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History

Ernst Troeltsch and the power of the pen

Caught between euphoria and incredulity: How did the Germans experience the outbreak of World War I? DW takes a look at what was going on in the minds and hearts of Germans 100 years ago. This week, Ernst Troeltsch.

On August 2, 1914, one day after the beginning of the German mobilization against France, a well-known German intellectual made his voice known. It was Ernst Troeltsch, professor of theology and philosophy in Berlin, and he was driven - like many of his colleagues at German universities - to guide his country as it advanced into war. "Yesterday we took up arms," Troeltsch announced, adding: "Listen to the ethos that resounds in the splendor of heroism: To your weapons, To your weapons!"

Troeltsch, himself, certainly had no need of picking up any weapons (he had just turned 49 years old). His weapons came in the form of ideas and thoughts: "Oh, if only the orators of our times could transform their words into bayonets, rifles, and canons!"

In the summer of 1914, Troeltsch was seen as one of the most significant representatives of the intellectual movement in favor of war. His primary focus was the "cultural difference" between Germany and its enemies - on both the Eastern and Western ´Fronts. He never tired of pointing out the "decadence" and "arrogance" of the French, and said of the English that they fought, "like a physically deficient woman, with nothing other than the means of a calculating, poisonous tongue." Germany's model soldiers, on the other hand, were culturally and morally superior to their adversaries, and were forced to war by the instinct of self preservation against the dangers of "barbarians, fanatics, and illiterates."

Troeltsch's ideas were clearly formed in defense of Germany's military course, particularly in Belgium. Just weeks after the outbreak of war, reports of attacks against civilians had caused outrage in the international community. Accusations that German soldiers were acting like "Huns" were difficult to take for intellectuals who had sung the praises of their virtue before. And, mired in obstinacy, the majority of those thinkers decided to ignore the allegations and press ahead with their defense of the "just war" and German cultural superiority.

As with many - but unfortunately not all - thinkers who had initially supported Germany's course in the run-up to WWI, Troeltsch eventually modified his stance: by the end of 1916, he had already toned his rhetoric down markedly, and after the war he called on politicians to make drastic changes to the German constitution. After 1918, he became a liberal supporter of the Weimar Republic and joined the ranks of the German Democratic Party. Ernst Troeltsch died in 1923 at the age of 57.

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