Finally Book Summaries Again: Long Histories of Germany—and the Sonderweg?

I haven’t posted in a while, but I’ve been reading and writing. I found a wonderful rhythm and can actually “read” books in 3 hours now. Here’s the first essay I wrote for my orals list with Heidi Voskuhl, titled “Modern Continental European History, 1789–1945.” I’ve already written the second (of six) essays and I still owe you one more that I’ve written for Susan Lindee in the meantime. But first, enjoy the summaries of German histories from old, wise, oftentimes German, men. These books actually help me see my dissertation coming together as these long histories are the background of the picture that I will draw when I write my dissertation, currently tentatively titled: “Is Female to Male as Left Is to Right? Sex/Gender and Handedness in the Mind and Brain Sciences, ca. 1860–2015” (I owe the pun in the title to my advisor John Tresch).

Works Read
Nipperdey, Thomas. 2013 (1983). Deutsche Geschichte, 1800–1866: Bürgerwelt und starker Staat. Munich: C.H. Beck.
———. 2013 (1990). Deutsche Geschichte 1866–1918: Arbeitswelt und Bürgergeist. Munich: C.H. Beck.
———. 2013 (1990). Deutsche Geschichte 1866–1918: Machtstaat vor der Demokratie. Munich: C.H. Beck.
Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. 2008 (1987). Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte: Vom Feudalismus des Alten Reiches bis zur Defensiven Modernisierung der Reformära 1700–1815. Munich: C.H. Beck.
———. 2008 (1987). Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte: Von der Reformära bis zur industriellen und politischen „Deutschen Doppelrevolution“ 1815–1845/49. Munich: C.H. Beck.
———. 2008 (1995). Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte: Von der „Deutschen Doppelrevolution“ bis zum Beginn des Ersten Weltkrieges 1849–1914. Munich: C.H. Beck.
———. 2008 (2003). Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte: Vom Beginn des Ersten Weltkriegs bis zur Gründung der beiden deutschen Staaten 1914–1949. Munich: C.H. Beck.
Lees, Andrew, and Lynn H. Lees. 2007. Cities and the Making of Modern Europe, 1750–1914. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sheehan, James J. 1993 (1989). German History, 1770–1866. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
Blackbourn, David. 2003 (1998). History of Germany 1780–1918: The Long Nineteenth Century. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell.
Craig, Gordon A. 1980 (1978). Germany 1866–1945. New York: Oxford University Press.
Blackbourn, David, and Geoff Eley. 1984. The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

In his history of Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck (Deutsche Geschichte, 1800–1866), Thomas Nipperdey depicts the time as mainly shaped by “big politics” (p. 11). He provides a thorough overview of social relationships and cultural developments, but the driving force in his narrative is the political situation, though one that did not necessarily have to take the course it did. Neither Bismarck nor the developments after 1866 were set in stone by prior developments, Nipperdey argues in his noteworthy untheorized history that lacks any footnotes.

Part I illustrates the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on Germany and the new order of the states under Napoleonic rule as well as after the Parisian Peace in 1815. Part II provides more insight into the everyday private and work life of people in the German states, from the demographic revolution through the changes in housing, diet, clothing, and family setups to mechanization of agriculture and the changes in urban societies during the industrial revolution, which Nipperdey calls: “Die epochale Leistung des Jahrhunderts und das epochale Schicksal” (p. 178). Individualization progressed and personal achievements became increasingly more important than family background, in particular in the rising Buergertum, Nipperdey argues, but he also makes clear that equal rights and economic prosperity were only theoretically granted to each individual since the Napoleonic era.

In Part III, Nipperdey describes the age of restoration and the unsuccessful attempts to turn the states of the newly-founded German Union into constitutional states. Increasing dissatisfaction with the political and social situation led to uprisings in the early 1930s and set the stage for the more violent revolutions in 1848 and 1849, which is the topic of Part V of Nipperdey’s history and what he calls “eine fundamentale Reform, ein[en] Systemwechsel” (p. 605) despite its later failure. The final part of the book covers the years between this eventually failed revolution and the exclusion of Austria from the German nation state to-be as a response to Bismarck’s deliberate actions to bring Prussia to power in the non-Austrian German states.

By orkomedix, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the first volume of the second part of his German history, on the period between the kleindeutsche solution under Bismarck and the beginning of World War I (Deutsche Geschichte 1866–1918: Arbeitswelt und Bürgergeist), Nipperdey focuses on social and cultural developments in the German states during these five decades, leaving the political developments to the second volume. In fact, where Nipperdey’s social and cultural observations seem at times unconnected to the political events in his history of the years 1800 through 1866, this volume separates the two sooner strains almost entirely from the latter in this history of the solidification of a two-class system with the rise of the German Buergertum and the formation of an urban working class during the industrial revolution.

In a thorough manner, Nipperdey lays out almost any topic of potential concern to the social and cultural historian, from every-day life topics such as the structure of families in rural areas as well as urban working classes and the Buergertum, sexuality, diet, fashion, and Freizeit, through developments specific to various occupations, anti-Judaism, de-Christianization and opposition between the Catholic and the Protestant churches, education, and academic sciences/humanities to the arts and the press. Nipperdey emphasizes that these decades were generally characterized by increasing health, life expectancy, economic status, social security, and an enrichment of the arts, professional enterprises, and activities. He also makes clear, however, that Bismarck did not give the German states and population a very long leash; evidenced in the Kulturkampf between the states and the churches in the 1870s and 1880s, for example. Furthermore, social security laws were passed mainly to heighten the dependency of the population on the state and to counteract liberalist tendencies and the press and the performing arts suffered from censorship for the same reasons, Nipperdey shows.

The second volume of Nipperdey’s Deutsche Geschichte 1866–1918, titled Machtstaat vor der Demokratie, details the political and military developments until the end of World War I. Mirroring the first sentence of Deutsche Geschichte, 1800–1866, Nipperdey begins his account with “Am Anfang war Bismarck” (p. 11; Deutsche Geschichte, 1800–1866 reads “Napoleon“ instead of “Bismarck“). This sentence illustrates the predominance of political developments under particular personal rulers for Nipperdey’s history. In the following paragraph, Nipperdey discards structuralist approaches (explicitly criticizing Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s work, which is described below, but without mentioning his name). In a still exclusively narrative manner, Nipperdey discusses the Prussian-Austrian war and the following institution of a kleindeutsche Reich in which Prussia and Bismarck came to power and in which the states from the north and east became for the first time more influential than those from the south and west. Nipperdey also traces the changes that constitutionalism and universal suffrage brought about in the German states, putting much emphasis on the fractioned party landscape and the rise of nationalism as well as anti-Judaism. Through his discussions of German colonialism, the German Empire’s investments in the crises in Morocco and the Balkan, as well as finally World War I, Nipperdey furthermore shows a rise of German interest in foreign policy that still could not settle the persistent interior conflicts between the federal states.

It is now time to discuss Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, which is criticized by Nipperdey as mentioned above. Volume I, Vom Feudalismus des Alten Reiches bis zur Defensiven Modernisierung der Reformära 1700–1815, begins with a methodological and conceptual introduction detailing the three basic dimensions Wehler identifies in the tradition of Max Weber: economy, rule, and culture—rather than political decisions, parties, and constitutions. This stands in clear opposition to the theory-free and politically based history Nipperdey’s.

This agenda is reflected by the chapter titles in Part I of the book: five out of six contain “Strukturbedingungen” as the first or second word. Wehler explains the background of the rise and fall of feudalism in Germany and then discusses in great detail developments in the economy in the very early years of capitalism, the nature of social inequalities in rural and urban areas and the shift from the estates to a class society, as well as the dimensions of rule in various German communities: the Empire, the states, and more local contexts. He also lays out the structures of cultural life: the competition between the Protestant and the Catholic churches, the educational landscape, and the rise of reading, printing, and editing in the German cultures. In Part II of this volume, Wehler turns to the reforms in reaction to the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rule in Europe. He explains that reformed absolutism had brought about enough social improvement and that local hierarchies were still rigid enough to prevent bigger rural uprisings in the German countries and that the growing Buergertum in the cities were too busy with their jobs to join the revolutionary movement. The economic, social, and educational reforms that were a defensive measure by the governments and administrations to prevent revolutionary chaos were in part effective, Wehler shows, but not with regard to a constitution. A growing German nationalism paralleled rising state patriotism, he explains, a problem that would significantly impact discussions about unifying the German nations in future decades.

In the second volume of Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, titled Von der Reformära bis zur industriellen und politischen „Deutschen Doppelrevolution“ 1815–1845/49, Wehler discusses the so-called double revolution in Germany, that is, the years of the industrial revolution as well as the political and social revolutions of 1848 and 1849. As in the volume previously discussed, Wehler puts much emphasis on the Strukturbedingungen of the economic, political, and cultural changes described. Wehler argues that neither one of the revolutions caused the other but that they co-evolved in the first half of the 19th century. He also illustrates that both revolutions were the culminating points of previous events; the proto-industrial age in the case of the industrial revolution and the growing discontent with the feudalist order and the increasing social inequalities paired with the unforgotten ideals of the French and American Revolutions in the case of the 1848 revolutionary uprisings. Wehler also makes very clear one crucial difference between the two revolutions: the industrial one succeeded whereas the 1848 revolutions failed.

In telling the story of these three decades, Wehler illuminates the ways of life in rural and urban areas, showing that capitalism increasingly permeated not only the cities but also agriculture and that the importance of rural developments is often forgotten in historiography, be it with regard to the prevention of a deadly hunger crisis in 1845 through intensified agriculture or concerning the first revolutionary successes in 1848. Discussing the same topics as Nipperdey but focusing on the economy and social orders, Wehler also shows how the Buergertum was not one coherent group but a set of partly competing communities. Moreover, he makes very clear his argument that not the industrialization but conflicts between social groups have solidified the German class system in the first half of the 19th century.

Following almost exactly the rigid chapter structure from volumes I and II, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte: Von der „Deutschen Doppelrevolution“ bis zum Beginn des Ersten Weltkrieges 1849–1914 tells the history of Germany in 65 years of rapid social, political, economic, and cultural change. Wehler emphasizes the persistence of traditionalism and modernism. He shows how the re-instituted German governments carried out top-down reforms that the failed 1848/49 revolutions had aspired to, most notably state constitutions, liberal market systems, and eventually the founding of the German Empire. He also makes very clear, however, that not all ideals from 1848 were realized, partly because the progressing capitalism impoverished the lower classes in the cities and in rural areas, a situation in which Bismarck sought to prevent the rise of socialism by making the state more interventionist. The reactionary politics in the 1890s and 1900s that also manifested themselves in the repression of non-conformist groups and in social imperialism abroad led to a dangerous readiness for war among the German ruling classes, leading to the detrimental July crisis in 1914 and the start of World War I, Wehler argues.

Paying surprisingly little attention to women and children, Wehler further debates the rise of the Buergertum, making clear that there was no coherent Buerger class (let alone a bourgeoisie) until, if at all, very late in the 19th century when the Bildungsbuergertum, the Wirtschaftsbuergertum, and the Kleinbuergertum assimilated a little more through common political goals and a neo-humanistic intellectual framework. The lower classes, however, were organized strictly hierarchically and the disparity within the working classes was growing, leading to yet more impoverishment in the proletariat, but united the group in protests and the formations of unions, for instance.

Wehler decided to discuss both World Wars in the following volume, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte: Vom Beginn des Ersten Weltkriegs bis zur Gründung der beiden deutschen Staaten 1914–1949. In a preface, Wehler explicitly addresses critiques of his first three volumes and engages with Nipperdey’s account. His remark that their works differ in the chosen emphasis is very mildly put since political events are at best given cursory treatment in Wehler’s first three volumes; the fourth discussed here pays much closer attention to them, though.

Wehler interprets the First World War as a massive event of incredible physical and psychological harm that changed the culture, economy, geography, politics, and society more than the French Revolution and maybe even stronger than the Reformation. He also shows that war extended to the entire population for the first time, significantly influencing the industrial economy, food production, and social hierarchies inside of the country, a development that was even more prevalent during World War II when the allied forces started bombing Germany in 1942 and the term ‘home front’ took on a much more literal meaning. Even though Wehler is not a big friend of revolutions, he describes the revolution of 1918 as a very successful one, leading to the formation of the Weimar Republic in 1919. He also calls Hitler’s rise to power a revolution, even though he critically assesses the only partially modernizing effect his rule had on the German economy, society, and culture. Wehler puts much emphasis on the economic situation during and between the two world wars but only touches on the post-WWII developments.

With Cities and the Making of Modern Europe, 1750–1914 Lynn H. and Andrew Lees have provided a history of the European industrialization and urbanization. They mostly draw from secondary literature and provide a broad overview of many cities in different parts of Europe from Stockholm to Venice, from Barcelona to Prague, and beyond that. The even include cities in the Asian and African colonies, though focusing on Germany, Britain, and France, and use the cities as exemplars for the developments illustrated. The result is a European version of themes already very familiar from the discussions of Nipperdey and Wehler for German cities.

The authors trace the reasons for the massive growth of city populations. Through looking at institutions, industries, media, and social movements in the different cities, they mean to show that the bare expansion of cities changed European life even more than the factory life of the industrialization did—geographically, politically, socially, and culturally. Characteristics they see continuously forming cities in these more than 1.5 centuries are “both freedom and discipline; … political diversity in an era of growing national unity; … concentrations … of governmental functions; and … nodes in networks of exchange,” in Europe as well as globally (p. 3). These continuities are identified despite tremendous changes in the nature of cities, for example as the nation-states increasingly permeated the city laws or regarding the ways in which the cities stopped being relatively self-sufficient enclosed communities, becoming connected with their hinterlands, resources, and markets through the railroad. Drawing on examples of social unrest and health concerns, the Lees argue that the times of unruly developments and unsettling changes began to stabilize around 1850. The authors conclude that cities ought to be conceived of as mediators between individual citizens and a nation-state.

In German History, 1770–1866, a monograph only 8 pages short of a four-digit page-count, James Sheehan provides the reader with not one German history but with many histories of the diverse German countries. The three major developments that are uniform across the area and cultures covered are “the rise of sovereign territorial states, the expansion of economic activity and social mobility, and the emergence of … a literary culture” (p. vii). As the Preface makes clear, Sheehan deliberately chose to start his study with 1770 as a “notational convenience” rather than a specific event, giving him more freedom to provide a non-deontological account (p. vii). This resonates with his argument that German culture and society were not inextricably linked with political developments but had some degree of independence that other historians do not highlight. This may be an attack against Nipperdey’s and Gordon Craig’s works (see below), but certainly not against Wehler’s. In particular, Sheehan argues that German unity was one in several possible outcomes of a rich, diverse, and contingent German history.

David Blackbourn’s History of Germany 1780–1918 is another monograph focusing on the industrialization, urbanization, population growth, political revolutions, and the formation of “Germany” as one nation; the difference is that Blackbourn does not apply a Prussia-centric lens. As remarked before, Sheehan also emphasizes the multiplicity of German experiences, but the dominance of Prussia over the rest of the German countries is a theme shared at least by the accounts of Nipperdey and Wehler.

Blackbourn’s small but rich monograph is a cultural history of industrialization with roots in the late 18th century, when developments in demographics, economy, and work culture changed the life in cities and on the countryside before the industrialization, Blackbourn argues. Despite the focus on culture, Blackbourn asserts that class is a crucial category for the understanding of this history; he pays careful attention to social historical developments and explains political changes sufficiently.

A revisionist aspect of Blackbourn’s cultural observations is his argument that the late 19th century was characterized by anti-clericalism, but not by a general movement of secularization. Religious thoughts and debates were still very prevalent, he argues, including in scientific and political realms, but religion itself became part of a more liberal, democratic, and nationalistic discourse. Blackbourn also positions himself against the historiography that depicts Germans as un-European on two levels: first, he denies the criticizes the famous notion of German backwardness, intellectualism, internalism, and antimaterialism by showing that a “culture of progress” (p. 204 ff.) set in during the years of the German Empire at the latest; second, Blackbourn argues against the Deutsche Sonderweg in insisting on the contingency of historical developments, emphasizing that the outbreak of World War I, for instance, was not an “accident,” but that there was no teleological historical development from Bismarck to Hitler either.

Gordon Craig’s Germany 1866–1945 tells the history of Germany from Bismarck’s wars in 1866 to Hitler without any allegedly too fashionable frameworks of social and economic history. The result is a detailed political and cultural narrative history of Germany; no introduction, no conclusion, and not even the titles of the subchapters disrupt the reading flow. Craig analyzes social and economic issues such as the status of women or the consequences of inflation in subchapters, but he does not elevate industrialization to a “revolution,” like Wehler does. More similar in style to Nipperdey’s history, Craig’s account extends Nipperdey’s time frame and the two together build the perfect complement of Wehler’s social and economic history.

A wide range of contemporary publications, most notably literary works, informs Craig’s vivid representation of this part of German history. Very striking is Craig’s wealth of anecdotes and his way of humanizing of his actors. Bismarck had “patience,” for example, and he “never for a moment doubted that … dangers and opportunities” may present themselves to him (pp. 21 f). Craig’s periodization from Bismarck to Hitler as well as his explanation for why liberalism lost its impact on German political thought (because of the “feudalization of an important part of the middle class” during the rise of capitalism and in particular during the economic crisis in the 1870s, p. 100) are precisely a view that the authors discussed in the following argue against.

David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley’s The Peculiarities of German History is a revised version of a volume of essays written by the authors that was already published in German in 1980. The collection aims at correctively complementing German historiography of the 19th century, thereby also debunking the Sonderweg narrative. First employed by pre-World-War-I scholars, the argument of the exceptional German militarism, authoritarianism, and nationalism was employed by Germans as an explanation for why they would and should be a major European ruling force. After World War II, historians like Wehler redefined the term Sonderweg to use it as an explanation for the decline of German libertarian thought and democratic culture from the 19th century to Adolf Hitler. The simplified argument goes as follows: While the Buerger focused solely on money-making and advancing their own status, they missed to fight a successful libertarian revolution like France and Britain did. If the German Buerger had only been true liberals and not a feudalized urban middle class that failed to get rid of the German aristocrats and old systems of power, the argument continues, Europe may not have seen two World Wars.

The authors argue that the rise of capitalism and the rise of the German Buergertum were neither causally linked nor a development that took place exclusively in Germany. They acknowledge, however, that the collaboration between aristocrats and Buerger as well as the conservativism of some of the buergerlichen classes was particularly pronounced in Germany compared to other European states. However, the political diversity within the Buergertum as well as the attempt to not join forces with the radical proletariat and instead lead a slow revolution through associations and informal debates prevented the German bourgeoisie from emulating its more radical European counterparts; the German Buerger focused their efforts on attaining parliamentarization rather than democratization. In particular, Blackbourn and Eley argue that fascism did not grow out of the continuous influence of a pre-industrial ruling class but was created by 20th-century populist movements. The study of this direct but respectful and non-polemical volume makes some of the emphases in Blackbourn’s previously discussed History of Germany 1780–1918 more easily comprehensible.

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