Pragmatism and Honor in Politics
No. 1 2017 January/March
Alexander F. Filippov

Doctor of Social Science
National Research University-Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Tenured Professor;
Poletayev Institute for Historical and Theoretical Studies in the Humanities
Head of the Centre for Fundamental Sociology


SPIN-RSCI: 3083-6033
ORCID: 0000-0001-6544-9608
ResearcherID: G-8294-2015
Scopus AuthorID: 55609324700

On a Half-Forgotten Speech by Max Weber

The fall of 2016 marked the hundredth anniversary of an important yet half-forgotten document in the history of political thought. On October 27, 1916 Max Weber delivered a report entitled Deutschland unter den europaischen Weltmachten (“Germany Among the European World Powers”). Shortly afterward it appeared in print in a special issue of Die Hilfe magazine, an influential periodical that politician of great authority Friedrich Naumann published for decades. After Weber’s death, his article was repeatedly included in volumes of his selected political works and in the full collection of his works. Yet in contrast to his many other writings, it would never receive world acclaim. Even recently it was ignored by the editors of a Cambridge collection of Weber’s political writings.

In a sense, it is clear why: that article addressed current issues of the day rather than conceptual ones. Moreover, history is written by the victors. The same applies to the history of ideas that are somehow related with both victories and defeats. Weber was one of the brightest liberal minds of his generation, but he was also a German nationalist, who, as he said, placed the interests of the nation and the national point of view above those of political parties, while the article he wrote a century ago represented one of the purest samples of his imperialist rhetoric. During World War I, a conflict Germany lost, Weber was not an extremist warmonger. In fact, there were many aspects of Germany’s political system and decisions that he did not like at all. Weber’s political opponents did not hesitate to slam him as a “foreign agent.” In a country at war, a nickname like that was not harmless at all. But those were debates and rivalry among friends. Weber was an advocate of war who maintained that Germany, as a great power, was able and obliged to accomplish its mission in the world. He opposed pacifism and never accepted that Germany alone was to blame for the war. He did not believe that Germany’s defeat was tantamount to a recognition of guilt and he never repented. All that would run counter to his ideas of what a business-like policy matching the real state of affairs should be.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that his writings, even the most imperialistic pieces, are devoid of any cognitive value, apart from being historical documents illustrating the views of a great sociologist and his circle; or that the talent of a political thinker left him as soon as he offered to his readers an outspoken, value-oriented, and patriotic position instead of neutral judgements. Moreover, today, when the question of Germany’s guilt in the 1914-1918 war is purely historical and academic, many of Weber’s speculations seem quite relevant; that is, as soon as the reader stops focusing on what a partial essayist and political figure could not possess: the objective truth that would be good for history manuals in all countries and all times. His approach to the subject matter of analysis and his reasoning are of special interest. Indeed, his writings are much more compelling now than they were half a century or even a quarter of a century ago.

A year after publication of his report, in the well-known speech Wissenschaft als Beruf (Science as a Vocation), Weber said that the modern individual is forced to live again in an era of polytheism. There is no strict order where the truth, kindness, and beauty mean the same thing; now they are rival gods and each of them requires full self-sacrifice. And if only that was all! Science enables us to decide what is true and what is false, but how can it help make a choice between the value of French culture and that of German culture? “Here, too, different gods struggle with one another, now and for all times to come. We live as did the ancients when their world was not yet disenchanted of its gods and demons, only we live in a different sense. As Hellenic man at times sacrificed to Aphrodite and at other times to Apollo, and, above all, as everybody sacrificed to the gods of his city…” Well-versed, well-off, and at home in many European countries, Weber postulated the inevitability of a solution in favor of a national culture; the god which requires sacrifice and which, in its struggle with the gods of other cultures, is governed not by the truth, but by destiny. Therefore, he was fully determined to present (not in a university classroom, but in public politics) an outspokenly “German, national” point of view instead of an impartial and academic one.  Here, as we will see, lies a major contradiction that makes his speculations so intriguing.

Firstly, what does it mean for Weber to represent a national point of view? He argues that partisan or ideological differences should not be allowed to determine foreign policy. For instance, before the war there were politicians in Germany whose sympathies were with Britain. They cherished parliamentary democracy for their country, a system where the parliament played an insignificant role, while conservatives found Imperial Russia far more appealing because of its bureaucracy. But was it possible in wartime to solely rely on which political system and ideology would turn out to be more attractive and on what political effects inside the country certain foreign policy decisions might entail? No, Weber said, “our foreign policy must be determined by our international position and external interests alone.” Internationally he saw Germany as an integral whole with its own special interests, not confined to the interests of individuals or groups, classes, and social strata. This viewpoint is not new, however, and Weber had nothing to do with its emergence and subsequent transformations. Yet it would be appropriate to stress once again the conclusion that readily offers itself: a business-like discussion of politics is only possible without emotion and based solely on the merits. It might seem that Weber conducts the discussion from the standpoint of political realism. In a sense this is true, but plain realism by no means provides an exhaustive explanation.

Weber contends that German interests stem from its geographic location, exactly as Bismarck argued. Weber wrote that we do not need a policy of vanity, of outspoken glorification of our own selves. We should act effectively and tacitly. All along we should be aware of our genuine interests and not proclaim ideological constructs as such interests. What conclusion should be derived from this? Above all, there must be a far-sighted policy of alliances (naturally, after the war. In 1916 there were still no signs that Germany was doomed to lose); alliances of the kind that would still leave freedom of choice. France is an example of an absolute limit to such freedom. France will always be an enemy; this situation has not changed since the Franco-Prussian war, and it will never change. The need to choose between Britain and Russia is another problem. There is no reason to consider Russia as a perpetual enemy and rule out that alliances with it might be possible in the future. But this does not mean, though, that the list of countries invariably hostile to Germany should, in addition to France, necessarily include Britain as well (if not Russia). Is Britain really that bad? True, it is at war with us. True, it is a country of parliamentarianism, something very influential forces in Germany do not wish to see in their country, but does it really matter in international affairs? Let’s sort out our interests first! And what are our interests in this particular case? Our interests will dictate our behavior after the war, but was it not certain interests that predetermined its beginning and course? Some argue the war’s causes are economic. But is this really the case?

Weber is keen to prove that there was not a single enemy in the war his country was fighting, ostensibly for economic reasons. He explores in great detail the pre-war relations of rivalry with Germany’s main military opponents and each time he arrives at the conclusion that the economy did not matter. The true causes of the war were nearly always political even though the political causes were different in each particular case. It was pretty clear that France would not wipe out Germany, nor would Germany eliminate France. Both are doomed to be neighbors, so the unsettled status of Alsace was the sole cause of that war. In relations with Britain, the German fleet was the source of discord. Britain felt endangered in the North Sea and it was reluctant to ease its influence in other parts of the world by spending too many resources on confrontation with Germany. All talks were disrupted because of mutual distrust, but a negotiated settlement had to be concluded sooner or later: the Germans do not need world supremacy, they need a guaranteed, recognized sphere of influence, just like all other countries. As far as Russia is concerned, the conflict with it was rooted in the power interests of the Russian bureaucracy and its grand princes, who wanted to ruin the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and rule all the Slavs. Achieving mutual accord with Russia might be possible in principle, provided one keeps in mind that Germany had its own allies and obligations in both the West and the East. But in Weber’s opinion the “Russian threat” was very serious. Britain could paralyze Germany’s overseas trade and France had the strength to take away part of its territory, but only Russia was capable of putting a question mark over Germany’s independent existence.

Weber said Russia threatened not only German statehood, but German culture as well, and, apart from that, all of world culture as long as it (Russia) existed in its current shape. In 1916, Weber said that emotionally the Germans would find it far harder to come to terms with Britain than with Russia, but in the longer term it was Russia that would pose a far more considerable threat to Germany.

Many details of Weber’s speculations have had to be omitted. Now we have approached the basic point in that Weber raised the issue of culture for a solid reason. It should be noted that Weber knew Russian and appreciated the highest achievements of contemporary Russian culture. Although many of its aspects were largely alien to him, he wished to promote the publication in German of works by Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. Weber also planned to write a book about Leo Tolstoy, who had a great influence on him in the final years of his life. What Weber loathed in particular was imperial bureaucracy and all forms of pan-Slavism. He had no faith in the future of liberal reforms in Russia and was very skeptical about the results of Russia’s revolutions of 1905 and February 1917. It was the issue of culture that suddenly took center stage in his arguments. Until that moment we could have suspected that Weber was a moderately realistic politician, who might argue with other advocates of political realism over specific circumstances and interests of parties and the likely march of events, but who also shared their firm rejection of emotional demagogy. Everything changed the moment Weber turned to the issue of culture. He postulates that in the East, beyond Germany’s borders, his country has its own cultural tasks. The supporters of “real politics” in Germany, he argued, would shrug their shoulders in bewilderment. In the meantime, the focus of attention was on the “real political significance of culture”—those who talked during a war about the great significance of the state and not of the nation; those who do not care to realize that only a common culture consisting of language and culture creates a national unity of people prepared for self-sacrificial commitment.

The state can subjugate them. As Weber would say later, the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, but it is unable to motivate people, to arouse the desire to make the ultimate sacrifice. Hence planting German culture in territories beyond Germany’s borders cannot be its cultural task! In the modern world, it is impossible to achieve the full unity of three principles for drawing borders; cultural integrity, military security, and common economic interests can be balanced only on the basis of a compromise. As far as the Western Slavs are concerned, the Germans should think about how to ensure that their cultural policy is not German, but Western Slavic. Before considering the issue of Poland, a major and very sensitive one for Germany, Weber makes a personal introductory remark. I have always been regarded as an enemy of Poland, he said. It is true that I have always been against a situation in which a cheap labor force from Poland might offer competition to German workers in Germany (such words as “migrants” and “guest workers” were still absent from his vocabulary). Now everything has changed. “Inside Germany proper fair mutual understanding must be achieved with those Poles who, like everybody else, have coped with their [military] duty. But on the opposite side of the border, in Poland and in the East in general, when the war is eventually over, we should not conduct a pan-German policy. This is our destiny: the war has brought up the issue of the Western Slavs and we will have to become the liberators of smaller nations in the East even when we may not wish this.” This is what makes Germany different from the other great countries to which Weber applies the slightly strange term Machtstaat, literally a “powerful state.” But this translation is not enough for the correct understanding of this term. Some states have more power, and others, less power. It is the emphasis on power, so to speak, that really matters!

Weber’s Machtstaat is not just a state that has gained strength and is rich in human and natural resources, but also is a state that identifies its might as its task—a “suzerain state.” “To a large extent, our foreign interests are pre-determined geographically,” Weber said about Germany. “We are a suzerain state. For each suzerain state the proximity of another suzerain state is a hindrance to the freedom of making political decisions, because the neighbor has to be taken into account. For each suzerain state it is desirable to be surrounded by the weakest countries possible or by the smallest number of other suzerain states. However, it is Germany’s fate to border on three great continental powers (Landmachte), furthermore, the strongest are near us, and, to cap it all, to have a great maritime neighbor that stands in everybody’s way. No other country in the world is in a position like ours.” Stemming from the realm of real politics, this argument is coupled with another, cultural one:

“In the historical being of peoples the suzerain states and small nations have their long-term mission… Why have we condemned ourselves to this political plight; why have we fallen under the spell of power? Not out of vanity, but in view of our responsibility for history. It is not the Swiss, the Danes, the Dutch, or the Norwegians that the descendants will call to account for the shape the Earth’s culture will take. It is not them, but us that they will be scolding—and with every right to do so if in the Western Hemisphere of our planet nothing will be left except for Anglo-Saxon conventions and Russian bureaucracy… A people numbering seventy million and existing between such world conquerors was obliged to become a suzerain state… That was required by the honor of our people. Let us not forget that a German war is a matter of honor, and not a matter of changing the map or deriving economic benefits.”

What is it that makes this speech so relevant today, one hundred years later, after everything that has happened in German and European history in the twentieth century? What is the intrigue for the modern reader? Firstly, it should be stated once again that Weber, on the one hand, called for a sober assessment of national interests and derived these interests largely from the geographic position of his country, but, on the other hand, he firmly refused to regard them as economic interests. Despite himself, he mentioned the three causes of war that the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes identified in his Leviathan: rivalry, mistrust, and lust for glory. When it comes to war, politics gains the upper hand not only over the private interests of individuals and classes, but even over the economy. Ideas of individual greatness and mutual mistrust can cause wars. In those situations it is very hard to achieve a lasting and humane world order; rather it is a matter of pragmatism and far-sightedness. But what can pragmatism mean in relation to politics? What can be regarded as “the essence of the matter” in international relations? Weber insists that such apparently idealistic considerations as honor or humiliation are real sources of politically significant behavior and actions by peoples and countries. Shortly after the Versailles peace treaty was signed, Weber warned of how fragile it was, because a “nation” would rather put up with defeat than humiliation. He urged the victors to take a cold-blooded and impartial look into the affair. He kept saying: “We lost and you won. The subject is closed.”  Let us now get over to how we should build our relations further, without systematically humiliating the Germans, without declaring them the sole culprits of war, without exacerbating the hard fact of defeat by moralizing. This meant that Weber tried to use pragmatism, proclaimed as a matter of principle, as an imperative to counter the other political considerations the winner nations applied to Germany, thus manifesting the main inner contradiction of his position. “Impartiality,” “realism,” a stop to meaningless rhetoric, and a business-like approach to world politics were demands, and not a description of the real state of affairs. These are demands for an honest political language, which, in Weber’s scheme of things, is to be accepted even by opponents so as not to aggravate relations or make the situation worse. But these demands are pronounced by someone who also insists on his country’s historic world mission, which, as Weber said, will not just bring about peace, calm, and prosperity at least within its zone of regional responsibility, but also preserve the cultural and political diversity of smaller nations, which are unable to defend themselves in a conflict between powerful states. Cultural unity, the zone of responsibility and influence, the prosperity of those whom a powerful state puts under its protection, and a pure and honest language of interpreting interests in world politics cannot be linked together, but, as we know, can easily be tied together historically. This is the greatest lesson to be learned. The language of pure realism in international affairs is not a proposal made by those who, Weber said, “tacitly practice” realism, but by those who need it as a means of discourse in an attempt to gain the upper hand over a stronger and, presumably, hypocritical enemy. This offer is rejected as a rule because the opponent uses with far greater success the normative language of moralizing, a language that the realist finds hypocritical and a hindrance to an honest dialogue—the language of universal humanitarian values, as we might say today. Aware of that, Weber made a proposal that seemed no less realistic to him. Weber proposed establishing zones of influence and responsibility, an invitation to agree with the understanding of culture and the historical mission of great powers that Germans had. But in doing so Weber either forget or found it unnecessary in the circumstances where his speech was made to take into account publicly that if there was no reconciliation between “gods,” for instance, German and French cultures, there could be no unanimity regarding the very understanding of the mission, and, regarding the interpretation of the mission of this or that country, there could be no agreement (other than one concluded from the position of strength) on the zone of influence or even the very recognition such zones can and must exist.

This is not a question about Weber’s mistakes. The question is how applicable for a specific era the language of international politics is for all parties involved in conflicts. Weber was mistaken, yet his mistake was not personal, but archetypical. A combination of forced, demanding realism and assertions about the historical global role of a country was neither unique for Germany nor for World War I. In some form or another it emerges repeatedly in different countries and at various times; first and foremost when the customary world order begins to fall apart and major conflicts start to flare up. Regardless of the arguments behind it, this option is always rejected by those to whom the proposal is addressed. Apparently, it makes sense to study that history and those ways of resolving problems; not to borrow wisdom from predecessors, but to quickly brush aside certain solutions that have consistently turned out to be futile.