Friedrich Meinecke
The German Catastrophe

The synthesis of power and spirit of the classical liberals had rested on a particularly delicate and sympathetic blending, varying in individual cases, of rational and irrational forces. The penetrating influences of modern civilization, however, were not favorable to the maintenance of a stable equilibrium between rational and irrational forces. The form of modern professional life especially has resulted in stamping a mechanistic character on life, in normalizing the aims of life, and in lessening the spontaneity of the spirit. Think, for example, of the elaboration of the system of training and examination for professional positions in the public service. The rational calculation of what is helpful, on the basis of what is officially prescribed, supersedes the free inclinations which are nourished by the spirit.

This is only one example among many of the way in which superficial rationalization can lead to an inner injury to the spirit. One must examine and throw light on these things in all their proper connections. An especially typical case which a good observer called to my attention some years ago may be mentioned here because it helps one to understand certain frequently recurring traits in the German people during the Hitler era.

It often happens nowadays, this observer said in the days before the Third Reich, that young technicians, engineers, and so forth, who have enjoyed an excellent university training as specialists, will completely devote themselves to their calling for ten or fifteen years and without looking either to the right or the left will try only to be first-rate specialists. But then, in their middle or late thirties, something they have never felt before awakens in them, something that was never really brought to their attention in their education—something that we could call a suppressed metaphysical desire. Then they rashly seize upon any sort of ideas and activities, anything that is fashionable at the moment and seems to them important for the welfare of individuals—whether it be anti-alcoholism, agricultural reform, eugenics, or the occult sciences. The former first-rate specialist changes into a kind of prophet, into an enthusiast, perhaps even into a fanatic and monomaniac. Thus arises the type of man who wants to reform the world.

Here one sees how a one-sided training of the intellect in technical work may lead to a violent reaction of the neglected irrational impulses of the spirit, but not to a real harmony of critical self-discipline and inner creativeness—rather to a new one-sidedness that clutches about wildly and intemperately.

In many of the Nazi leaders we believe we can recognize this type. Alfred Rosenberg, for instance, started as a technician and then plunged into that wild historical-philosophical complex of ideas which he proclaimed to the world in Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (The Myth of the Twentieth Century). A technical calling, however, does not necessarily precede the world reformer's intemperance. Men with hot heads, ambition, and an autodidactic urge for advancement, when forced into the technically normalized working conditions of the present day, may easily lose their inner equilibrium in the conflict of the spirit with the world about them and flare up in a blaze. The petty painter and aquarellist Hitler, who once had to earn his scanty bread in construction work and in the course of it whipped up his hatred of the Jews into a general philosophy (Weltanschauung) of world-shaking consequences, is a case of this kind.

Technology's expansion into all walks of practical life has in general called into existence a great number of new crafts and careers. It thereby finally created a new social class whose psychological structure is markedly different from that of previous social classes, both those of the old agrarian state and those of the new bourgeoisie which has blossomed out of the agrarian state. An intellect sharply concentrated upon whatever was utilitarian and immediately serviceable took possession of mental life. Through it great things could be achieved, resulting in an astonishing progress in civilization. Man's other spiritual forces, so tar as they were not suppressed, avenged themselves either by those wild reactions just mentioned or fell into a general decay and debility. Feeling and phantasy, as it were, had the choice between running wild or withering. Generally they did the latter. The craving of the senses, indestructible as it is and always will be in man, received as a result of the progress of technology and civilization an abundance of new objects towards which it could direct itself. The will, as a result of the fabulous possibilities now being made attainable in practical life through the calculating and planning intellect, received a powerful stimulus and upsurge. Indeed, the later nineteenth and the twentieth centuries have truly not been lacking in tremendous energies. The calculating intellect aimed more at practical activities than at spiritual understanding. It combined with a concentrated will-power, stormed from one ostensible tremendous task to another, and only pause momentarily for relief in the material pleasures of life. Such in general outline is the picture offered by the genius of the century, a very different picture from that of the decaying late Roman Empire with which people have often compared our era.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.