Democracy, Populism, and Why England was Odd (Maybe)

A comment the other day at According to Hoyt referred to an argument among academics and others about “Where did Germany go wrong?” After WWII, people tried to sort out why Germany went to totalitarianism when the rest of Western Europe inclined toward democracy. Some have pinned it on Fredrick the Great’s grandfather, some on Martin Luther, some on Bismarck, some on the tension in the culture between social harmony and individual freedoms (sort of Luther but not totally) . . . I don’t think you can point to any single person or moment and say, “This, this is when the Sonderweg began to diverge from the rest of Western Europe.”

This is my personal interpretation, based on what I’ve read, seen, and chewed on over the past decade or two. I’m probably way off base in a lot of areas, because I am not an intellectual historian and have not really gotten into the teachings of Luther and his followers and later interpreters as deeply as is needed. You have been warned.

Some years back I read a synthesis history of the “Northern Lands” by a professor who was pulling together, oh, 40 years of research and observation. His arguments included one thats sort of lurked in the back of my mind ever since. He suggested that one reason the Northern Lands differed so much from France, Spain, the Italian peninsula, and other areas was the tension between Germanic law and Roman law. Until Roman law finally came to dominate in the late 1400s, there was a much stronger streak of individual or small-corporate rights and opportunities in the Northern Lands, leading to things like the Hanse, the Imperial Free Cities, and a different sense of the relationship between the individual and the state. Then Roman law won, and top-down, obedience to authorities became stronger and stronger. I should note, that the blind obedience popular culture associates with Germany as a whole really is far more Prussian, and even then there are qualifications and exceptions.

Was it Luther? After all, he had argued for freedom of conscience and that if a prince or overlord was in sin and error, the vassal ought to disobey in order to save his soul. However, when this was put to the test in the 1524-25 Peasants’ Revolt in Saxony and other German states, Luther back-tracked. Some have said that this was the end of populism and bottom-up democracy in Germany. I think it is broader. The Peasants Revolt was a complicated mess with religious, economic, political, and other elements, and included a large amount of “we want our traditional rights and freedoms” vs “we want to rationalize and codify and control resources in the modern way.” Modern meaning 1500s Renaissance centralization, like the enclosure movement under the Tudors in England.*

I think it had far more to do with German and Roman law. Germanic law, like Christianity and Judaism, held that every individual had value. Now, the Germanic tradition was about cash, so we have tables and books about “if a free-woman, unmarried, loses an eye, her attacker owes [amount] of weregeld. If an unmarried slave woman loses an eye, her attacker owes [lower amount] of weregeld” and so on. In England, you had Rome, but you also had two reinforcements of Germanic law with the Saxons, then the Vikings, and a touch of it still with the Normans. This eventually led to Magna Carta and the idea that there are some rights that freeborn Englishmen have—no matter their economic status—that can’t be touched by the king.

This idea was honored in the breach for a very long time, but it remained in the Common Law. Since the Plantagenets were a “little” distracted by their wars in France, that left a lot of England (and Scotland) to manage its own affairs at the local and regional level. You see a similar pattern in the Low Countries and the Hansa region of northern Europe. The cities governed themselves, decided who was a citizen and what duties citizens had, made treaties, and valued economic as well as spiritual success. Or at least, being good at trade was not automatically suspect the way it was in other places. Yes, there was a LOT of tension between those “born to rule” and those “engaged in filthy commerce.” I’ve written before about the ideas of Just Price and the conflicts between church, merchant, and popular morality.

Even though the Tudors did a lot to extend central control over England, they encountered a lot of resistance. That doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the history books, but people in Yorkshire did not always agree with what London wanted. Passive aggressive “Irish democracy” existed along with Good Queen Bess. The English Civil War of the 1640s brought a lot of this to light. Having the colonies as an outlet also let the bottom-up philosophy of England continue, even as absolutism and the divine right of kings continued on the Continent. That said, you find people in England looking fondly at Louis XIV, and people in the German speaking lands giving their overlords the single-digit salute.

Rousseau and his ilk did not help the fight for bottom-up political rights. His ideas about the “general will” being the ideal and that freedom consisted of obeying that general will of the community even if one did not like it . . . In theory, one could be coerced into freedom, since true freedom was following the will of society, whatever it happened to be. Some German philosophers took that and added a dollop of “the rights and needs of the State as represented by . . .” and we get Hegel, who did not live to see his ideas twisted by Karl Marx and others. France took the ideas of populism and the general will and created the Levee en Mass and the French Revolution. The English colonies took Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights, plus a large dollop of “get off my lawn and out of my pew” and created the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

To sum up a long, wandering meditation on European intellectual history, in my opinion, you have to go deeper than any single person to find the roots of authoritarianism and totalitarianism in Central Europe. A lot of ideas came together at the right place and time to create the German Empire of Wilhelm I and then the Third Reich. Popular democracy didn’t get strangled at birth in 1524, but (to borrow from the parables), the weeds of authoritarianism and Roman Law choked out the seeds of individual rights and liberties.

*The enclosing of common lands and other places for sheep and cattle predates the early Industrial Revolution, despite what a lot of history textbooks imply. You can see it happening in southern and central England in the mid-late 1500s.


36 thoughts on “Democracy, Populism, and Why England was Odd (Maybe)

  1. The 30 Years War didn’t exactly help the concept of individual liberty in the Germanies.

    • No, especially not in northeastern areas, where the solution to population loss was less freedom and the reimposition of serfdom (the opposite of what happened in far Western Europe during and after the Black Death.)

  2. Wergild isn’t Germanic law. It’s early medieval Irish law transferred over to the continent. (And it’s basically caste law with a light Christian coating, to keep the perpetual clan/king warfare and raiding down to nonlethal levels.)

    The amusing thing is that if you go to Spain, most of “the Law of the Goths” quoted in the early Middle Ages was actually late Roman law. (Like you’re not a slave anymore if your master or his agent doesn’t contact you or send you stuff for twenty years.)

    • It is possible that there was some kind of “steppe barbarian common law” that predated all of this, and that it did have stuff like “castes for people who are Indo-European,” because the Mongols didn’t seem to do that stuff in anything like the same way as Goths, Visigoths, Celts, etc.

      But I don’t really know enough about the subject. Maybe Byzantine sources about Goths.

      • The peoples of Old Europe (pre-Indo-European) and the peoples of the Indus Valley did not have archaeologically-visible social stratification. That seems to have arrived with the Indo-European speakers. Did they have ranks and possibly things like castes? Quite possible, but there’s no material evidence of it yet, or at least not material evidence that looks like what people expect to see with social stratification.

        I suspect there was something pre-existing, because any time a mounted culture meets a farming culture, the horsemen claim superiority of some kind over the farmers. Ditto nomadic herders and farmers. Could it have been otherwise in the far distant past (Neolithic to early Chalcolithic)? Quite possibly, but I’d be surprised, and identifying the archaeological evidence would be a challenge.

  3. a) I think the difference in population densities is probably important. France had a really high density, and England etc a very low. In comparison, during certain periods.
    b) I think France and England have to be looked at as extremes, going in different directions over certain periods. With the Germanies perhaps being more of a mixed bag.
    c) Spain and France definitely had more proximity to Islamic influences, and might perhaps be better understood in terms of Islamic influence on culture than is currently the case. Forex, were the differences between Spanish and Dutch culture during the reign of Philip II of Spain purely a different intensity of Roman influence, or was Islamic influence also part of the picture? Or was it simply greater heresy in the Netherlands, due to greater distance from the Bishop of Rome, and from that cultural influence on Christendom?

  4. IIRC The strongest elements (in practice) of “Divine Right Of Kings” developed during the Renaissance.

    Prior to that, the Kings had to listen to the Council of the Nobility & Clergy (which later included wealthy Commoners). A King’s power depended also on how much income (from property) he had to fund troops loyal to himself rather than to the nobles.

    John Lackland signed the Magna Carta because he needed money from the Barons.

    I also seem to remember that the Power of the French Kings came from the money from a Tax that the French Estates couldn’t stop.

  5. To the best of my understanding, most of the good parts of the Magna Carta were poison pills insisted upon by King John.

    And the rebel nobles were put in the position of either agreeing to strictures on their own power, or aknowledging that their rebellion lacked a moral foundation.

    Another feather in the cap for the father of the English Navy.
    (“Bad kings” are endlessly fascinating. Sometimes they were just bad for the nobility. Sometimes they were good men unable or unwilling to act with ruthlessness. Sometimes they were infirm of purpose, or driven beyond reason. But they are rarely boring to learn about!)

  6. Interesting take on it. I don’t know enough to make a cogent argument, much less a comment… 🙂

    • Thanks for publishing this. Lutheran instruction on Luther’s life through the teenage years tends more toward the catechism and treats* him as Saint Martin Luther. I’m quite deficient in European history, so this is a big help.

      (*) At least in the mid 1960s.

  7. The resistance to Tudors and other centralizers also extends back to the Council of Whitby, and rough bounds on regions where Irish and Roman/ Canterbury missionaries and monasteries held sway. Brehon Law influence in the north from Ireland. Mitred abbots, bishops, and lords with different views than the Home Counties.

      • Just thinking about that makes my head hurt. Although I could see some speed-metal group deciding to do the Toccata from the Widor organ symphony. (Like Epica and others have done with other classical compositions.)

        • I have an organ version of Pictures at an Exhibition. “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs [Baba Yaga]” is interesting. Seems to be the version I play the least for some reason.

        • The first one they tried actually sounded very baroque. Not Bach of course, but if you’d told me it was from a second-tier contemporary if his, I don’t think I’d have blinked. There were a couple of discordant standing waves briefly generated by the room acoustics and the instrument’s altogether lack of subtle, but it was surprisingly good.
          Of course, after that they tried Metallica and Unforgiven. It didn’t go as well. Parts were actually pretty awesome. But it had more standing waves than Katrina.

  8. This is almost an outline for a major ccx research project in a good history department. Intersectionality only where trade routes, resources, religious practice, and political or family ties overlap.

    • Yep! Which is why it is something I will happily leave to someone else. Environmental history is much, much more fun and relaxing than intellectual history.

  9. Was it _______? After all

    I think it is broader.

    Butchered the quote to fit my theory on almost any of these “one guy caused a huge thing to happen.”

    I view it as almost an escape metaphor– the conditions have to be right for the change, and to produce the person who does the change; their actions are their own, and they have SOME power, but at the end of the day they don’t have massive power over the helpless population. So the classic “kill Hitler, stop WWII” thing wouldn’t work, but it would change it.

    • Nod, individuals can matter but what the individual can do depends on factors beyond the individual’s control.

      Hitler could only come into power after the destruction of the power structure of the old German Empire.

      It’s funny that in one of Harry Turtledove’s Alt Histories where Germany won the Great War, he had Hitler (using his old name) as just another German Army Noncom yet he wrote a story where “Joe Stalin” was born in the US and as President became a dictator.

      The main reason that I didn’t read that Turtledove story is that I found it impossible that “Joe Stalin” would have that sort of success.

      The pre-WW2 US was extremely different than Russia either before the Communist Revolution or after it.

      Of course, it’s really strange to have a baby born in the US to be just like the man he was in Our History.

  10. Goethe once wrote a little essay on what the local girls, in his experience, were more attracted to visiting Englishmen than to the local male talent. His thoughts are relevant to this discussion.

    Goethe’s friend Eckermann objected that Englishmen were not “more clever, better informed, or more excellent at heart than other people,” Goethe responded:

    “The secret does not lie in these things, my good friend, Neither does it lie in birth and riches; it lies in the courage which they have to be that for which nature has made them. There is nothing vitiated or spoilt about them, there is nothing halfway or crooked; but such as they are, they are thoroughly complete men. That they are also sometimes complete fools, I allow with all my heart; but that is still something, and has still always some weight in the scale of nature.”

    “In our own dear Weimar, I need only look out of the window to discover how matters stand with us. Lately, when the snow was lying upon the ground, and my neighbour’s children were trying their little sledges in the street, the police was immediately at hand, and I saw the poor little things fly as quickly as they could. Now, when the spring sun tempts them from the houses, and they would like to play with their companions before the door, I see them always constrained, as if they were not safe, and feared the approach of some despot of the police. Not a boy may crack a whip, or sing or shout; the police is immediately at hand to forbid it. This has the effect with us all of taming youth prematurely, and of driving out all originality and all wildness, so that in the end nothing remains but the Philistine.”

    Why Goethe did not discuss this matter with his employer and good friend, the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and suggest that he get the cops to ease up a little, is an interesting question.

    • For a while in northern Germany in the 1990s-2010 or so, there was an on-going tussle between people who wanted the children to play in the public parks on Sunday afternoons, and people who insisted that any noise be forbidden. The Bavarians, as I recall, were more hang-loose about kids (as they and the people Cologne tend to be about most things.)

  11. What is fascinating is the Goethe’s observations on child-raising were echoed 94 years later in the memoirs of Wilhelm II, the former Kaiser.

    “Another thing that struck me, in addition to the one-sidedness of the education in the schools, was the tendency, among youths planning their careers in those days, to turn their attention to becoming Government officials, and always consider the profession of lawyer or judge the most worthy goal…As long as the state consisted, so to speak, of government and administration, this tendency among German youths in the shaping of their lives was understandable and justified; since we were living in a country of officials, the right road for a young man to select was the service of the state. British youths of that time, self-reliant and made robust by sports, were already talking, to be sure, of colonial conquests, of expeditions to explore new regions of the earth, of extending British commerce; and they were trying, in the guise of pioneers of their country, to make Great Britain still stronger and greater, by practical, free action, not as paid hirelings of the state.”


    “To be sure, there were even then enterprising men in Germany—brilliant names can be cited among them—but the conception of serving the fatherland, not by traveling along a definite, officially certified road, but by independent competition, had not yet become sufficiently generalized. Therefore I held up the English as an example, for it seems to me better to take the good where one finds it, without prejudice, than to go through the world wearing blinkers.”

    • One of the odd quirks about England that I had not known until relatively recently was that it was one of the very few places to have civilian engineers. In Germany and many other countries, all engineers were active duty military, military reservists, or retired military. That shaped the focus of civil engineering a great deal, as you can well imagine.

      • A little late for the discussion, but I recall reading (Geoffrey Perrett, =A Country Made By War=, I think) that during much of the 19th century Harvard and Yale sought West Point graduates for their math faculty. Perrett also has some observations about West Point in general.

    • Compare and contrast the strong tendancy for smart American college students circa 1983-2008 to seek (or be pushed toward) careers in finance or law. “If you’re smart enough to be an engineer, you’re way too smart to be an engineer.”

  12. I didn’t know that either–I knew that the build-out of the railroads in Germany and some other countries was largely for military purposes, but didn’t realize that all the engineers in the country were military officers.

    Another interesting comment in the Kaiser’s memoirs was that he felt England had much more effective controls on speech and the press (maybe in the form of the libel laws, he didn’t specify) than those that had existed in Germany during his reign…he was envious and wished he had been able to clamp down to what he viewed as the extent possible in England.

    He apparently didn’t see any contradiction between that view and his other point about the more entrepreneurial attitude of the English.

    • Joel Mokyer’s book, _The Enlightened Economy_ has a lot of intriguing observations about how England and Scotland differed from the Continent, and why those “quirks” played a role in pushing the Industrial Revolution. Civilian engineers and the ability of engineers and skilled technicians to cross class lines and spread ideas (and get funding) played more of a role than I’d thought about.

      If I recall correctly (it has been over a decade), England’s libel laws were the same as they are now – truth is no defense, and it is very hard to prove that you published without any intent or idea that harm to reputation or character might take place. However, at the same time, England did not have the pre-publication censorship of other countries. Ideas could get out, at least briefly, before the authorities intervened. I’d have to go back and dig.

  13. > why Germany went to totalitarianism when the rest of Western Europe inclined toward democracy.

    It was top-heavy with nobility and had only a rudimentary middle class, and who cared what the lower classes thought anyway? The excess of entitled filled the higher tanks of the bureaucracy, so there was gravy for everyone, even if they didn’t actually have subjects or estates any more.

    Democracies normally come about via some sort of conflict; Germany was too socially and politically fragmented for that sort of thing to be big enough to effect change, and the bureaucracy was efficient enough to avoid the kind of internal dissention that leads to revolt.

    Then there was Wilhelm II, whose shadow eclipses Adolf’s easily. But he got a free ride, and got to die of old age in exile, because, well, it would be dreadfully gauche to hold him to account for his crimes.

  14. I was surprised by your comment about engineers. I guess that I have always assumed they were civilians – all the ones celebrated in British history are -and I had not appreciated the different conditions on the continent. I suspect that this was because the Royal Engineers mainly worked on government projects and most of the engineering developments were in the private sector (or naval, which is another story). However, I understand that a lot of colonial infrastructure was designed by the RE (and the Ordinance Survey did a lot of mapping).

    As for controls on the press in the Victorian era, I’m not sure whether to believe the Kaiser’s view. When you think of the kinds of things caricaturists like Gillray got away with there would have to have been a drastic tightening of the law to really change things (and if you don’t have pre-publication censorship the story is out and any mud will stick despite all the libel actions in the world). And I’m not sure what you mean when you say of UK libel laws that “truth is no defence”. Truth is always a defence, specifically that of “justification”. I think the real difference has always been that to assert a defence of justification the defendant has to prove the truth of the words complained of (I’m guessing that in the US the plaintiff has to prove them untrue?)

    As to why England was odd, if pushed for an answer – and probably there isn’t one which will ever command general acceptance – I’d go for deep history: the almost complete elimination of Roman influence following the fall of the empire. Despite the destruction of the Anglo-Saxon state, damaged by the Vikings and then destroyed in the cataclysm of the Norman Conquest, by 1300 the result, particularly in matters of law, was something quite different from the European norm. To be specific: Common Law not Roman Law, though this juxtaposition crudely summarises a host of other differences.

    Or you can put the whole down to chance, contingency, the arrow in Harold’s eye as Hastings, the 2nd Battle of Lincoln, Henry VIII wanting a son, Charles I not being a good enough general to become an absolute monarch, etc.

  15. Vicki…”Compare and contrast the strong tendancy for smart American college students circa 1983-2008 to seek (or be pushed toward) careers in finance or law.” Yes, I think that parallels the Kaiser’s comments very well. Although offsetting that somewhat, entrepreneurship has been admired in the US more than in most countries.

    Also, Goethe’s comments are interesting in view of the increasing constraints placed on childhood in the US in recent decades.

  16. Sorry, I seem to be a bit late coming to this discussion; somehow I missed this post til this morning.

    These discussions of “why did history go this way and not that way?” remind me of the endless arguments among paleontologists about “why did the history of Life go this way and not that way?” I’m not much on history, save for a bit of military history, but I know evolutionary theory and the history of Life pretty well. There isn’t one event in the entire fossil record where you can point to a specific event, place, and gene and say “THIS is where, when, and why Life took this path instead of that one.” The Chicxulub asteroid impact comes closest, but there’s even argument about that. Instead, the history of Life is basically chaotic, with uncounted numbers of different threads interacting with such complexity that reducing it to simple causes and effects is impossible.

    When I apply that same principle to history, I wind up thinking that we often try to over-simplify things, and that results in missing important elements. For example: in this case of Germany vs England, to what extent did geography play a role? Germany was landlocked and surrounded by potential enemies, so it was a battleground for most of recorded history. Maybe the people developed a basically defensive mentality because of that? England, on the other hand, was protected by the Channel, a natural defense so formidable that it hasn’t been breached since 1066, and wasn’t even seriously threatened between 1066 and 1588. After the Spanish Armada was defeated, England wasn’t threatened again until Napoleon’s Grande Armee in 1801-04. English foreign policy was basically offensive, not defensive.

    England, an island-based seafaring culture, also had a frontier – the oceans and the lands beyond. Germany, surrounded by already-inhabited lands, didn’t.

    Significant? Or not? I don’t know.

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