Heinrich Von Treitschke (1834-1896) was a German, but more specifically Prussian, political pundit, and most importantly historian, whose rantings and ravings, intelligent as they were, played a major role in the conservative triumph over the left in Wilhelmine Germany.
That Heinrich von Treitschke was a great historian is a matter of sheer size and importance.
a devoted anti Semite, advocate of saber rattling power politics and Prussian militarism, his existence and influence cast a shadow of indictment over the spectacular 19th century achievements of the German nation.
His greatness is certainly not, however, attributable to any human qualities he possessed. Heinrich began his political existence as a liberal however, possibly as an act of rebellion against his father, a Saxon general. It was also a time when the cause of national unity, so near to Treitschke's heart, was championed by liberals. It is not clear exactly what forces were responsible for Treitschke's shift in political beliefs, but it is certain that those beliefs, coupled, in this case, unfortunately, to a powerful intellect, were to have unpleasant consequences for Germany and many of the nations with which it shared the planet.
As an historian, Treitschke did not believe in the virtue of "historical objectivity" so prevalent
amongst his 19th century positivist contemporaries. His approach to history rather, was founded on the principle that German history must meet German needs. His advocacy of state control of society resonated with his historical
methodology. His disastrously popular Deutsche Geschichte im 19. Jahrhundert made, by its popularity, Treitschke's
methodology a reality. The sine qua non of German history for a generation of German students and middle class readers, Treitschke's vehicle of political fancy helped to forge the political realities of fin de siecle Germany.
The terrifying fusion of what Treitschke identified as "German nationalism, Prussian militarism, and Hohenzollern authoritarianism," was hailed by much of Germany as the realization of German ideals by what was increasingly viewed as the sole politically realistic means of achieving national objectives; force of arms.
This mirrored Bismarck's masterpiece of statecraft, which was snatching the central issue of German liberalism, national unification from the left, and welding it to conservatism, transforming the old regime from a slowly decaying bulwark against change, to an active force in shaping the future. Treitschke worked to blur the lines between nationalism and militarism, offering them up as inseparable. His work furthered the emasculation of the German liberal tradition which had begun with the failures
of 1848 and the successes of 1871.
The painful symbolism of Treitschke's replacement of the supremely brilliant Leopold von Ranke as professor of the University of Berlin in 1874, and as official historiographer of Prussia in 1886 furnishes bitter analogy to the rise of Kaiser Wilhelm II over Bismarck.
It remains unclear however, to what degree Treitschke was a symptom of the ominous trends in German politics/society, and conversely, how extensive his personal responsibility for them was. The classic debate, "made history" or "was made by history" will invariably continue to rage outside this node, but in Treitschke's case the matter is clear. His views on history, society, and politics were perhaps the most influential of any German scholar for the duration of The Second Reich. As mentioned, his history of Germany from 1800-1848 crept insidiously into homes and schools
throughout the empire, but his most potent platform was not
his history books, but his university course on history and politics.
His course began in 1863, while Treitschke was teaching at Freiburg, and continued during his tenure in Berlin, from 1874-1896, being published for the general reader shortly after his death, in 1898. If the sheer number of students involved in a twenty-two year course were insufficient, the short interval between Treitschke's death and the publication of his lectures must attest to their influence. The lectures themselves were a cornucopia of anti-socialist, anti-liberal, anti-feminist morsels, all of these movements he frequently declared initiated and maintained by Jews. His opinion of the masses held that
when they congregated, the worst of their qualities were amplified, that the people required leadership to draw the best from them. Further edified in his own words,
"The masses must always remain the masses."
Teaching politics, Treitschke naturally leaned on history for material to support his foreign policy program of military imperialism. But he was certainly not averse to casting contemporary events into his ideological mold, in so doing, playing a direct role their outcomes. The quality of his influence perhaps outweighs even the quantity. His lectures, growing to a state of immense popularity, mesmerized halls filled far beyond capacity, filled with students of the University of Berlin, visitors from around the country, casual listeners and even high school (gymnasium) students. These multitudes would emerge spellbound, many of them rising to positions of economic and political power.
His impressive oratory and literary talents were not reserved for the German universities either. As a member of the Reichstag, his exploits, (sardonic derision of the left) were transmitted to the German populace by the press. Treitschke further seeped into the public consciousness using the press directly; Treitschke served as editor for The Prussian Yearbooks from 1866-1889, and also as a frequent contributor to, and in the last year of his life, editor of the Historische Zeitschrift. Truly among the most influential of all historians, Treitschke was a true zeitpoltergeist, whom a mass of German patriots followed over the brink which separates love of one's own country from hatred of another.
-Davis, H. W. C. The Political Thought of Heinrich von Treitschke. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1973.
-Dorpalen, Andreas. Heinrich von Treitschke. London: Oxford University Press, 1957
-Heinrich von Treitschke, Encyclopaedia Britannica.
-Treitschke, Heinrich von. Politics. Hans Kohn (trans.) New York: Harcourt Press, 1963.