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Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe: Reflections and Recollections (1946)

Here, the historian Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1964) reflects on the “Spirit of 1914,” a transient sense of unity felt by Germans during the initial stages of the First World War. Free from romantic notions of national solidarity, Meinecke also addresses the fissures in German society that reasserted themselves several months after the war began.

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When the First World War broke out, it seemed once more that a kind angel might lead the German people back to the right path. The exaltation of spirit experienced during the August days of 1914, in spite of its ephemeral character, is one of the more precious, unforgettable memories of the highest sort. All the rifts which had hitherto existed in the German people, both within the bourgeoisie and between the bourgeoisie and the working classes, were suddenly closed in the face of the common danger which snatched us out of the security of the material prosperity that we had been enjoying. And more than that, one perceived in all camps that it was not a matter merely of the unity of a gain-seeking partnership, but that an inner renovation of our whole state and culture was needed. We generally believed indeed that this had already commenced and that it would progress further in the common experiences of the war, which was looked upon as a war of defense and self-protection. We underwent a rare disappointment in our hopes. Within a year the unity was shattered and the German people were again separated upon various paths. Was the uplift of August 1914 after all merely the last flickering of older evolutionary forces which were now coming to an end? A good observer, Max Hildebert Böhm, suspected as much in 1917. He wrote in the Preussische Jahrbücher (volume 167):

“In many respects August 1914 will perhaps at a later time look much less like the commencement of a new era than the rather painful farewell to an old one, the splendid final harmonious note of a romanticism from which the German mind could tear itself away only with profound resignation.” The new era that is now really approaching, he continued, will be characterized by techniques, rationalism, bread-rationing socialism, by a pitiless ethos guided not by the heart but by the head. A state whose essence is organization will be indifferent, with the innermost distrust, toward the incalculable unfolding of life of the individual, from which alone German culture buds forth.”

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