From Prussian to Provincial: The German Mentality Shift

The Second World War necessitated a total rethinking of German values, away from aristocracy and militarism.

Germany’s long division between different states — which still enjoy a high degree of autonomy in today’s Federal Republic — has given it no one dominating metropolis that could define German attitudes and culture. Regional identities remain strong but there is a rough north-south divide that corresponds with an economic disparity.

Protestant and historically more dependent on maritime trade, northern Germans are considered more stolid and liberal than their Catholic countrymen in the south. Where they are culturally close to the British and Scandinavians, southern Germans are very much a Central European people. The Danube River facilitated integration with Austria and German settlement into Hungary and Romania (although millions of ethnic Germans were expelled from Eastern Europe after the Second World War). Like the Austrians, Germany’s southerners have a reputation for jollity and Gemütlichkeit — with the exception of the prudish Swabians who were influenced by Calvinist Switzerland.

The beer-drinking Bavarian, wearing Lederhosen, is now the German stereotype. Until after the last war, though, it was Prussia’s Protestant gentry, the Junkers, whose ancestors had carried the initial wave of German migration east of the Elbe River, that defined the German mentality as it was perceived abroad: conservative, professional and militaristic.

The Junkers owned vast agricultural estates and employed Slavic peasants to cultivate their lands. When their first son took over the estate, his brothers would usually become officers in the military or joined the bureaucracy in Berlin.

This was in contrast to the predominantly Catholic kingdoms of Bavaria and Württemberg or the Grand Duchy of Baden where land was owned by small farms. Inheritance laws introduced during the Napoleonic era there divided lands evenly between a farmer’s sons.

After the Second World War, East and West Prussia, Pomerania, Posen and Silesia were annexed by Poland and Russia. The Junkers were expelled and their lands collectivized. Prussians — whose supposed militarism was considered the fountainhead of German aggression by the Western allies — were allowed to resettle in West Germany. The loss of all their property and the hard journey westward demoralized them possibly even more than the rest of the population had been by the war.

The Nazis’ war crimes and the vast destruction they had wrought necessitated a radical break with the past and a total rethinking of German values. The introduction of the Deutsche Mark in 1948 wiped out many old fortunes. While the aristocracy kept its titles and, at least in the south, its prestige, West German society was suddenly and thoroughly democratized.

Today, Germany has no real “establishment.” The dispersing of power across cities and states made it difficult for a central elite to emerge in the first place. Education is meritocratic. Even if relatively fewer working-class pupils find their way to university, there are no prestigious institutes of higher leaning reserved for the upper class as is the case in Britain, France and the United States. This has created a broad middle class but it probably also accounts for Germany’s provincialism, or Kleinbürgerlichkeit.

Class consciousness in Germany is low. Because industrialization happened relatively late and along fairly paternalistic lines, industrial workers never developed a strong class identity. The conservative chancellor Otto von Bismarck might also have preempted class struggles when he enacted social reforms in the late nineteenth century while many factory workers, especially in the south, did not abandon their farms altogether, maintaining roots in the soil that made them less susceptible to militant unionism than port workers in Bremen or Hamburg.

As a consequence, Germany’s Social Democrats did not succeed as a hard leftist party. Even if they still attract relatively more working-class voters, they could not play into an existing class bitterness so shed their Marxist dogmas in favor of the mixed economy in 1959. For the rest of the twentieth century and into the next, both German Volksparteien (“people’s parties”), the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, pursued similar economic and foreign policies.

Even as German society is so equalized — or perhaps because it was — Germans do very much respect distinction. Professional titles are revered. The former ruling family of Bavaria, the Wittelsbachs, is treated with ceremony and respect. And West Germans admired their first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, a firm and patriarchal leader who was nevertheless more of a manager than an autocrat. “He was the first German statesman,” wrote the American historian Gordon Craig in The Germans (1982), “who was able to overcome the unconscious tendency of his countrymen to believe that leaders could only be taken seriously when they wore uniforms.”

As German society changed after the war, so did its perception of government. No longer was it seen as the expression of the national will but rather a dull affair for competent grey men in grey suits who toiled in West Germany’s uninspiring capital, Bonn. Voters showed little desire to try new political ideas or policies. Adenauer won reelection in 1957 by promising “No Experiments.” Angela Merkel all but adopted that slogan in her reelection campaign in 2013.