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Prussians & Englishmen

[1]4,018 words

Editor’s Note:

The following is a selection from chapter 3, “Prussians and Englishmen,” of Oswald Spengler’s Prussianism and Socialism, a short book or long essay of about 36,000 words published in 1920.

Spengler argued that true socialism was not represented by the Marxist-inspired Communists and Social Democrats, who had brought down the Second Reich, but by the Prussian spirit of patriotism, duty, and the subordination of private interests to the common good whenever they conflicted.

Spengler also argued the true socialism did not require the expropriation of private property, but merely the regulation of economic activity and the cultivation of an ethos of public-spiritedness and duty. Thus Spengler’s Prussian socialism is very close to what became Italian Fascism and German National Socialism.

In the following selection, Spengler offers an explanation for how the Prussians and the Anglo-Saxons, two racially similar peoples, diverged so radically as to be the paradigms of socialism and capitalism.


I should like to make clear what I mean by the term “Prussianism.” The name, of course, refers to an area of Europe where certain attitudes took on impressive shape and began to evolve. But Prussianism is, first and foremost, a feeling, an instinct, a compulsion. It is the embodiment of spiritual and intellectual traits—and that means also of certain physical qualities—that have long since become the distinguishing characteristics of a race, or rather of the best and most typical representatives of this race. Certainly not every person born in England is “English” in the racial sense; and not everyone born in Prussia in genuinely “Prussian.” This word denotes everything we Germans possess by way of destiny, will, inner drive, and ability, and nothing of our vague ideas, desires, and whims. There are true Prussian types in all of Germany—I am thinking of men like Friedrich List and Hegel, of certain inventors, scholars, engineers, and organizers, but especially of a particular type of German worker. Since the Battles of Rossbach and Leuthen there have been many Germans who in the depth of their souls have harbored a small strain of Prussianism, a potential source of energy which can become active at great moments of history. As yet, however, the only real Prussian achievements have been the creations of Frederick William I and Frederick the Great: the Prussian state and the Prussian people.

Every supreme reality begets later realities. The Prussian element is again making itself felt in the Germans, or rather in the German type, of today; it is gradually reducing the effectiveness of outmoded ideologies. Although the best Germans are not aware of it, Prussianism, with its combination of realism, discipline, energy, and esprit de corps, is a great promise for the future. At the moment, the German people, indeed every individual German, is threatened by what we have dubbed “the German Michel”—the hodgepodge of faded beliefs which we often think of as ingenuous, but which really are useless or even dangerous for Western civilization.

The concept of “the Germans” as used in the idealistic sense by professors and enthusiasts is an artificial construct based on the spurious foundation of a common language. It is unpolitical and impractical; it does not denote a “race” in the sense of instincts having a unified function in the real world. The idea is made up of the ossified remains of the Medieval Gothic mentality, together with the confused gropings of eternally childish souls. The Romantic movement in Germany, with its dreamy politics of 1848, once again brought these traits to the fore. Gothic vestiges, mixed with bits and shreds of English ideas, comprise the basis for such trivial beliefs as cosmopolitanism, international friendship, and universal humanitarianism. In serious cases people have been induced to treason by naively adopting such ideologies, singing and writing and talking about things which the Spanish sword and English money have actually achieved.

Such are the perennial provincialists, the simple-minded heroes of the German Bildungsroman, who may undergo a certain amount of inner development but who display an astounding lack of talent when it comes to dealing with things of the real world. Such are the portly gentlemen of our bowling clubs, our beer halls, and our parliamentary assemblies, who excuse their own lack of ability by griping about the governmental departments they manage so badly. They are the ones with the sleepy tendency toward English liberalism and its hostility to the state, a feeling that pleases them even though they are ignorant of the strong initiative displayed by the private English citizen in political and other matters. Theirs is the narrow-minded, Italian and French preference for smallness in politics, the refusal to pursue political thought beyond the boundaries of their immediate neighbors. They consider order as inimical to culture, and yet they have been unable to capture the spirit of the culture they praise so highly. At the same time they are the outspoken advocates of Spanish-style ecclesiastical authority, which only leads to squabbles among the various denominations.

Such, then, are our “typical Germans”: impractical, servile, stupid but honest, formless without any promise of improvement, old-fashioned, small-minded, thought-stifling, and degrading. They are the inner enemy of every true German as an individual and of all Germans as a nation. Together they represent the “German Michel,” of the five “typical” personifications of modern creative peoples, the only one that is negative in character. They represent a form of Gothic humanity that has resisted the efforts of post-Renaissance and post-Reformation culture to create a race in the new sense of the term.


The organized colonization of the Slavic frontier involved Germans of all tribes, but the area was ruled by nobles from Lower Saxony. Thus the Prussian people, by origin, is closely related to the English. It was the same Saxons, Frisians, and Angles who, as roving Viking bands, and often under Norman and Danish names, subdued the Celtic Britons. Saxon settlements sprang up along the Thames just as they had in the desert-like region near the Havel and Spree Rivers, a stretch of land comparable in desolate expanse and fateful importance only to Latium, the Roman Campagna. By contemplating the rigid figures of Duke Widukind, the Margrave Gero, and Henry the Lion, we can gain an impression of the type of men who first set this people on its path of Destiny.

But the Viking spirit and the communal spirit of the Teutonic knights gradually gave rise to two antithetical ethical imperatives. One side bore the Germanic idea actively within itself, while the other felt itself subject to it: personal independence on the one hand, and suprapersonal community spirit on the other. Today we refer to these concepts as “individualism” and “socialism.” Virtues of the most exalted kind are summarized by these words: in the one case personal responsibility, self-reliance, determination, and initiative; and in the other, loyalty, discipline, selflessness, and a sense of obligation. To be free and to serve—there is nothing more difficult that this. A people whose spirit and being are capable of it, a nation that can truly serve and be free, deserves to take upon itself a great destiny.

Service—that is the style of Old Prussia, similar to that of Old Spain, which also created a people by engaging in knightly warfare against the heathen. Not “I” but “we”—a feeling of community to which every individual sacrifices his whole being. The individual does not matter; he must offer himself to the totality. All exist for all, and all partake of that glorious inner freedom, the libertas oboedientiae [freedom of obedience — Ed.] which has always distinguished the best exemplars of Prussian breeding. The Prussian army, Prussian civil service, and August Bebel’s workers’ brigades are all products of this breeding principle.

The urge to individuality and independence, however, later drove many of those with Viking blood in their veins—Englishmen, Germans, and Scandinavians—to seek their fortunes on the American prairie. This adventure was, in effect, a late resumption of the expeditions from Greenland at the time of the Eddas, when Vikings touched the Canadian coast: a tremendous migration of Teutons filled with a longing for distance and limitless expanses, teams of adventurers who were to lay the groundwork for yet another people with Saxon characteristics. Yet this new people was to arise apart from the maternal soil of the Faustian culture, and thus lacked the “inner basalt” of which Goethe speaks in his poem “America.” It retained certain races of noble blood and the concomitant virtues of vigor and industriousness, but was without roots and therefore without a future.

Such was the origin of the English and Prussian types. The difference between them is that between a people whose soul has developed out of an awareness of insular security, and one that has been forced to maintain a frontier without natural borders to protect it from its enemies. In England, “splendid isolation” replaced the organized state. A stateless nation was only possible under those conditions; isolation was the necessary ingredient in the development of the spirit of modern England, a spirit that first gained full confidence in the seventeenth century, when the English became the undisputed masters of their island. It is a case of creative topography: the English people shaped and formed itself, while the Prussian people was shaped in the eighteenth century by the Hohenzollern, who brought with them the frontier experience of southern Central Europe, and who had thus become advocates of the organized state.

As real political entities, as state and non-state, Prussia and England embody the maximum and minimum functioning of the suprapersonal socialistic principle. The liberal English “state” is completely intangible; it makes not a single claim on the individual citizen, nor does it make of him a meaningful element in a political system. It serves him exclusively as a means to an end. During the century between Waterloo and the World War, England went without compulsory education, compulsory military service, and compulsory social security—out of sheer antipathy to these negative privileges. The hostility of the English toward centralized organization is neatly expressed in their word “society,” which has displaced in their thinking the ideal notion of the “state.” The concept entered the French Enlightenment as société, Montesquieu arrived at this opinion: “Des sociétés de vingt à trente millions d’hommes—ce sont des monstres dans la nature” [Societies of twenty or thirty million people — they are monsters in nature–Ed.]. This was an anarchical French idea, but in British formulation. Rousseau, as is well known, used this word to conceal his hatred of rules and commands issued by authority; and Karl Marx, whose pattern of thought was likewise predominantly English, merely followed suit. Lessing, as a representative of the German Aufklärung, employed the term Menschengeschlecht in the sense of “human society.” Goethe, Schiller, and Herder preferred the word Gesellschaft, which then became a favorite expression of the German liberals, who used it to blot out of their minds the nobler but more demanding idea of the Staat.

England did away with the principle of the organized state, and put in its place the notion of the free private citizen. The citizen demands permission to fight alone in the ruthless struggle for existence, for this is the only way he can satisfy his Viking instincts. Buckle, Malthus, and Darwin later postulated that the basic essence of “society” was the naked struggle for existence. And they were absolutely right, at least as far as their own country and people were concerned. To be sure, in modern England this principle operates in a highly refined and perfected fashion. But evidence of a more rudimentary adherence to it can be found in the Icelandic sagas, where such behavior is obviously spontaneous and not borrowed from another culture. The forces with which William the Conqueror took England in 1066 could be called a “society” of knightly adventurers, and English trading companies have subdued and expropriated entire countries—most recently, since 1890, the inland regions of South Africa. Gradually the entire English nation assumed the characteristics of a “society.” The Old Norse instinct for piracy and clever trading has, in the end, influenced the Englishman’s attitude toward all of reality, including property, work, foreign peoples, and the weaker individuals and classes among his own people. The same instinct has also yielded political techniques that are extremely effective weapons in the struggle for mastery of the globe.

A concept complementary to that of “society” is the “private citizen.” He represents the sum of certain positive ethical qualities which like all great ethical virtues are not acquired through training or education, but are borne in the blood and perfected after passing through generation after generation. The peculiarly English style of politics is essentially one that involves private citizens or groups of such individuals. This, and only this, is the very meaning of parliamentary government. Cecil Rhodes was a private citizen who conquered foreign countries. The American billionaires are private citizens who rule foreign countries by means of an inferior class of professional politicians. German liberalism, on the other hand, is ethically valueless. It merely says “No!” to the state, and is unable to justify its opposition by offering equally high-minded and vigorous positive suggestions.

Among the political attitudes that prevail in Germany today, only socialism has the potentiality of inner value and integrity. Liberalism is for the simple-minded, for those who like to chat a great deal about things they can never achieve. That is how we Germans are; we cannot possibly be like the English, we can only be caricatures of them—and that we have been often enough. Every man for himself: that is an English idea. Every man for every other man: that is the Prussian way. Liberalism, however, means “the state for itself, and every man for himself.” That is a formula impossible to follow unless one is willing to take the liberal course, which is to say one thing while being dead set against its opposite, but in the end to let the opposite take over anyway.

There are in Germany a number of unpopular and disreputable political philosophies, but none is more fervently despised than the liberal view. Liberalism, in its German form, has always stood for mental sterility, for the ignorance and incomprehension of historical necessities. It has meant the inability to cooperate with others or to make sacrifices for others. Its position has always been one of entirely negative criticism, though not as an expression of an indomitable will to change society—as manifested by Bebel’s Socialists—but simply out of the desire to “be different.” While our liberals have never been at a loss for “standpoints” to adopt, they have lacked the inner vitality and discipline, the confidence and purposeful vigor that are so characteristic of the English form of liberalism. They are, in fact, nothing but obstacles on our historical path.

Since Napoleonic times liberalism has captured the minds of our educated classes. Pseudo-intellectuals (Nietzsche’s “cultural philistines”) and ivory-tower scholars, shut off from the real world by a barrier of abstract knowledge, have been its staunchest defenders. Even the historian Mommsen, who mastered his difficult field of knowledge with true Prussian aplomb, and who recognized and admired the Prussian elements in Roman history, adopted as a member of the Assembly an uncomprehending standpoint of opposition to Bismarck’s policies. An interesting comparison could be drawn between Mommsen and the English translator and editor of his History of Greece, George Grote, a banker and liberal.

With rabbit-like prolificacy, our writers and professors have sired book after book and scheme after scheme in which the English concepts of the free citizen, the free personality, the people as sovereign, and of a universal, free, and progressive humanity are lifted out of the reality of English business offices and emblazoned high in the German clouds. Bismarck, whom Bruno Bauer called in 1880 a “socialist imperialist,” had some interesting things to say about these scholars who mistake the world of their books for the real world. August Bebel once demonstrated his infallible instinct by soundly berating the academics who had entered his party. He felt out the anti-Prussian instinct of the German intellectual, who was secretly undermining his country’s order and discipline. And time has proved him right. Since Bebel’s death, “educated” Socialists have cracked the strength of the party and joined forces with our “educated” middle-class liberals. Together, the two groups are now staging in the Court Theater at Weimar a revival of the ideological drama of the Frankfurt Paulskirche, in which professors hold scholarly conversations about the wording of a paper constitution.[1]


In their “splendid isolation” the English have achieved on the basis of their ethical instinct a unity, both internal and external, such as no other modern Western European people has attained. England has produced a unique form of respectable society, a class of “ladies and gentlemen” joined together by a strong sense of common interest and by uniform patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. Since 1750 this magnificent type of society has been the model for all of modern civilization, and in France first of all. The artistic fashion known as “Empire” served as a background for this style of living. It was essentially a practical and restrained form of rococo, and it imbued this society’s whole environment with elegant and refined taste. In this connection we think today particularly of the masters of the civilized portrait, Gainsborough and Reynolds.

The English were united by a common feeling of success and good fortune, unlike the Prussians, who were moved by a sense of challenge and duty. We may think of the English as Olympians of the business world at the banquet table, or as Vikings returned from distant explorations, but not as knights on the field of battle. Next to noble parentage, wealth is the major condition for acceptance in the group; it is also the criterion for rank within the group’s social structure. Wealth is the Englishman’s prime virtue, his distinguishing mark, his goal and his ideal. Today, only England has what may be called social culture, although it does not possess any other, more philosophical form of culture. The English are a people of profound superficiality; we Germans, in the “land of poets and thinkers,” so often display merely a superficial profundity.

There is not and cannot be a German or Prussian type of society like the English. A society made up of separate egos, lacking the unifying pathos of a common purpose and goal, always strikes us as somewhat ridiculous. In imitation of the English “club” and “banquet,” our German individualists and liberals have invented the Verein and the Festessen; these are his devices for the development of “cultural solidarity.”

The Prussian style of living, in contrast to all this, has produced a profound and vigorous rank-consciousness, a feeling of unity based on an ethos of work, not of leisure. It unites the members of each professional group—military, civil service, and labor—by infusing them with a pride of vocation, and dedicates them to activity that benefits all others, the totality, the state. Such a feeling of solidarity within each group finds symbolic expression in words: at the top level there are Kamaraden, in the middle Kollegen, and at the bottom, but with the same sense of pride, Genossen. The bond of unity at all levels is a supreme ethos of dedication, not of success. The distinguishing feature of membership is rank, not wealth. The captain is superior to the lieutenant, even though the latter may be a prince or a millionaire. The French used the term “bourgeois” during their Revolution to underscore the ideal of equality, but this corresponds neither to the English nor the German sense of distance in social relations. A feeling for distance is common to both Germanic peoples; we differ only in the origins of the feeling. When a German worker uses the word “bourgeois” he means a person who, in his opinion, has merely obtained a certain social rank without performing any real work—it is the English ideal seen from the German perspective. England has its snobs, Germany its title-seekers.

The centuries-old feeling of group solidarity in both countries has brought forth a magnificent conformity of physical and mental attitudes, in the one case a race of successful businessmen, in the other a race of workers. One important symbol of this process, albeit an external one, is the English taste in men’s clothing. England has produced civilian dress in the purest sense: the uniform of the private individual. Their fashion holds unopposed sway in all of Western Europe. England has clothed the world in its uniform, the symbol of free trade, private fortune-making, and “cant.” The counterpart of this English style is the Prussian uniform. It is an emblem of public service, not of private existence. Rather than symbolizing the success gained by diligent activity it stands for that activity itself. “I am the first servant of my state,” said the Prussian king whose father had made the wearing of uniforms a customary practice among the nobility. How many have fully understood the significance of the phrase “the king’s mantle”?

England’s fashion in men’s wear is a matter of social obligation, even stricter than the specifications for uniform-wearing in the Prussian state. Whoever is anybody in England would not think of appearing before his peers in “civilian” dress, i.e., contrary to fashion and custom. But only the Englishman is capable of making a proper appearance in this “gentleman’s” costume. The Bratenrock of the provincial German philistine is a poor copy of the English model. Beneath it the philistine German heart continues to throb for “freedom” and “human dignity.” The Bratenrock is the symbol of the ideals of 1848, and is worn today with pride by the German socialists-gone-liberal.[2]

To the Prussian way of thinking, the will of the individual is subsumed under the will of the totality. The officers’ corps, the members of the civil service branches, August Bebel’s army of workers, and ultimately the German Volk of 1813, 1870, and 1914 have all felt, willed, and acted as a suprapersonal unity. This is not just herd instinct; it is an expression of sublime strength and freedom, something which the outsider can never understand. Prussianism is exclusive. Even in its proletarian form it rejects the workers of other countries together with their egoistic pseudo-socialism. Servility, snobbishness—these are words for attitudes that are understood and despised only when they degenerate. The genuine Prussian despises no one; but he is himself feared.

The English, indeed the whole world, will never understand that the Prussian ethic carries with it a profound inner independence. For people of sufficient mental capacities a system of social obligations guarantees a supreme freedom of the inner life, which is not possible under a system of social privileges. A mentality such as that of General Moltke is unthinkable in England. The Englishman pays for his practical freedom with the loss of the other kind of freedom: he is inwardly a slave, whether as puritan, rationalist, sensualist, or materialist. For two centuries now he has been the inventor of all philosophies that do away with inner independence. Most recently he has produced Darwinism, which makes man’s entire psychic makeup dependent on material forces. Incidentally, the particularly crass form of Darwinism propagated by Büchner and Haeckel has become the Weltanschauung of the German philistine.

The Englishman belongs to his “society” in the spiritual sense as well. His clothing is also an expression of his uniformed conscience. He cherishes his right to act as a private citizen, yet for him there exists no such thing as private thinking. His life is governed by a unified, theologically oriented philosophy of little real content, as fashionable as frockcoat and gloves. The term “herd instinct” is appropriate here, if anywhere.


1. A reference to the Weimar Republic, established after the November Revolution of 1918 and the Frankfurt Assembly of 1848–1849, the first freely elected parliament for all of Germany which resulted from the “March Revolution” of 1848 and which met in the Paulskirche.

2. The Frenchman, who regards Faustian drives as embarrassing, gives his creative attention to women’s fashions rather than the uniforms of profession and success. In France, business and civic duty have had to give way to l’amour.)

Source: http://home.alphalink.com.au/~radnat/spengler/prussianism.html [2]