The Last Thing Said in Germany

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • War and the Image of Germany: British Academics 1914-1918 by Stuart Wallace
    John Donald, 288 pp, £20.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 85976 133 9

In the 1840s a Thomas Carlyle could mimic the German pedantic style and laugh at Herr Teufelsdröckh of Wahngasse of Weissnichtwo (a scatalogical invention worthy of Jonathan Swift), but opposites are known to attract. As the century moved on, Wisenschaft, a portmanteau word connoting the highest possible academic culture, took hold of the British academic imagination. Would be scholars, slogging away at the education of young men who behaved like boys, rose as from the dead to salute the hard-working German professors on their magic mountains who did not have to shape the characters of adolescents or affect an amusing, polished and clubbable style. In 1886 Lord Acton, a student of the great Ignatz Döllinger, defined the ‘familiar type of German scholar’ as ‘the man who complained that the public library allowed him only 13 hours a day to read, the man who spent 30 years on one volume, the man who wrote on Homer in 1806 and who still wrote on Homer in 1870, the man who discovered the 358 passages in which Dictys had imitated Sallust’.

The ‘familiar type of German scholar’ had another side too, although not the one to which Carlyle referred. In the heady days of British admiration for Wissenschaft it was easy to forget that the German professoriat rarely admitted Jews or Social Democrats to its ranks. Nor was the question of state control over German higher education and the subordination of the professoriat to national aims and purposes seriously questioned, even though such issues had been aired at the time of the Mid-Victorian reform of the English universities.

Clearly and simply, in a serious book, Wallace relates how the good opinion of things German disappeared during the First World War. Wissenschaft and German civilisation were disparaged. Memories of hikes on German mountains, of sculling on the Weser and exciting days in the laboratories and seminars of distinguished German scholars, were repressed. Only 29 years after Acton wrote his appreciation, W.F. Ridgeway, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge, allowed himself the self-indulgence of hind-sight in an address to the Conference of the Classical Association: ‘for the last two generations British men of science ... aimed chiefly at being the first to introduce into this country the last thing said in Germany, even though that might be only the worthless thesis produced by some young candidate for his doctorate.’

Doubtless an extreme position, but heavily applauded nonetheless. In the count-down to 1914, more scrupulous statements were made, by journalists as well as academics. German scholars and scientists, it was said, were not the same breed as soldiers and politicians The warlike, ruthless, efficient inheritances and practices of a barracks state had to be distinguished from the lovers of music and philosophy and the good-humoured folk. And Germany was not to be confused with Prussia. Furthermore, surely some of the bellicosity of pre-war ‘civilised’ Germany had to be blamed on the provocations of despotic and ‘barbaric’ Russia, or even British imperialism itself? Such excuses are the first round in the familiar process of emotional detachment. It was only a question of time before the reality of war impressed itself upon disbelieving minds.

August 1914 reversed opinion, but an even more decisive shift in academic sentiment was caused by the October publication of the ‘Manifesto of the Intellectuals’, denouncing as ‘lies’ the Allied contention that Germany was responsible for the outbreak of war and the violation of Belgium’s neutrality. The Manifesto was a statement of the so-called ‘Ninety-Three’ German academics drawn up by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Classical philologist and well-known friend of British scholars, and the Ninety-Three soon grew to some four thousand signatories, or virtually the whole of the German academic class. ‘Believe that we shall carry on this war to the end as a civilised nation to whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven and a Kant is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes.’ Apologies of sorts came later. The economic historian Lujo Brentano said in 1916 that he had signed without reading. By 1919 half of the signatories still living made a similar statement or recanted, but not Wilamowitz-Moellendorf.

Wallace recounts the effect of war on British scholarship, especially on the treatment of such broad questions as national loyalty, the role of the state, the responsibilities of citizens and subjects at times of crisis. He examines some of the opinions of scholars on specific issues pertaining to the conflict itself, such as war guilt and the punishment of Germany and, in passing, Bolshevism and anti-semitism. He shows, in what is a damaging and convincing indictment, how quickly partisanship undermined scholarship and compromised scientific method.

In fact, the strength of his account lies in demonstrating the fragility of ‘humane’ scholarship under conditions that test political loyalty. Two short case-studies in chapter form, one on British philosophers, the other on historians, describe how scholars rushed into print to revise their earlier estimates of the value of the German contribution to learning. Historians were now eager to prove that pre-war German civilisation was not worth their one-time favourable estimate. And they were willing to say this for the newly-created government propaganda office, Wellington House, which functioned behind the façade of the National Insurance Commission.

The philosophers were no less eager to associate the basic features of German philosophy with Prussian militarism and saw the two as intimately connected. L.T. Hobhouse virtually equated zeppelins with the ‘Hegelian god-state’. Given the extremely strong position of philosophical Idealism in British universities, Oxford especially, this was tantamount to an intellectual revolution. Bertrand Russell, whose opposition to the war landed him in jail for six months in 1918 and caused his writings to be put on the War Office Censor’s proscribed list of books, satirised the philosophers as attributing the invasion of Belgium to the substitution of Nietzsche for Kant and Hegel.

Wallace points out that virtually all British academics were patriots and against a compromise peace. Some were zealots, going beyond support of the war effort to attack the principles of liberal individualism in the name of a higher loyalty. A few, like R.H. Tawney, were socialists and not particularly sympathetic to liberal political culture in the first place. One, the economic historian and clergyman William Cunningham, joined the extreme right as a member of the National Party. Several found time to make a virtue out of a necessity and praised war itself as a moral tonic and intellectual stimulant. Once the stakes were known, controversy and bitterness followed. Friendships were broken, subtle and not so subtle pressures were applied to dissidents both within and outside the academy. Local authorities, lay university boards, and government tribunals investigating the aims and motives of COs, kept the heat on. German nationals living in Britain were villified, British subjects of German extraction were watched for signs of disaffection. Russell’s Trinity College lectureship was discontinued, and he was snubbed at high table. His Principia Mathematica collaborator A.N. Whitehead could hardly be expected to remain on amicable terms with him after losing a younger son in battle.

These and other examples of volte-face, rationalisation and sabre-rattling are dismaying. How dismaying, however, depends on one’s assumptions about the behaviour of nations and groups under extreme stress or how seriously one takes the high-minded pronouncements of professors as to their calling. Wars, and much less, provoke vehement disagreement. There are only a few ‘upright men’ (John Heilbron’s word for Max Planck in The Dilemmas of an Upright Man) who are able to cope with contradictions in an effort to achieve some sort of balance and perspective even under the most trying circumstances.

Wallace is by no means a cynic, however, and he has a larger purpose, which is to lead us into a consideration of the general problem of lehrfreiheit or academic freedom. His choice of period is excellent, since the question of war guilt in 1914 is not as obvious as it was in 1939, and he can examine how scholars behaved under conditions of panic and confusion. Since the literature on academic freedom in Britain is comparatively scarce, a book on the subject is welcome. But there is a difficulty. He halts his discussion just when a broad perspective and finer distinctions are required.

In the light of the long history of universities, academic freedom is a remarkable development. In past centuries universities were in the service of church and state, which did not automatically confer upon them the right of open-ended inquiry. The university existed to support and defend both church and state against heretics and traitors. Furthermore, it was not considered prudent to expose young people destined for positions of leadership to the iconoclastic views of alienated or outlandish thinkers. The health and stability of the social order would be jeopardised.

The privileged position of British universities historically has softened the concern about academic freedom. In the United States, however, the concern persists because academics feel vulnerable. There has never been a ‘national system’ of higher education with common goals and strong external controls over institutional standards. Nor has there existed a national educated élite cutting across the principal establishment institutions, uniting church, state, the universities and the quality press. Americans are consequently particularly aware of the advantages of local autonomy. This is one reason why the history of lay boards of trustees is so much more important in the US than in the UK. One has to go back to the early histories of university colleges in Britain to find similarities in market position and ethos. What makes the current situation in Britain so fascinating is precisely the breakdown of a Victorian network of élites and the withdrawal of state protection and sympathy, as represented by new funding arrangements and the measures now before Parliament.

Historically academic freedom is an old problem, but it is also surprisingly new, a result of the transformation of the academy in the 19th century, partly under the influence of German ideas of fearless critical scholarship, but mainly under the influence of liberal conceptions of freedom. The contribution of the first was to provide the academy and the guilds with an enhanced sense of the importance and value of intellectual independence. The contribution of the second was to form an outside system of support by tying freedom of inquiry to liberal political traditions and to create what Bagehot once referred to as the Age of Discussion.

Consequently, we must bear in mind that an academician has two bodies or roles. The first is the right or privilege to criticise authority which any citizen enjoys in a free society, subject to the laws that regulate the relations between individuals and the state. These are continually re-negotiated in the push and pull of human affairs.

The second is the special privilege or freedom or protection derived from modern conceptions of evidence which is claimed by faculty researchers and teachers in order to pursue their interests on the grounds that freedom of inquiry and expression are necessary to the survival of a free society, providing indispensable knowledge and services without which wise and informed decisions cannot be made. The privilege is based on a certain understanding of the nature of knowledge and its value, and is part of a ‘social contract’ with society. It can be said that academic freedom is an arrangement by which educational corporations are granted a measure of autonomy provided they remain attentive to their proclaimed objectives. This requires fidelity to methods and techniques of inquiry developed to safeguard accuracy and the unhindered exchange of opinion, and involves ‘disinterested’ criticism and correction by those uniquely competent to judge. It is not the case that academic freedom is derived naturally from membership in a corporation such as a university or a professional guild, unless it can also be demonstrated that these institutions embody the value of the unfettered search for accuracy and require their members to uphold it. The social contract is violated when either society disallows the free pursuit of knowledge or when the university or its members or the relevant guilds also disallow it.

Wallace’s evidence for violations of academic freedom during the First World War is incontrovertible. Both parties to the social contract were culpable. Both inside and outside the universities there existed an atmosphere of suspicion and intimidation. Some institutions were more successful in resisting and opposing efforts to promote a uniformity of views on the war than others, but professional ethics were often disregarded. In the surge of national feeling, truth as the primary object of scholarship was discarded, and honesty became another casualty of war.

But there is yet another dimension that surfaced before the war in connection with the growing militancy of British Labour and the appearance of pro-Labour sentiment among the university teachers, especially in the social sciences. This in turn provoked an unfriendly response from local industrialists. As Wallace alludes to it, the academic freedom issue here is not so much freedom of inquiry as the right of advocacy, but the two are related only insofar as the second is based on the rules and ethics governing the first. If it is not, if advocacy is claimed as a right or privilege separate from the pursuit of knowledge, then it becomes merely the expression of personal opinion and can only claim the protections ordinarily accorded freedom of speech in a liberal society.

I raise this issue because Wallace never seems to confront it directly. Furthermore, although usually careful and restrained, he reveals his ideological sympathies in a two-page Postscript where he hastily compares the 1914 manifesto of the German intellectuals with opponents of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and declares the ‘garrison intellectual’ to be ‘alive and well’. The allusions may be apposite, but the academic freedom issue remains unclarified. We are merely told that academics will continue to take sides on the leading ideological controversies of their time, exercising their rights as citizens to do so. Are they also crossing the thin line between advocacy and teaching?

Academic freedom may be a perennial issue, but it is also a historical one. It is a vexing issue because its definitions and parameters are elusive, depending on circumstances and contexts as much as on abstract formulations. In the past two decades numerous academic issues have arisen in free societies which require but have not received close and steady scholarly attention. Secret research, weapons development, the industrial financing of bio-engineering, affirmative action, partisan arguments over the future of South Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, classroom disruptions by students, the heckling of unpopular speakers, and sitins, are developments that involve issues of academic freedom. They are complicated developments, and they are seldom merely confrontations between an academic community anxious to uphold its end of the social contract and an unfriendly philistine world bent on ignoring fundamental understandings. They involve the issue of advocacy as well as the issues of autonomy and freedom of inquiry and expression, and as in 1914-1918 they show us an academic house divided against itself.

Recent circumstances, as well as Wallace’s account of how humanists and social scientists readily modified their scholarship to accommodate a cause, even a cause related to national survival, raise very serious doubts about the capacity of the academic community to explain and defend its principal values and commitments. It is also sad to notice the absence of thoughtful debate about the essential nature of lehrfreiheit, about professional obligations towards truth and evidence. Russell was reinstated after the wartime emergency, but Wallace nonetheless concludes that his case provoked very little discussion. One would think that academicians would be willing, eager and competent to examine issues of academic freedom. If historians were in the business of drawing lessons, that might be one place to start.