive were the advances being made in education methodology and religious scepticism. The demise that was to follow was partly blamed on the artists and intellectuals of the age, many of whom meekly surrendered to Hitler’s authoritarianism.
4. What qualities does Gordon Craig identify in his description of Weimar Culture? Were they undermined or undone under the Nazi regime?
The authorial perspective towards the general culture of the Weimar years has overall been a favorable one. Craig states emphatically that the Weimar period is second to none in German history, in terms of its contribution to science and the humanities. The primary reason why this was possible was the spirit of Republicanism that was steadfastly upheld by the regime. Artists and intellectuals were given the freedom and encouragement to express themselves, without any obligation to come to the State’s rescue in the future course. Unfortunately, this situation unraveled in the wake of the Great Depression in the USA (with domino effects on economies of Europe) and all the erstwhile enemies of republicanism and democracy joined ranks. This then, is how the glorious Weimar years came to an end. The ensuing political vacuum and the attendant opportunism saw the assumption of Adolf Hitler as the Fuhrer. But sadly, Nazi Germany saw the greatest degree of intolerance toward intellectual or political dissent.
5. Is Gordon Craig correct in describing Weimar Germany as the cradle of modernity?
Weimar Germany represented the cradle of modernity for Western Civilization in more than one way. There are many high points during the early decades of twentieth century Germany. This is especially true with respect to art and literature, which are identified with the birth of Expressionism, Bauhaus architecture, discoveries in the Physics of Relativity, the naissance of Quantum Physics, Atonality in music (as pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg), Sigmund Freud and the Psychoanalysis movement, Sociology of Knowledge, etc. Before the rise of Hitler Germany boasted some of the leading luminaries in the fields of science and art, including de Broglie, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Carl Gustav Jung and Alfred Adler. Where these intellectuals differed from earlier generations of scientists and philosophers is in making their esoteric intellectual pursuits accessible to the lay readership.
6. Amid widespread censorship and crushing of dissent during the Hitler years, were there yet notable countercurrents? How exactly did artists and intellectuals cope with mounting political suppression?
Although German culture under the Nazis suffered radical decline, one cannot yet doubt the unique merits of poets such as Rilke, George and Benn. Likewise, amid the looming political darkness were the bright spots offered by the novels of Mann, Hermann Hesse and Doblin. In theatre too, Expressionism made its mark as a new genre. Likewise, Arnold Schoenberg took modernity in music to new heights. In the realm of philosophy we have had the great insights of Frederick Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger brought back to the limelight. It was a pity though that most artists and intellectuals who found themselves not conforming to the political orthodoxy of the day were imprisoned, with the possibility of execution. It is in this stifling atmosphere of censorship and control that important intellectuals such as Schoenberg, Hannah Arendt, Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno exiled out of the country. Other prominent figures include Erika Mann, Thomas Mann, Max Brod and Arnold Zweig. Unfortunately, some others such as Stefan Zweig and Ernst Weiss resorted to suicide fearing persecution.
Craig, Gordon A. Germany 1866 – 1945. New York, Oxford: Oxford University, 1976