26 DECEMBER 1941, Page 7



IF any further illustration had been needed of how uncertain and unsettled are the opinions about the characteristic features of German thought; recent controversies would have provided it. But they really are no more than an illustration of a historic fact of considerable importance—the extraordinary vicissitudes, the violent fluctuations between extremes, which views about the German people have undergone in the past hundred years. No other nation in modern times has experienced such ups and downs in its reputation, at one moment exercising so profound an influence on all other peoples, to be held up shortly afterwards as the embodiment of everything that is detestable. It is not enough that every time we change our views about the Germans we resolve that we are not going to change them again. There is something more deeply wrong with our opinions if from time to time they need such complete revision. If the source of this instability of the views about Germany is not removed, we shall continue to fly from one extreme to another. However convinced the present generation may remain that the Germans are thoroughly bad, another genera- tion will once more discover that they have also other qualities which do not fit into the picture presented by their elders, and in the enthusiasm of that discovery will once more build up a new and equally one-sided picture. The serious consequence is that these vacillations in British views about Germany have led to similar vacillations of British policy. There will be no stable policy towards Germany till a stable view of her has been achieved, which must be a view that suppresses neither the bad nor the good side, but combines them into a coherent picture. The fact that German thought itself is highly unstable and full of conflicting elements is no reason why we should not form a stable picture of the causes of this situation.

In the years between the two wars knowledge of Germany in this country, never very great, has further decreased. This may at first sound surprising, because there were probably never before in this country so many people who had been to Germany and therefore thought that they knew her. But such visits to Germany, or other occasional contacts, produced either lovers of Germany, because they had seen one side of her, or—till comparatively recently these were very few—haters of Germany, because they had seen another side of her. But an understanding of those intellectual currents in Germany which ultimately determine evolution and policy was scarcely to be found in this country. So far as the views of the general public about any other country are concerned, this is, of course, true of most people. What was lacking in England, however, was any body of professional students of other countries who were capable of interpreting these currents, of correcting one-sided impressions, and who could act as expert advisers when the need arose. I doubt whether there was in 1939 anyone in this country who knew Germany as Elie Halevy, or even Dibelius, knew England, or as Andler or Vermeil in France knew Germany, or Curtius in Germany knew France.

This is not a matter of merely academic or long-range im- portance. Never shall we need knowledge of Germany so much as during and immediately after the war. It has been well said that the first step to victory is a complete and thorough under- standing of the enemy's ideas. This step has yet to be taken. Whether we like it or not, we need people who know Germany not merely in an amateurish way, who devote the whole of their time to the study of German ideas, and who approach them not merely with a literary interest but with genuine political and historical understanding. To understand is in such a case by no means necessarily to forgive or to condone. But it is an essential basis for any intelligent action. The none-too-glorious history of the efforts of British propaganda towards Germany during the last two years is only the most recent, but not the most important, instance of the defects of our knowledge of Germany telling heavily against us. There will be any number of opportunities for further mistakes of this kind during the next few years if we do not succeed in remedying this defect. If, as the experience of the last few years strongly suggests, people who have the required knowledge do not exist, it is important that we train them now as part of our war-effort. Here is a splendid oppor- tunity for the universities to provide expert knowledge which is urgently needed but which existing courses do not provide. While the numerous German exiles in this country, with their inevitably somewhat biased outlook, can never replace British experts, they could be of much use in helping to train them.

It would be a mistake to contend that too much occupation with German thought is dangerous and should not be encouraged. Here, as elsewhere, it is only partial knowledge that is dangerous. It is undoubtedly true, much more than is commonly realised, that during the past fifty years English people have constantly taken over from Germany bits of ideas without regard whether these could be properly separated from the whole German system of thought, so much so that they have even to some extent lost the sense of what is characteristically English and what German. Twenty-five years ago the English people in general had probably a clearer conception of these national differences than they have now, and at the present moment the intelligent German is perhaps more aware of these differences than the Englishman. The extent to which during the last twenty-five years German ideas have penetrated into this country is indeed a strong reason for a fuller knowledge of the whole system of thought, in order that we may learn to understand what part of it can and what part cannot be separated from the features which we loathe.

Still more important is the fact that German ideas have made even greater progress in other parts of the world than in this country, and that we shall not be able to counter them without really understanding them. There can be no doubt, for example, that, as I am afraid we shall learn to our embarrassment, most of the Central European nations, including some of our present allies, have derived their thought on social and political matters largely from German sources, and that even after such ideas have disappeared in Germany they will continue to operate there. And we should never forget that German views about the origin of the last war have exercised a profound influence on the teaching of some of the most distinguished American historians ; it would not be difficult to point to instances where disregard of this has deprived presentations of the British view of their effect.

Instead of our improving our dangerously defective knowledge of Germany, our ignorance of current German thought is at present rapidly increasing. It is an error to believe that even in war-time dictatorial control has succeeded in completely stifling the development of thought. But we know almost nothing about what is happening. In this respect the situation is very different from what it was during the last war. A glance through the files of any scientific or technical periodical from 1914 to 1918 will show that the more important German books and reviews continued to arrive in this country and to be reviewed regularly. Now even the specialist, if he is not in an official position, has no means of informing himself about what is happening in his field in Germany. This may become the cause of serious difficulties when we have once again to deal with the Germans by methods other than the sword. It is not enough that the German literary output should be watched, as it presumably is, by some official organisation. The hurried and overworked civil servant can hardly pay attention to anything except what is of immediate importance. If we are to understand and appreciate the significance of tendencies' in the intellectual life of a big country it is essential that its literary output should be accessible to the corresponding specialists here. There are, of course, numerous and compelling reasons why German books and periodicals should not be obtainable as freely and profusely as in peace-time. But there seems to be no reason why one copy of each important publication should not be made available in one place, where all competent people with a legiti- mate interest would have access to it. Many a scholar or literary man who has few other ways of contributing to the war-effort might thereby be enabled to make a most useful contribution by watching developments in Germany in his own field and drawing attention to them whenever they appear significant.