FINAL Set of Summaries: German Colonialism and the Great War—Europe between the Wars—Nazi-Germany and the Second World War

This is the last of my book summaries. Ergo, I’ll have to come up with “real” posts again from now on. Shouldn’t be too hard as I’ll embark on my dissertation research on May 7. Or maybe May 13, after the grades will be submitted for this semester (which is at the same time my last semester of obligatory teaching).

The following set of summaries deals a lot with German empires—during colonialism and Hitler’s rule in Germany. In particular the histories of colonialism contain some exceptionally well-executed and creative works. I must say, as a German, these histories touched me very personally and literally made me cry one time. It’s strange how war seems so far away from my US-American peers. Sure, they haven’t had it on their own continent for many, many decades. Not so the Germans. To this day, my grandmother starts crying when she talks about her escape from Silesia.


Works Read:

German Colonialism and the Great War

Anderson, Benedict R.O. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Conrad, Sebastian. 2012. German Colonialism: A Short History. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Penny, H. Glenn, and Matti Bunzl, eds. 2003. Worldly Provincialism: German Anthropology in the Age of Empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bowersox, Jeff. 2013. Raising Germans in the Age of Empire: Youth and Colonial Culture, 1871–1914. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Moyd, Michelle R. 2014. Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Hull, Isabel V. 2005. Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Clark, Christopher M. 2014. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. New York: Harper Perennial.

Chickering, Roger. 2014. Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914–1918. 3rd ed. New Approaches to European History 27. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.


Europe between the Wars

Mommsen, Hans. 1996. The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Peukert, Detlev. 1992. The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. New York: Hill and Wang.

Gere, Cathy. 2009. Knossos & the Prophets of Modernism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stern, Fritz R. 1974 (1961). The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Nazi-Germany and the Second World War

Smith, Helmut W. 2008. The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kershaw, Ian. 1993 (1985). The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. 3rd ed. London, New York: Arnold.

Eley, Geoff. 2013. Nazism as Fascism: Violence, Ideology, and the Ground of Consent in Germany 1930–1945. London: Routledge.

Mazower, Mark. 2008. Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe. New York: Penguin Press.

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities was first published in 1983, as a reaction to the Vietnamese invasion in Cambodia in 1978/79 and an attempt to explain nationalism, allegedly a neglected “anomaly” within Marxist thought (p. 4). The book has been revised and reprinted many times since. The present revised edition contains two chapters that were added to strengthen the argument of the original version that the nation as an “imagined community” came to supersede over medieval “sacred imagined communities” across the globe, a development that unfolded from the 15th through the 19th century. This is a polemical essay, not a carefully argued historical study.

In the first two chapters following the introduction, Anderson defines the two “imagined communities” his work focuses on. The pre-modern “sacred imagined communities” comprised, for instance, the group of all Christians or the Ummah, its Islamic counterpart (ch. 2). These scattered individuals gained cohesion by the use of the same non-vernacular language for ritual performances, the experience of hierarchical structures in an allegedly all-encompassing natural order, and a confluence of cosmology with history. These performative and ideological constructions, Anderson argues, led individuals to identify as part of a larger community whose members they would in large parts never get to meet personally. This imagination was so pervasive that it left the disadvantaged without many options of questioning their place within this community and in society more broadly. Nationalism, as the modern form of “imagined communities,” Anderson argues, derives from “print-capitalism” (p. 39), a powerful force created through the cooperation of authors, printers, publishers, book merchants, and, not least, a readership (ch. 3). The latter group was created by the union of the former ones, who provided popular texts written in vernacular languages to reach the biggest number of literates in society possible. Through print, it was easy to disseminate new scientific theories, technological possibilities, and, most importantly, the increasingly secular ideologies that went along with them. As the new print media made the old “sacred imagined community” crumble, it offered an alternative at the same time: the new “imagined community” of a nation that shared channels for communication and a language, which was standardized and reinforced via the new print media.

Why nationalism and not any other substitute for the sacred? Anderson explains this by two factors: First, the rise of new local elites in the 18th and early 19th centuries, in particular in the Americas, who provided social structures and introduced a new print culture that provided more coherence in the colonies than any political or intellectual ideology ever did (ch. 4). At the same time, printing also made nationalist revolutions and independence movements ‘a thing, or a notable “it” (p. 80) within and outside of the secessionist groups (ch. 5). Second, dynasties dissolved in newly found nation states in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which, in order to reach their citizens, had to use vernaculars as official languages (chs. 6 and 7). Sadly enough, the nationalist domination strategy was adopted and fortified by most “leaderships” succeeding a revolution (ch. 9). Racism is one of the consequences of pathological nationalism—inside and outside of Europe (ch. 8).

German Historian Sebastian Conrad’s Short History of German Colonialism is a revisionist account of three decades of German expansion overseas. Conrad argues that previous histories of colonialism ignored the impact German imperialism had on the global, European, and even German social, political, legal, and economic landscape even though its investment in this endeavor did not last for very long. Further, he suggests, even if historians acknowledge the German influence, they tend to write their history from a German perspective, ignore the heterogeneity of the geographically and culturally diverse empire, and/or exclude the native experience or links between the colonized territories. The work was first published in German in 2008. It contains eleven short but dense chapters, which are loosely connected and aptly illustrated with pictures and maps and framed by a historiographical introduction and suggestions for further reading. It is a crystal-clear and concise account that again leaves me speechless; I find it hard to imagine how the main actors of my dissertation could uninterruptedly do their brain research while so much change and injustice was occurring outside of their labs. Chapter 8 is of most direct interest to my project, as it explicitly addresses anthropologists around 1900 and their racial imaginations; a topic that intersects with the earliest anthropological studies of left-handedness in native peoples in the 1910s.

Conrad illustrates that “Lebensraum” was a crucial concept and demand that seemed extendable beyond the borders of the German nation state after its consolidation in 1871. The German colonizers first acquired territories in what is now Togo, Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda; in the late 1890s, they additionally colonized parts of what is now China, as well as Samoa, New Guinea, and some Pacific Islands. Bismarck granted this endeavor continuing financial and government support, tough being critical at first. The acquisition process ended in 1899 and left Germany as the fourth-largest European empire (ch. 4). The imperial structure resembled those of other countries, Conrad suggests: enforcement of racial hierarchies that were stimulated by social Darwinism, an alleged civilizing mission (ch. 7), extraction of economic benefits and resources for industrial production (ch. 6), “export” of social conflicts to the colonies (p. 3), and large-scale German settlements in the colonies and attempts to assimilate the new territory to the German nation state, an endeavor for which Germans were trained in specialized schools in the nation state (ch. 9). This era ended formally with the Treaty of Versailles, which became effective in January 1920, but Conrad suggests that colonial thought and practices continued throughout the Weimar Republic (ch. 12), the Nazi regime and its eastward expansion (ch. 10), and the post-war years (in an imaginated and orientalist neo-colonialism, e.g., Grzimek; ch. 12), and, what is more, that they have existed within Europe since the 19th century (e.g., Poland; ch. 10).

Jeff Bowersox’s first monograph, Raising Germans in the Age of Empire, is a study of education and youth culture from the institution of the German Kaiserreich to the onset of WWI. Bowersox investigates into the ways in which Germany’s young were raised for and in the awareness of imperial colonialism. “Colonial” is broadly defined “as the sum total of attitudes and actions by which Europeans claimed dominion (both in real life and in fantasy) over a wider world understood as less civilized” (p. 5). Accordingly, Bowersox draws on a vast range of written and visual sources—including periodicals, popular literature, atlases, textbooks, school exams—as well as artifacts like toys and tools. He found these in private collections, German national and local museums and archives, and the Pathfinder Archives. This monograph is a brilliant example for how to craft a sophisticated argument on the basis of ‘popular’ culture. It is, moreover, a valuable complement to Conrad’s work as well as Penny and Bunzl’s edited volume: it illuminates the effects of colonialism on Germany itself and presents the upbringing of a generation that was, amongst other things, part of the new racist anthropology of the early 20th century that Violent Intermediaries identifies, trained by an older generation of alleged cosmopolitans.

The five thematic chapters, framed by an introduction and conclusion, support Bowersox’s main argument that late 19th– and early 20th-century education, formal and informal, was part of Germany’s struggle to find its place in a modern world, competing against its rivals in a social Darwinian worldview. Educating the future of the nation appropriately meant securing the future of the nation. From pedagogical ideas of the use of toys with which children could reenact the ‘civilizing mission’ (ch. 1) through geography lessons in school with alleged real-life appeal, first without (ch. 2) and later with the help of colonialist educators (ch. 3) as well as youth magazines and adventure novels that contained covered political messages about the benefits of colonization and the proper gender roles on which civilized societies purportedly rest—from Protestant, Catholic, socialist, and other viewpoints—(ch. 4) to the German version of the Boy Scouts, the Pathfinders, who conveyed excitement about colonial exoticism, not without being criticized by strictly conservative nationalists (ch. 5). This indoctrination was such that children and adolescents conceived of colonialism as “normal” (p. 3), having no doubt about Germany’s superiority and civilizing mission despite the lack of engagement with the ‘uncivilized’ in their/its ‘natural’ environment. This work also calls into question traditional definitions of ‘the state’—children’s book authors, teachers, and toy designers seem to have been part of the state apparatus. Furthermore, there was virtually no realm of life that colonialism could not made beneficial for: “profit, politics, pedagogical reforms, campaigns against ‘trashy culture, social hygiene, and international religious or even socialist solidarity” (p. 7) rested on the exploitation of the rhetoric of ‘the other’ and the practice of ‘othering’. In other words, “Germanys mass colonial [youth] culture” was not a necessary by-product of imperialism (p. 8), but the result of pedagogical concerns, reformist agendas, and marketing strategies in an age of mass culture and consumption. Colonialism, then, was not at all only a matter of the colonies.

Historian Michelle Moyd’s monograph Violent Intermediaries questions the clear division between the colonized and the colonizers and reemphasizes Zimmerman’s argument that violence is at the core of colonialism. Moyd draws on limited accounts from native East African populations (memoirs, photographs, anecdotes) and reads German sources against the grain (reports, newspaper articles, military training material) in order to illuminate the life of askari, soldiers who fought in the Schutztruppe and were recruited from what are now Sudan, Congo, and Tanzania, between their enlisting in 1889 and the end of WWI. The account shows that these men helped build and sustain the German Empire and rose to authority in their local communities at the same time. The detailed footnotes in addition to a chronology, glossary, Note on Spellings, Currency, and Measurements, as well as select maps and images make this accessible work appealing to various audiences from different academic backgrounds.

Moyd herself conceives of her work as primarily “African history” (p. 10). But it proceeds like good Amercian historical scholarship and is divided into five straight-forward thematic chapters (like Bowersox’s work, for instance). These trace askari life from the recruitment and incentives (incl. the escape from slavery!) for locals and Africans from farther away to fight in a colonial army, an analysis that dismantles the ideology of the Kolonialschuldluege (ch. 1), through askari training and military socialization (ch. 2) as well as their fighting techniques (ch. 3), both a mixture of local and German cultures of masculinity and war, to the “everyday” enactment and experience of life in the military outposts and askari villages (ch. 4) as well as of colonial rule and violence more broadly, akin to the responsibilities of a police corps in addition to their tasks as a military troop (ch. 5). Moyd shows that the askari heavily relied on their wives’ and families’ support and that their financial situation had a big impact on the local economy; thus enforcing disparate gender roles and new social hierarchies on the local population. This is a fascinating account of a space beyond anthropology in which colonizers and the colonized meet, and it makes clear that ‘othering’ was not the only strategy pursued by Germans in their encounter with East Africans. Sometimes, the German Empire depended on assimilation and trust of a few locals to enable ‘indirect rule’, which apparently always equaled direct violent involvement, only by different agents.

Isabel Hull, one of Moyd’s teachers, provides additional insight into wars and violence from the inception of the Kaiserreich through the end of WWI. Her monograph Absolute Destruction traces the German culture of war and militarism, rooted in the unification wars (1864–70), with its focus on unconditional victory and “final, or total, solutions,” that is, the “extermination” of the enemy (p. 1), including the genocide of native populations in the colonies. This culture, she asserts, was deeply rooted in the German mindset and evolved over the course of decades; it is not the necessary pre-history to the German ideological attempts to eradicate ‘the Jew’ from the European landscape in the 1930s and 1940s. Hull bases her argument on archival sources at German federal, state, and university archives as well as private collections of the von Trotha family. She uses secondary accounts of contemporaneous counter-developments in Britain in order to contrast the German history from other European approaches. All sources, primary and secondary, published and unpublished, are detailed in a 32-page bibliography.

The argument of the “small, literally routine beginnings” of the German-induced “terrible violence, immense destruction, and mass death” (p. 4) proceeds in three parts: Part I sheds light on the military culture in the colony of South West Africa, telling histories familiar from Conrad’s and Moyd’s monographs as well as from Penny and Bunzl’s edited volume. Hull focuses on the actual practice of fighting and the ways in which enemies were treated, if and how prisoners were made and how so many of them got killed anyway. Part II details the popular, constitutional, and institutional structures of the military in Germany since the unification wars. Hull emphasizes the self-perpetuating culture of violence and tendencies towards irrational force and primacy of military priorities that were imbedded in military training and practices, already described in Part I in the context of the colonial wars. “[W]ar, all war, was existential” in the view of the German military and popular imagination, Hull explains (p. 126). This attitude of risk, force, meticulous planning, and total victory is exemplified in the Schlieffen Plan that mapped out a military strategy for an offensive war against France and virtually the rest of Europe in 1906 (ch. 7). In Part III, Hull discusses WWI before and after its radicalization in 1916 and shows how the initially existing but intensifying pursuit of unconditional victory led to a ‘total war’ in which civilians in home and occupied territories were instrumentalized and virtually colonized like the native African peoples, a practice that was followed by the collapse of the German military and, since the military was at the core of the nation state, the entire Kaiserreich.

Despite Hull’s resistance against the Sonderweg narrative, Absolute Destruction provides an account of a uniquely German story of “institutional extremism” (p. 1). The major characteristic was that this culture was rooted in violence, not in a pre-existing ideology; in other words, “the means overwhelmed the ends [of economic and cultural domination]” and annihilation of the enemy was not an ideological necessity and thus differed from the Nazis’ approach in its underpinning, though it may have played out similarly (p. 2). Like Penny and Bunzl’s contributors illustrate that German anthropology evolved from a cosmopolitan into a racist endeavor in opposition to other European anthropologies, Hull traces the trajectory of the German army, which drove the newly-found nation-state during the Kaiserreich and with increasing power during WWI, while other European states had armies at their disposal. One wonders how, in the face of this gruesome history, German universities and literature of the late 19th and 20th centuries were ever able to sustain their world-wide fame.

Christopher Clark’s monograph on the origins of WWI, The Sleepwalkers, is a massive work of over 700 pages, including a 31-page index, 104 pages of notes, and select maps and illustrations that accompany the long text that sets out to explain the outbreak of the Great War by focusing on the Balkan. Clark sets out to answer the question of “how war came to continental Europe,” leaving the question of guilt aside and treating the aforementioned assassinations as well as the consecutive developments as parts of a more complex structural imbalance. He even compares the Sarajevo attacks to the occurrences of 9/11, emphasizing how both events cannot be understood in void of the larger context in which they took place, a remark that upset at least Bojan Aleksov, who reviewed The Sleepwalkers for The Slavonic and East European Review, arguing that no “terrorists” were involved in the Sarajevo assassinations and that Clark provides a partially uninformed and misguided account of Eastern Europe.

Clark’s argument proceeds in three parts of increasing length: Part I details the conflict-laden relationship between Serbia and Austria-Hungary from the assassination of the Serbian king in 1903 and through the two Balkan wars, and Part III continues this narrative with the assassinations of 1914 and the July Crisis. Clark puts particular emphasis on the decisions in the European capitals that built upon one another and finally lead to the outbreak of the war. He acknowledges the potentially determinist notion of his account and cautions to bear in mind that each of the actors may have had the potential to decide and act differently; but the sum of decisions made inevitably led to WWI. For instance, while there was a chance that Serbia and Austria would settle their disagreements diplomatically, Germany’s ‘blank check’ and Russia’s preparations for the war made armed conflict unavoidable. Furthermore, Germany may have been able to signalize their willingness to keep peace to Britain and France, but their allegedly friendly invasion of Belgium in order to fight the French initiated a virtually pan-European conflict.

Part II is more analytical and pursues four questions in four chapters: chapters: What events led to the polarization of Europe in the first place?—The increasing political and economic power of the newly founded German Kaiserreich, a threat that was only superficially detained by the treaties with Paris and Russia in 1909 and 1910. How was foreign policy made and who made it?—It was mainly chaotic and reactionary, in the face of political and military crises; not even Britain and France were as democratic as it may appear, and the relationship between governments, the military, civilians, and the press were complicated in each of the states involved, from France through Russia. Why were the Balkans so central to this story?—The Balkans marked the border between central Europe, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, and were thus crucial to “the geopolitics of the European system” (p. 242). And how did détente end and the war begin?—To some extent, détente concealed the arming of the European countries and the fear of “defeat and annihilation” on Germany’s part (p. 333), a double-concern that was not only tied to the increasing strength of France and Britain but also the fear of a preventative Russian offensive. The Balkan Wars contributed to unsettling the détente policy and hardening the fronts between Germany and the rest of Europe, in particular in light of the fragile Russian-British alliance.

Complementing Moyd’s, Hull’s, and Clark’s accounts, Roger Pickering’s textbook Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914–1918, provides an admirably concise synthetic history of the war years against the backdrop of broader cultural and social developments in the German Kaiserreich. “Imperial Germany … died as it had been born, in war,” is the take-away message of this slim book (p. 9). First published in 1998, the third edition draws on the most recent historical scholarship of the period and attends to issues of “military action outside Europe, military occupation, prisoners of war, and the memory of war” (p. i). The “Suggestions for further reading” and the index, in the absence of notes and bibliographies, highlight the textbook character of this work, which is aptly illustrated by three dozen maps, figures, plates, and tables.

In chapter 1, Chickering summarizes on a few pages the story Clark is detailing on 700. He illustrates the different decisions that led to the outbreak of WWI and the ways in which the spirit of Feinde ringsum united Germans and Austrians and glossed over interior social and cultural problems (p. 15). “[V]ast material and moral resources” (p. 32) were needed in order to establish an effective military administration, sustain a war-time industry and morale, as well as feed soldiers, civilians, and POWs (ch. 2). With the land campaigns of 1916, virtually all German resources were directed to the war effort; the French announced la guerre integrale (total war) in 1917, but at that time, the entire German society and industry had already been mobilized for the war (ch. 3). Chapter 4 provides more detail on the experience at the “home front.” Coping with death was a part of everyday life, be it for reasons of losing a family member on the battle field or a child to influenza. The economic burden of war was significant. Many women had to join the workforce; depending on their class background, they worked in factories, as secretaries, or as nurses. Nonetheless, gender stereotypes persisted: the woman at home, supposed to wait for her husband to return, the man at the front, engaging in fighting and intercourse with prostitutes to keep his morals up. The “misery” (p. 156) that grew out of the prolonged warfare shattered the German community and eroded its cohesiveness and patriotism (ch. 5).

The years 1916 through 1917 saw increasingly politicized labor protests and public unrest, including a “naval mutiny” (ch. 6); the SPD split up and the war-opponents formed the USPD. The population’s rage was partially soothed when, despite the US’s entry in the war in 1917, the Germans were largely successful at the eastern front and a German victory in the south and west seemed within reach (ch. 6). But the offensives that were taken in the hope to achieve this victory weakened the German troops and they had to retreat. In chapter 7. Chickering provides numerical evidence for the argument that the Germans could not possibly have won the war from an economic perspective alone. Being cut off from overseas trade and faced with economically strong enemies, the Dolchstosslegende is truly an unrealistic tale that denies this economic fact—let alone the importance of the failed offensive in 1918. The huge reparations additionally contributed to the economic instability of post-WWI Germany and the nation-wide discontent that made it possible for the Nazis to rise to power.

Hans Mommsen’s textbook-like narrative history of The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy was first published in German in 1989 under the title Die verspielte Freiheit: Der Weg der Republik von Weimar in den Untergang 1918 bis 1933. The study is massive, contains a short Preface and a thematically organized partial bibliography as well as an index—no formal introduction or conclusion are provided, which seems to be common amongst the histories written in the past millennium, in particular the German ones. Mommsen dismantles the myths that, first, “National Socialism was a unique phenomenon that destroyed the foundations of the Weimar Republic from the outside” (p. ix); and, second, that the “failure” of the Weimar Republic resulted from inherent instabilities that made the rise of National Socialism unavoidable. Instead, Mommsen suggests in accordance with Chickering that political and social tensions within the population—which stemmed from the Kaiserreich and had come to the surface in 1912 through 1914 but were less obvious during the war years (ch. 1)—actively challenged the democracy.

With regard to Sonderweg debate, Mommsen explicitly states that the “profound social tensions” and their “exacerbat[ion] by a process of rapid modernization in the 1920s” in combination with inept political institutions and the “reactionary military” built a fruitful basis for conservative nationalism and racism to prosper (p. viii). Consequently, he suggests that a “counterrevolution [in response to the one of 1918/19; ch. 2] and the quasi civil war” (chs. 3 and 5) weakened the resistance against the Nazis (p. viii); it is not the case that the German Buergertum failed to complete a liberal revolution due to some form of growing inherent German anti-pluralistic tendency, the standard explanation at the core of the Sonderweg ideology. I am a bit puzzled as to how this argument poses a different version of the Sonderweg explanation rather than opposing it entirely.

The insurmountable obstacle for the Weimar Republic was its own people, consisting of enough right-wing individuals, the “professional and conservative elites” (p. vii), Mommsen argues. Mommsen addresses the consequences of the “overdemocratization” (p. vii) and reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (chs. 4 and 10), the weak constitution (ch. 3), as well as the inadequate economic system (ch. 6) and failing redistribution of wealth (ch. 7) that led to major discontent before and during the Depression that started in 1929 (chs. 6, 7, and 10). He explains how the confluences of these problems led to the dissolution of the parliament in 1930 (ch. 8), allowing for an election in which the NSDAP won significant votes at the expense of moderate bourgeois parties (ch. 9). In the following years, the substance of the Republic and its institutions quickly eroded (chs. 10 and 11). Mommsen emphasizes most strongly that these developments were not causes of the Nazi dictatorship per se, but connected factors that contributed to and exposed the underlying social tensions. In the early 1930s, the government was reorganized and the parliament dissolved again in 1932; in the reelection that same year, the NSDAP became the strongest party in the Reichstag (ch. 12). We know what came after that. Mommsen makes very clear that the end of the democratic Republic and the onset of dictatorship after the Enabling Act of 1933 is hard to determine, as there were many continuities between the bourgeois republican and the Nazis’ practices of institutional restructuring, social reorganization, and foreign policy (ch. 6) before the Gleichschaltung was fully advanced.

Detlev Peukert’s monograph on The Weimar Republic was published in German in 1989, just like Mommsen’s. Both authors agree on the fact that the periodization of the Weimar Republic cannot be clearly established, neither its beginning nor its end, Peukert argues in his introduction, as there are too many continuities. A further similarity between the two works is the authors’ striking agreement as to the Sonderweg questions and the reasons for why the Weimar Republic failed: a confluence of the above-mentioned circumstances and oppositions, not any one of these developments individually, and certainly not some deviation from a ‘normal’ process of modernization. Modernity as a concept and experience, socially and culturally, is at the core of Peukert’s work, not people and events. This is the most crucial difference between the two works. Moreover, Peukert’s account is easier to work with: it is half as long; it contains notes, summaries, and occasional lists of abbreviated core arguments; it offers a seven-page chronology of the most important dates from 1914 through 1933; and it is framed by a substantial introduction and conclusion in addition to a short conceptual preface.

Like Mommsen, Peukert assesses the Weimar Republic on its own terms, not through the lens of the ending Kaiserreich or the rising Nazi dictatorship. Three of the four main parts of this book proceed chronologically. “New Directions, 1918–23” discusses the failed revolution of 1918–19 (ch. 2) and the post-war inflation (ch. 3), juxtaposing the hope and disappointment that were both in the air during these years of big decisions and unsuccessful attempts to ameliorate the widening social gaps that had already been visible before WWI. “Deceptive Stability, 1924–9” continues the analysis of Republican weaknesses, focusing on foreign policy (ch. 10), interior party conflicts and political instabilities (ch. 11), as well as “The Fragmentation of the Political Culture” that eroded pluralistic liberalism (ch. 12). “Total Crisis, 1930–33” brings the main body of this book as well as the history of the Weimar Republic to a close. Peukert attends to the world economic crisis (ch. 13) and the political success of fascism with the rise of the NSDAP and the erosion of the Republic’s political institutions. The second and longest part is thematically structured with a focus on modernization. The emancipation of the youth and of women as well as sexual liberation are the topic of chapter 4. Chapter 5 zooms in on the economy of the early Weimar Republic, chapter 6 on the welfare state, both its expansion and the hardships of lasting social reorganization, and chapter 7 analyses the social stratification in the Republic. The remaining two chapters in this part of the monograph are more culturally oriented; they focus on mass culture and mass consumption (ch. 8) and on ‘Americanism’ and Kulturkritik (ch. 9).

Peukert’s work is an exemplary combination of political, cultural, and social history (though with a major emphasis on the latter approach), and for a reason that is presented concisely in the main argument of the book: “Germany’s first experiment in democracy was crucially influenced, and ultimately defeated, by the fact that the political system forfeited its legitimacy and ceased to function when it was faced by deep-seated crises of economic, social and cultural modernization” (p. 81). This argument leaves me with two contradictory thoughts when I think about my dissertation topic: 1) Of course forced hand-switching was not abandoned in the Weimar Republic (like in Britain and the US) since they had so many more existential worries than an educational reform; moreover, conservative forces were strong. 2) Why did Germany not tackle educational reform and left-hander liberation in this time of major change and departure from the old?

Cathy Gere’s monograph Knossos & the Prophets of Modernism illuminates the ways in which archaeological sites were used in a war-ridden age to craft narratives and tangible sites that satisfied Europeans’ longing for peaceful myths of their own past. It offers a cultural complement to the previous and following accounts of social and political struggle in 20th-century Europe, detailing one way in which researchers and writers created and modified the historical consciousness and self-understanding of an intellectual and monetary elite. Drawing from published sources from the late 19th through the early 21st century as well as on four archival collections in Oxford and New Haven, Gere traces the relationship with four major European conflicts, from the Franco-Prussian through the Balkan Wars and the World Wars to the Cold War, and Arthur Evans’s excavations in Knossos, which started in 1900. She is not interested in reconstructing the past of Minoan Crete, but in how Evans and his colleagues as well as 20th-century pacifists imagined and reconstructed the past of European humanity and thus shaped contemporary and future European notions of identity, rationality, cultural conflict, and social hierarchies.

The process of constructing a new landscape in which excavations and concrete came together as well as its enduring appeal within Europe help Gere to tell a story about “modernism,” in an aesthetic, political, and philosophical sense. Gere identifies an “‘archaizing’ impulse” at the core of modernism, aiming at and allowing for “the pagan reenchantment of secular modernity” (pp. 6 f). Gere argues that the archaeologists and other thinkers involved in this endeavor envisioned utopias based on their distorted representations of a peaceful human past on Crete and were thus retrospective “prophets” of a new testament that was not based on the Christian bible but on “various [and partly intuitive or counter-evident] Minoan ‘books of genesis’” (p. 7). In line with Heinrich Schliemann’s and later racial theorists’ interpretation of the excavations in Mycenae as a late-Nietzschean site of “swastika-wielding Teutonic warriors” (p. 13; ch. 1), Evans found much evidence for a tradition of violent conflict on Minoan Crete, but he decided to neglect this evidence and create an early-Nietzschean peaceful past for the newly independent Crete at the dawn of the 19th century (ch. 2). He actively stimulated Muslim-Christian pacification by employing individuals from both sides of the conflict in the post-Ottoman reconstruction of Crete (ch. 3).

Chapters 4 and 5 follow Evans and Knossos through the decades after WWI and the ways in which Knossos was reinterpreted in the light of contemporary cultural and political shifts. Seen as decadent in the 1920s, Minoan Crete was perceived as pacifist haven in the 1930s. Evans reconstructed several artifacts in controversial ways and accepted many fake artifacts as authentic, a practice that was related to his “narcissistic” personality, as Gere suggests (p. 15). In particular Evans’s reconstruction of the Psyche cult, with the immortal soul that was depicted by a butterfly in its center, intrigued Sigmund Freud and the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). H.D.’s pagan-mystic experiences in London and poet Robert Graves’s pacifist writings were both influenced by Evans’s reconstruction of Minoan spirituality. Both writers, however, modernized Evans’s account of Knossos even more and made it utterly political during and after WWII (ch. 6). This political interpretation was intensified during the counter culture, which appropriated the Minoans as drug-taking and sexually liberal islanders (cf. hippies) and/or feminist-pacifist refugees (cf. nuclear age in the 1980s) and/or African matriarchs (cf. post-colonialism), Gere suggests (ch. 7).

Fritz Stern’s monograph The Politics of Cultural Despair is an investigation into the writings of three conservative thinkers of the early 20th century. Paul de Lagarde and “Germanic Religion,” Julius Langbehn and “Germanic Irrationalism,” as well as Moeller van den Bruck and the Right at the dawn of the Nazi dictatorship are analyzed in subsequent parts of the book. Two parallels with Gere’s work stand out: First, this is a work of psychological and intellectual “despair” during a “cultural crisis” (p. xiv) in turn-of-the-century Europe. Second, the writers assessed were “prophets,” only this time not of a peaceful past but of a “national rebirth” in the future (p. xi). Instead of pacifism, feminism, and pagan spirituality, Stern’s actors embraced an anti-liberal and anti-secular cultural criticism that lamented “the loss of faith, of unity, of ‘values’” (p. xi) in an ancient tradition and in opposition to capitalism and urbanization. Like Gere’s actors, they did not rationally argue against modernity but provided intuitive, mystic counter-models, communicated “with great fervor and passion” (p. xiv). It is interesting to see that similar styles were employed on the very right and very left of the political spectrum during this era.

Although the work of the three studied individuals spans almost a century, Stern argues that they “attacked the same cultural forces in much the same manner” (p. xii) and that they are best “understood as a cultural type” (p. 268). They were brought up in modest urban contexts and attended the Gymnasium, if only to loath its liberalist inability to raise a disciplined, “cultivated and idealistic youth(s)” (p. 71). All of them were frustrated adults who kept trying to establish themselves socially. Only Langbehn found some grounding in Catholic faith, but the two others disagreed with its rigidity and were yet unable to be liberal Protestants or secular individuals. They perceived the alleged death of God, the rise of materialism, the popular press, and liberal politics as well as institutions as dangerous erosions and corruptions of German society and culture. The inflation in the early 1920s and the world economic crisis around 1930 contributed much to this resentment and helped the “conservative revolution” succeed (p. xxiii). It is striking that crucial ideas of national socialism rested on the discontent of three self-hating individuals, as Stern depicts them. This calls into question the Sonderweg towards the Nazi ideology and frames it more as problem of class and individual conflicts in European modernity. In particular the extent to which these ideas were necessarily “Germanic” (subtitle) does not become clear.

The Continuities of German History is Helmut Smith’s attempt to find an answer to the question of why Germany killed six million Jews during the Nazi rule. Requiring a high degree of knowledge in German political and social history, this small collection of essays argues that the reasons for the Shoah cannot be found in Germany’s 20th-century history but have deeper roots, several centuries of age. He also makes a historiographical argument: that 20th– and 21st-century historians seek explanations in the increasingly recent past of an event where they should not. Cultural and social interactions of as much complexity as racism can best be assessed when the periodization is longer, Smith argues. This seems plausible, but the short essays in this volume are not at all sufficient to exemplify the utility of such an approach to actually provide an explanation for a genocidal event, for instance. It remains particularly unclear what singles out Germany.

The introduction and conclusion frame five different essays that explore a related set of questions. The individual chapters span Europe’s history of racist and religious violence from the Thirty Years War and German forgetfulness about religious warfare and massacres in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries more generally (ch. 3) to a historiographical assessment of 1933 and the onset of the Jewish genocide in 1941 as “vanishing points” in German history, that is, decisive anchors of historical interpretation (ch. 1). In chapter 2, Smith argues that nationalism, in Germany like in many other European countries, followed the establishing of a nation state and did not cause it. This argument stands in contrast to the authoritative accounts of Thomas Nipperdey, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and David Blackbourn (see previous essay), to name only a few, who argue that both liberalism and nationalism were integral forces at work in 19th-century ‘German’ politics decades before the unification.

Chapter 4 zooms in on the role of the state in anti-Judaism during the long 19th century. Smith analyzes European instances of violence against Jews and traces the development of these offenses from ridicule and beating in situations of broad social conflict to a nationalized form of racially motivated murder. The Dreyfus Affair is emblematic for anti-Judaism’s becoming an integral part of European politics, a confluence of the religious and secular realms that was sustained by the solidification of nation states with their national churches, social hierarchies, and increasing violence. Also over the course of the 19th century, the growing connection between racism and anti-Semitism enabled a shift from “thinking about the annihilation of peoples in a cultural sense to conceiving of it in physical terms” (p. 8; ch. 5). The roots of some ideas that underlay the Shoah can be seen in colonialism, Smith explains, but genocide was not socially acceptable despite other forms of racialized violence and separation.

The first chapter of Ian Kershaw’s account of The Nazi Dictatorship contains the remark that “an adequate explanation of Nazism is an intellectual impossibility” because it was an irrational occurrence (p. 3; italics i.o.). Nonetheless, Kershaw sets out to identify the most useful concepts to write an accurate historical account of the dictatorship. He explicates his commitment to the project of writing a morally defensible and politically instructive history of Nazi Germany as one unique amongst many detrimental historical developments (chs. 9 and 10). Other than Geoff Eley (see below), who assesses the historical development of the historiography on Nazism according to historical topics, Kershaw analyses and/or juxtaposes specific historiographical concepts in each chapter of his monograph. He draws on primary sources in German archives as well as on historical accounts in German and international periodicals.

Amongst other issues, he tackles the question of whether the regime was an instance of fascism or totalitarianism (ch. 2). Fascism, a term mostly used for political movements of the Right, is oftentimes employed by the political Left. Totalitarianism, however, suggests a continuity between political regimes of the Left and Right. Kershaw prefers the combination as treating Nazism as fascism and a third option, that Nazism was a unique occurrence. Explicitly opposing the Sonderweg theory and declaring it as not fruitful, he urges to assess Nazism in detail, not superficially as one of a wide range of different totalitarianisms, and to assess the specificity that both Hitler with his “intentions” (chs. 4 and 6) and the German social and cultural environment (about which insight can be gained through the study of Nazi resistance; ch. 8) constituted. Chapter 3 suggests that the Nazis were “the last hope rather than the first choice” for the German industry (p. 41); economic concerns shaped Nazi politics but, in the end, nationalist and anti-Judaist interests trumped economic considerations. It is striking that Kershaw, like Smith, Eley, and Mark Mazower (see below), tend to write about the “Holocaust” but treat almost exclusively the Shoah and its attempt to annihilate the European Jewry (ch. 5). The term “social revolution” would be an exaggeration for the changes that occurred as a consequence to the Nazis’ violent imperialism and nationalism [in particular in comparison to the changes that happened after war, although not even these were a total revolution and exhibited much continuity with the Nazi regime and its institutions and values], Kershaw contents, but also cautions to not explain the catastrophe of the dictatorship solely as a spontaneous “social reaction” to the Treaty of Versailles (ch. 7). The truth is, as always, more complicated.

Geoff Eley’s volume Nazism as Fascism assumes one of Kershaw’s core questions as answered in the favor of fascism. It contains seven historiographical essays, written and revised over the course of more than a decade, that together inquire into the question of the specifically German aspects of Nazist fascism and the characteristics that this system shares with other fascisms. Unlike Stern or Smith, Eley encourages historians to not search for longer traditions of Germanic longing or racism and treats the practices of the Nazi rule as an event in itself that can be compared in non-teleological fashion to other occurrences. This approach allows for the creation of “[a] potable concept of fascism” that is useful to critique contemporary political and cultural developments as well; the Sonderweg approach does not offer equal productivity. As clear as this account may be, its focus is almost too historiographical to serve a non-fascism historian well. But the conclusion that fascism is not the height of the German Sonderweg, but “a type of politics, or a set of relations to politics” (p. 214; italics i.o.), allows all of us to talk about US or Turkish politics, to name only two possibilities, in a meaningful way.

Eley picks up where Stern’s analysis of conservatism leaves off, in 1933. His first chapter, “Origins, Post-Conservatism, and 1933,” is an analysis of the historiographical debates surrounding the origins of Nazism. Eley emphasizes the “dead end” that a Sonderweg interpretation poses (p. 10) and illustrates how much more explanatory power studies of everyday routines and institutional function have (ch. 2). Social and cultural historians have specifically shown that the Volksgemeinschaft had to be built from the bottom up and did not exist as some basic German quality (ch. 3). An increasing number of scholars with this approach were able to unveil the crucial importance of women—as voters, mothers, and employees—to the rise and sustainability of Nazism in Germany; these studies also show the vitality of anti-feminism to this ideology (ch. 4). The spatial imaginary rested on the concepts of the Volk and its Lebensraum (ch. 5). Local non-structuralist studies can also better highlight the actual suffering and concrete practicalities involved in the Shoah, the core issue for which Sonderweg explanations have failed (ch. 6). A variety of sources that are transnational and/or do not privilege the allegedly reliable manuscripts of core Nazi institutions over subjective ‘smaller’ accounts can be beneficial in this context, Eley shows.

Mark Mazower’s massive monograph Hitler’s Empire focuses more on the question of Lebensraum than that of the Shoah. He treats the Nazi rule as an imperialist endeavor to expand Germany within Europe and colonize other Europeans rather than a targeted war against the Jewish population. Even though the emphasis on imperial aspects rather than anti-Judaism of the Nazi rule is a relatively recent historiographic trend, Hannah Arendt put forth a related analysis of totalitarianism as modern imperialism in The Origins of Totalitarianism (not on this list). Mazower’s study is genuinely historical, a narrative account of the Nazi rule that contains only a few short notes. The broader argument is thus communicated very subtly and understandable to the general reader. A bibliography and detailed index make it a useful research resource.

In the first part of his book, Mazower argues that “the violence of war … le(a)d to an almost limitless escalation in the use of force and a constant revision of rules and norms” (p. 11), that is, he treats WWII as Nazi imperialism gone total, not as a meticulously planned or foreseen—let alone foreseeable—conflict. The war against the Jews was secondary to Hitler’s racially inspired quest for Lebensraum for the Germans, Mazower suggests. Fittingly, he begins his analysis in 1848, the year in which German liberals debated their “hatred of the Slavs” (p. 15) in the Paulskirche and discussed the potentials of a “Greater Germany” that seemed sometimes in and sometimes out of reach until WWI (ch. 1). Chapter 2 traces the aftermath of WWI and the rise of German and Austrian nationalism after the Treaty of Versailles. “Expansion and Escalation” followed in 1939 with the invasion (ch. 3) and partition of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (ch. 4). Even though Hitler initially planned to rearm and continue the war only a few years later, the situation was such that French and British resistance did not allow him to do so. In the summer of 1940, German troops quickly occupied the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark, and Norway (ch. 5), before they turned against the Soviet Union in December 1940 (ch. 6). Jews were identified and killed during these invasions, but this cruelty grew with increasing problems that the German troops encountered, including partisan resistance (cf. ch. 15). “[C]lassification, separation, and colonial resettlement” were at the core of these practices and were violently enforced and “Germanization” (p. 184) in the Eastern Europe became one of the Nazis’ greatest concerns in 1941 and 1942 and the related problems unsettled the Nazi party as well as its military and legal institutions (ch. 8).

Part II illuminates strategic, economic, and infrastructural aspects of “The New Order.” Pressing questions included how to obtain and best distribute food and other resources (ch. 9); how to harness a potential foreign workforce without jeopardizing the alleged racial purity (ch. 10); how to secure the support of the other Axis Powers (ch. 11); how to remain in control of occupied territories, in particular, how to collaborate with France (ch. 13) and destroy Poland (ch. 14); and, only one concern amongst several, how to isolate and/or annihilate efficiently the large numbers of Jews, in Poland in 1942 and beyond that afterwards (ch. 12). And then, the war was over. Reading the chapter “Hitler Kaputt!” (ch. 16) on the invasion of parts of Germany by the Soviet Army made me cry. As ashamed and outraged as I am considering all the evil done by ‘Germans’, I am very glad my families lived in the American zone. Finally, Part III closes this history with two chapters that analyze pan-European and global concerns. Mazower first examines the Nazi’s concept of “Europe” (ch. 17) and then refers to Hitler’s far-away allies in Japan as well as select post-WWII developments to secure peaceful coexistence, such as establishing Israel (ch. 18). I wish all German Gymnasium students had to read this book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.