When he called his attempts to suppress the Catholic Church and its related organizations a “Kulturkampf.” Nowadays we simply require the Roman Church, through its affiliate entities, to underwrite abortion, abortifacients, and birth control, and we call its opposition to being required to vomit up its beliefs a “war on women.”
This op-ed’s references to 1870-80s Imperial Germany is very timely, and the connection between that time and today is one that is not nearly adequately appreciated. Progressivism’s — in fact, “liberalism’s” — roots in fact do lie in a time and place which is most popularly understood as representing the very antithesis of those ideologies’ guiding principles.
Yet it is even so. As Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944 for a British audience, the British public conversations about “planning,” by which everyone understood centralized planning of as much of the economy as could be comprehended by government mandate, eerily mirrored the precise conversations that were current in Germany a generation and more before. Hayek wrote, so he pointed out, precisely to warn the British public against the dangers of following down the German path.
Closer to home here, in Liberal Fascism, a book which remains interesting today, the introductory chapters, especially on Woodrow Wilson’s actual articulated ideas of government and its proper role in life, are filled with citations to his works and papers and their German antecedents. Wilson has been sanctified in American history teaching largely for his 14 Points, and for his League of Nations idea. His 14 Points turned out to be at best pious hogwash and at worst ticking time-bombs (remember it was his principle of “self-determination” that allowed the British and French to hand over the Sudetenland to Hitler in 1938 with a smirk of rationalization). His League of Nations foundered, we are told, because the U.S. didn’t join. Forgive me but I can’t see that the U.N. has done much to gloat over. What has kept the the world from immolating itself for the past 70 years has not been a bunch of guys in New York who won’t pay a parking ticket; it’s been the U.S. military. But it’s when you move past the Wilson hagiography that you get to some positions that are just well beyond the pale. A vigorous support for governmental eugenics is only one. His totalitarian vision of the state and his frustrations with that nasty ol’ Constitution are even more sobering.
[As an aside, Liberal Fascism remains a quaint artifact because it was so obviously written against Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency, at a time when everyone just assumed she was the nominee. I can’t recall that Dear Leader got much more than a collateral mention.]
Bismarck cynically used then-current theorizing about the state, its role, and the citizen’s role, combined with a ruthless divide-and-conquer strategy, for what seems to have been no greater ambition than to retain himself in power. He threw bones to the socialists, in the form of social security, enacted in 1881, a full half-century-plus before the U.S. He threw bones to the saber rattlers and imperialists in the form of huffing and shouting until Britain and France allowed Germany to take over a few thousand square miles of God-forsaken territory at the fringe of nowhere. He threw bones to the officer class in the form of ever-increasing army appropriations. He threw bones to the industrialists like Krupp in the form of buying up their armaments as fast as they could be produced. But from a recent biography of him, the conclusion is pretty strong that for Bismarck it was about little more than fracturing the opposition to his personal dominance of European politics.
Bismarck even wrote the Imperial constitution to suit himself. It was perfectly tailored for himself as Reichskanzler and the aged Wilhelm I, the soldier-king, as Kaiser. In fact it worked, about as well as anything, while the two of them remained in place. But it was precisely that point in which Bismarck revealed himself to be no statesman, but rather a megalomaniacal politician. His constitution overlooked that one day he would no longer be Reichskanzler, and Wilhelm I no longer kaiser. And sure enough, when his little puppy of a crown prince (whose warped view of the world and his place in it Bismarck had studiously fostered, back when it appeared that his father would be kaiser for a lengthy reign) ascended the throne, it wasn’t a decade before the system began to go off the rails. Bismarck’s failure is in marked contrast to the wisdom of the men who sweated out the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. They wrote for the ages. Over 225 years later their work endures, for exactly the reason that its strengths do not depend upon the strengths of any particular player, but rather are designed to check the failings of all potential players.
Back in the 1870s they called it an “Obrigkeitsstaat” — an authoritarian state. Now we call it “hope” and “change.” But the understanding of where we and our government fit into each other’s existence is vintage 1870s. All of which highlights how close to the truth came the speaker (don’t have the book in front of me now and so I can’t give the name) who observed that America speaks in English, but it thinks in German. It is no accident, no accident at all, that the same Dear Leader who on the one hand laments that America’s Founding Fathers didn’t draft a charter for expropriation and re-distribution also wholly accepts, so far as can be told from his actions and pronouncements, the Imperial German notions of the centrality of the state in society.