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.