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Werner Sombart, Merchants and Heroes [Händler und Helden] (1915)

Many German intellectuals felt moved to interpret the First World War in grandiloquent terms of competing cultures or civilizations. For the economist Werner Sombart (1863-1941), the contest pitted Helden [heroes] against Händler [merchants]. The Germans, he explained, were a nation of heroes, committed to the great deed and animated by primordial drives; the English, by contrast, were practical, hedonistic, calculating, and base.

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All great wars are religious wars. They were so in the past, they are in the present, and they will be so in the future. In an earlier era, wars were also religious wars in the minds of those who fought. Whether Kaiser Karl fought against the Saxons, whether the “Franks” rode out to liberate a sacred gravesite, whether the advancing Turks were beaten back, whether the German Kaisers protected their empire against the Italian cities, whether Protestants and Catholics fought for predominance in the age of Reformation – in all cases, those who waged war were aware that they were fighting for their faith, and we who, looking back, seek to understand the world-historical significance of these wars, understand that the feelings and thoughts of those who fought came from a profound source.

Even the Napoleonic Wars were interpreted by the best minds of the era as nothing other than religious wars. The most recent biographer of Freiherr vom Stein sees it this way, and his judgment of the Congress of Vienna is certainly correct, when he writes that Stein understood the whole business not as a struggle for power, but as a struggle between good and evil.

In the age of nation-states and capitalism, the deeper antagonisms, which have come to a head in the great world wars, thus do not lie on the surface. Instead, pure hunger for power or economic interests appear to be the sole reasons for the struggles. These may very well be the driving forces. But one would not get beneath the surface were one not to recognize behind these motives, which are visible to the simplest intelligence as the causes of war in our era – and particularly the holy war that Germany is now fighting against a world of enemies – the deeper antagonisms that are at war; and these are none other than religious antagonisms or, as we say nowadays, ideological antagonisms.

It is clear that in the present world wars a number of the most varied individual conflicts have come to a head. These are peripheral wars, such as those between Russia and Turkey over the control of the Dardanelles, between France and Germany over Alsace-Lorraine, between Austria-Hungary and Russia over hegemony in the Balkans. The main war is another one. Our enemies have seen this fact most clearly, as they proclaimed to the world the issue was between western European civilization, the “ideas of 1789,” and German “militarism”, German “barbarism.” In fact, they addressed instinctively but accurately the deepest antagonism. I would like to define it a little differently, when I say: at issue in this war are the merchant and the hero, the mercantile and heroic Weltanschauung, and the culture that pertains to each. The reason why I am trying, by means of these terms, to isolate a profound and comprehensive antagonism between world-views and experiences of the world is the subject of the following analysis.

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