Peter Pulzer

Peter Pulzer is Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration at Oxford and a fellow of All Souls. He is the author of Political Representation and Elections in Britain and is currently working on a study of the West German party system.

‘I was only obeying orders.’ It is difficult to pronounce these words in English, except with a comic German accent. They symbolise for most people an unquestioning subordination to authority that is peculiarly German and that seems to offer a simple explanation for the horrors of the 20th century. There is a German word for this, Kadavergehorsam, which the dictionary translates as ‘blind obedience’, but which literally means ‘obedience unto death’. Sometimes this archetypally German conformity has a surreal touch. A Czech colleague once told me that on a research visit to Leipzig he had seen a street-cleaning van sprinkling away during a rainstorm. At that moment, he told me, he realised why there had been two world wars.

Hangover

Peter Pulzer, 9 January 1992

After the intoxication of liberation comes the hangover. East Germans are less happy than of the day the Berlin Wall was opened. The cost of basic needs – rent, fuel, food – has gone up, jobs are being decimated. Their Western brothers and sisters, who embraced them on 10 November 1989, seem intent on telling them how to run their lives and reluctant to share their affluence with them. Polish national unity, impressively symbolised by Solidarity, has disintegrated into apathy and multi-partism: fewer than half the Poles turned out to vote in the first free parliamentary election and no party got more than one-eighth of the votes cast. Czechs and Slovaks are close to breaking up the state that was the one working democracy in inter-war Central and Eastern Europe. Of the organised thuggery in Romania and the civil wars in the Caucasus and Yugoslavia the less said the better.

Do we need a constitution?

Peter Pulzer, 5 December 1991

‘That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.’

After the Wall

Peter Pulzer, 23 May 1991

The other wall, the mote famous and aesthetically more distinguished one, the one designed to protect China from the barbarians, inspired Kafka to one of his most profound reflections: ‘Try with all your might to comprehend the decrees of the high command, but only up to a certain point; then avoid further meditation.’ I do not suppose the rulers of the German Democratic Republic studied Kafka. They were merely nature imitating art. For a time they managed to inhibit meditation among their subjects, though without inducing comprehension. When meditation resumed, so did comprehension, for reasons Kafka would have been the first to grasp. The rest we know.

Head over heart for Europe

Peter Pulzer, 21 March 1991

‘We should have to contend with the ordinary Englishman’s almost innate dislike and suspicion of “Europeans” … Intensive re-education would be needed to bring this section of the public to realise that in the modern world even the United Kingdom cannot stand alone.’ The words are those of a committee of civil servants convened to advise the Macmillan Government in 1960 on the pros and cons of joining the ‘Six’. The paper has just been released under the thirty-year rule.

Homesickness

Eric Hobsbawm, 8 April 1993

Most of world history until the later 18th century could be written without more than marginal reference to the Jews, except as a small people which pioneered the monotheistic world religions, a...

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