Junkers, Hitler, Efficiency, and Leisure

In my research into Hitler’s rise to power, I came across this in Shirer’s locus classicus on the matter, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

For centuries [Prussia] had lain outside the main stream of German historical development and culture. It seemed almost as if it were a freak of history….

By [1701] Prussia had pulled itself up by its own bootstraps to be one of the ranking military powers of Europe. It had none of the resources of the others…. Even the nobility was poor, and the landless peasants lived like cattle. Yet by a supreme act of will and a genius for organizaton the Hohenzollerns managed to create a Spartan military state whose well-drilled Army won one victory after another and whose Machiavellian diplomacy of temporary alliances with whatever power seemed the strongest brought constant additions to its territory.

There thus arose quite artifically a state born of no popular force nor even of an idea except that of conquest, and held together by the absolute power of the ruler, by a narrow-minded bureaucracy which did his bidding and by a ruthlessly disciplined army…. “Prussia,” remarked Mirabeau, “is not a state with an army, but an army with a state.” And the state, which was run with the efficiency and soullessness of a factory, became all; the people were little more than cogs in the machinery. Individuals were tuaght not only by the kings and the drill sergeants but by the philosophers that their role in life was one of obedience, work, sacrifice and duty. Even Kant preached that duty demands the suppression of human feeling, and the Prussian poet Willibald Alexis gloried in the enslavement of the people under the Hohnzollerns. To Lessing, who did not like it, “Prussia was the most slavish country of Europe.”

All of that is pregnant with signficance, but allow me to draw your attention especially to this next paragraph sequence, which compares the agrarian system of Prussia with that of Western Germany. Something vital is hiding on the surface:

The Junkers, who were to play such a vital role in modern Germany, were also a unique product of Prussia. They were, as they said, a master race. It was they who occupied the land conquered by the Slavs and who farmed it on large estates worked by these Slavs, who became landless serfs quite different from those in the West. There was an essential difference between the agrarian system in Prussia and that of Western Germany and Western Europe. In the latter, the nobles, who owned most of the land, received rents or feudal dues from the peasants, who though often kept in a state of serfdom had certain rights and privileges and could, and did, gradually acquire their own land and civic freedom. In the West, the peasants formed a solid part of the community; the landlords for all their drawbacks, developed in their leisure a cultivation which led to, among other things, a civilized quality of life that could be seen in the refinement of manners, of thought and of the arts.

The Prussian Junker was not a man of leisure. He worked hard at managing his large estate, much as a factory manager does today. His landless laborers were treated as virtual slaves. On his large properties, he was the absolute lord. There were no large towns nor any substantial middle class, as there were in the West, whose civilizing influence might rub against him. In contrast to the cultivated grand seigneur in the West, the Junker developed into a rude, domineering, arrogant type of man, without cultivation or culture, aggressive, conceited, ruthless, narrow-minded and given to a petty profit-seeking that some German historians noted in the private life of Otto von Bismarck, the most successful of the Junkers.

William Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 137, 138 (emphasis mine)

The United States are certainly not Spartan and we do not seem much inclined toward that vice, but two or three other disturbing trends can be found here that will enslave us if we are not vigilant. Here let me simply highlight the necessity for leisure for a people who wishes to remain free. The civilizing influence of leisure leads to the spread of civilization (please not that civlization is not a matter of power but of form – it is not technology that makes us civilized but, at least, a love of beauty).

The efficiency of the Prussian Junkers stood as a barrier between them and civilization. As a result, they worshipped power and thought of themselves as a “master race.”

The slavs were their opposites. They seem to have had a passivity and an emotionalism that better reflects American society. Even that, however, raises a too simplistic question: do we run the risk of finding a vast portion of our population seduced by the promise of security and pleasure into a state of serfdom to those who are diligent and arrogant?

I have no idea. I cannot see the future. The past only gives clues, not knowledge.



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