I thought I'd start this series on English-language writing on Germany with David Hume. His similarities to my situation are limited: apart from both being self-opinionated and both being barely able to scratch a living from writing stuff, we've little in common. Hume confesses to having known little about Germany before arriving (I knew a lot) and having anti-German prejudice (which I didn't) - then again, that makes him a perfect analogue to many a modern visitor to Germany, I suppose, and certainly makes him quite "lost in Deutschland".
Where, how & why did he write about Germany
In the spring of 1748, the somewhat impoverished David Hume found himself secretary to a Scottish general, whom he accompanied on his diplomatic mission for the British government to the capital of Austria. The quickest way to Vienna back then being to cross to Holland then travel up the Rhine and then down the Danube valleys, the party traversed a good portion of what makes up modern Germany.
Hume kept a written record of the journey in the form of letters to his brother John. (Incidentally, I find that there is a neat irony in reading Hume, key figure of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, writing on a country in which he may well be have said to kick-started one of the world’s most important philosophical traditions: forty years later, Immanuel Kant would single out the writings of the Scottish thinker as those which “woke him from his dogmatic slumber”. - but that's by the bye). Here, I’ve reproduced the two parts of Hume’s epistolary journal that I find most interesting: a letter written from Bonn on 25th March, and then another from the Danube on 15th April, just as he is about to leave Germany into Austria.
What to look out for
For readers with little time/short attention spans – or looking for dinner-party quips/neat essay segues
1. The "Don't mention the war"-factor: If you're one of those rather one-dimensional types who likes to comb German history for early signs of the Third Reich, then you'll get a little kick out of Hume's observation that if Germany were united, "it would be the greatest power that ever was in the world." After all, just 100 years after he wrote that, Bismarck was trying to see whether it would work - and 200 years later, so was somebody else.
2. The "We're all friends now"-factor: If, on the other hand, you're looking for a conversation piece a little more suited to post-war sensibilities (and current German foreign policy - see Libya), you'll like the following quote about the Elector: "he always keeps out of wars, being protected by his suredness of character."
"(Bonn) is about six leagues from Cologne, a pleasant well-built little town, upon the banks of the Rhine, and is the seat of the archbishop. We have bestowed half a day in visiting his palace, which is an extensive magnificent building; and he is certainly the best lodged prince in Europe except the King of France. For, besides this palace, and a sort of Maison de Plaisance near it (the most elegant thing in the world), he has also two country houses very magnificent. He is the late emperor's brother; and is, as they say, a very fine gentleman; a man of pleasure, very gallant and gay: he has always at his court a company of French comedians and Italian singers. And as he always keeps out of wars, being protected by the suredness of his character, he has nothing to hope and nothing to fear; and seems to be the happiest prince in Europe. However, we could wish he took a little more care of his high-ways, even though his furniture, pictures, and building were a little less elegant. We are got into a country where we have no fires but stoves; and no covering but feather beds; neither of which I like, both of them are too warm and suffocating."
Letter to John Hume of Ninewells, 25th March 1748
"Thus we have finished a very agreeable journey of 500 miles (for so far is Vienna from the Hague.) I have past through many a prince's territories, and have had in more masters than many of these princes have subjects. Germany is undoubtedly a very fine country, full of industrious honest people: and were it united, it would be the greatest power that ever was in the world. The common people are here, almost everywhere, much better treated, and more at their ease, than in France: and are not very much inferior to the English, notwithstanding all the airs the latter give themselves. There are great advantages in travelling, and nothing serves more to remove prejudices; for I confess I had entertained no such advantageous idea of Germany; and it gives a man of humanity pleasure to see that so considerable a part of mankind as the Germans are in so tolerable a condition."
Letter to John Hume of Ninewells, 15th April 1748
My two pfennigs
For readers with large amounts of time, and attention spans to match
Lifestyle: more differences than similarities
In this series of letters to his brother John Hume, we are by no means dealing with the deepest of David Hume’s philosophical writings. In fact, if anything, the first thing to call the reader’s attention is his eye for the details of his surroundings. In the letters preceding the extract, Hume complains at length about the hearths and bedding in the lower Rhineland. In Bonn, where the first part of the extract begins, he may well be the guest of the “best-lodged prince in Europe”, yet the stoves and feather beds of this area are too hot for the (so I’ve read, somewhat portly) Hume to be at ease.
Travellers in today’s Germany, however, tend to complain rather more about how cold and clinically furnished some German homes can be. The high-ceilinged, well-proportioned city apartments preferred by the intelligentsia can be difficult to heat, while the Scandinavian style of wooden floors and white walls with minimalist furnishings has made inroads into almost all German homes. Pillows, too, are another point of consternation for English and American travellers: the average German pillow is a loosely-packed square which has to be doubled or rolled up to offer adequate neck-support.
Another difference in everyday life that made me laugh: whilst Hume upbraids Prince Clemens August for neglecting his highways in favour of rich interior furnishings, foreign travellers in Germany today are, of course, astonished by the autobahns. These premium-standard motorways need to be well-maintained, what with all the heavy, high-powered German vehicles powering down them without the inconvenience of a speed limit. Throughout his diaries, in fact, Hume’s now redundant pet peeves show generally how much Germany has changed in 250 years. This may sound like a trite point, but consider that this is little more than the life-span of four men, and is in sharp contrast to the relevance of his philosophical writings, which still form a core part of several degrees in this subject.
Politics: more similarities than differences?
Nevertheless, Hume’s writing is not just about his own physical comfort. Throughout his month-long tour through Germany, he has a keen eye for the economic and political circumstances of the city-states and palatinates through which he passes – which are manifold. In fact, at the end of the tour, in the second part of this extract, he sums up the fractured political situation of Germany as follows: “I have past through many a prince's territories, and have had in more masters than many of these princes have subjects.”
This humorous hyperbole illustrates the lack of central unified government in Germany at the time. And whilst Germany today does have a central government, in some respects, things have come full circle: the federal solution imposed on Germany after the Second World War had the aim of weakening German centralism in order to reduce the country’s liability to dictatorship. In its current, post-reunification model, this distinctly American structure has resulted in 16 different states, each with its own parliament and a full complement of state institutions.
In some cases, this seems like a sensible way to make government more manageable: the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia has nearly 20 million inhabitants, making it bigger than both its foreign neighbours, the Netherlands and Belgium, and seem somehow deserving of a regional parliament. In other places, however, this state apparatus appears ridiculously oversized: take the Saarland, a state with a population of under a million, or Bremen, a city-state which was independent in Hume’s time and now once again runs under self-government.
Just as Hume remarks on the opulence of palace at the comparatively unimportant Bonn, I myself am often astounded at the overgrown government buildings in state capitals such as Erfurt (Thuringia), an otherwise unremarkable historic town of some 200,000 souls, or Schwerin (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), a city with the highest rates of child poverty in Germany. One may feel reminded of James Bosworth on the Grand Tour some twenty years after Hume wrote his dispatches: meeting the Prince of Zerbat, Bosworth laughs at his “troops, forsooth, to the number of 150 foot and 30 horse (… and) his little battery of cannon”. More profanely, I like to think of the child-hating ruler in “Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang” with his toy soldiers. Whatever the case, whenever German state rulers today have the opportunity to hold the federal senate to ransom and posture for the press, they often take on something of the pettiness of these past provincial rulers.
In another echo of today, however, Hume comments on the seemingly high level of comfort and independence enjoyed by Germans, who are “much better treated, and more at their ease, than in France: and are not very much inferior to the English.” In view of the alarming powers accorded to the British police since the late twentieth century, it would seem if anything odd today to take the English as a reference point for civil liberties. As far as I can tell, visitors to Germany from Britain and America are certainly amazed by the blithe way in which Germans swig beer out of glass bottles in public places and enjoy the use of cheap public transport without even having to pass through ticket barriers.
Travel removes prejudice
One point on which Hume is as modern as he ever was, however, has nothing to do with the way either Germany or other countries have changed. He writes of the “great advantages in travelling”, in that “nothing serves more to remove prejudices”, and this is an observation today so commonplace that it seems almost pointless to say it. Nevertheless, Hume is not alone when he writes that he “had entertained no such advantageous idea of Germany; and it gives a man of humanity pleasure to see that so considerable a part of mankind as the Germans are in so tolerable a condition.” This seems to me to be a reaction that many first time Germany-travellers experience today.