Dostoevsky and the Germans

A caricature of national character can be revealing.

Posted Mar 15, 2020

Dostoevsky's The Gambler offers psychological insights. One concerns the national character (Frank, 1993). The casino at Wiesbaden—or Roulettenburg—is the playground of rich, or formerly rich, European aristocrats and their hangers-on. Many of them are projections of national character. Alexei Ivanovich (the Gambler and narrator) and others present Russian traits, such as passion and impulsivity. There are also French characters, such as the decadent Monsieur Grieux and the wily Mademoiselle Blanche. Then, there is Mr. Astley, an English industrialist, projecting probity and prudence.

The Germans do not emerge as individuals, except for the Baron and the Baroness Wurmerhelm, who give Alexei occasion to insult them and get himself fired as tutor to the (Russian) General's family. Dostoevsky leaves no doubt of how he feels about the Germans, and he does so early, in Chapter IV, before the fateful encounter with the Wurmerhelms. Dostoevsky's portrait begins with a disagreement between Alexei and "The General." 

After Alexei loses at the table, the General admonishes him that "a man ought to go more carefully," and he notes that the Russians, in particular, are "no good at the game." Alexei replies that "roulette was devised specially for Russians." He contrasts the Russian with "the civilized Westerner [who has] a capacity for acquiring capital; whereas, not only is the Russian incapable of acquiring capital, but also he exhausts it wantonly and out of sheer folly." Russians need roulette, Alexei explains, because it allows them to get rich within a few hours. The General chides Alexei for "traducing" (i.e., bad-mouthing) his own country.

Alexei's resistance stiffens. "It is difficult to say which is the worst of the two—Russian ineptitude or the German method of growing rich through honest toil," he asserts to the General's puzzlement and then launches into a lecture describing and condemning the German ethic of work, material accumulation, risk aversion, and self-denial.

He starts with his conclusion, that he "would rather live a wandering life in tents [...] than bow the knee to a German idol [...] to the German method of heaping up riches. [It] makes my Tartar blood boil!" Alexei/Fyodor assesses the German mores as a Russian and as a gambler who rejects self-discipline, hard work, and what Freud would call repression. At the center of the German system is the "Vater" of the family, a man who is "horribly beneficent and extraordinarily honorable." The Vater leads his family in reading "improvement books" aloud in the evening, when "the sun has sunk to the rest [and while] a stork is roosting on the gable." This is "all beautifully poetic and touching."

Surprisingly, Alexei/Fyodor grants to the General that his own father, too, back in Russia, used to read books to his family and that thus he, Alexei, "know[s] how things ought to be done." Yet, he rejects the German way of life, because "they work like oxen, and amass wealth like Jews." 

What the Germans do not realize is that all this work and wealth amounts to a system of self-enslavement. He sketches a cross-generational drama in which the eldest son inherits the farm, the youngest is sold into military service, and the daughters have no dowry (because the guldens go to the eldest son) and have to postpone marriage until the flower of their youth is gone. And all this is "done out of sheer rectitude" and self-delusion. "It is simply idyllic for the victim to rejoice" in his fate. But it might work after a fashion, creating a "spectacle of a century or two of inherited labor, patience, intellect, rectitude, character, perseverance, and calculation, with a stork sitting on the roof above."

Besides self-delusion and lost happiness, Alexei/Fyodor finds an illness of moralism, for "they think there can never be anything better than this; wherefore, from their point of view they begin to judge the rest of the world, and to censure all who are at fault—that is to say, who are not exactly like themselves." Alexei/Fyodor does not want to live that way; he "would rather grow fat after the Russian manner, or squander [his] whole substance at roulette," and then defiantly shouts "I want the money for MYSELF [...] I may be wrong, but there you have it. Those are MY views" (caps in the original). The General is neither convinced nor amused. "How far you may be right in what you say I do not know [he moodily remarks] but I DO know that you are becoming an insufferable farceur whenever you are given the least chance."

Dostoevsky presents this assessment of the Germans against the objections and ridicule of a fellow Russian character. It's an effective literary and psychological device. The reader cannot dismiss the presented views as lunacy. The road is clear for a deeper reflection. Dostoevsky has presented a dialectic between two ways of life, which, being extreme opposites, bring the main character's central psychological conflict into focus.

When Dostoevsky describes repression and enslavement, he asks what freedom is. When he describes work and frugality, he asks what it is for. When he condemns moralism, he asks what his own moral standards are.

The assessment and evaluation of the German character and its pathologies is a vehicle Dostoevsky uses to reflect more deeply on his own "aleatory" personality. How could this evaluation be effective if it didn't resonate? If it resonates, might it be that there is a kernel of truth, or might it be that for reasons poorly understood, this stereotype is widely shared despite having no basis in reality?

I once tried to allow the possibility that perceptions of national character that are shared across international groups of perceivers, including members of the perceived group, may hint at a correctly perceived reality (Krueger, 1996). This did not find the editors' approval. Instead of referring to perceptual accuracy, I settled for the more modest term "consensus." Now we may never know what the Germans are really like—or the Russians, for that matter. 

References

Dostoevsky, F. M. (1866/1997). The gambler (translation by C.J. Hogarth). New York: Norton.

Frank, J. (1993). "The Gambler": A study in ethnopsychology. The Hudson Review, 46, 301-322.

Krueger, J. (1996). Probabilistic national stereotypes. European Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 961-980.