A Review of Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals – Part IV

Part I – Black Rednecks and White Liberals
Part II – Are Jews Generic?
Part III – The Real History of Slavery
Part IV – Germans and History
Part V – Black Education: Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies
Part VI – History versus Visions

“Germans and History”

Sowell’s fourth essay in this collection was the shortest. In it, he asks what the common characteristics of “German culture” are and whether these are responsible for the rise of Hitler. He concludes that there is a well-defined German culture, even among Germans living abroad, but that “the radical fanaticism of Hitler and the Nazi movement… were not historically distinct characteristics of Germans as a people” (p. 201).

The most interesting element of the essay was Sowell’s case that there is a distinct “German culture,” which can be recognized worldwide and which persists even in German communities that have existed outside of Germany for centuries. Sowell argues that German culture had a significant impact on the whole of Europe due to several factors: their high literacy rates (“most Russians… were illiterate in the late nineteenth century but 94 perfect of the Germans in Riga [, the capital of Latvia] could read and write”, p. 175), various skills (“Germans were know for brewing beer…German craftsmen also pioneered in making pianos [and] map-making… Mining was another area in which Germans became renowned” (p. 178-179), and efficiency (“Whether in agriculture, industry, commerce, or the military, Germans became known for thoroughness, organization, punctuality and hard work” (p. 180).

Sowell adduces many examples of the persistence of German culture, from German-language newspapers to German hymns being sung in rural Argentinian villages to international companies that were founded by German immigrants. Upon reflection, it seems hard to deny that particular ethnic groups share a common culture with identifiable attributes. Indeed, denying this fact would undercut the claim that we should welcome and celebrate cultural differences; if different cultures don’t have distinguishable traditions, values, norms, and preferences, what are we being told to celebrate?

Yet resistance to this idea presumably comes from the uncomfortable recognition that we cannot simultaneously affirm that cultures have substantial differences that should be celebrated and also that these differences would make no difference when it comes to life outcomes apart from injustice. To take a silly example, the disproportionate representation of Germans among founders of breweries is absolutely no indication of systemic injustice or oppression by anyone. Just as conservatives need to acknowledge that systemic injustice can produce disparities, progressives need to acknowledge that disparities can have sources other than systemic injustice.

Given his summary of “German culture,” Sowell denies that it was responsible for Hitler’s rise to power. While anti-Semitism was certainly present in Germany, Germany does not stand out with respect to anti-Semitism among other European nations: “Jews were so widely accepted in Germany that nearly half of all Jewish marriages there between 1921 and 1927 were marriages to people who were not Jews” (p. 194) and “German political parties explicitly devoted to anti-Jewish principles reached a high of 7 percent of the vote and a low below one percent… A study of anti-Semitism in Germany concluded, ‘by 1914 the anti-Semitic parties were practically defunct and their press was in ruins” (p. 196). Sowell concludes: “The radical fanaticism of Hitler and the Nazi movement… were not historically distinct characteristics of Germans as a people. On the contrary, the rise of such a man as the leader of such a people should serve as a permanent warning to all people everywhere who are charmed by charisma or aroused by rhetoric” (p. 201).

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