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Jacob Burckhardt on German Sentiment during and after the War with France (1870-72)

Like Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) entertained serious reservations about the legitimacy and consequences of the war against France in 1870-71. A Swiss historian of art and culture, particularly the Renaissance, Burckhardt held a professorship in Basel from 1858 until his retirement in 1893. In 1872, he was offered the renowned chair of history formerly held by Leopold von Ranke at the University of Berlin, but he didn’t hesitate in declining the offer: “In Basel,” he remarked, “I can say what I like.” The following excerpts are from four letters that Burckhardt wrote to Friedrich von Preen (1823-1894). Burckhardt had met Preen back in 1864, during one of his walks in the neighborhood of Lörrach in the Black Forest. Preen was prefect of the district, a civil servant of the old school. In these letters, Burckhardt voices his uneasiness about Germany’s aspirations to become a great power in Europe after its victory over France. “O, my dear friend,” he writes, “where will it all end?” He also mentions the “new politics,” which might demand an “absolutist regime” to counteract the effects of universal manhood suffrage and the rising tide of militarism in state and society.

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I. To Friedrich von Preen, Basel, September 27, 1870

[Esteemed Sir and Friend]

[ . . . ]

Since receipt of your letter [of August 21], I have been waiting and waiting to see whether a pause, an armistice, might not give me time to bring some kind of clarity into the whole problem. But events move on. France is to drink the dregs of misery and disorder, before being really allowed to speak. O, my dear friend, where will it all end? Does no one realize that the pestilence from which the conquered are suffering may also infect the victors? This frightful revenge would only be (relatively) justified if Germany were in fact the completely innocent victim of unprovoked attack that she is given out to be. Is the Landwehr to go right on to Bordeaux and Bayonne? Logically the whole of France would have to be occupied by a million Germans for many years. I know quite well it will not happen, but that is what one would have to deduce from what has happened hitherto. You know I have always had a mania for prophesying, and have already met with some astonishing rebuffs; but this time I simply must try to picture to myself what seems to be coming. Now supposing that, after the occupation of Paris and possibly of Lyons, the German Army Command were to let the French vote on the government they wanted. A lot would depend on how it was staged; the peasants and a section of the workers would certainly vote for Louis Napoleon again.

There is a new element present in politics that goes deep, and which former victors knew nothing of, or at least they made no conscious use of it. They try to humiliate the vanquished profoundly in his own eyes, so that he should never again really trust himself to achieve anything. It is possible that this aim will be achieved; but whether things will be any better and happier is another matter.

What a mistake the poor German nation will make if once home it tries to put its rifle in the corner and devote itself to the arts and the pleasures of peace! In point of fact it will be a matter of military training before everything! And after a time no one will be able to say what they are living for. Then we shall see the Russo-German war in the middle of the picture, and then gradually in the foreground.

In the meanwhile we can both thank Heaven that at least Alsace and Baden are not to be soldered together: it would have produced a fatal mixture. That has been rendered quite impossible owing to the fact that Baden troops were given an essential role in the siege of Strasburg. For I take the liberty of presuming that that was not arranged by mistake. One of two things must happen: Alsace will either become purely Prussian or it remains French. Precisely because German dominion in these new Länder is so difficult, it can only be administered directly by Prussia, and any intermediary form of guardianship or tutelage under the German Empire would not be feasible.

There is one other extraordinary sight to which the world will have to accustom itself: the Protestant House of Hohenzollern as the one effective protector of the Pope, who from now on becomes a subject of the Italian Kingdom.

But enough of politics! Heaven grant us a tolerably quiet interval. [ . . . ]

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