Ernst Troeltsch on the German democracy (1918)


Ernst Troeltsch, a German philosopher and theologian, wrote this account of the ‘German democracy’ in December 1918:


“Overnight we have become the most radical democracy in Europe, and are obliged as well to consider it the relatively moderate solution to the problem of our political life. On closer inspection, it did not happen overnight. Democracy is the natural consequence of modern population density, combined with the education of the population necessary to nurture it, with industrialisation, mobilisation, defence preparations, and politicisation. Democracy has been suppressed in Prussia since 1848 by the constitution and the military system, but it struggled constantly and powerfully for supremacy against both… It fell solely to the terrible world war to deliver democracy to victory. But this also which introduced a danger that the development will not stop at democracy because the “dictatorship of the proletariat” will assume the form of the terrorist domination by a minority.

Questions arise whether this socialist revolution was avoidable; whether the initiatives of Prince Max’s government against the resistance of the old ruling strata were truly capable of being executed, including the doubtlessly great and sweeping social reforms… It is certain that the revolution broke the backbone of the Reich in the most terrible moment of its history, when it would have had greater need of such a structure than at any other time…

It means principled anti-militaristic thinking and an approach based on the League of Nations as the sole means of maintaining our existence and rebuilding within the geographical borders at that time… We have to adapt ourselves to a wholly new situation, which can only be secured externally through the idea of the League of Nations and internally through a new order renovated along democratic and social lines, if Germany is not to become a volcano of misery, ever subject to eruption, as well as a focus of civil wars and an endless slave rebellion against despots.

It means secondly that the Bismarckian creation of the Reich has been worn down to its foundations, and, since the latter ultimately rest on the military and bureaucratic state of old Prussia, that the entire political order and formation since the reorganization of the German territorial state through absolutism is undergoing dissolution or at least total transformation… The Reich as a whole, as well as in its individual parts, must be rebuilt with a new administration and new constitution, the army newly organized with a social foundation. The German solution must be expanded into the pan-German solution…

That means thirdly that democracy is no longer a pure question of political and moral principle… Democracy can unite broad social strata to facilitate enormous productivity, can supply a foundation of love and affection for the common state, can bring into greater play the dignity and personality of each citizen, can root responsibility and initiative in individual will, and can effect a selection of fresh talents and will: all things of the highest ethical value and most fruitful political significance… We Germans have no talent for democracy, none at all for politics; we have not been trained for it by our history and are unprepared… We will learn it, even at the cost of suffering and pain and much confusion…

As dark and difficult as this future might be, it can also become a reconstruction, and above all it is no break with the German spirit and its history. We want to ground ourselves anew in this history and draw from it its great treasures in order to stamp it with a new vitality and unity. In this respect we want to establish the ideal of a conservative democracy, since novelty will be sufficiently looked after on its own. And, contrary to the despondency and embitterment of so many, we side with the conclusion of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister: “We bid you to hope.”