Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2.: The Fallacy of the Concept of National Character - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
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2.: The Fallacy of the Concept of “National Character” - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War 
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Indiana, 2011).
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The Fallacy of the Concept of “National Character”
The main deficiency of the character concept when applied as an explanation is in the permanency attributed to it. The individual or the group is conceived as equipped with a stable character of which all its ideas and actions are the outcome. The criminal is not a criminal because he has committed a crime; he commits the crime because he is a criminal. Therefore, the fact that a man has once committed a crime is the proof that he is a criminal and makes it plausible that he is guilty of any other crime ascribed to him. This doctrine has deeply influenced penal procedure in continental Europe. The state is eager to prove that the defendant has already committed other crimes in his previous career; the defense in the same way is eager to whitewash the defendant by demonstrating that his past life was free from fault.* Yet a man who has already committed several murders may be guiltless of the murder for which he is standing trial, whereas a man after sixty years of impeccable behavior may have committed an abominable crime.
The concept of a nation’s character is a generalization of features discovered in various individuals. It is mainly the result of precipitate and ill-considered induction from an insufficient number of ill-assorted samples. In the old days the German citizens of Bohemia met few Czechs other than cooks and maids. Hence they concluded that the Czechs are servile, submissive, and cringing. A student of Czech political and religious history may rather qualify them as rebellious and lovers of freedom. But what entitles us to search for common characteristics of the various individuals of an aggregate which includes, on the one hand, John Huss and Žižka of Trocnov1 and, on the other, foot-men and chambermaids? The criterion applied in the formation of the class concept “Czechs” is the use of the Czech language. To assume that all members of a linguistic group must have some other marks in common is a petitio principii.
The most popular interpretation of the ascendancy of Nazism explains it as an outcome of the German national character. The holders of this theory search German literature and history for texts, quotations, and deeds indicating aggressiveness, rapacity, and lust for conquest. From these scraps of knowledge they deduce the German national character, and from the character so established the rise of Nazism.
It is very easy indeed to assemble many facts of German history and many quotations from German authors that can be used to demonstrate an inherent German propensity toward aggression. But it is no less easy to discover the same characteristics in the history and literature of other linguistic groups, e.g., Italian, French, and English. Germany has never had more excellent and eloquent panegyrists of military heroism and war than Carlyle and Ruskin were, never a chauvinist poet and writer more eminent than Kipling, never more ruthless and Machiavellian conquerors than Warren Hastings and Lord Clive, never a more brutal soldier than Hodson of Hodson’s Horse.
Very often the quotations are taken out of context and thus entirely distorted. In the first World War British propagandists used to cite over and over again a few lines from Goethe’s Faust. But they omitted to mention that the character into whose mouth these words are put, Euphorion, is a counterpart of Lord Byron, whom Goethe admired more than any other contemporary poet (except for Schiller), although Byron’s romanticism did not appeal to his own classicism. These verses do not at all express Goethe’s own tenets. Faust concludes with a glorification of productive work; its guiding idea is that only the self-satisfaction received from rendering useful services to his fellow men can make a man happy; it is a panegyric upon peace, freedom, and—as the Nazis scornfully call it, “bourgeois”—security. Euphorion-Byron represents a different ideal: the restless craving for ends inaccessible to human beings, the yearning for adventure, combat, and glory which results in failure and in premature death. It is nonsensical to quote as proof of Germany’s innate militarism the verses in which Euphorion answers his parents’ commendation of peace with passionate praise of war and victory.
There have been in Germany, as in all other nations, eulogists of aggression, war, and conquest. But there have been other Germans too. The greatest are not to be found in the ranks of those glorifying tyranny and German world hegemony. Are Heinrich von Kleist, Richard Wagner, and Detlev von Liliencron more representative of the national character than Kant, Goethe, Schiller, Mozart, and Beethoven?
The idea of a nation’s character is obviously arbitrary. It is derived from a judgment which omits all unpleasant facts contradicting the preconceived dogma.
It is not permissible to apply statistical procedures in the establishment of a nation’s character. The question is not to find out how the Germans would have voted in the past if they had had to decide by plebiscites what course their country’s policy should follow. Even if such an investigation could be successfully undertaken, its results would not provide us with any information helpful in our case. The political situation of each period has its unique form, its individuality. We are not justified in drawing from past events conclusions applicable to the present day. It would not clear up our problems if we knew whether the majority of the Goths approved of the invasion of the Roman Empire or whether the majority of the twelfth-century Germans favored Barbarossa’s treatment of the Milanese. The present situation has too little in common with those of the past.
The usual method applied is to pick out some famous personalities of a nation’s past and present and to take their opinions and actions as representative of the whole nation. This would be a faulty method even if people were conscientious enough to confront these arbitrarily chosen men with others who held contrary ideas and behaved in a different way. It is not permissible to attach the same representative importance to the tenets of Kant and to those of a dull professor of philosophy.
It is contradictory, on the one hand, to consider only famous men as representative while ignoring the rest, and, on the other hand, to treat even these, arbitrarily selected as famous, as constituting an un-differentiated group of equals. One man of this group may stand out as much from the rest as the whole group does from the entire nation. Hundreds of poetasters and rhymesters do not outweigh the unique Goethe.
It is correct to speak of a nation’s mentality at a certain historical epoch if we conceive by this term the mentality of the majority. But it is subject to change. The German mentality has not been the same in the age of medieval feudalism, in the age of the Reformation, in that of the Enlightenment, in the days of liberalism, and in our time.
It is probable that today about 80 per cent of all German-speaking Europeans are Nazis. If we leave out the Jews, the Austrians, and the German-speaking Swiss, we might say that more than 90 per cent of the Germans support Hitler’s fight for world hegemony. But this cannot be explained by referring to the characterization of the contemporary Germans given by Tacitus. Such an explanation is no better than the Nazis’ method of proving the alleged barbarism of the present-day Anglo-Saxons by citing the execution of Jeanne d’Arc, the wholesale extermination of the aborigines of Tasmania by the British settlers, and the cruelties described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
There is no such thing as a stable national character. It is a vicious circle to explain Nazism by alleging that the Germans have an inherent tendency to adopt the tenets of Nazism.
[* ]These statements do not apply to American penal procedure.
[1. ][John Huss (1360?–1415) Bohemian religious reformer, burned at the stake. Jan Žižka (1360?–1424) Successful Bohemian general and Hussite leader.—Ed.]