The early half of the 20th century was dominated by the German contest for Europe. The cause, in its most reduced form, was overwhelming strength of the new empire, formed in the late 19th century (this one country effectively fought the entire world and almost succeeded). The wealth of nations took fairly substantial turn as the modern economy and its intellectual advances allowed smaller nations (lacking in population and natural resources) to overwhelm larger but less sophisticated nations (Germany vs. Russia, Japan vs China). For this reason, it is important to notice the relatively unexplored importance of German intellectualism in its war for domination.
We will begin with the most famous German intellectual. Einstein was a pacifist and communist, and therefore had little to do with the German war machine. Yet his life provides an interesting view into German warfare because of a rather coincidental timeline of events. Einstein’s Anno Mirablis occurred when he was 25 and in the year 1905. This was a decisive year in pre-war Europe as it was here that Russia lost its war against Japan, despite having the largest standing army. The disaster shifted the concept of European balance of power and eventually led to the formation of alliances that pulled all of Europe into war. At the time, Einstein was working at a patent office in Zurich, but his four papers (any one of which would have made a scientist’s career - he proved the existence of molecules, invented quantum mechanics, conceived special relativity, and equated mass and energy) resulted in his invitation to the Prussian Academy of Science, which at the time was no doubt the most influential body in science.
Einstein’s contemporaries were many, and together made up the majority of scientific thought at the time. That is to say that the world of science in 1905 was German. That the Germans ran the scientific world a hundred years ago is for whatever reason difficult to imagine and is for some reason little discussed. The German intellectual has not received the same time of day as the French philosophe or the Viennese School of Music. Today, science appears to be eminently the domain of Americans and their prestigious universities, probably because today, innovation is a highly American phenomenon. That was not so a hundred years ago. The Americans of that time had a lot of businessmen and seemingly no intellectuals. In Germany though, in a very small segment of space and time, we had: Haber, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Hilbert, Planck and so on. One could probably call this the old silicon valley, where network effects helped speedy innovation.
The intellectual flowering of Germany was both a result of its newfound strength, and at the same time contributed to it. The nature of the first world war can be most aptly described by runaway technologies. The speed of these technological changes also means uneven ones. Offensive technologies outpaced defensive and mobility technologies, resulting in a never foreseen form of trench warfare. An infamous German technology developed by a member of the Prussian school was that of the chlorine gas was significant increase in the scale of offensive weapons. The same man invented the modern day nitrogen fertilizer.
Einstein was staunchly apolitical at the time, which made him a pacifist by comparison. His relationship with Germany was one of convenience at its best. He believed in science for science’s sake, which was sometimes at odds with his colleagues. His theories were in the field of theoretical physics, which at the time had no applications and so could not help Germany in the war. Inter-war extremism branded his theories as “Jewish” (intellectual) and at odds with “German” physics which were grounded in reality. It should be noted that Einstein never did win a Nobel prize for General Relativity, though it was widely popular and accepted, even in its nascent form.
An amusing intersection between Einstein and the wars was when upon seeking proof for the General theory, a few of Einstein’s representatives needed to take measurements of an Eclipse seen from Russia. His German associates were on a train the eve of the war declaration, and looked fairly suspicious trying to smuggle scientific equipment (including a camera) into Russia. Good thing war as it started was still a gentleman’s affair and resembled earlier wars as opposed to the total war it turned into. The representatives were sent back safely, though no measurements could be taken of the eclipse. In hindsight, the misstep was a boon for Einstein as his equations needed to be amended. A subsequent measurement confirmed Einstein’s equations.
The First World War ended with the average German not knowing that he had actually lost, except for the article on the Treaty of Versailles he read. From there, a theory of being stabbed in the back by Jews arose and they were scapegoated for the economic disaster for the early 1920s. This platform was used by Hitler to gain power, and subsequently resulted in Einstein’s fleeing to America. In America, he reluctantly helped to develop nuclear warfare. Why the staunch pacifist would help is not entirely clear, though his involvement was limited.
War clearly spurs intellectual development and intellect wins wars. Although Eintstein had little to do with the eventuality of either war, his class was potentially the most influential group of people in the first half of the 20th century, effectively engineering Germany’s bid for European dominance. As the French Enlightenment cannot be detached from the Napoleonic Wars, the German Enlightenment cannot be detached from the Wars for German dominance.