German Superiority

Because Germany did not exist as a nation until 1871, an inferiority complex had emerged in the nineteenth century which intellectual circles attempted to offset by claiming that Germans were spiritually and morally superior to all other people. The slogan ‘Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen’ (the German spirit shall heal the world) was coined, the argument being that to make the world a better place, Germans would have to ensure that German culture and values prevailed.1

Peoples in the east and south of Europe were thought to be too ‘primitive’ to change the world for the better. Americans, it was claimed, were the descendants of proletarian emigrants and slaves, and would never be able to achieve the intellectual and moral standard that would allow them to contribute to the higher goals of humanity. The Germans also felt superior to the countries of Western Europe, particularly the English. Although the British ruled over a global empire, culturally England was deemed to be of merely incidental significance. The Germans considered themselves the pioneers of an impending world culture that contrasted with the materialistic and decadent British ‘civilisation’. German intellectuals raved that in the new world culture inspired by Germany, the human spirit would truly reign at last, and its capabilities could then finally be fully exploited. German philosophers and intellectuals did not tire of affirming their belief in Germany’s superiority. They asserted that the country’s compulsion to command the world through wars and conquests was justified by the superiority of German culture. The fact that Germany had long lagged behind other Western nations economically was seen as an advantage: this had spared Germans the fate of decadence and the cultural downfall that German intellectuals perceived to have befallen France and England. In 1914, however, Germany’s economy made dramatic advances. Germany’s electrical and chemical industries had already overtaken the British equivalents in volume, and Germany was well on the way to producing more steel than England.

German philosophers and intellectuals did not tire of affirming their belief in Germany's superiority. They asserted that the country's compulsion to command the world through wars and conquests was justified by the superiority of German culture. The fact that Germany had long lagged behind other Western nations economically was seen as an advantage: this had spared Germans the fate of decadence and the cultural downfall that German intellectuals perceived to have befallen France and England. In 1914, however, Germany's economy caught up forcefully. Germany's electrical and chemical industries had already overtaken the British equivalents in volume, and Germany was well on the way to producing more steel than England.

German intellectual circles considered the looming threat of the First World War anything but a disadvantage. The war was perceived as a purging of European cultures that were poisoned and contaminated. There was absolutely no doubt that Germany would win the war because it was taken as given that the nation with the more significant culture would be the victor. In the eyes of the Germans, the First World War was a ‘just war’, a ‘war of cultures [...] at the heart of which lay the mission of German culture to inaugurate a new age in European civilisation’.2 German metaphysics battled against British imperialism and French irrationality. Intellectual circles were mobilised and Germany’s cultural sphere became an essential part of the war effort. Literature in particular was utilised for the war and served ‘as part of a broader cultural mobilisation’.3

To the German population, the First World War was portrayed as a war between ‘merchants’ and ‘heroes’, where the British were greedy merchants out for purely material gain, while the German heroes defended the idealistic values of German culture. When the English referred to ‘culture’, it was said they meant ‘convenience’; they confused ‘truth’ with ‘facts’; ‘good’ with ‘useful’; ‘love’ with ‘solidarity’; and ‘human nature’ with ‘the English’.

1 This phrase is taken from the 'Rachelied der Deutschen' ('Revenge Song of the Germans', 1813) by Ernst Moritz Arndt
2 W.G. Natter, Literature at War 1914-1940: Representing the 'Time of Greatness' in Germany, New Haven and London 1999, p.123
3 W.G. Natter, op. cit., p.9