Lecture Notes, Germany and Europe, 1871-1945

HI 224

@Raffael Scheck, History Department, Colby College

For translated documents on German history, see:
– Eurodocs: Germany
– H-German Homepage: G-Text Primary Source Archives

A: Introduction

A.1. Germany and Europe – The Debate on German Peculiarities

No doubt Germany started the Second World War and committed unprecedented crimes in its course. Germany has also been blamed for starting World War I in a risky bid for world power. Already before 1914 the country’s “militaristic” character and its assumed desire for expansion created concern in Europe. No wonder historians have tried to find continuities in German political culture and foreign policy, something linking the violent form of German unification in 1864-1871, the undemocratic character of the Bismarckian constitution (in force 1871-1918), the failure of democracy (1918-1933), and the orgy of crime and violence unleashed by the “Third Reich” between 1933 and 1945.

In the light of these events, some historians concluded that the foundation of the German Empire in 1871 was a mistake and should not have happened. Divided Germany with its rich cultural traditions — particularly in music, literature, and philosophy — seemed a better fit for Europe than the Prussian-dominated, “militaristic” Second Empire created by Bismarck and some ingenious generals (the First Empire was considered to be the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, a political structure destroyed in 1806 after nearly one thousand years of history). Looking at German history through the lens of Auschwitz allows one to find seeming “precedents” for the attitudes, ideas, and social forces that influenced the atrocities of the Third Reich, and Hitler and the Holocaust have been considered by some historians as the logical outcome of German history. Historians have traced anti-Semitic, authoritarian, and militaristic thinking in German history back to the sixteenth century (with Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism and condemnation of social revolution receiving special attention).

Critics have argued, however, that the development toward Auschwitz was all but inevitable and that it was not dictated by logical consequence. The Nazis shaped an ideology and practice out of existing pieces, some of which had a long tradition, but that does not mean these traditions and patterns were “predestined” to develop into the Nazi state and its terror. These critics have said that people aiming to see only continuity in German history often ignore elements of racism and anti-Semitism in other countries that, added up, might have predisposed another nation just as much to atrocities as Germany. Historian George Mosse once wrote that if Europeans around 1900 had been told that some European country would kill millions of Jews a few decades later they would have believed France to be the most likely culprit. Finally, one might argue that German history did not stop in 1945, and that the development of a stable democracy in the western parts of Germany (and after 1990 in reunited Germany) belies all talk of an inherently authoritarian and violent character of German culture.

Whatever conclusions historians draw, they tend to agree that something went “wrong” in German history in the nineteenth century. The authoritarianism of the imperial government (in power 1871-1918), the stress on order, the veneration of war and all things military, the reigning antiliberalism, and the presence of racism have served to compare Germany unfavorably with its western neighbors. Why did Germany not choose the path to parliamentary democracy, which France adopted in the 1870s and which Britain developed step by step in the nineteenth century? Did the anti-liberal character of Bismarck’s constitutional settlement as well as his violent management of German unification predispose Germany toward repression, foreign aggression, and violence?

Here are the main lines of explanations historians have proposed to explain Germany’s development in the period under consideration. The arguments center on geography, previous history, and socio-political structures. You will easily see that they represent different philosophies of history.

  • Some historians tried to take recourse to Germany’s geographic position (geographic argument). At least since the seventeenth century, the German states occupied a middle position in European power politics. This made the Holy Roman Empire the battleground of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and led to the exploitation and domination of many smaller German states by more powerful neighbors, above all by France. The Austrian Empire, a collection of vast German and non-German lands, also exploited the weakness of the German states after its own attempt to unite them had failed in the 1620s. In reaction to the disorders of the Thirty Years War, a military monarchy developed in Prussia that tried to make society subservient to a strong military (which is a simple definition of militarism). Giving up the initial defensive position, Prussia expanded in the eighteenth century and won the contest for domination over the German states against Austria in the war of 1866, thereafter excluding Austria from a Germany under Prussian predominance. But united Germany in 1871 inherited the exposed position in the center of a system of great powers, with large border strips unprotected by natural barriers. In the light of this strategic position, the geographic argument goes, a democratic system could not easily take root in Germany, which tended to preserve Prussia’s militaristic tradition after 1871.
  • Other historians have pointed out that — for whatever reasons — national unification came unusually late in Germany (historical argument). Whereas the French monarchy had started subduing local lords already in the middle ages and built up a unified nation state in the early modern period (roughly 1500-1800), the Holy Roman Empire had disintegrated in the middle ages and lost all meaning after 1648, leaving innumerable local rulers with nearly full autonomy. England, despite the failure of royal absolutism in the seventeenth century, had also constituted itself as a nation state long before German unification. The lateness of German unification may have resulted in an unstable, insecure national consciousness of the Germans. Moreover, German unification amounted to a significant shift in the balance of powers in a Europe that had for centuries counted on an extremely fragmented center.
    The geographic and historical arguments contain obvious truths, but it has been difficult to establish a causal link between Germany’s geographic position or the late unification and the course of German history 1871-1945. Critics have argued that geography always leaves several political options to a state and that a widespread national consciousness, a mass nationalism, came about in France and England almost as late as in Germany – despite the long history of a unified nation state.
  • A more sophisticated argument was developed by German social historians (foremost Hans-Ulrich Wehler) in the early 1970s (social-political argument). Wehler, who is very concerned with placing German history in the context of Western Europe and the United States, sees the initial drama of German history in the absence of a successful bourgeois and democratic revolution. In France, the bourgeoisie (the middle classes – businessmen, shopkeepers, small producers, employees, wealthier farmers) managed to abolish the economic and political privileges of the landed aristocracy already during the revolution of 1789. The French middle classes continued to challenge the monarchy so successfully that it was abolished for good in 1870. At the same time a democratic movement of lower middle-class and working people undermined the strongholds of the upper bourgeoisie (rich industrialists, bankers, and landowners). By the 1870s the French parliament had won decisive influence and become a democratic representation of the people (at least of the men, given that women did not have the vote until 1944-45).
    The same process happened less spectacularly in Britain, where the monarchy’s powers had been limited ever since the revolutionary seventeenth century. Through gradual reform, the suffrage was extended to all men (refomrs of 1832, 1864, 1884), and the privileges of the House of Lords, the representation of high nobility, were curtailed between 1832 and 1911.
    The United States, of course, started out with a democratic revolution. Elimination of the power of the (British) nobility was intrinsically related to independence. In Germany, however, the bourgeois, liberal revolution of 1848 had failed. This, Wehler argues, happened because the German liberals did not carry out “their” revolution to full success. After initial breakthroughs, they became afraid that the restive lower classes would turn against them and get out of control, transforming the political revolution into a social one that might forfeit the economic and political advantage the liberals had hoped to gain. (That the poor masses had gotten out of control during the French revolutions of 1789-94 and 1848 served the German liberals as a warning).
    The German princes, initially stunned by the revolution, soon realized the divisions among the revolutionaries and the liberals’ reluctance to arm the lower classes and fight together with them. Facing only words and declarations but no armed revolutionary masses, the Prussian monarchy and — with its military help — many other German monarchies were able to defend their privileges against the liberal bourgeoisie. In a similar process, the Austrian crown meanwhile took advantage of the rivalry of the national groups within the empire and of Russian military help to crush the Revolution in Austria.
    In Prussia the noble landlords, the Junkers, were the loyal allies of the monarchy and preserved their influence on the state and the military after 1848, while rapid industrialization increased the economic weight of the tamed bourgeoisie. Later, it was the conservative Junker Bismarck and the Prussian military who achieved German unification, not the liberal German bourgeoisie. After 1871 the financial and industrial bourgeoisie received concessions from the landed aristocracy, which made possible the famous “alliance of iron and rye” (big industry and Junkers). The Junkers, a preindustrial elite, nevertheless continued to exert a predominant influence even in the industrialized society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The alliance of iron and rye, Wehler argues, dominated German politics from the foundation of the empire in 1871 to the Third Reich. Only during the years of the democratic Weimar Republic (1918/19-1933) did it suffer some loss of influence. This experience, however, made it all the more determined to destroy democracy and organized labor by relying on the help of Adolf Hitler’s propagandistic skills and his mass movement. So far Wehler’s interpretation.
  • The critique of Wehler’s approach was articulated foremost by British historians Geoff Eley, now at the University of Michigan, and David Blackbourn (Harvard). Eley and Blackbourn claim that the liberal bourgeoisie did not need a successful revolution. The foundation of a united German state itself was a liberal idea and benefited the interests of the liberal bourgeoisie, particularly its business section: unification enhanced freedom of enterprise and removed many barriers to trade within Germany. This thesis implies that Wehler, by blaming the German liberals for having betrayed their principles, applies twentieth-century standards of liberalism to people who were concerned primarily with other things than democracy and civil rights. National unification, Eley and Blackbourn admit, did not fulfill all liberal dreams of the period, but it created an acceptable basis for further improvement.

In my own opinion, Eley and Blackbourn correctly criticize Wehler for setting German history too much into a purely Western context. Compared to the stormy quest for democracy and civil rights in France or to the gradual democratization of the British political system, Germany indeed appears as a peculiar case. But although the German social structure west of the Elbe River resembled the French, the East, mainly Prussia east of the Elbe River, was a more backward area which remained poorly industrialized and resembled Poland and Russia more than France or Britain (with some important exceptions: the Berlin area and Silesia).

Wehler makes a good point, however, by stressing the tenacity with which the Prussian Junkers held fast to their privileges up to the 1930s. But American historian Arno Mayer has shown that the old aristocratic elites in all European countries, not just in Germany, managed to keep much social and political influence at least until 1914 and partly beyond. This was true even in France and Britain where the old aristocracy had lost its most powerful political institutions and legal privileges.

Setting Germany into the European context may indeed, as Wehler’s critics argue, require a broader framework of reference than the liberal and democratic “Atlantic” tradition. It is understandable that Wehler and many German historians after 1945 wanted Germany to be firmly rooted in the western world and its comparatively benign political traditions, but English history (often in idealized form) cannot serve as the pattern against which we measure every other country’s history.

Russia, Italy, and the Balkans belonged just as much to the European context in which the German nation state evolved, and democratic-liberal traditions were even weaker in those parts of Europe than in Germany. Russia, in particular, had been linked to Germany through dynastic and cultural ties since the eighteenth century. Set between England and Russia, Germany truly appears as a middle state that cannot be compared to one of them alone. By English standards, Germany industrialized late, and Russia even later. Compared to England, Germany’s industrialization was fast; Russia’s was even faster. Industrialization created dangerous conflicts in English society; so it did in Germany and, most of all, in Russia.

Finally, seeing Germany only through its seemingly dominant militaristic culture does not do justice to many diverse traditions within its culture. The attitude of the rulers is only partly representative for the attitudes of the people, and much of the repressive tone of Germany’s elites came from the fact that they at times faced strong opposition from within. We thus need to consider the question of Germany’s relationship to the rest of Europe and the issue of German peculiarities and continuities with a fresh eye.

Go on to A.2.