Wide Awake with Isabel Hull

by Holly A. Case


German soldiers invading Belgium, August 1914

It was from Isabel Hull that I learned what tu quoque means, and how important it is to know. Hull is a professor of German history at Cornell, where I have also taught. Once I invited her to a class to talk about the British blockade of Germany during the First World War. She explained how the Germans had made war by invading neutral Belgium in 1914, knowing full well they were breaking international law. The title of her latest book, A Scrap of Paper (2014), alludes to the phrase that the German chancellor used to describe the international agreement governing Belgium's neutrality: it meant that little to him.

Hull described to my class the blockade's origins, what the Germans had thought and done, what the British were thinking, how they reached the decision to initiate the blockade, and what its likely impact was. But one concept stood out and remained a topic for discussion for the rest of the semester, even finding its way onto the final exam: it was the Latin phrase tu quoque. A literal translation of the phrase is “you also.” Tu quoque is a rhetorical strategy whereby, instead of arguing directly against the claim of your opponent, you challenge their right to make an argument by charging them with hypocrisy. For example: the British government asserts that Germany violated international law by invading neutral Belgium and persecuting its inhabitants. The German government retorts that the British government itself is in breach of international law for having subsequently initiated a naval blockade against Germany, cutting off not only its supply of raw materials, but also (potentially) food to civilians.

The tu quoque is as old as the hills. Cicero used it to win a case in the trial of the exile Ligarius: “You are accusing one who has a case, as I say, better than your own.” The Nazis were especially adept at deploying it. In 1942, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels confided to his diary: “The question of Jewish persecution in Europe is being given top news priority by the English and the Americans…We won't even discuss this theme publicly, but instead I gave orders to start an atrocity campaign against the English on their treatment of Colonials.” There have been countless examples of tu quoque since. The Soviets countered American claims of human rights abuses with the phrase “And you are lynching negroes,” which has its own entry on Wikipedia. Some Turkish scholars have used tu quoque to argue against claims that the Ottoman Empire instigated a genocide against the Armenians in 1915: “No nation is innocent. [T]hough the West has always accused the rest of the world of not being civilized enough, no other nations can be compared with the Germans, French, or Americans if we are talking about racism, fascism, and genocide.”

In logic, the tu quoque is considered a fallacy, because it does not actually controvert the original statement. If anything, it confirms the moral valence of wrongdoing, declaring: Yes, I have done wrong, but so have you.


My personal favorite among Hull's books is titled Absolute Destruction, which lends a helpful aura of dead earnestness to any faculty office. Visitors' eyes invariably fall on the title: “Absolute Destruction?” they ask. “Yes,” I reply, with deadly earnest glee.

Absolute Destruction shows with great clarity, precision, and, above all, evidence how the institutional culture of Imperial Germany's military leaked into its statecraft, with devastating effect. In the book and a related article, Hull argues that the German understanding of “military necessity” that emerged during wars in Europe and German Southwest Africa in the late nineteenth century—an understanding that had grown increasingly impervious to the influence of either politics or diplomacy—gave rise to the “final solutions” of the twentieth century.

The book that inspired Hull to become a historian was Konrad Heiden's Der Fuehrer: Hitler's Rise to Power (1944), which came into her hands at the age of twelve. It's a six-hundred-page, ultra-detailed history of Bavarian local politics during the Nazi takeover. Although she has never written on the Nazis directly, it doesn't take a very discerning reader to detect their shadow in the background of her work. She told me that what she remembers about Der Fuehrer is Heiden's description of “why a bunch of people would turn away from democracy,” a possibility she had hitherto considered unthinkable.


I once ran into Hull in the mailroom, cursing at the copier. When I asked what she was working on, she told me she was reading for an article on Carl Schmitt, a twentieth-century German legal scholar whose work provided legal justification for the Nazis' suspension of the German constitution in 1933. Schmitt is frequently assigned in upper-level university courses; left-leaning scholars and students are drawn to his lucid critique of liberal hypocrisy. Yet I had noticed that whenever Schmitt's name came up at department events, my colleague reacted with unconcealed agitation. So when she told me she was writing about Schmitt, I was intrigued.

Schmitt suffered from a common malaise of many modern German intellectuals, she explained, who tended to reverse-engineer the premise of an argument from their desired outcome. They did not think and write in order to figure something out, but in order to justify something they either wanted to do or had already done. (A disturbingly fine example is Thomas Mann's Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, first published in 1918. It's a retrospective intellectual/spiritual justification for Germany's involvement in the Great War, tacitly directed against Mann's own progressive brother Heinrich.)

Recently I read Hull's article on Schmitt, which focuses on the jurist's “pattern of argumentation.” She writes that Schmitt was not a tu quoque man. Having recognized that the tactic did not serve Germany well at the postwar treaty negotiations, he favored another, much more radical mode of argumentation that went far beyond the aim of undermining the right of the accuser to judge the accused. His argument completely reversed the Allies' assertions that Germany was a megalomaniacal belligerent. It was not Germany, Schmitt insisted, but “Anglo-Saxonia” that had sought world domination with its “fake, universal international law.” And it was not Germany, but the British who made “total war” with their blockade. In fact, the whole of international law was naught but a cover for Anglo-American imperialism. Norms themselves are always ideological, Schmitt concluded, “abstractions that obscure the facts of power.”

Meanwhile, to retrospectively justify the Germans' invasion of neutral Belgium, Schmitt defined a “Notstand” (state of necessity). What made the Notstand exceptional was that it was not predicated on any rights possessed by others, nor on any duties or limitations on one's own comportment: it was unapologetically unilateral. Insofar as it took issue with the entire premise of the rights of others and espoused self-interest (realism) as the highest, indeed the only ideal in international relations, it was impervious to counter-arguments that appealed to fair play and international law.


A Scrap of Paper was published in 2014, at roughly the same time as Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. It is difficult to imagine two more dissimilar works of scholarship. Whereas Hull argues German militaristic belligerence and deliberate disregard for international law led to the outbreak of the Great War, Clark does not assign blame, but rather focuses on the misperceptions of Europe's leading men—the “Sleepwalkers” of the title—in the months and weeks leading up to the war. Clark's work enjoys stellar ratings on Amazon, and has won a number of prizes and distinctions. One reviewer wrote of Sleepwalkers that it “deserves to become the new standard one-volume account” of the run-up to the Great War.

Although Hull hadn't read Clark's book when her own was published, in a sense, the “Prologue” of A Scrap of Paper offers a way of reading Sleepwalkers. The prologue is titled “What We Have Forgotten,” and is about historians' complicity in effacing Germany's war guilt. She shows how, starting already in 1920, western journalists and scholars copy-pasted what the postwar German government—in its attempts to roll back reparations and undo the punitive Versailles treaties that ended the war—had fed them without probing to see what was left out or interrogating the bias of their sources. The result, she concludes, is a revisionist perception of the war very much like Clark's:

Faced with claims and counterclaims concerning violations of the laws of war, too many historians despair of getting to the bottom of things and making a reasonable judgment. Instead, they refuse to judge; they fall back on the tu quoque defense. That position generally rests on the unspoken (and rarely examined) premise that every violation was equal, that every decision of statesmen or military leaders to break the law was taken for the same reasons, or taken as easily or thoughtlessly, or was arrived at in the same way, following the same procedure, or was justified or explained to themselves or the world with the same arguments, or in the same language. In fact, all these things could, and often did, differ.

In other words, it was not the diplomats and statesmen of 1914 who were “sleepwalkers,” but historians.


The last time I visited my colleague at her home, she said that her favorite among the things she's written is a short piece about the ideas of a late eighteenth-century German thinker, Adolph Freiherr von Knigge. In 1788, a year before the French Revolution, Knigge published a book titled Über den Umgang mit Menschen [On Intercourse with People]. Like many of the characters who appear in Hull's books, Knigge's thoughts have been distorted and obscured by both politics and posterity. Unlike most of those other characters, however, Hull clearly has a soft spot for Knigge.

Whereas Absolute Destruction and A Scrap of Paper read like expert exhumations of a mass grave with the object of identifying the perpetrators of a massacre, the piece on Knigge is more like an archaeological excavation of a long-lost treasure. Forensic skill and precision characterize all of Hull's writing, but in the Knigge piece—as in another of her early books, Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany, 1700-1815—she shows us that there are good, smart people buried out there in the past.

She begins with a characterization of Knigge's philosophy as “change through willful individual action.” But his was no libertarian manifesto. “It is important for anybody who wants to live in the world with people,” Knigge insisted, “to adapt to the customs, tone, and mood of others.” This injunction included one's enemies, whom one should treat with “benevolence, objectivity, understanding, [and] care.” Above all: “Learn to countenance objection” [Lerne Widerspruch ertragen!]. Although On Intercourse with People was mistaken early on for a self-help book, and savaged by editors in subsequent editions to more closely resemble one, Hull notes that, “It does not lay down static rules of comportment, nor does it aim at cynical manipulation of others; rather it seeks to analyze why problems in social communication arise and how one might overcome them.” Knigge's “first art” to living was “the art of making oneself understood, thus speaking and writing.”

Reading Hull on Knigge is a melancholic enchantment. The Germans come off very badly in her last two books, not because she sees them as an ongoing menace to the world, but because she knows what treasures they destroyed and denied in their own thought in order to become the monsters of the first half of the twentieth century. There is an unmistakable love that emerges from contemplating Intercourse together with Absolute Destruction: “Let go of your desire to rule,” wrote Knigge, “to play a brilliant main role.” It is as if the poignant crime of Germany's most prominent modern thinkers, from Thomas Mann in Reflections, to Carl Schmitt, to Max Horkheimer, is that they tried to salvage German culture for humanity by defining it in opposition to liberalism. The tu quoque is a way of borrowing liberalism's mores to discredit liberalism, rather than to discredit the act of killing and power politics. Hull's oeuvre shows how German thinkers returned to this cynical reversal again and again, starting in the first half of the nineteenth century, when the liberals skewered and buried one of their own in Knigge. “Thus, liberalism itself destroyed one of the most remarkable sources of liberal thinking in German history.”


A few weeks ago Hull told me how she sees Germany now: “It has really, really applied itself to its past, and is critical, insightful, morally scrupulous, and thoroughly admirable in the way that it has looked at itself. It's awake, and I'm filled with admiration for what they've done.” As she sees it, today's menaces lie elsewhere, in the demagogic politics (Trump) and policies (drone warfare) of the United States, but also in the militarism and widely imitated authoritarianism of Russia. Just because some political systems and figures rely on the tu quoque instead of critically examining their own past and present policies does not exonerate us from critical self-examination. “Act independently!” exclaimed Knigge. “Do not deny your principles, […] in this way neither your social superiors nor inferiors will be able to withhold their respect.”

Two of Knigge's principles were practicality and moderation. When I read this, I recalled another meeting with Hull, this time in her office. One of us was ill, or had been, so we started exchanging self-cures (none of which should be tried at home). There was my diluted hydrogen peroxide solution to address a lingering congestion, which left my olfactory nerves on permanent strike (I don't recall if it had any effect on the congestion). Hull then told me how she had cured herself of crippling fallen arches by forcing herself to walk miles a day in normal shoes all around hilly Ithaca. I countered with more hydrogen peroxide adventures, already feeling a bit like a one-trick pony. She then met me on my own pharmaceutical terrain by describing how she had cured herself of a skin malaise with the help of diluted bleach, and showed me the patch on her shin to prove it. “Completely cured!” she declared, beaming triumphantly.

I folded in awe and admiration, and pushed my metaphorical chips to her side of the table. Since then I don't play that game with her. When it comes to “practicality and moderation,” no one can beat Isabel Hull.

Lest I be suspected of making a tu quoque argument here, let me be clear: I'm not. I am fully convinced that Hull practices what Knigge preached. Practicality is not about compromise; it's about efficacy. And moderation is not for the meek; it's for the rigorous.