Elias Canetti on Germany and Versailles

From Crowds and Power

In the following section, Canetti (a German, born in 1905) writes more about Germany, and the Germans – in terms of their being a “crowd”. It’s a familiar story, told by William Shirer, by anyone who witnessed the rise of Nazism – but Canetti is coming at it from a different angle. He is interested in crowd-dynamics, the structures of crowds, and how they might work. He fills his books with many many examples from all throughout history. Here, he looks at the Treaty of Versailles, and how it transformed Germany from a “closed crowd” to an “open crowd”. This was discussed earlier in the book, with much detail. Closed crowds (monasteries, disciplined armies, etc.) are a picnic compared to the destruction that can be wrought by an “open crowd”. This is Canetti’s theory.

Again – this should not be read as an aplogia for Germany. That is incorrect. There are many of you out there who are uninterested in the WHYs of things. To even ask “why” in terms of certain horrors – (terrorism, genocide, whatever) – it seems that one is seeking to excuse it. Well, sorry folks. If you think that, then you totally are missing the boat. My boat and the boat I choose to be on. There is no excuse for strapping a bomb to yourself and blowing up in a bus. But there had BETTER be those people out there (like Victor Davis Hanson, like Bernard Lewis) who give a shit about WHY. And frankly, I’d rather hang with those people. They’re far more interesting.

This is not an apologia for Germany. Germany morphed and transformed and rose like a horrific angel of destruction following World War I. Why?

Back to the Treaty of Versailles … and how Canetti sees that Germany morphed from a closed crowd into a much more dangerous open crowd.

Germany and Versailles

In order to clarify as much as possible some of the concepts I have formulated, I propose to add here a few words about the crowd-structure of Germany, the Germany which, in the first third of this century, astonished the world with formations and tendencies of an entirely unprecedented kind, whose deadly seriousness went completely unrealized at the time and which are only now beginning slowly to be understood.

The crowd symbol of the united German nation which formed after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was, and remained, the army. Every German was proud of the army and it was only a few isolated individuals who were able to remain outside the influence of this symbol…

Apart from its influence as a symbol, the army did also exist in a concrete form; and this fact was of decisive importance. A symbol lives in the minds and feelings of men, as did that curious entity, the forest-army. The actual army, on the other hand, in which every German served, functioned as a closed crowd. [Note: Canetti discusses the differences between closed and open crowds in a former chapter. Closed crowds are things like: monasteries, armies, etc.] The belief in universal military service, the conviction of its profound significance and the veneration accorded it, had a wider reach than the traditional religions, for it embraced Catholics and Protestants alike. Anyone who excluded himself was no German. I said earlier that it was only in a very limited sense that armies could be called crowds. This, however, was not so with a German; the army was by far the most important closed crowd he experienced. It was closed because those belonging to it were either young men of certain age groups only, who served for a limited period, or professional soldiers. But every young man passed through it at some time and remained inwardly linked to it for the rest of his life…

On the outbreak of the First World War the whole German people became one open crowd. The enthusiasm of those days has often been described. Many people in other countries had been counting on the internationalism of the Social Democrats and were astounded at their failure to act. They forgot that the Social Democrats, too, bore within them this forest-army symbol of their nation; that they themselves had belonged to the closed crowd of the army and that, whilst in it, they had been under the command and influence of a highly disciplined and immensely effective crowd crystal, the Junker and officer caste. Their membership of a political party carried very little weight in comparison with this.

But those first August days of 1914 were also the days in which National Socialism was begotten. Hitler himself is our authority for this. He later described how, at the outbreak of war, he fell on his knees and thanked God. It was his decisive experience, the one moment at which he himself honestly became part of a crowd. He never forgot it and his whole subsequent career was devoted to the re-creation of this moment, but from outside. Germany was to be again as it was then, conscious of its military striking power and exulting and uniting in it.

But Hitler would never have achieved his purpose had not the Treaty of Versailles disbanded the Germany army. The prohibition on universal military service robbed the Germans of their most essential closed crowd. The activities they were denied, the exercises, the receiving and passing on of orders, became something which they had to procure for themselves again at all costs. The prohibition on universal military service was the birth of National Socialism. Every closed crowd which is dissolved by force transforms itself into an open crowd to which to which it imparts all its own characteristics. The party came to the rescue of the army, and the party had no limits set to its recruitment from within the nation. Every single German — man, woman, or child, soldier or civilian – could become a National Socialist. He was probably even more anxious to become one if he had not been a soldier before, because, by doing so, he achieved participation in activities hitherto denied him.

Hitler used the slogan The Diktat of Versailles with unparalleled and unwearying monotony; and many have marvelled at its effectiveness. Repetition never weakened it; on the contrary, it grew stronger with the years. What was the actual content of this slogan? What was it that Hitler passed on to his audiences by it? To a German the word “Versailles” did not so much mean the defeat, which he never really acknowledged, as the prohibition of the army; the prohibition of specific and sacrosanct practices without which he could not really imagine life. The prohibition of the army was like the prohibition of a religion. The faith of his fathers had been proscribed, and it was every many’s sacred duty to re-establish it. Every time it was used, the word “Versailles” probed this wound and kept it bleeding, so that it never closed. As long as the word “Versailles” was uttered with sufficient force at mass meetings it was impossible for healing to begin…

Anyone who heard or read the words “Diktat of Versailles” felt in his depths what had been taken away from him, which was the goal; once it was there again, everything would be as it had been before. The army’s importance as a national crowd symbol had never been shaken; the forest, which was the older and deeper-rooted part of this symbol, still stood untouched…

It was at Versailles that Bismarck had founded the Second German Empire. The unity of Germany had been proclaimed there in the moment of elation and irresitible strength following a great victory… Thus the proclaimation of the German Empire at Versailles was a belated victory over both Louis XIV and Napoleon together; and it had been won alone, without the help of an ally. There is plenty of confirmation of the effect which the word “Versailles” had on Germans at this time, and it was inevitable that it should, for the name of Versailles was bound up with the greatest triumph of modern German history.

Every time Hitler spoke of the notorious Diktat, the memory of that triumph echoed in the word and was transmitted to his audience as a promise.

[Note from Sheila: It occurs to me that Milosevic’s speech on the edge of the Field of Blackbirds is the same sort of thing. At the very spot of Serbia’s greatest defeat – in 1389, if I recall correctly – Milosevic gathered his followers and made a speech, which basically said: “You will never feel powerless again.” Now – in terms of Serbia’s neighbors, this was a THREAT. But in terms of the Serbian people, it was a drug that they could not resist. Like Canetti said – it was a “promise”.]

If the former enemies of Germany had had ears to hear, they would have known it for a threat of war and defeat. With the exception of those directed against the Jews, it can be maintained without exaggeration that all the important slogans of National Socialism — “The Third Reich”, the “Sieg-Heil”, etc. — derive directly from the words “The Diktat of Versailles”. The whole content of the movement is concentrated in them: the defeat to be turned into victory; the prohibited army to be re-created for this purpose.

Perhaps one should also give a thought to the symbol of th emovement, the Swastika. Its effect is a twofold one; that of the sign and that of the word. And both have something cruel about them. The sign resembles two twisted gallows; it threatens the spectator insidiously, as though it said “You wait. You will be surprised at what will hang here.” In as far as the swastika has a revolving movement, this too contains menace; it recalls the limbs of the criminals who used to be broken on the wheel.

The word has absorbed the cruel and bloodthirsty elements of the Christian cross, as though it were good to crucify. Haken, the first part of the German word, recalls hakenstellen, an expression commonly used by boys for “tripping up”. Thus it forebodes the fall of many. For some it conjures up military visions of heels clicking; the German for “heels” being hacken. Thus, with the threat of cruel punishment, it combines an insidious viciousness and a hidden reminder of military discipline.

Ahem. Sorry for that rant up above. I get fed up with being treated like a silly little child who just hasn’t thought things thru, I get fed up with the emails telling me how I should think, what I should say, the “right” way to look at things. I try not to let it get to me. But it’s moments like these – when the emails haven’t come yet, but I know that they will – that I get annoyed. I don’t mind if people get angry at what I write, but I DO mind being condescended to. That I mind very very much.

Now I’m laughing at myself. I’m screaming at nobody! It hasn’t happened yet!! Heh heh

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17 Responses to Elias Canetti on Germany and Versailles

  1. peteb says:

    It sounds like an intriguing book.. and an interesting hypothesis. Does Canetti look at the history of the development of nations (and national boundaries) themselves, or does he start from a position where they are already accepted as being defined – from whenever in history the example is chosen?

    I’m thinking of the widely used propagandising slogan by Hitler – Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Furher – Hitler’s appeal to the idea that Germany needed to be re-united.. under his rule.

  2. David Foster says:

    Guess I’ll have to get the book. I can’t decide if his analysis is profound, is blather, or is somewhere in-between.

    But it would seem to imply this: Even if Germany had *not* gone through the economic disasters of the ’30s, even if the Weimar government had not been so weak in its response to political violence…Naziism *still* would have triumphed, because of the centrality of the army in the national imagination. I’m not sure I believe this.

  3. red says:


    Canetti’s book doesn’t really have to do with the modern-day nation-state. It has to do with how the human race, genetically, gathers itself into crowds. His detailing of the histories of specific nations are relatively brief, and he uses them only as examples to illustrate his larger thesis.

    Obviously, because he was German, and because he lived through both world wars, he was interested in what was beneath the surface – the politics, the historical events. How did Germans see themselves?

    But most of his examples come from aboriginal cultures, or self-contained African cultures – Because for him, this is where we can see the purity of crowd behavior.

    Crowds have similar attributes – whether you are a Stone Age Maori or a modern-day Englishman.

    That’s Canettti’s thesis.

  4. red says:

    David – Yes. That is his thesis. (The book Hitler’s Willing Executioners – while very controversial in many ways – takes the same thesis. This potential already existed in the German people, is Goldberg’s thesis – I think that’s his name. It’s kind of a boring book, filled with charts and statistics, but … it adds up to a very compelling picture.)

    The symbolism of the army and the forest-as-moving-army is what cohered the German people – this is Canettis’ theory. Canetti is not interested in politics, per se. He is interested in the universality of the crowd-dynamic. It’s a fascinating book. Blather? Hell, his “blather” won him the Nobel Prize.

    Also, his analysis of the religion of Islam, in terms of its crowd-structure, is eerily prescient. He cuts to the core of it. The POINT of Islam, as he sees it, is to make war against the infidels.

    Great fucking book.

  5. red says:

    Robert Kaplan (as I wrote below somewhere) talks extensively about Canetti in his book about the Balkans. The “national crowd symbol” thesis really helped him understand the complexity of that region. It was difficult for me to figure out what Kaplan was actually doing, or even SEEING, until I got Canetti’s book for myself.

    It’s not history, by the way – although there are a lot of historical events described. It’s a philosophy book. It’s along the lines of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel – or even Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.

    It’s looking at the human RACE, as opposed to the quibbling nature of nation-states. It’s different, somehow – trying to make sense of the timeline of our evolution as a human race. How we clump up, how we operate as a group (from hunter-gatherers, to the crowds at Jesus’ crucifixion, to how we behave in a concert hall).

  6. Dave J says:

    I think I really must get a hold of this book. Thank God I now live ten minutes’ walk from the Boston Public Library. :-)

    It was a century before Bismarck that someone said of Prussia under Frederick the Great–or perhaps even as far back as the time of his father Frederick William, the “Soldier-King”– that, while other countries had armies, it was an army that had a country. And, of course, it was Prussia that created the German Empire in its own image. I imagine a German of the 1880’s, especially one who was NOT a Prussian, would’ve recognized and instinctively grasped the politics of fifty years later vastly more than those of fifty years earlier.

  7. red says:

    Dave J:

    Wow. “An army that had a country”

    Fascinating. See if your library has the book. And just a note: I found it difficult at first to get into. Like: is this all there is?? But damn, it adds up to a reaaaalllly interesting read. Much much food for thought.

  8. red says:

    Oh and David (and others):

    I don’t know if any of you have read Hitler’s Willing Executioners – I know Bill McCabe finished it recently. His thesis is that all of Germany participated, that anti-Semitism was already deeply engrained in the society, that the soil was ripe for planting, and that organizing itself into armies was part of German culture long before the rise of Nazis …

    As I recall, the book was actually a huge hit in Germany. It was very cathartic for them to read, to admit, to blah blah.

    The author (and sorry – I keep forgetting his name – Goldfarb??) goes into excruciatingly boring detail about the organization of German society (the clubs, the choirs, the youth clubs, yadda yadda) … He is building his case, statistic by statistic – that it wasn’t just “the Nazis” involved – but the entire society.

    I wasnt’ completely convinced by his book, actually. BUT – definitely worth a read.

  9. Dave J says:

    The author’s name that you’re grasping is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

  10. David Foster says:

    OK…I will definitely read the book.

    One book that should be read by anyone who wants to understand what happened in Germany is “The Road Back” by Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front.” “Road Back” follows a group of German veterans who have returned home after the defeat in WWI. One of the best-written and most important books I’ve ever read…a much more subtle and better-written book than “All Quiet” IMNSHO.

  11. CW says:

    Red that’s a good insight about Milosevic at Kosovo Polje. That guy always reminded me of Hitler.

    As for the Nazis, their rise was the result of many complex and fascinating influences in German culture and society and anyone who gives you a hard time about wondering why the Nazis turned out the way they did is likely ignorant.

    One of the big ones, that gets covered up big-time, was sexual. There was a big sexually deviate subculture in Germany to which all the big Nazis belonged, and a lot of the early Nazi organization was driven by the major Nazis’ “proclivities”.

    Germans can be brilliant, and highly organized and disciplined, but you really have to watch them carefully, because the origins of Naziism are still latent in their culture.

  12. Dave J says:

    Oh, and to David F’s point, although I haven’t yet read the book, it doesn’t seem to me that the Nazis actually coming to power necessarily follows from the army as crowd symbol, just the collapse of Weimar democracy and its replacement by SOMETHING militaristic. The fact that the idea of the army–the “forest-army,” as Canetti puts it–and the actual army were two different things is, I think, particularly relevant to that, keeping in mind that the army was actually one of the few institutions that was NEVER fully Nazified.

    It might be somewhat difficult for an American to say this, with our long-ingrained belief in civilian control of the military, but the only thing that kept the army itself from strangling the Third Reich in its infancy–as some of its officers would attempt to do during the war, by which time it was too little, too late–was its own idea of itself as outside and separate from politics. When things really started getting out of control in the early 30’s, a more insightful military leadership or, I suppose, a less senile President Hindenburg, could have appealed to the national crowd symbol and attempted to restore order by proclaiming martial law and having the army crush both the Nazis and the Communists, something I think most Germans would have supported or at least not actively opposed. A German military dictatorship in place of Hitler would probably still have been dangerous and looking to avenge Versailles, but it wouldn’t have been genocidal. Given the political inclinations of the officer corps, like Franco they might’ve eventually restored the monarchy.

  13. Ceci says:

    David F.,

    I will definitely try to find Remarque’s book. Thanks for the recommendation!

    The whole Germany discussion is of particular interest to me; my grandfather was a WWI veteran. He joined the German army as a 17-year-old and fought on the Russian front. But I know nothing more. He emigrated to Argentina in the ’20s and never ever talked about his war experiences.

    I can understand why he never talked, but as a person who is always asking herself WHY about everything, I always wondered WHY he joined the army, what it was that led him to do it as a very young man, what he felt afterwards… Maybe the Remarque book will shed some light and bring me nearer to what went through a WWI veteran’s mind.

    Great discussion, by the way. I find Canetti’s view really interesting. Guess I will have to find that book as well, although Sheila’s articles are a perfect summary. Thanks!

  14. David Foster says:

    Ceci…In the Remarque book, there is tremendous enthusiasm for the war, encouraging many to volunteer…and for those who are slow to do so, there is great social pressure, both from parents and for teachers.

    There is one scene in the book in which the returning veterans confront their school principal, after he makes a speech in the classical “heroic” style. One of the most powerful things I’ve read…

  15. Bernard says:

    “In as far as the swastika has a revolving movement, this too contains menace…”

    “Turning and turning in the widening gyre…”

  16. red says:

    Goldhagen! Of course! Anyone here read it?

  17. red says:


    It’s not hard for me to believe that there was some kind of perverse shared culture going on there — it seems to make a lot of sense. It’s mostly fiction writers that I have seen deal with this (I’m thinking of Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosley at the moment).

    Fascinating and terrifying. What form did it take, do you know? What the hell was going on? Was it submerged self-hating homosexuality – coming out of contempt for women? Or … what I’m guessing is that there was a lot of sado-masochistic stuff going on, and role-playing, and rough gay sex (am I in the right ballpark or do I just have a dirty mind? No wait. Don’t answer that) …

    This topic is not really discussed at length in any of the books I’ve read. Too taboo still?

    Any books out there analyzing this sub-culture that you can recommend?

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