Wolfgang Schivelbusch
The Culture of Defeat

Like the established world powers England and France, Germany required a 'universally appealing ideology,' as Paul Rohrbach put it. Friedrich Naumann wrote: 'We Germans must come up with something as our world-historical mission that no other people can achieve as well as we can, indeed, that will remain unachieved if we do not carry it out. We need a national calling in the great assembly of humanity so that we can pursue our independent path with purpose and passion.'

Prior to the war, Rohrbach was the most active advocate of what he termed 'ethical imperialism.' In his 1912 book Der deutsche Gedanke (The German Way of Thinking), he argued for 'the essential moral core of Germanness as the determining force on current and future world events' and specified the mission of ethical imperialism as 'the peaceful penetration of the non-German world with elements of our spiritual and material culture.' Culture and power did not merely reinforce each other; as the example of England showed, a self-confident imperial culture was the prerequisite for global power. The liberal imperialists perennially complained about Germany's ignorance and incompetence in this area. Rohrbach wrote of 'our weak capability as a moral conqueror' and of a Prussian-German 'abrasiveness' that elicited not admiration but alienation and mistrust in international public opinion.

These isolated voices of the prewar era came together after the German defeat in a great chorus of national self-criticism. Even a figure as strongly identified with political saber rattling as former minister Karl Helfferich joined in. 'It was not clever,' he wrote, 'to talk incessantly about the sword, thus enabling our foreign enemies to portray the most peaceful people and monarch on earth as being obsessed by war. In this way, we unintentionally promoted the myth of our warlike intentions and helped produce an international mood that provided the coalition against us with the necessary mass-psychological underpinning.' Many others offered similar judgments. Sociologist Johann Plenge wrote: 'Because in our so-called Realpolitik we failed to grasp the very real power of propaganda, suggestions from the politics of ideas were ruthlessly kicked aside by jackbooted technicians.'

  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.