“England and Germany: Two Types of Culture”, Ramiro de Maeztu (1915)

People are talking a great deal about culture. It would be better to speak of cultures; at any rate, if we would find out the meaning of this war. When we speak of culture, we run the risk of fancying that culture is one and indivisible. And, to a certain extent, we shall not be far wrong in thinking so; for culture is cultivation, that is to say, the systematic utilisation of natural opportunities in a pre-determined direction.

But if culture in general is one complete whole, specific cultures are many. Just as cultivation may be of woods or meadows or gardens or wheat-fields, so is it possible for culture to be aesthetic or religious or ethic or scientific or military. It is the aim of this article to define the essential contrast between the type of culture which predominates in England and that which prevails in Germany. And, to come to the point at once, I will say that English culture is, above all, a culture of men, while German culture is the culture of things. The ideal of English culture is the gentleman. The gentleman may be defined as the velvet glove on the iron hand. The word gentle signifies the velvet glove; the word man the iron hand.

The gentleman must be strong, courageous, severe towards himself. Hence arises the cultivation of sport, of physical exercise, and of danger. But at the same time the gentleman must so control himself that in his demeanour towards others he shall never exert his strength save when justice demands it. His ideal commands him never to molest his fellows. He must, therefore, be reserved in his words and moderate in his gestures. He will say only what he has to say, and that in a quiet voice, without moving his hands. He will never ask idle questions; and, on the other hand, he will never give away confidences which might be regarded as indiscreet. If there is an empty compartment in the train, and another which is occupied, the gentleman will take the empty one, since it is his duty to respect the solitude and silence of his neighbour.

Again, the gentleman must be scrupulously clean—not for aesthetic reasons, not for the sake of his personal elegance, but in order that he may not annoy his fellow creatures by his uncleanliness. In the same way, he will be sparing of finery in dress, not, again, for ascetic reasons, but in order that his ostentation may not be disagreeable to others. He will be strong and well built, not from a natural inclination to athleticism, not from coxcombry, but so that he may not irritate his neighbours by presenting to their eyes the depressing and disquieting spectacle of a weak or ill-formed man. He will keep his troubles to himself, so that he may not bore other people by talking about them.

He will not ask favours of you, because he must not trouble you. He will not confer them, either, unless he has discreetly assured himself beforehand that he may do so without causing displeasure to those whom he favours. He will not raise his voice in public, unless he is making a speech, because he knows that by doing so he would disturb those around him. Nor will he easily tolerate other people raising their voices in his presence. He will have, at most, one confidential friend, man or woman; but as for all the rest—relatives, friends, acquaintances, English or foreign—he will keep them at a respectful distance, that is, a distance sufficiently wide to inspire mutual respect.

In a word, the gentleman must be brought up in such a way that he can never lose consciousness of the fact that his neighbour exists and is worthy of all respect. The expression self-consciousness, in English, does not really mean consciousness of one’s self, but of one’s neighbour—the consciousness that the gentleman must not offend, deceive, exploit, oppress, or disturb his neighbour; but that, at the same time, he shall not let himself be offended, deceived, exploited, oppressed, or disturbed by his neighbour. This double duty of respecting his neighbour and of making himself respected by him imposes on the gentleman a continual watchfulness over himself, a perennial “control,” to use the English word. This self-control requires an incessant expenditure of will in attention, and this expenditure of will must be made up for in some other way, as, indeed, it is.

The master of an English public school takes so much care to see that his charges become gentlemen that only in the second place does he see that they study. What concerns him in the first place is that his pupils shall be clean, healthy, energetic, truthful, incapable of betraying their comrades or of lying, respectful towards others and self-respecting. Everything else—whether these boys are to be good mathematicians or good linguists or good technicians—is an entirely secondary matter.

I speak here, be it understood, of the higher classes in England; but as the other classes imitate them we may say that English culture culminates in the gentleman.

The type of German culture is the contrary. In Germany the work comes first and the man second. It is, above all, important that the student shall master his subject, of war, or philosophy, or classics, or mathematics. It is a secondary matter if he is a blabber, talks at the top of his voice, ill-treats his servants, or drinks himself dead drunk. A German must be “sachlich,” It is a word which is difficult to translate; but “sache” means “thing”; and “sachlich,” therefore, is the man who makes things or deals with things scrupulously. What is important is to handle things carefully, not men. A German doctor will treat an illness better than an English one; but the patient will not feel so kindly towards the former as towards the latter. A German army will succeed in conquering Belgium, but will certainly not gain the good opinion of the Belgians. If Belgium should become a German province, there will assuredly not be a Belgian general who, within the next ten years, will fight for Germany with the same enthusiasm as Botha and Smuts  are showing in fighting for England.

The Germans do things well because they subordinate themselves to them. When we leave Germany we come away full of admiration for the cleanliness of the streets, the organisation of the postal service, the discipline and strength of the army, and the learning of the professors. But it is rarely that this admiration is accompanied with any love for the country or its customs. The fact is, the Germans never realise that foreigners, too, have their likes and dislikes. Not that they have behaved badly to us. They have repeatedly asked us to share their long dinners and their deep drinks. They have compelled us to admire the wealth of Germany, her industry, her order, her organisation, her millions of mansions, of soldiers, of factories, of books, of laboratories, of associations. But when they showed us their houses they did so with a gesture which said as plainly as words: “The whole world will be like this when we get it Germanised. Everything will be organised as if in a battleship. In the centre, Berlin and Germany; at the outer circle, the other nations, prosperous, quiet, fat and subject. An iron hierarchy will prescribe the destinies of every class of men. At the top will be officers of noble blood, devoted to war; then will come the great manufacturers and merchants, the professors and men of law; and, lastly, the mass of the people, well looked after when they are ill, when they are old, and when they are out of work, but without spontaneity, without liberty, mechanised, unregimented, caged-system, order, organisation, discipline everywhere.”

The English gentleman tells us, on the one hand: “This is my may of living; but I am myself and you are yourself, and each of us goes his own way.” And every country under English rule goes its own way—Boers like Boers, Hindus like Hindus, Moslems like Moslems. But the German says: “This is my way of living; it is the right way, and you must live in the same way.” But the Germans have not succeeded in Germanising the Poles in Posen, the Danes in Schleswig, or the French in Metz. And the reason is that in the other peoples a feeling lives of personal responsibility, spontaneity, and liberty which five centuries of mechanical rule have destroyed in Prussia.

Let us not digress. The principle on which German culture is based is that things make men: the German idealist will say, for instance, that ethics and science and beauty—things—are the springs from which man draws all that makes him man; the German materialist will prefer to attribute the origin of man to the earth or to race—things. But both will unite in telling you that since things are the alpha they must likewise be the omega of man.

When a distinguished German attains the age of seventy, his pupils and followers devote what they call a Festschrift to him. This is a book in which they write at length of the problems—things—music, painting, science, politics, etc.—to which the great man has devoted his life. His most advanced followers will make new problems of his solutions and attempt to adumbrate the answers to them. But none of them, as a rule, will say anything about the life of the great man himself. It is taken for granted that he was born somewhere, that he was the son of his father and mother, that he fell in love and afterwards regretted it; but nobody speaks of him.

When a great man dies in England someone writes a biography of him: he speaks of his recreations, his loves, his friendships, his titles, his money, and his relatives, but not of his work. It is taken for granted that his work was great; the important thing is to make known the man. The English people believe that great things issue naturally from the minds of great men, just as one draws one’s purse from one’s pocket. In England it is men who make things.

Every cultured Englishman dreams, with Bacon, of the Kingdom of Man, and believes, like Protagoras, that Man is the measure of all things; or he will say, at least, that all things, whether spiritual or material, have no other object than that of serving man. The result in any case is that an Englishman always tries to lift his own personality above the things he lives among, whether those things are his profession, his passions, his ideals, his vices, or his works. The Germans alone judge a man by his works. For the Germans, things are the measure of man. The ideal German would be one who should entirely enter into and disappear among his things. For that reason the Germans give themselves up so thoroughly to their vices, their wealth, and their wars.

Of course, when the present war is ended, the English people will have realised more fully the meaning of German culture—inhuman but efficient—and the Germans the spirit of English culture—dilettante but lovable. The clash of the two cultures will probably bring about a compromise. The Germans will acknowledge that the English are right when they judge things by their human value. The English will acknowledge that the Germans are right when they judge men by things. The Germans will have seen that in sacrificing men to things in this war they will have sacrificed also their hopes of victory. The English will come to understand that without the sacrifice of men things are not to be attained.

An Anglo-German culture will emerge from the war which will teach the Germans the cult of man and the English the cult of things—a consciously dual culture, which will judge men by things and things by their human value.

This culture, however, will not satisfy the world for long; for its two standards are in conflict. To speak of a subjective-objective culture is to forget that we are nailing infinity on the hyphen. Until now men have had to assume a single dogmatic standard from which to create their table of values. Either this supreme standard must be man, as in England, or things, as in Germany.

If the experiment now being made leads to a compromise between the two conflicting standards, the historical tendency towards unity will lead men to seek for a standard higher than both. In short, the possibility of unifying both types of culture can only be realised in a religious type of civilisation.

But if men come to understand that the claim to regard the world with the eyes of Divine Providence is blasphemy, they will resign themselves to giving up any kind of supreme standard. Then the supreme would not be the human value, or the objective, or the religious, or the naturalistic. The supreme would not then be the realisation of any one of these values, but the intensification of them all in their harmony and strife.

Heraclitus long ago imagined a harmony which should arise from opposite things struggling with one another. An harmonious culture, according to this reckoning, would be a struggle of all cultures without one in particular prevailing over another; without one rising or another falling. But though this identification of harmony and strife is one of the most ancient thoughts in the world, humanity appears to be still too young to understand it and to resign itself to that eternal war which is at once its destiny and its glory.



De Maeztu alludes to South African Prime Ministers Louis Botha (1862-1919) and Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950).

First published in The New Age, Vol. XVI, No. 12, 21 January, 1915, pp. 303–304. Proofread and annotated by Fergus Cullen (2017).

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