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German Liberalism Recast: Hermann Baumgarten’s Self-Criticism (Early October 1866)

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Truly, under these circumstances, it has become a pleasure to work for public interests. Up to now, it was a tough, sad duty that was only undertaken as a matter of obligation: Now the most wonderful reward is beckoning, and in fact, now we only have to accomplish one task, namely to overcome certain prejudices, dismiss certain weaknesses that have clung to us in an unhappy past. As soon as German liberalism stands up for the great facts it acknowledges, exhibiting complete dedication and persistence despite secondary reservations, there can be no doubt that the next decade will bring us the German state that has become as compelling a necessity for our scholarship, arts, and morality as it has for our political development and national position of power. Only we can stand in the way of this salutary process; only we would be able to push ourselves backward into the old misery.

As I conclude these reflections, I am confronted anew with the old reservation that held me back from this treatise for so long, that checked my pen so often during work – the question of whether the kind of self-criticism I am daring should not be based on a better personal calling than the one I claim for myself. Really, I would much rather have done without a burden that is perhaps too heavy for my shoulders. However, since time is running short and no one else lent a hand, I felt I had to heed my conscientious conviction more than any personal considerations. I have the feeling of having fulfilled a heavy, thankless, but necessary duty. I am prepared to be censured by many, perhaps severely attacked by some, and I intend to bear the trouble associated with the work gladly if only it brings some benefit to the fatherland and the party to which it is dedicated. No one, I believe, will think me capable of the conceitedness of deeming the subject exhausted in any way by my discussion: I wanted nothing other than to ask for serious self-examination, to give impetus to a discussion that we must not spare ourselves; and if more far-sighted men would wish to find a worthier solution to the task I felt obliged to put on the agenda, then nothing would make me happier.

There may be no lack of those who will accuse me of treason against the party, when in fact I am only operating out of loyal dedication to it. If liberalism did not mean a great deal to me – well, I would not have invested so much in it. I am firmly convinced that a satisfactory solution to our political tasks will succeed only if liberalism ceases to constitute mainly the opposition; if it reaches the point of fulfilling certain incredibly important concerns of the nation in governing activity of its own; if we get a beneficial and fresh alteration of liberal and conservative governments. Liberalism must become capable of governing. I cannot help anyone who perceives a degeneration of liberal greatness in doing smaller things as a government instead of demanding unlimited things as an opposition. But no one can dare to label as a renunciation of liberalism the demand that liberalism should finally become a force realizing its ideas on its own. It is far from my intention to draw a line beyond which it ought not to extend this power: As far as its power actually extends, it should exercise it with vigor; I only wish it would stop depriving itself of any real power by indulging in illusions regarding the scale of its own strength.

Source: Hermann Baumgarten, “Der deutsche Liberalismus. Eine Selbstkritik,” in Preußische Jahrbücher [Prussian Yearbooks], vol. 18 (November-December 1866): pp. 455-515, 575-629.

Original German text reprinted in Hermann Baumgarten, Der deutsche Liberalismus. Eine Selbstkritik [German Liberalism: A Self-Criticism], ed. and intro. by Adolf M. Birke. Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1974, pp. 23-150, here pp. 132-49.

Translation: Erwin Fink

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