Friedrich Naumann: The modern liberal

100 Years Legacy (25 March 1860 – 24 August 1919)
Feature23.08.2019
Friedrich Naumann

What distinguishes Friedrich Naumann from the numerous politicians who were active during the German Empire?

He saw himself as much more of an educator of the people than as a politician of power.

Naumann’s father and grandfather were theologians. It was a small wonder then that he would also devote himself to theology. He was committed to the commandment of brotherly love as he was to the democratic goal of the rule of the people. He was the sympathetic pastor of the working class, the reformer working for a reconciliation of the classes, the realist influenced by Christian faith, and more so, the teacher who believed in the capacity of the individual to reach his full potential.

As an orator and writer, Naumann was one of the most influential men of the public figure of his time. He knew how to express what he discerned so that the educated man as well as the man on the street would understand and would profit from his observations.

Best-selling author

In 1906, he published a series of articles under the title “The Renewal of Liberalism.” He wanted to loosen liberalism from the stiffness of the property-owning, educated middle class, and to make it become sensitive to the needs and desires of the majority of German people.

Naumann’s sense of reality, which made it apparent to him that liberal goals can only be realized where they find sufficient social support; his conviction – that fidelity to principles must be combined with an understanding of political possibilities, and that liberals must not detach themselves from the notion of providing organizational support – could not be more true today, one hundred years later.

Naumann’s most celebrated and longest lasting book success was his writing on the war aims of Germany, entitled “Central Europe.” Published in 1915, the book remains controversial even up to the present day.

The idea was that the German Reich should develop a “Central Europe.” Naumann’s idea was not purely to create a military alliance nor just an association of states, but rather a stable supranational umbrella organization in the heart of the continent that would establish a common economic policy and a common defense system.

In this proposal, the goals and the current structure of West European integration are manifested in its germinal form. However, Naumann's vision after two world wars, both of which centered on Germany opened up debates.

Friedrich Naumann Central Europe

Civic education as legacy

In 1918, under the pressure of a military defeat and in the middle of insurrections from both left and right, it was time to build a new republic.

Naumann did not refuse when the newly founded German Democratic Party (DDP), the successor to the previous left-liberal party, of which he was already a member, asked him to take on the role of party leader. The party had won 18.5 percent of the votes during the election in the National Assembly, and had moved into the post-war parliament as the third-strongest parliamentary party after the Social Democrats and the Catholic Centre. The objective was to maintain this standing, or do even better. Naumann, the advocate of the alliances between the middle class and the workers, the brilliant orator and writer, and the tireless organizer was clearly the best choice for this task. On July 21, 1919 at the Berlin DDP Party Congress, he was appointed party leader with a majority of votes. It was Naumann's first big political office. He died five weeks later.

Naumann left behind three political initiatives as his legacy.

1. Churches became independent from the State

This became necessary especially for the Protestant churches because of the destruction of the German monarchy and the resulting end of the episcopal status of the state-sovereigns.

Naumann lobbied that it would be best for churches to become corporations under public law. To date, this remains valid under constitutional law, and ever since the Unity Agreement and the accession of the GDR to the Constitution, it applied in the eastern federal states as well.

2. The constitution as a catalogue of fundamental rights of citizens

Naumann wanted a document that was accessible to all citizens, both in content and in style. He adopted some traditional formulae like the statement “All Germans are equal before the law.” but also expressed some of his own, for example: “The fatherland stands above the party.”; “Order and freedom are siblings.”; including: “To pay debts is both a public and a private duty.”

While this motion did not become law, he provoked relevant discussions. For Naumann it was important to articulate the rights of individuals in relation to the unassailable claim of classical liberalism - individual duty. According Naumann, the greater the rights of individual citizens, the greater the demands that the State can place on him.

3. Educate for democracy

Naumann firmly believed that political education is necessary so that citizens can convert their abilities to engaged political action. He developed his plan for a “Free German Academy for Politics,” which was not intended to cater to a single political party, but rather, to create forums for open dialogue.

Among his famous quotes that reflects his regard for civic education is

A people that is strong enough to develop a new form of leadership out of its own ranks already has the men that it needs, but what is still lacking today is a broad, general flow of liberal thought. That is the reason for the slow pace of progress. This must be worked on, not in bitterness and discord, but rather in that reciprocal respect that simply cannot be realized without the difficult task of education.

(German Liberalism, 1909)

Friedrich Naumann Foundation

Naumann’s life and works continued to have significance, especially for the many young people with whom he worked. Theodor Heuss, the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1949 to 1959, was among them.

Heuss considered Naumann as his political and personal mentor. In 1920, after Naumann’s death, he taught at the German Academy for Politics until 1933. Heuss described Naumann’s influence as that of “a spiritual and moral kind.”

In September 1957, Germany’s liberal party Free Democratic Party (FDP) suffered a clear loss of votes. It experienced an existential crisis where it questioned not only how to gain back seats, but how to attract the support of the young generation. The answer became political education – where political knowledge would be imparted to the youth to capacitate them towards political engagement, and where the intellectual foundations and the political goals of liberal politics could be debated. The project was establishment of a political foundation.

It was Heuss who gave the foundation its name.

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) lives by the values of its namesake. It promotes well proven liberal concepts, and contributes to increasing people’s opportunities to work for their own prosperity.

FNF is active in over 60 countries around the world, spanning Europe, Africa, Asia, North and Central America.

What distinguishes Friedrich Naumann from other politicians? His personal piety that allowed him to maintain freedom for renewed reflection and rethinking of his position when the situation demanded it of him. To cite him meant to declare one's adherence to modern liberalism.