Addresses to the German Nation/Thirteenth Address

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


197. At the end of the preceding address we said that there were in circulation among us a number of worthless thoughts and deceptive theories as to the affairs of peoples, and that this prevented the Germans from forming such a definite view of their present situation as would be in accordance with their own special characteristics. As these vain phantoms are being held up for public veneration with great zeal just at present, and as they might be embraced by many people now that so much else has begun to topple over, solely in order to fill up the places that have become vacant, it seems appropriate to our purpose to subject these phantoms to a more serious examination than their intrinsic importance would deserve.

198. To begin with and before all things: the first, original, and truly natural boundaries of States are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole. Such a whole, if it wishes to absorb and mingle with itself any other people of different descent and language, cannot do so without itself becoming confused, in the beginning at any rate, and violently disturbing the even progress of its culture. From this internal boundary, which is drawn by the spiritual nature of man himself, the marking of the external boundary by dwelling-place results as a consequence; and in the natural view of things it is not because men dwell between certain mountains and rivers that they are a people, but, on the contrary, men dwell together—and, if their luck has so arranged it, are protected by rivers and mountains—because they were a people already by a law of nature which is much higher.

199. Thus was the German nation placed—sufficiently united within itself by a common language and a common way of thinking, and sharply enough severed from the other peoples—in the middle of Europe, as a wall to divide races not akin. The German nation was numerous and brave enough to protect its boundaries against any foreign attack; it was left to itself, and by its whole way of thinking was little inclined to take notice of the neighbouring peoples, to interfere in their affairs, or to provoke them to enmity by disturbances. As time went on, a kind fortune preserved it from direct participation in the conquest of other worlds—that event which, more than any other, has been the basis of the development taken by modern world-history, of the fates of peoples, and of the largest part of their ideas and opinions. Since that event, and not before, Christian Europe, which hitherto, without being clearly conscious of it, had been one, and by joint enterprises had shown itself to be one—Christian Europe, I say, split itself into various separate parts. Since that event, and not before, there was a prey in sight which anyone might obtain; and each one lusted after it in the same way, because all were able to make use of it in the same way; and each one was envious on seeing it in the hands of another. Now, and not before, was there a reason for secret enmity and lust for war on the part of all against all. Moreover, now, and not before, did it become profitable for peoples to incorporate with themselves peoples of other descent and other languages, by conquest or, if that were not possible, by alliances, and to appropriate their forces. A people that has remained true to nature may have the wish, when its abode becomes too narrow for it, to enlarge it by conquest of the neighbouring soil in order to gain more room, and then it will drive out the former inhabitants. It may have the wish to exchange a harsh and unfruitful region for a milder and more fortunate one, and in this case, too, it will drive out the former owners. It may, if it should degenerate, undertake mere pillaging raids in which, without craving after the soil or its inhabitants, it merely takes possession of every useful thing, sweeps the countries clear and then departs. Finally, it may regard the former inhabitants of the conquered soil as one of the useful things and allot them as slaves to individuals. But, for it to attach to itself as a component part of the State the foreign population just as it is, that will not profit it in the least, and it will never be tempted to do so.

But if the case is thus: that there is a tempting common prey to be fought for and to be won from an equally strong or even stronger rival; then the calculation is different. It matters not how much or how little the conquered people may blend with us; we can at any rate make use of their fists to overcome the opponent we have to rob, and every man is welcome to us as an addition to our fighting strength. Now, suppose that some wise man, who wished for peace and quiet, had had his eyes opened to this state of affairs; from what source could he expect quiet to come? Obviously not from the limitation set by nature to human greed, viz., that superfluity is of no benefit to anyone; for there was a prey which tempted everyone. Just as little could he expect peace to come from the will to set a limit to one’s self; for, where everyone grabs for himself everything that he can, anyone who limits himself must of necessity go under. No one wants to share with another what he then owns himself; everyone wants to rob the other of what he has, if he possibly can. If one of them is quiet, it is only because he does not think himself strong enough to begin a quarrel; he will certainly begin it as soon as he perceives the necessary strength in himself.

Hence, the only means of maintaining peace is this: that no one shall acquire enough power to be able to disturb the peace, and that each one shall know that there is just as much strength to resist on the other side as there is to attack on his side; and that thus there may arise a balance and counterbalance of the total power whereby alone, now that all other means have vanished, each one is kept in possession of what he has at present and all are kept in peace. This well-known system of a balance of power in Europe, therefore, assumes two things: first, a prey to which no one at all has any right, but for which all have a like desire; and second, the universal, ever-present, and unceasingly active lust for booty. Indeed, on these assumptions, this balance of power would be the only means of maintaining peace, if only one could find the second means, namely, that of creating the equilibrium and transforming it from an empty thought into a thing of reality.

200. But were these assumptions in fact to be made universally and without any exception? Had not the mighty German nation, in the middle of Europe, kept its hands off this prey, and was it not untainted by any craving for it, and almost incapable of making a claim to it? If only the German nation had remained united, with a common will and a common strength! Then, though the other Europeans might have wanted to murder each other on every sea and shore, and on every island too, in the middle of Europe the firm wall of the Germans would have prevented them from reaching each other. Here peace would have remained, and the Germans would have maintained themselves, and with themselves also a part of the other European peoples, in quiet and prosperity.

201. That things should remain thus did not suit the selfishness of foreign countries, whose calculations did not look more than one moment ahead. They found German bravery useful in waging their wars and German hands useful to snatch the booty from their rivals. A means had to be found to attain this end, and foreign cunning won an easy victory over German ingenuousness and lack of suspicion. It was foreign countries which first made use of the division of mind produced by religious disputes in Germany—Germany, which presented on a small scale the features of Christian Europe as a whole—foreign countries, I say, made use of these disputes to break up the close inner unity of Germany into separate and disconnected parts. Foreign countries had already destroyed their own unity naturally, by splitting into parts over a common prey; and now they artificially destroyed German unity. They knew how to present each of these separate States that had thus arisen in the lap of the one nation—which had no enemy except those foreign countries themselves, and no concern except the common one of setting itself with united strength against their seductive craft and cunning—foreign countries, I say, knew how to present each of these States to the others as a natural enemy, against which each State must be perpetually on its guard. On the other hand, they knew how to make themselves appear to the German States as natural allies against the danger threatening them from their own countrymen—as allies with whom alone they would themselves stand or fall, and whose enterprises they must in turn support with all their might. It was only because of this artificial bond that all the disputes which might arise about any matter whatever in the Old World or the New became disputes of the German races in their relation to each other. Every war, no matter what its cause, had to be fought out on German soil and with German blood; every disturbance of the balance had to be adjusted in that nation to which the whole fountainhead of such relationships was unknown; and the German States, whose separate existence was in itself contrary to all nature and reason, were compelled, in order that they might count for something, to act as make-weights to the chief forces in the scale of the European equilibrium, whose movement they followed blindly and without any will of their own. Just as in many States abroad the citizens are designated as belonging to this or that foreign party, or voting for this or that foreign alliance, but no name is found for those who belong to the party of their own country, so it was with the Germans; for long enough they belonged only to some foreign party or other, and one seldom came across a man who ported the party of the Germans and was of the opinion that this country ought to make an alliance with itself.

202. This, then, is the true origin and meaning, this the result for Germany and for the world, of that notorious doctrine of a balance of power to be artificially maintained between the European States. If Christian Europe had remained one, as it ought to be and as it originally was, there would never have been any occasion to think of such a thing. That which is one rests upon itself and supports itself, and does not split up into conflicting forces which must be brought to an equilibrium. Only when Europe became divided and without a law did the thought of a balance acquire a meaning from necessity. To this Europe, divided and without a law, Germany did not belong. If only Germany at any rate had remained one, it would have rested on itself in the centre of the civilized world like the sun in the centre of the universe; it would have kept itself at peace, and with itself the adjacent countries; and without any artificial measures it would have kept everything in equilibrium by the mere fact of its natural existence. It was only the deceit of foreign countries that dragged Germany into their own lawlessness and their own disputes; it was they who taught Germany the treacherous notion of the balance of power, for they knew it to be one of the most effective means of deluding Germany as to its own true advantage and of keeping it in that state of delusion. This aim is now sufficiently attained, and the result that was intended is now complete before our eyes. Even if we cannot do away with this result, why should we not at any rate extirpate the source of it in our own understanding, which is now almost the only thing over which we still have sovereign power? Why should the old dream still be placed before our eyes, now that disaster has awakened us from sleep? Why should we not now at any rate see the truth and perceive the only means that could have saved us? Perhaps our descendants may do what we see ought to be done, just as we now suffer because our fathers dreamed. Let us understand that the conception of an equilibrium to be artificially maintained might have been a consoling dream for foreign countries amid the guilt and evil that oppressed them; but that this conception, being an entirely foreign product, ought never to have taken root in the mind of a German, and that the Germans ought never to have been so situated that it could take root among them. Let us understand that now at any rate we must perceive the utter worthlessness of such a conception, and must see that the salvation of all is to be found, not in it, but solely in the unity of the Germans among themselves.

203. Just as foreign to the German is the freedom of the seas, which is so frequently preached in our days, whether what is intended be real freedom or merely the power to exclude everyone else from it. Throughout the course of centuries, while all other nations were in rivalry, the German showed little desire to participate in this freedom to any great extent, and he will never do so. Moreover, he is not in need of it. The abundant supplies of his own land, together with his own diligence, afford him all that is needed in the life of a civilized man; nor does he lack skill in the art of making his resources serve that purpose. As for acquiring the only true advantage that world-trade brings in its train, viz., the increase in scientific knowledge of the earth and its inhabitants, his own scientific spirit will not let him lack a means of exchange. O, if only his kindly fortune had preserved the German from indirect participation in the booty of other worlds, as it preserved him from direct participation! If only we had not been led by our credulity, and by the craving for a life as fine and as distinguished as that of other peoples, to make necessaries of the wares produced in foreign parts which we could do without; if only we had made conditions tolerable for our free fellow-citizen in regard to the wares we can less easily do without, instead of wishing to draw a profit from the sweat and blood of a poor slave across the seas! Then, at any rate, we should not ourselves have furnished the pretext for our present fate; war would not have been waged against us as purchasers, nor would we have been ruined because we are a market-place. Almost ten years ago, before anyone could foresee what has since happened, the Germans were advised[2] to make themselves independent of world-trade, and to turn themselves into a closed commercial State. This proposal ran counter to our habits, and especially to our idolatrous veneration of coined metals; it was passionately attacked and thrust aside. Since then we have been learning, in dishonour and under the compulsion of a foreign power, to do without those things, and far more than those things, which we then protested we could not do without, though we might have done so then in freedom and with the greatest honour to ourselves. O, that we might seize this opportunity, since enjoyment at least is not corrupting us, to correct our ideas once for all! O, that we might at last see that all those swindling theories about world-trade and manufacturing for the world-market, though they suit the foreigner and form part of the weapons with which he has always made war on us, have no application to the Germans; and that, next to the unity of the Germans among themselves, their internal autonomy and commercial independence form the second means for their salvation, and through them for the salvation of Europe!

204. Now, at last, let us be bold enough to look at the deceptive vision of a universal monarchy, which people are beginning to hold up for public veneration in place of that equilibrium which for some time has been growing more and more preposterous, and let us perceive how hateful and contrary to reason that vision is. Spiritual nature was able to present the essence of humanity in extremely diverse gradations in individuals and in individuality as a whole, in peoples. Only when each people, left to itself, develops and forms itself in accordance with its own peculiar quality, and only when in every people each individual develops himself in accordance with that common quality, as well as in accordance with his own peculiar quality—then, and then only, does the manifestation of divinity appear in its true mirror as it ought to be; and only a man who either entirely lacks the notion of the rule of law and divine order, or else is an obdurate enemy thereto, could take upon himself to want to interfere with that law, which is the highest law in the spiritual world. Only in the invisible qualities of nations, which are hidden from their own eyes—qualities as the means whereby these nations remain in touch with the source of original life—only therein is to be found the guarantee of their present and future worth, virtue, and merit. If these qualities are dulled by admixture and worn away by friction, the flatness that results will bring about a separation from spiritual nature, and this in its turn will cause all men to be fused together to their uniform and conjoint destruction. As for the writers who console us for all our ills with the prospect that we, too, shall be subjects of the new universal monarchy that is beginning —are we to believe them when they say that someone or other has decided upon such a grinding together of all the germs of what is human in humanity, in order to press the unresisting dough into some new form, and that so monstrous an act of brutality or enmity against the human race is possible in this age of ours? Even if, in the first place, we were willing to make up our minds to believe such an utterly incredible thing, the further question arises: By what instrument is such a plan to be carried out? What sort of people is it to be which, in the present state of European culture, shall conquer the world for some new universal monarch? For many centuries now the peoples of Europe have ceased to be savages or to rejoice in destructive activity for its own sake. All men seek behind war a final peace, behind exertion rest, behind confusion order; and all men want to see their career crowned with the peace of a quiet and domestic life. For a time they may be made enthusiastic for war even by the mere prospect of advantage to the nation; but when the call comes again and again in the same fashion, the delusion vanishes and with it the feverish strength it produced. The longing for peace and order returns, and the question arises: For what purpose am I doing and bearing all this? All these feelings a world-conqueror in our time would first have to stamp out; and, as the present age by its nature does not produce a race of savages, he would have to create one with deliberate art. But more would remain to be done. A man who has been accustomed from youth upwards to cultivated and settled countries, to prosperity and order, finds pleasure in these things wherever he sees them, if he is but permitted to be at peace for a little while; for they represent to him the background of his own longing, which after all can never be quite rooted out; and it is a source of pain to himself when he is obliged to destroy them. To offset this kindly feeling, so deeply implanted in man as a social being, and this grief and sorrow at the evils which the soldier brings upon the countries he conquers, a counterpoise must be found. There is no other than the lust for booty. If it becomes the soldier’s dominating motive to acquire a fortune for himself, and if he becomes accustomed, when devastating flourishing countries, to think of nothing but what he may gain for himself from the general wretchedness, then it is to be expected that the feelings of sympathy and pity will become silent in him. In addition to that barbarous brutality, a world-conqueror of our time would have to train his people to coldblooded and deliberate lust for booty; he would not have to punish extortions, but rather to encourage them. Moreover, the disgrace that naturally adheres to such a thing would first of all have to be cleared away, and robbery would have to be looked upon as the honourable sign of a superior mind; it would have to be reckoned among great deeds and pave the way to all dignities and honours. Where is there in modern Europe a nation so lacking in honour that it could be trained up in this way? Even supposing that a world-conqueror succeeded in reshaping a nation in this fashion; the very means he takes to do it will frustrate the attainment of his object. Such a people will thenceforward regard the human beings, the countries, and the works of art that they have acquired by conquest, as nothing more than a means of making money with all speed, so that they may move on and make more money. They will extort rapidly, and when they have sucked the juice out of a thing they will throw it away, regardless of what may happen to it; they will cut down the tree whose fruits they want to reach. For a man who works with such tools as these all the arts of seduction, persuasion, and deception will be in vain. Only from a distance can such men deceive anyone; as soon as they are seen at close quarters, their brutal roughness and their shameless and insolent lust for booty will be obvious even to the feeblest mind; and the detestation of the whole human race will cry aloud upon them. With such tools as these one can indeed plunder and lay waste the earth, and grind it down to stupor and chaos, but one can never establish it as a universal monarchy.

205. The ideas we have mentioned, and all ideas of this kind, are products of a form of thinking which merely plays a game with itself and sometimes, too, gets caught in its own cobwebs—a form of thinking which is unworthy of German thoroughness and earnestness. At best, some of these ideas, as, for example, that of a political equilibrium, are serviceable guiding-lines to enable one to find one’s way about in the extensive and confused multiplicity of phenomena and to set it in order; but to believe that these things exist in nature, or to strive to realize them, is the same as to expect to find the poles, the meridians, and the tropics, by which our survey of the earth is guided, actually marked and indicated on the surface of the globe. May it become the custom in our nation, not merely to think idly and as it were experimentally, just to see what will come of it, but to think in such a way that what we think shall be true and have a real effect in life! Then it will be superfluous to warn people against such phantoms of a political wisdom whose origin is foreign and which only deludes the Germans.

This thoroughness, earnestness, and weightiness in our way of thinking, once we have made it our own, will show itself in our life as well. We are defeated; whether we are now to be despised as well, and rightly despised, whether in addition to all other losses we are to lose our honour also—that will still depend on ourselves. The fight with weapons has ended; there arises now, if we so will it, the new fight of principles, of morals, of character.

206. Let us give our guests a picture of faithful devotion to friends and fatherland, of incorruptible uprightness and love of duty, of all civic and domestic virtues, to take home with them as a friendly gift from their hosts; for they will return home at last some time or other. Let us be careful not to invite them to despise us; there would, however, be no surer way for us to do this than if we either feared them beyond measure or gave up our own way of life and strove to resemble them in theirs. Be it far from us as individuals to be so unmannerly as to provoke or irritate individuals; but, as to the rest, our safest measure will be to go our own way in all things, as if we were alone with ourselves, and not to establish any relation that is not laid upon us by absolute necessity; and the surest means to this will be for each one to content himself with what the old national conditions are able to afford him, to take up his share of the common burden according to his powers, but to look upon any favour from foreigners as a disgrace and a dishonour. Unfortunately, it has become an almost general European custom, and therefore a German custom too, for people to prefer to descend to the level of others, rather than to appear what is called singular or noticeable, when the choice is open to them; indeed, the whole system of what are esteemed good manners may perhaps be regarded as based upon that one principle. Let us Germans at the present juncture offend rather against this code of manners than against something higher. Let us remain as we are, even though that may be an offence of this kind; nay, let us become, if we can, even stronger and more determined, as we ought to be. It is the custom to tell us that we are sorely lacking in quickness and ease and grace, and that we grow too serious, too heavy, and too ponderous over everything. Let us not be in the least ashamed of this, but rather strive to deserve the accusation more and more fully and to an ever greater extent. Let us confirm ourselves in this resolve by the conviction, which is easily to be attained, that in spite of all the trouble we take, we shall never do right in the eyes of our accusers, unless we cease entirely to be ourselves, which is the same thing as ceasing to exist at all. There are certain peoples who, while preserving their own special characteristics and wishing to have them respected by others, yet recognize the special characteristics of other peoples, and permit and encourage their retention. To such peoples the Germans belong without a doubt; and this trait is so deeply marked in their whole life in the world, both past and present, that very often, in order to be just both to contemporary foreign countries and to antiquity, they have been unjust to themselves. Then there are other peoples, whose ego is so closely wrapped up in itself that it never allows them the freedom to detach themselves for the purpose of taking a cool and calm view of what is foreign to them, and who are therefore compelled to believe that there is only one possible way of existence for a civilized human being, and that is always the way which some chance or other has indicated to them alone at the time; the rest of mankind all over the world have no other destiny, in their opinion, than to become just what they are, and ought to be extremely grateful to them if they take upon themselves the trouble of moulding them in this way. Between peoples of the former type there takes place an interaction of culture and education which is most beneficial to the development of man as such, and an interpenetration which none the less allows each one, with the goodwill of the other, to remain its own self. Peoples of the latter type are unable to form anything, for they are unable to apprehend anything in its actual state of existence; they only want to destroy everything that exists and to create everywhere, except in themselves, a void in which they can reproduce their own image and never anything else. Even their apparent acceptance of foreign ways when they begin is only gracious condescension on the part of the tutor to the still feeble but promising pupil. Even the figures of the ancient world that has come to an end do not please them, until they have clad them in their own garments; and they would call them from their graves, if they had the power, to train them after their own fashion. Far from me be the presumption of accusing any existing nation as a whole and without exception of such narrow-mindedness. Let us rather assume that here, too, those who express no opinion are the better sort. But if those who have appeared among us and expressed their opinions are to be judged by the opinions they have expressed, it seems to follow that they are to be placed in the class we have described. As such a statement appears to require proof, I adduce the following, passing over in silence the other manifestations of this spirit which are before the eyes of Europe. We have been at war with each other; as for us, we are defeated, and they are the victors; that is true, and is admitted; with that our opponents might doubtless be contented. But if anyone among us went on to maintain that nevertheless we had had the just cause and deserved the victory, and that it was to be deplored that victory had not fallen to us; would this be so very wrong, and could those opponents, who, of course, for their own part may likewise think what they will, take it amiss that we should be of this opinion? But no, we must not dare to think that. We must at the same time recognize how wrong it is ever to have a will other than theirs, and to resist them; we must bless our defeats as the best thing that could happen to us, and bless them as our greatest benefactors. It cannot be otherwise, and they hope this much of our good sense. But why should I go on expounding what was expounded with great exactness almost two thousand years ago, for example, in the Histories of Tacitus? That opinion of the Romans as to the relationship of the conquered barbarians towards them, an opinion which in their case was founded on a view of things that had some excuse, the opinion that it was criminal rebellion and insurrection against divine and human laws to offer resistance to them, and that their arms could bring nothing but blessing to the nations, and their chains nothing but honour—it is this opinion that has been formed about us in these days; with great good-nature they expect us to hold it about ourselves, and they assume in advance that we do hold it. I do not take these utterances as evidence of arrogance and scorn; I can understand how such opinions may be held in earnest by people who are very conceited and narrow-minded, and how they can honestly impute the same belief to their opponents, just as I believe that the Romans really thought so; but I only raise a doubt as to whether those among us, whose conversion to that way of thinking is for ever impossible, can reckon upon an agreement of any kind whatever.

207. We shall bring the deep contempt of foreigners upon ourselves if in their hearing we accuse each other, German races, classes, and persons, of being responsible for the fate that has befallen every one of us, and bitterly and passionately reproach each other. In the first place, all accusations of this kind are for the most part unfair, unjust, and unfounded. The causes that have brought about Germany’s latest doom we have already indicated; these causes have for centuries been native to all German races without exception in the same way; the latest events are not the consequences of any particular error of any one race or its government; they have been in preparation long enough, and might just as well have happened to us long ago, if it had depended solely on the causes that lie within our own selves. In this matter the guilt or innocence of all is, one may say, equally great, and a reckoning is no longer possible. When the final result came about in haste, it was found that the separate German States did not even know themselves, their powers, and their true situation; how, then, could any one of them have the presumption to look beyond its own borders and pronounce upon the guilt of others a final judgment based on thorough knowledge?

208. It may be that in every race of the German fatherland the blame falls with more reason on one special class, not because it did not have more insight or greater ability than all the others, for in that respect all were equally to blame, but because it pretended that it had more insight and greater ability, and kept everyone else away from the work of administration in the various States. But, even if a reproach of this kind were well founded, who is to utter it, and why is it necessary to utter and discuss it, just at this moment, more loudly and more bitterly then ever? We see that men of letters are doing this. If they spoke just as they do now in the days when all power and all authority were in the hands of that class, with the tacit approval of the decisive majority of the rest of mankind, who can object if they bring to remembrance what they then said, now that it has been only too well confirmed by experience? We hear also that they bring certain persons by name before the tribunal of the people, persons who formerly stood at the head of affairs, that they set forth their incapacity, their indolence, and their evil will, and clearly show how from such causes such effects were bound to follow. If, when power was still in the hands of the accused persons, and when the evils that were the inevitable result of their administration could have been warded off, these writers saw what they now see and expressed it just as loudly; if they then accused with the same vigour those whom they now find guilty, and if they left no means untried to rescue the fatherland out of their hands, and if no one listened to them; then, they do well to recall to mind the warning that was scornfully rejected. But, if they have derived their present wisdom only from the course of events, from which all people since then have derived with them exactly the same wisdom, why do they now say what everyone else now knows just as well? Or further, if in those days from motives of gain they flattered, or from motives of fear they remained silent before, that class and those persons on whom, now that they have lost power, they pour the full stream of denunciation; then, let them not forget henceforth, when they are stating the causes of our present miseries, to put with the nobility and the incompetent ministers and generals the writers on politics also, who know only after the event what ought to have been done, just like the common people, and who flatter the holders of power, but with malicious joy deride the fallen!

Or do they blame the errors of the past, which for all their blame is indestructible, only in order that they may not be repeated in the future; and is it solely their zeal to bring about a thorough improvement in human affairs which makes them so bold in disregarding all considerations of prudence and decency? Gladly would we credit them with such goodwill, if only they were entitled by thorough insight and thorough understanding to have goodwill in this matter. It is not so much the particular persons who happen to have been in the highest places, but the connection and complication of the whole, the whole spirit of the age, the errors, the ignorance, shallowness, timidity, and the uncertain tread inseparable from these things, it is the whole way of life of the age that has brought these miseries upon us; and so it is far less the persons who have acted than the places; it is everyone’s fault; and everyone, even the violent fault-finders themselves, may assume with great probability that if they had been in the same place they would have been forced by their surroundings to much the same end. Let us not dream so much of deliberate wickedness and treachery! Stupidity and indolence are in nearly every case sufficient to explain the things that have happened; and this is a charge of which no one should entirely clear himself without searching self-examination. Especially in a state of affairs where there is in the whole mass a very great measure of indolence, the individual who is to force his way through must possess the power of action in a very high degree. So, even if the mistakes of individuals are ever so sharply singled out, that does not in any way lay bare the cause of the evil; nor is this cause removed by avoiding these mistakes in future. So long as men remain liable to error, they cannot do otherwise than commit errors; and even if they avoid those of their predecessors, in the infinite space of liability to error they will all too easily make new errors of their own. Only a complete regeneration, only the beginning of an entirely new spirit can help us. If they co-operate for the development of this new spirit, we shall be ready and willing to give them credit, not only for goodwill, but also for right and saving understanding.

209. These mutual reproaches, besides being unjust and useless, are extremely unwise, and must degrade us deeply in the eyes of foreigners; we not only make it easy for them to find out all about us, but positively force the knowledge on them in every way. If we never grow weary of telling them how confused and stale all things were with us, and how miserably we were governed, must they not believe that no matter how they behave towards us they are none the less much too good for us, and can never become too bad? Must they not believe that, because of our great clumsiness and helplessness, we are bound to accept with the humblest thanks any and every thing out of the rich store of their art of government, administration, and legislation that they have already presented to us, or have in contemplation for us in the future? Is there any need for us to confirm their already not unfavourable opinion of themselves and the low opinion they have of us? Do not certain utterances, which would otherwise have to be taken as evidence of bitter scorn—for example, that they have been the first to bring a fatherland to German countries, which previously had none, or that they have abolished that slavish dependence of persons, as such, on other persons, which used to be established by law among us—do not such utterances, when we remember what we ourselves have said, show themselves as a repetition of our own statements and an echo of our own flattering speeches? It is a disgrace, which we Germans share with no other of the European peoples whose fate in other respects has been similar to ours, that, as soon as ever foreign arms ruled over us, we behaved as if we had long been awaiting this moment, and sought to do ourselves a good turn quickly, before it was too late, by pouring forth a stream of denunciation on our governments and our rulers, whom we had formerly flattered in a way that offended against good taste, and by railing against everything represented by the word “fatherland.”

210. How shall those of us who are not guilty ward off the disgrace from our heads and let the guilty ones stand by themselves? There is a means. No more scurrilous denunciations will be printed the moment it is certain that no more will be bought, and as soon as their authors and publishers can no longer reckon on readers tempted to buy them for lack of something better to do, by idle curiosity and love of gossip, or by the malicious joy of seeing those men humiliated who at one time instilled into them the painful feeling of respect. Let everyone who feels the disgrace hand back with fitting contempt a libel that is offered him to read; let him do this, although he believes he is the only one who acts in this way, until it becomes the custom among us for every man of honour to do the same; and then, without any enforcement of restrictions on books, we shall soon be free of this scandalous portion of our literature.

211. Finally, we debase ourselves most of all before foreigners when we lay ourselves out to flatter them. In former days certain persons among us made themselves contemptible, ludicrous, and nauseating beyond measure by burning thick incense before our own rulers on every occasion, and by caring for neither sense nor decency, neither taste nor good manners, when they thought there was a chance of delivering a flattering address. This practice has ceased at this time, and these paeans of praise have been transformed in some cases into words of abuse. However, in order not to get out of practice, as it were, we gave our clouds of incense another direction and turned them towards the place where power now resides. Even the old way—and not only the flattery itself, but also the fact that it was not declined—could not but give pain to every serious-minded German; still, we kept it to ourselves. Are we now going to make foreigners also the witnesses of this base craving of ours, and of the great clumsiness with which we give vent to it; and are we thus going to add to the contemptible exhibition of our baseness the ludicrous demonstration of our lack of adroitness? For, when we set about these things, we are lacking in all the refinement that the foreigner possesses; so as to avoid not being heard, we lay it on thick and exaggerate everything; we begin straight away with deifications and place our heroes among the stars. Another thing is that we give the impression of being driven to these paeans of praise chiefly by fear and terror; but there is nothing more ridiculous than a frightened man who praises the beauty and graciousness of a creature which in fact he takes to be a monster, and which he merely seeks to bribe by his flattery not to swallow him up.

212. Or are these hymns of praise perhaps not flattery, but the genuine expression of reverence and admiration which they are compelled to pay to the great genius who, according to them, now directs the affairs of mankind? How little they know, in this case too, the character of true greatness! In all ages and among all peoples true greatness has remained the same in this respect, that it was not vain; just as, on the other hand, whatever displayed vanity has always been beyond a doubt base and petty. True greatness, resting on itself, finds no pleasure in monuments erected by contemporaries, or in being called “The Great,” or in the shrieking applause and praises of the mob; rather, it rejects these things with fitting contempt, and awaits first the verdict on itself from its own indwelling judge, and then the public verdict from the judgment of posterity. True greatness has always had this further characteristic: it is filled with awe and reverence in the face of dark and mysterious fate, it is mindful of the ever-rolling wheel of destiny, and never allows itself to be counted great or happy before its end. Hence, those who hymn its praises contradict themselves, and by using words they make their words a lie. If they believed that the object of their pretended veneration was really great, they would humbly admit that he was exalted above their acclamations and laudation, and they would honour him by reverent silence. By making it their business to praise him they show that in fact they take him to be petty and base, and so vain that their hymns of praise can give him pleasure, and that they hope thereby to divert some evil from themselves, or procure themselves some benefit.

That cry of enthusiasm: “What a sublime genius! What profound wisdom! What a comprehensive plan!”—what after all does it mean when we look at it properly? It means that the genius is so great that we, too, can fully understand it, the wisdom so profound that we, too, can see through it, the plan so comprehensive that we, too, are able to imitate it completely. Hence it means that he who is praised has about the same measure of greatness as he who praises; and yet not quite, for the latter, of course, understands the former fully and is superior to him; hence, he stands above him and, if he only exerted himself thoroughly, could no doubt achieve something even greater. He must have a very good opinion of himself who believes that he can pay court acceptably in this way; and the one who is praised must have a very low opinion of himself if he finds pleasure in such tributes.

213. No! Good, earnest, steady German men and countrymen, far from our spirit be such a lack of understanding, and far be such defilement from our language, which is formed to express the truth. Let us leave it to foreigners to burst into jubilation and amazement at every new phenomenon, to make a new standard of greatness every decade, to create new gods, and to speak blasphemies in order to please human beings. Let our standard of greatness be the old one: that alone is great which is capable of receiving the ideas which always bring nothing but salvation upon the peoples, and which is inspired by those ideas. But, as regards the living, let us leave the verdict to the judgment of posterity.


  1. [Fichte’s manuscript of this address, after having received the imprimatur at the censor’s office in Berlin, was mislaid and lost. As Fichte had meanwhile burnt the loose sheets which he had used in preparing the address, he was compelled to rewrite it as best he could.]
  2. [In 1800 by Fichte himself, in Der geschlossene Handelsstaat (The Closed Commercial State).]