A History of Modern Germany, 1840-1945
Republic to Reich: The Making of the Nazi Revolution
Germany Since 1918
Hitler and the Beer Hall Putsch
Germany in Our Time
The Twelve-Year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany 1933-1945
Hitler's Weltanschauung: A Blueprint for Power
Secret Conversations with Hitler
For twenty-five years the history of modern Germany, as presented in our standard historical works, has been molded by the assumptions and preoccupations of liberal historiography. I have already discussed the preoccupation with Nazism, which is one of the more obvious characteristics of these studies.1 But there are other, more fundamental ways in which liberal assumptions have colored the interpretation of modern German history. If I return to the question, therefore, it is not to plough over old ground but to consider the adequacy itself of the liberal interpretation. The point at issue, of course, is not the substantive contribution of a generation of historians to the history of Germany between 1870 and 1945, but the postulates and tacit presuppositions with which they worked.
What are the basic characteristics of the liberal view of German history? For present purposes they can be reduced to three. The first, deeply embedded in the philosophy of German idealism, is the primary role of ideas in history and, therefore, by implication, of the makers of ideas, a belief that history is shaped by ideas rather than social relations and the interplay of economic interests. The second is a deep-seated elitist bias, an unspoken but unquestioning assumption that the so-called cultural and political elite is the element in any society that determines the course of events, and that the historian’s main task is to discuss their thoughts, attitudes, decisions, and actions. Finally, and on a different level, there is an implicit endorsement of the German national state as it emerged in 1871, seen as the fulfillment of the liberal struggle in 1848 and 1849 for German unification. Bismarck’s Reich becomes, as it were, a standard by which German history, before and after, is measured and judged.
If we wish to see how the writing of modern German history has been affected by these assumptions, we cannot do better than turn to Hajo Holborn’s History of Modern Germany, for Holborn’s book, as I indicated in my previous article, is the most judicious and authoritative epitome of a generation of liberal scholarship. Holborn’s liberal assumptions, it is only fair to add, are tempered, far more than in the case of lesser historians, by a robust awareness of social and economic factors; but a residuary liberal Weltanschauung is there nevertheless, subtly influencing the structure and balance of his work. It accounts for his allocation of space—well over a page to the Ems Telegram, forty lines to Haeckel, only eighteen lines to Marx—and for the structure of his book, which mirrors unquestioningly the central place assigned to Bismarck’s Reich in German liberal historiography.
For Holborn, liberalism and nationalism (the title of his first section) led inexorably to the founding of the new Reich in 1871: it was “consolidated” by Bismarck between 1871 and 1890, and the book ends with its destruction by Hitler in 1945. These are the familiar divisions of liberal historiography, the conventional political framework, neatly packeted by reigns, ministries, and wars; the question, of…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.