When war came, the arrogance of the Kaiser was hardly to be distinguished from that of Hitler a quarter of a century later, except that Wilhelm’s effusions were couched in somewhat better grammar. Representative of four years of imperial rabble rousing was this proclamation to the Armies of the East in 1914: “Remember that you are the chosen people! The spirit of the Lord has descended upon me, because I am Emperor of the Germans! I am the instrument of the Most High. I am His sword. His representative… . May all the enemies of the German people perish! God demands their destruction. God, who through my mouth, commands you to execute His will.”
Wilhelm was not uniquely mad, as many readers in Allied lands supposed from reading his proclamations. Heinrich von Treitschke was considered the chief living German historian. What his science had taught him, he wrote in 1916, was “that war is both justifiable and moral, and that the ideal of perpetual peace is not only impossible but immoral as well … Anyone with a knowledge of history realizes that to expel war from the universe would be to mutilate German freedom… . War must be conceived as an institution ordained by God.”
Nor was this a war-induced hysteria. Twenty years before, in the midst of peace, Treitschke had remarked that “those who preach the nonsense of eternal peace do not understand Aryan national life.”
Mere loss of a war, especially one in which they had held the field for years against a coalition of all the chief powers of the world, did not seem to Germans any reason for doubting the truth of Fichte and Hegel, Treitschke and the Kaiser. They were inclined to remember—and their orators, writers and teachers reminded them—how close they had been to victory. They had missed taking Paris in 1914 by sheer bad luck, the German version runs, and the men of the Weimar Republic could reflect wistfully on the glories that might have been if the French capital had succumbed. If Oswald Spengler, the philosopher author of “The Decline of the West”, could learn nothing from defeat, how could the world reasonably expect average citizens to unlearn two or three lifetimes of miseducation? And Spengler could write in 1921: “A genuine international is only possible through the victory of the idea of one race over all others… we Germans … have rich unspent possibilities within us and huge tasks before us … The real international is imperialism.”
Defeat by the United Nations has brought no visible signs that the German dream of conquest had faded any more than it did in 1918. Hitler himself realized that this would be true when, fresh from the seizure of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938, he was quoted as saying: A defeated nation can even better than a victorious nation be trained and prepared for the day of final victory.
American observers who have entered captured German towns find no weakening of the German will. It is as strong today as was Hitler’s in 1938. Its persistence is reflected in the woman of Aachen, quoted in the New York Times. Indicating the burning city she said: “If the British had only surrendered in 1940, none of this would have happened.” Inevitably Germans will remember much more clearly how close they came to victory than how they came to be defeated. But even if they had not come so close, the will which has supported two world wars with terrible tenacity and virtual unanimity will not be broken by a few disasters.