Tocqueville and the Odd Couple: A Review of Franco-German Relations

By Beloff, Max | The National Interest, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Tocqueville and the Odd Couple: A Review of Franco-German Relations


Beloff, Max, The National Interest


Alexis de Tocqueville, known throughout Europe as the author of Democracy in America and for a brief period foreign minister of France, was childless - a matter of deep concern to someone so proud of his ancestry. In his later years he partly made up for this gap in his life by attention to his nephews and nieces. Pride of place went to his nephew Hubert, who was nineteen years old when Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat ended Tocqueville's public career.(1) After some hesitation, Hubert opted for a diplomatic career and, with some assistance from his uncle, was posted first to the embassy in Vienna and then to Berlin.

At both capitals, but particularly Berlin, Tocqueville's contacts, whether personal or through correspondence, assured the young man an entree into the most important social and intellectual circles. In writing to Hubert, Tocqueville welcomed the latter's determination to pursue the study of the German language and the history of the German-speaking peoples.(2) While the Bismarckian Reich was still in the future, the German confederation was already the scene of important economic and demographic growth, and, despite the setback to its unity in the failed Revolutions of 1848, was obviously destined to play an increasingly important role in European politics. Tocqueville believed that the Germans should have been the natural partners of the French but that the Napoleonic conquests and occupation had permanently alienated them and made an alliance impossible. This legacy left France with the option of choosing an alignment with Britain, of which the price would be allowing that country to expand into all quarters of the habitable world, or else with Russia, which always carried with it the risk of general war.(3)

Tocqueville was aware of the paradox in his own position as between Britain and Germany. As he himself admitted, he had always lived almost exclusively in an English world.(4) Indeed some of his early contacts with German thinking had been by way of English intermediaries. In these last years of his life he was dominated by the studies needed to complete his projected history of the French Revolution, which he regarded as a European event and one for which an understanding of the German reactions to events in France was essential.(5)

He also saw in parts of Germany where the spirit of Metternich still ruled an approximation to the social and legal structures of pre-Revolutionary Europe. For that reason he saw Prussia, where the ideas of the liberal Enlightenment had made the greatest impact, as holding the key to a liberal future for Germany as a whole. In the later 1850s there seemed to be signs of a progressive liberalization of Prussia, which was very welcome to him. His fear was that the forces of progress would be too impatient and try to reach too soon the creation of a stable constitutional monarchy, which the English model showed to be the fruit of generations.(6) What Tocqueville hoped for was a friendly Germany modeled on Britain. But in 1862, three years after Tocqueville's death, Bismarck became head of the Prussian government and henceforth events followed a very different course.

The creation of the new German empire was one of the fruits of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 - the first of what some would see as the three Franco-German wars that formed much of the substance of European history between that date and 1945. Throughout that period and subsequently the passionate interest that Tocqueville had shown in German internal developments, and above all in German thought, has remained a permanent feature of French intellectual society. The point has been well made by Theodore Zeldin, the leading British authority on modern French history:

France's involvement with Germany manifested itself in a love-hate relationship which continually tormented and frustrated Frenchmen. If France was married to any country it was to Germany. . . . The French interest in England was, by comparison, not much more than a flirtation or an affair. …

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