Arndt’s Spirit of the Times (Snippets 8)

Bellerophon_and_NapoleonErnst Moritz Arndt (1768-1860) was a German author and poet.  At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, he wrote Spirit of the Times, a look at the history of various European nations with opinions of their different characteristics and how they were informed by history.  In 1808, the second volume (the first being considered of limited interest to the English) was translated and published in English under the misspelt title Ardnt’s Spirit of the Times.  Unsurprisingly, following a recent coalition against France between Britain, Prussia, Russia, Saxony and Sweden, Arndt’s view of the French character was stingingly negative:

Must we then everywhere meet these harlequins, at fairs, and on the high-roads? – I have ever been averse from having much intercourse with them, and now they unfortunately occupy all avenues and roads of history so arrogantly and insolently, that the historian cannot proceed a step withouth meeting with them.  And yet they blend so many amiable qualities with folly, that it is a difficult task to recount all the injury they have heaped upon us and posterity by their foolish proceedings.  It is singular that a nation that has never reflected, should give the world so much cause for serious reflection.  The cause of the French, if we consider the serious part of it, seems to have been settled this long time; but there are still a great number of fools amongst them who continually begin the business anew.  Errors and serious mistakes have been committed by either party, and this was not altogether unpardonable during the first revolutionary frenzy.  The first effervescence of enthusiasm made many a grey-headed man childish, and many a wise head judge and act unwisely.  But fifteen years replete with the most wonderful vicissitudes might have cooled the heads; and people who have not since recovered their recollection, cannot be expected to stand corrected by the warnings of history.

The French have ever made fools of their European contemporaries, and we were childish enough to suffer ourselves to be tricked by them.  An imposing and dazzling appearance, which is so very apt to deceive and perplex, was at all times displayed by that nation, and even before they were completely civilized themselves, they made their neighbours believe that everything was better, more pleasant, and more tasteful with them, than beyond the frontiers of France.  This complaint is exhibited against them by the Italians and Germans of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, at a time when both nations had made greater progress in civilization than the French.  Whatever advantage a Frenchman possessed, or imagined to possess, he ever contrived to turn to some account – the shortest and easiest road to domination.

Arndt attributed much of the current situation in France to the excesses of the French Revolution:

The French deceived themselves with words and ideas, and imagined that the grand work was accomplished when the incalculable evils of the revolution began to prevail; and their charms were first dispelled when their last hopes and their dreams of constitutions were destroyed.  The revolution now became a voracious monster, greedily devouring itself, until at length it grew tired of the work of destruction.  The best and ablest men in the nation were destroyed, and nothing remained but the scum of all parties, a despicable horde of slaves, that knew neither how to excite enthusiasm, nor how to rule.  The reins of government were tamely surrendered to one man, who now holds them in his powerful grasp, making his slaves confess with surprising naïveté that only a despotic government is fit for France.

Arndt’s opinion of France did not improve after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  In fact, all pretence at a balanced and historically informed view was eventually abandoned for pure hatred.  Indeed, some of his work was utilised in both World Wars as propaganda.  It is not difficult to see the seeds of this hatred in Spirit of the Times.

Frenchmen, you are the nation that has cheated Europe of its fairest hopes; and yet you presume to be the benefactors and masters of others – you; who have become the most wretched slaves of one man, who employs no nobler arts to lord over you than common cunning and imposing monkey-tricks!  You call yourselves the great nation.  If the despoliation of countries, the subversion of states, the subjugation of free nations, if bartering away for gold and silver all virtue and honour, can be called greatness, then few nations indeed have been greater than yourselves.


The final part of the Winants essay will follow the day after tomorrow, with the next “snippet” a couple of days after that.  If you would like to receive an email each time a new entry is posted on this blog, please click the “Follow Windows into History” button on the right of the screen.

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One Response to Arndt’s Spirit of the Times (Snippets 8)

  1. Pingback: Blog News | Windows into History (Reblogs and News)

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