Video: The Influence of Germanic Thinking

Last Thursday, Paul Marks traced the history of the welfare state – as provider of education, health and unemployment insurance – through centuries from its origins in Germany down, ultimately, to Barrack Hussein Obama, the incumbent President of the United States.

First Paul posed the question: why would the editor of the Telegraph, at a time when the US economy had overtaken the UK, and German productivity per man was half of ours. Why would he write that the UK should be more like Germany?

He was not having a fit. He was stating the consensus political opinion of his age.

Otto von Bismarck, being a successful military and political leader who adopted these policies and united a Germany was the primary contemporary influence. Behind him was Frederick the Great of Prussia and an old and respected tradition of scientific and academic success.

Despite other explanations being available – free market reforms, Polish invasion and inflation and the military success of prior leaders – Bismarck’s success is perceived as a victory for the state he created.

The historical echoes of Frederick the Great carry far. While arguably very lucky Frederick II took on his neighbours and won. Still admired by the likes of Naill Ferguson for his religious tolerance, modern liberals hold him up as an example of state led enlightenment.

Paul concedes that Frederick the Great was leader, a composer, a correspondent with Voltaire, a creator and a man of science. To many this alone means “liberalism”: nevermind that he swept away the Common Law in favour of state imposed rules, and imposed his vision on the Poles by conquest.

Frederick the Great was in turn inspired by a long history of a “German Academic Tradition” that was incredibly strong. Broad, thorough and ample, this tradition feels impressive and profoud. It beat the flowery prose of the French and the trivial straightforwardness of the English.

The Historical School

Part of this tradition was Gustav von Schmoller and Paul took a detour to ensure he covered this school due to its opposition to the Austrian School.

German academics were incredibly smart and hard-working, but he said, declaring his bias, possessed of an ethical problem. According to Menger‘s 1883 “Errors of Historicism” (loosely translated) they were “bloody liars” and were prepared to say anything to defend the ruling house.

Incidentally the bias declared was that Marks comes down on Menger’s side in the war of method.

Other dodgy German philosophers

As well as an adversity to the common law and civil society, Paul highlights a strain of racism in the German tradition.

Fichte (~1762) took the thinking of Immanuel Kant to the extreme (Kant interpreted him as saying the universe is not real), but who in politics believed in a totalitarian state at the service of the volk, to the exclusion of others ethnic groups from the state.

Hurder (1776) was more civil, believing that if you were a Jew it was not your fault, but you were simply not German.

Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto (1848) is well-known here, but Paul also stops to mention his anti-semitic book On the Jewish Question, joking that Marx seems to have forgotten his own family were Jewish. The major part of Marx theory though was based on class not race.

The German mainstream ends up promoting the idea that there is no universal logic. There is either class logic (proletarian or capitalist logic) or racial logic (Aryan or Jewish logic) and all the different logics are normatively valid – the idea of polylogism. Our chap von Mises was not a fan, understandably.

This tradition, including right and left Hegelianism, top down and bottom up collectivists, starts to leak out of Germany. (Hegel died 1831)

Who was influenced?

Even 50 years after the death of Frederick the Great Sir William Hamiltion of Scoland, John Stuart Mill of England begin to use the term “state” in a positive way, influenced by his success.

Horace Mann founded the Boston public education system in the early 19th century. Importing the Germanic tradition wholesale.

In the late 19th Century Richard Ely founded the Orwellian projects the American Economics Association (1885) and the American Academic Freedom Campaign.

In the UK Joseph Chamberlain and David Lloyd George who in 1911 conned the English into undermining the Friendly Societies that gave health insurance to 80% of industrial workers, replacing them with National Insurance and ultimately the modern NHS and JSA.

How do we get forward all the way to Obama? That was left to the Q&A, and is for another day.


  1. Wonderful talk, Paul; and Simon, thanks so much for making the video available to us. Being able to watch the speaker always adds so much, I think.

    Is there any way that you could also publish the Q&A sections in video? Again, they are often at least as interesting and informative as the presentations proper, as they bring up different sides to the issues, and also let us see how the speaker deals with questions ex tempore and so forth.

    Anyway, thanks again, very much, to both of you, and to whatever helpers helped put it all together. :>)



    1. Thank you Julie. It did take considerable time to add a summary so the couple of compliments I’ve had are much appreciated. Although I venture it took less time than Paul invested in all the things it took to deliver the talk. Not least a life time of learning and a lengthy train journey on a stormy day.

      One helper who is highly deserving of a mention is my wife, who tolerates much late night charging of batteries, puts up with me being glued to keyboard, scratching my head over the publication date of the New Atlantis, while she puts the shopping away, and general patience and wondefulness.

      I do intend to add the Q&A, once I’ve earned enough brownie points.



      1. Then special thanks to your wife as well. :>))

        And, I look forward with great anticipation to the Q&A’s! :>)))

        If any of those brownie points are markers with funny signs like £, $, € in front —


  2. The funny thing is that the Prussians began to deify the state in a liberal context: the King became just a humble servant of the state – no don’t revere me I’m enlightened and liberal, revere the state!

    It is startling how little genuine liberty-think there is in German history, really virtually none, and if – as I believe to be the case – they are now looking back to Frederick the Great for inspiration, well that – frankly – is like looking into a toilet bowl (albeit at a point when it was less full than in 1945).



  3. “It is startling how little genuine liberty-think there is in German history”

    I don’t think this is right. If you go back as far as Tacitus, you find the roots of our own (Anglo-Saxon) conceptions of liberty in the Germans of that time, and when Germany was a patchwork of scores of mini-states within the Holy Roman Empire, if you didn’t like one place you could just cross the river and move to another jurisdiction.

    According to Ludwig von Mises in ‘Nation, State and Economy’ and ‘Omnipotent Government’, which give a fascinating insight into the history leading to the two world wars, the main reason that liberalism didn’t conquer the German-speaking world as it had in England and France was the complexities of nationalism in central and eastern Europe, where any move towards democracy would have had a far more disintegrating effect on the political structure than was the case in the more homogenous nations just mentioned.



      1. The Holy Roman Empire had many different kinds of states, such as a number of city states which were not at all like slave plantations. Of course they may not measure up to modern standards of liberty, but then neither did England or France at the same time. The link you give talks about Junkers, who had great power in Prussia, but not all Prussia was within the HRE. Furthermore, it was the rise of Prussia which swept away much of the diversity in the HRE. The Netherlands at the time of the HRE was not very different from the neighbouring areas within the HRE, which is true to this day, in language and culture.


      2. Ahem, you’ve just demonstrated my point quite nicely. We all know there are a lot of closeted gay politicians and clergy, the operative word there was “openly”. Even here it’s difficult to see an openly gay Nigel Farage.

        I apologize for the silliness, mind was elsewhere, but it’s not as though I’m proposing anything novel.


  4. …Kant was introduced to the US by James, Dewey and Emerson via Carlyle , and to the UK by William Hamilton and T. H. Green and the ‘libertarian socialist’ J.S. Mill via Von Humboldt.



    1. The introduction of Kant in the U.S. was aided in no little way by the scores of men returning from university studies in Germany after the Civil War. They became activists for various kinds of statism, especially Progressivism, and provided the impetus for the growth of federal powers late in the 19th century. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were receptive to those ideas.



  5. I understand that, quite early on. German intellectuals initiated a purge of the German language of its foreign ‘borrowings’ in order to both unify a disparate people and ‘purify’ its racial and cultural roots. I believe this trend goes back to an early Germanic folk myth that links language and race. Does anyone have more info about this, please?



  6. What a wonderful video. I’ve been reading contributions from Paul Marks at The Economist for years. This is a delightful way to listen to him discuss ideas. It would be fantastic if you could make a series of these discussions. If you need contributions to get this effort going, please advise. Thank you for your efforts and best of luck to you all who made this possible.



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