1.4

The Circus Rider of Europe

Dennis Showalter

The relationship between Imperial Germany and tsarist Russia before 1914 was a complex mixture of attraction and repulsion. Anarchist Michael Bakunin's statement that nothing united Slavs like their hatred of Germans can be balanced by the German impact on Russia's Westernization. France might provide inspiration, but it was a long road from Paris to St. Petersburg. German professors filled most of the posts at the University of Moscow and the Academy of Sciences. German pietism shaped Russian religious thought. German concepts of natural law and philosophy prepared Russian ground not for individualism and empiricism, but for Aufklärung (Enlightenment), with its sensibility, its religiosity, its collectivism.

The assimilation of this quasi-German heritage was at best incomplete. Nevertheless in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars a bilingual, bicultural elite developed, an elite consciously seeking to fuse the best of Russian and German. An emerging Russian intelligentsia, initially self-absorbed and isolated, turned eagerly to Germany for cultural and intellectual models. The philosophy of Hegel and the literature of the Romantics were uncritically imitated east of the Vistula. Students were regularly sent to Germany for advanced education even in the darkest days of Nicholas I. Under Nicholas, too, a system of secondary schools on the German model was established for the entire empire. German scholars and artists basked in the admiration of their Russian counterparts. In turn they praised the spiritual depths of the Slavic soul and the unlimited promise of the Russian people.

The relationship was by no means one-sided. Restoration and Vormärz Prussia (1815–1848) accepted the Russia of Alexander and Nicholas as a bulwark against Austrian dominance, French revanchism, and popular revolution. Militarily too the traditional positions of Prussia and Russia reversed themselves during the Napoleonic Era. Prussia's martial arrogance was humbled at Jena and Auerstädt. After 1813 the warhardened Russian army, with its long-service peasant conscripts, compared all too favorably in all too many respects with the improvised Prussian forces. The shortcomings of the postwar Prussian army seemed even more glaring when compared with the situation in Russia. Officers facing limited budgets periodically turned longing eyes to Russia, where the soldier-tsar Nicholas I appeared to stint his military establishment of nothing, where elaborate maneuvers were staged regardless of cost, where developments in weapons, organization, and tactics could be tested on an army-corps scale.

-50-

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