Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

When Germany Was China

Attempts to explain Berlin’s militarism tells us something about how analysts approach Beijing.

By , a scholar of 17th-century military history.
World War I recruitment poster
A detail from a World War I recruitment poster is taken in Blandford Forum, England, on July 8, 2014. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

For some time, more erudite foreign-policy commentators have been comparing modern China to late 19th century Germany. It’s an argument that has a certain appeal, but it’s also one that may be as revealing about those making it as these countries themselves. The real crux of this argument may not be in the similarities between these two rising nations but in how others see them—and why.

There are plenty of similarities between Beijing today and Berlin then, but whether they’re superficial or profound is a debatable question. In the late 19th century, Germany was an aggressive rising power, one that made plentiful appeals to the past but which was only a few decades old in its modern form. Its economic growth was very late and very fast. Between 1880 and 1913, Germany’s industrial exports grew from less than half of Britain’s to overtaking it. Germany’s huge industrial firms were backed up by German diplomacy. Author Ernest Edwin Williams’s Made in Germany described how cheap German goods flooded the British market: Germans worked harder for longer hours and worse pay; they weren’t allowed to strike.

The Second Reich’s post-Otto von Bismarck foreign policy was militaristic and expansionist but unpredictable. It built a high seas fleet, armed itself, and acquired colonies, in which it committed one of the first 20th-century genocides. It cultivated the Ottoman Empire in a way broadly similar to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, funding development and building infrastructure, such as railways, through Syria and Mesopotamia and sending specialists to train in its uses.

For some time, more erudite foreign-policy commentators have been comparing modern China to late 19th century Germany. It’s an argument that has a certain appeal, but it’s also one that may be as revealing about those making it as these countries themselves. The real crux of this argument may not be in the similarities between these two rising nations but in how others see them—and why.

There are plenty of similarities between Beijing today and Berlin then, but whether they’re superficial or profound is a debatable question. In the late 19th century, Germany was an aggressive rising power, one that made plentiful appeals to the past but which was only a few decades old in its modern form. Its economic growth was very late and very fast. Between 1880 and 1913, Germany’s industrial exports grew from less than half of Britain’s to overtaking it. Germany’s huge industrial firms were backed up by German diplomacy. Author Ernest Edwin Williams’s Made in Germany described how cheap German goods flooded the British market: Germans worked harder for longer hours and worse pay; they weren’t allowed to strike.

The Second Reich’s post-Otto von Bismarck foreign policy was militaristic and expansionist but unpredictable. It built a high seas fleet, armed itself, and acquired colonies, in which it committed one of the first 20th-century genocides. It cultivated the Ottoman Empire in a way broadly similar to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, funding development and building infrastructure, such as railways, through Syria and Mesopotamia and sending specialists to train in its uses.

A Kaiser who spent meetings drawing battleships in the margins of his papers would have been on board for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “wolf warrior diplomacy.” Like modern China, pre-World War I Germany alienated other powers with avoidable diplomatic blunders and thoughtless shows of force, turning disputes into incidents like the Agadir Crisis.

Germany’s rise—and the threat that came with it—was a matter of deep concern to other world powers. German invasion literature was a mainstay of Britain’s bestseller list for nearly half a century, from 1871’s The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer to Saki’s When William Came: A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps just before World War I itself. France had less of the genre, in part because the country’s first defeat and humiliation by Germany had already happened in the Franco-Prussian War; German power was not a future hypothetical but an existing reality.

Attempts to explain Germany were common in middlebrow English-speaking discourse before, during, and after the world wars. In this distorted gaze, common practices and traits appeared exotic while aspects of German society that really were singular were unexamined or unseen. Journalist William Shirer said Germans act according to self-interest rather than consistent ethics; they attack others but get angry when attacked. So do most human beings. Like China now, early 20th-century Germany appeared self-contradictory in descriptions like this; there is no group taken as a mass that would not.

Skewed translations, which researcher Jake Eberts dubbed “phrenology for words” when applied to Chinese, supported the impression that Germany was uniquely militaristic by defamiliarizing ordinary German words. Warlord is English for Kriegsherr, used from the early modern period until World War II: It means the head of state or commanding general who carries out war. The connotation is neither overly violent nor overly restrained; in English, a “warlord” is brutal and illegitimate. Calling former German Emperor Wilhelm II or former Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph the “supreme warlord” as a calque for “Oberster Kriegsherr” depicts them in a light “commander in chief” does not.

Just as China poses a problem for analysts who until very recently had been confident that modernization would bring with it democracy, openness, and Westernization, so was Germany a historical problem that needed to be explained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were hardly a lot of existing models of successful Western democracies right before World War I; in assuming Germany was an explanandum, these discussions idealized other polities. To put it bluntly, they asked why Germany failed to become France.

A sophisticated version of this narrative was Germany was unusual because it had never undergone a bourgeois revolution. Instead, the revolutions of 1848 failed or were suppressed, and Germany was eventually unified through Prussian armed conquest. According to this explanation, Germany’s economic and productive infrastructure developed but its social institutions did not: The German middle class was unusually weak and made common cause with the aristocracy instead of accruing political power. By the end of the 19th century, Germany was supposedly an advanced capitalist industrial society still led by agricultural elites. Without a strong bourgeoisie, Germany missed essential preconditions for the development of liberal democracy like freedom of the press, the rule of law, universal individual civil rights, or government based on social contracts and was therefore unusually vulnerable to fascism.

Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, these arguments were dismantled. Newer studies pointed out that German historians relied on a simplified representation of English and French history, which most historians of those countries no longer used. Saying Germany had a “failed bourgeois revolution” implies other so-called modern states passed through successful bourgeois revolutions; calling the German bourgeoisie unusual assumes a rising middle class should be liberal.

Asking why Germany did not develop like the United Kingdom or France assumes these political entities developed the way all countries should have. It distorts or ignores their histories. Calling the English Civil War or the Glorious Revolution a bourgeois revolution like the French Revolution twists the history of one polity to fit a predetermined narrative formed on the basis of another. On the other hand, taking France as the model for development overstates substantially the stability of a nation-state that veered from one political system to another during the 19th and 20th centuries, including at least one violent civil war. (Not coincidentally, many historians who explained the problem of Germany by comparisons to a non-problematic other country were German exiles who had magnified the virtues of countries that had not betrayed them.)

The idea that middle class individuals are agents of modernization also informed the later theory that history was converging on liberal democracy. This view shaped the non-Chinese view of China for a long time. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the growth of a Chinese middle class was supposed to lead to openness; to global capital and its guarantor, the United States; and to the adoption of liberal elements like parliamentary democracy and freedom of speech.

But China under Xi has de-liberalized, and China’s middle class is still not politically strong. Instead of China changing to tap into networks of global capital, U.S., European, and Israeli companies changed the way they operate to retain access to the Chinese market.

Like contemporary reactions to China, earlier reactions to Germany explained its acts by alluding to the past and ended up taking the country’s self-mythologizations seriously. Claims based on “ancient rights,” whether centuries-old maps of Tibet or medieval German crusaders in the Baltic, have more to do with the present needs of power and nationalism than the actual past. But it’s easy to imagine the other as weighted down by a history the shallow West only guesses at: According to LIFE, the German General Staff “thinks in terms of decades, not just battles.” A recent analysis of Chinese strategy claimed it breaks international treaties because Chinese people see time as “fluid and malleable, where past, present, and future are all interconnected.” Similar nonsense predominates through bad China takes.

Last year, international commentators explained East Asian countries’ robust responses to COVID-19 as the result of Confucian culture. East Asia comprises more than six countries and 1.6 billion people, but one article about these countries’ reaction to the epidemic claims their supposed common culture is motivated by Confucian and Buddhist “deep benevolence,” selflessness so profound that in South Korea, people supposedly obey lockdown restrictions without being told. This is just the “yellow peril” in positive drag, the idea that Asian people are a horde without individuality. (Similar things are said about Russia.)

Ironically, given that Kaiser Wilhelm II coined the phrase “yellow peril” and helped spread the idea, Germany in the early 20th century could also appear formidably alien. Like the ubiquitous invocation of philosophers Sun Tzu or Confucius by people who are not Chinese, non-German observers at that time said priest Martin Luther was violently irrational; rejected the Renaissance, civilization, and the West; and led an unbroken chain to German barbarism 400 years later. Or they draw a straight line from the Thirty Years’ War to Adolf Hitler, the most well-known example probably being poet W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”:

“Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”

Auden ended up hating the poem. Americans circulated it after 9/11.

Today, the fascination with and terror of Germany is hard to reconstruct. It’s 102 years since the end of World War I, 76 years since the end of World War II, 30 years since German reunification, and 22 years since the euro’s creation. Germany is a prosperous, more-or-less peaceful nation, the United States’ ally, and the center of the European Union. Its current problems seem similar to the United States’: public debate about immigration, minority rights, wrangling over the lingering effects of austerity, a radicalized far right, energy, and global warming. From an aberration, Germany has become the West’s cousin at home.

I don’t know where China is going; if this were 1910 and you asked me where Germany was going, I’m not sure I would be accurate. Descriptions of Germany’s and China’s historical courses or famous religious figures don’t necessarily tell us anything about the countries themselves. The best conclusion we can draw is teleological accounts of development and attempts to root a country’s pathologies in ahistorical interpretations of its culture rather than human nature or more well-informed analysis of its society are a mistake.

Lucian Staiano-Daniels is a scholar of 17th-century military history.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.