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The Liberals and German History: Part II

A History of Modern Germany, 1840-1945

by Hajo Holborn
Knopf, 818 pp., $14.25

Republic to Reich: The Making of the Nazi Revolution

edited by Hajo Holborn, translated by Ralph Manheim
Pantheon, 491 pp., $12.95

Germany Since 1918

by David Childs
Harper & Row, 208 pp., $6.95

Hitler and the Beer Hall Putsch

by Harold J. Gordon Jr.
Princeton, 672 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Germany in Our Time

by Alfred Grosser
Praeger, 370 pp., $12.50

The Twelve-Year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany 1933-1945

by Richard Grunberger
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 535 pp., $10.00

Hitler’s Weltanschauung: A Blueprint for Power

by Eberhard Jäckel, translated by Herbert Arnold
Wesleyan, 144 pp., $8.00

Secret Conversations with Hitler

edited by Edouard Calic
John Day, 192 pp., $6.95

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 course, is whether they are adequate.

Holborn’s liberal assumptions color his view of German history in other ways. It is scarcely accidental, for example, that he chose an article by Theodor Eschenburg on “the role of personality in the crisis of the Weimar republic” to open the volume of essays he put together shortly before his death. Characteristic, again, is the meticulous attention Holborn pays to the detail of foreign policy, particularly Bismarck’s foreign policy, surely an implicit underwriting of the old German belief that war and diplomacy and the genius of statesmen are the determinative factors in a people’s history.

And finally, his liberal bias is manifest in his warning against exaggerating the role of “social conflict” in the rise of Nazism (can it, one asks oneself, possibly be exaggerated?) and his insistence that the real trouble stemmed from a “decline of German education.” This, as Ringer’s Decline of the German Mandarins2 attests, is a fashionable theme among liberal historians; but need it be said that it is an unproven (and, to my way of thinking, implausible) hypothesis? According to David Childs, to whose admirable little book we shall shortly come, educational “standards did rise,” if somewhat patchily, during the Weimar period, and (as one who underwent the experience) I know of no reason to believe they were worse, either in schools or universities, in 1930 than they were in 1890.

In the long term, however, the most significant indication of the limitations of Holborn’s conceptual framework is his implicit but unquestioning acceptance of the myth of Bismarck’s Germany. Good historian as he was, he knew better than most how many chance factors combined to bring about Bismarck’s solution of the German question in 1871, how much the outcome depended on Bismarck’s own peculiar qualities, how precarious and fragile the structure of the new Reich was. But, faithful to the old liberal tradition, with its search, ever since 1813, for a national German state, he makes this Reich his yardstick. If he stops dead in 1945, the reason, as I have said, is that 1945 saw the destruction of its unity. The “brief history” of Germany after 1945, he tells us, “cannot be treated as a mere projection of the history of earlier epochs.” And the reason? “The chasm created by the disaster of 1945,” “the loss of one quarter of the territories belonging to the Germany of 1937,” “the division of Germany into two separate political and social entities.”

These statements reveal so much that it is worth taking a second look at them. The “brief history,” to begin with: but the history of Germany after 1945 is twice as long as the history of the Third Reich to which Holborn devotes more than 100 pages, and longer than the history of the Weimar Republic, which gets 179. The boundaries of 1937: but what is so sacrosanct about the boundaries of 1937, which most Germans in 1937 thought of as a temporary limitation imposed by hated conquerors? The division of Germany: but a divided Germany was nothing new, rather it was a return to the situation of 1870 which Bismarck had destroyed, not a break with the past but a reversion to a past much older and longer than Bismarck’s Reich. And, finally, “the disaster of 1945”: disaster for whom? Certainly not for Americans, still less for the peoples of Europe suffering under Nazi rule. But was it really a disaster for the Germans to be liberated (as they so quickly claimed they were pining to be) from Nazi tyranny?

It will be said that I am making mountains out of molehills. I think not. For the liberal ideology, like all other ideologies, inevitably produces blind spots that stand in the way of historical understanding. Consider, as one last example, Holborn’s characterization of Goebbels as an “offensive guttersnipe.” I should not, admittedly, particularly have liked to have had Goebbels as a member of my seminar, but he was, after all, a graduate of Heidelberg University, and the German universities in 1921—as anyone can discover by reading the excellent first chapter of Mr. Ringer’s book—were not renowned for opening their doors to guttersnipes. David Childs, as it happens, describes Goebbels as “intellectually very able,” and though his description and Holborn’s are not, perhaps, mutually incompatible, the difference is interesting.

But the only point I wish to make at the moment is that Holborn evidently found it difficult, in a book otherwise marked by almost excessive sobriety of judgment, to apply the same standards of scholarly objectivity to the Nazis as he does to the other obnoxious characters—Bismarck, for example—who stalk through his pages. Certainly his distaste for Goebbels is humanly understandable, but it is another question whether superciliousness and disdain are the best approach to the Nazi phenomenon. Liberal assumptions, the unspoken prejudices of the Bildungsbürgertum, may be an obstacle to understanding; and the suggestion I am making, with all respect, is that they are.

What if the liberal interpretation of German history, which has dominated for a quarter of a century, is itself wrong? Or what if, to put it less crudely, while it may reveal some part of the truth (which no one, I imagine, would seriously deny), it reveals less than the whole truth and perhaps obscures some aspects altogether? Or what, at least, if it sets the whole story in a false perspective?

Holborn’s decision to end his book in 1945 is not really much different from arguing that the fall of the “Corsican” in 1815—for contemporaries every bit as much an ogre as the “Bohemian corporal”—marked so complete a break in French history that the years after 1815 cannot (in Holborn’s phrase) “be treated as a mere projection of the history of earlier epochs.” In fact, of course, no one has suggested that they can; but this did not prevent historians, with the passage of time, from raising the question of continuity and discontinuity in France before and after 1815 and finding a place for Napoleon in the longer perspective of French history. Is it not time, after twenty-five years, for a similar re-appraisal of German history? The point, of course, is not to exculpate the Nazis or dismiss Nazism as a temporary aberration—which it was not—but to find a vantage point for a better understanding of German history.

I ask these questions with the more assurance because it is evident that I am not alone in questioning the adequacy, in the 1970s, of the liberal interpretation of German history. No doubt the majority of historians still plods along, as the majority always does, in the old way; but there are heartening signs, mainly among the younger generation, that something at last is moving, and it is significant that the change is visible in all the major centers, in Germany itself, in France, in England, and in the United States.

In Germany the new generation includes Helmut Böhme, whose study of the underlying economic trends of the age of Bismarck is one of the very few postwar books on German history that really breaks new ground.3 On a different level it includes Martin Broszat, the present director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, whose book Hitler’s State may be regarded as the postliberal counterpart to Bracher’s liberal interpretation in The German Dictatorship.4 It also includes some of the younger historians grouped around Broszat, a selection of whose work is contained in the useful volume of essays compiled by Holborn shortly before his death. 5

In England there is David Childs, whose little book on Germany since 1918 refreshingly avoids the opportunities for platitudes and mediocrity which the writing of an introductory survey presents.6 Paradoxically, the old preoccupations are most tenacious in the United States. But here also change is in the air. David Schoenbaum was one of the first, in the introduction to his book Hitler’s Social Revolution,7 which appeared in 1966, to voice the growing doubts about the validity of the standard historical approach. More recently Harold J. Gordon has criticized intellectual historians who credit their class with “more influence than it can legitimately claim” and “try to fit the National Socialists into shoes which they feel should fit them” instead of placing themselves in the shoes of the National Socialists.8

  1. 1

    Mandarins and Nazis,” NYR, October 19.

  2. 2

    Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (Harvard, 1972).

  3. 3

    Helmut Böhme, Deutschlands Weg zur Grossmacht (Kiepenheuer & Witsch: Cologne, 1966).

  4. 4

    Martin Broszat, Der Staat Hitlers (Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag: Munich, 1969); The German Dictatorship by Karl Dietrich Bracher (Praeger, 1970).

  5. 5

    Republic to Reich: The Making of the Nazi Revolution.

  6. 6

    Germany Since 1918.

  7. 7

    Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany, 1933-1939 (Doubleday).

  8. 8

    Hitler and the Beer Hall Putsch.

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