When we speculate about our own country or its neighbors, we generally do so in terms of the future. But this inevitably involves consideration of the present. What are the existing realities whose development we must attempt to forecast? What hopes and fears guide the decisions of those who influence events, be they rulers of society, consumers of resources, or fighters for political causes? How do suchpeople see the future, and how are they setting about transforming the present? As soon as we ask these questions, we are in turn obliged to consider the past. Current realities cannot be understood without knowing how they came to be as they are. Hopes and fears cannot be dissociated from individual personalities, and these too are a product of past experience.
Whether we are dealing with a human being or a nation, a purely contemporaneous approach gives a misleading, two-dimensional impression. But the historical viewpoint has at least two grave dangers of its own. The first is that when we judge an individual, a group, or a nation in the light of its own past, we forget that each is subject to outside influence at every turn and that countries whose history is very different often go through similar shifts of attitude and policy at a given juncture. Thus, it may be stated here and now that one of the conclusions of this book will be that Germany today is less intelligible as the product of an age-long national development than as an element in a society that transcends national boundaries and also as an entity composed of two parts, each of which belongs to a different and relatively homogeneous section of a divided world.
The second danger of the historical approach is that it lays too much emphasis on continuity. Of course, complete breaks with the past are rare in history -- indeed, they are impossible. Great as political upheavals may be, they do not annihilate social and economic conditions or bring about a complete change in the ideas and beliefs of individuals. But there are times when the breach of continuity is so sharp and the changes that take place in social organization, in the structure of power, and in public opinion are so abrupt and far-reaching that it is hazardous to interpret events in terms of a continuous evolution. Russia in 1917 is a case in point, and in the same way we may regard 1945 as marking a clear break in German history.
This is not, however, a self-evident fact. It is, of course, easy to see that 1945 was a more important turning point in Germany than in Britain or even in France. The mutilation of the national territory, the beginnings of political division in what remained of Germany, the loss of external and internal . . .