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A New View of German History: Part III

The Failure of Illiberalism

by Fritz Stern
Knopf, 233 pp., $7.95

I

Some twenty years ago Hans Kohn published a book called German History: Some New German Views. It included some interesting contributions, but in retrospect we can see that the undertaking as a whole was premature. In 1952 the time was not ripe for a new evaluation of German history. What seemed important then, and what the essays in Kohn’s volume were concerned with, was the rehabilitation of the liberal interpretation which had been denied a hearing in the Nazi period. But the argument still revolved in the framework of the old conflict between liberal and conservative historiography.

It was only ten years later that a new view of German history became possible, as a new generation of historians began to look critically not only at the work of conservative historians such as Gerhard Ritter but also at the assumptions underlying the work of Weimar liberals. For Weimar liberalism and Weimar conservatism both had their roots in the same soil, the soil of Bismarck’s Reich and German idealism, and what concerned the younger generation of historians who grew up after 1945 was not whether the conservative or the liberal interpretation was more or less correct but the validity of their common assumptions. It is against these assumptions that the younger historians have reacted, and the distinctive feature of the new view of German history which has gradually taken shape in the last ten years is its emancipation from the orthodox liberal ideology.

For liberal historiography, in spite of its pretensions to strict empiricism, is in the last analysis no less firmly anchored in ideological preconceptions than is the conservative historiography it challenges. I have already indicated the nature of these preconceptions, using the standard histories of Hajo Holborn and Karl Dietrich Bracher1 as my texts, and I do not propose to repeat or amplify what I have said.2 A full analysis would require consideration of the liberal interpretation of the revolution of 1918, with its endorsement of the so-called “October revolution,” which gave the liberals what they wanted—namely, constitutional reform and parliamentary government—and its rejection of the “November revolution,” through which the working population tried to secure the sort of changes that would have marked a real break with the prewar social system.3

A full analysis would also require consideration of the liberal interpretation of the resistance movement after 1933, with its emphasis on the small, upper- and middle-class component, particularly the military resistance, although (as Bracher rightly says) military opposition “did not exist at all” before 1938. Above all else, it would require critical examination of the liberal version of Weimar history, with its underlying suggestion that the difficulties and ultimate collapse of the Republic were due to factors for which the liberal middle classes could not be held responsible—reparations, inflation, lack of understanding on the part of the Allied powers, right-wing radicalism, the Depression. It would ask why this liberal history has neglected to probe the shortcomings of the policies pursued by the middle-class parties which actually held the key positions in government for eight crucial years, from 1920 to 1928.

Etienne Balazs once said that Chinese history was history written by mandarins, for mandarins, about mandarins. We shall not go far wrong if we say that liberal history is history written by the middle class, for the middle class, about the middle class. I am not, of course, suggesting that a liberal, middle-class view of German history should be replaced by a Marxist, working-class view of German history. That would simply be to jump out of the frying pan into the fire. But one does not have to be a Marxist to see that liberal historiography pays far too little attention to the reality of divergent class interests and social conflict, and that is one of the main reasons why the younger generation of historians finds its interpretation of the Second Empire and the Weimar Republic lacking in conviction.

The first requirement, if we are to see German history in the perspective of 1972, is a new chronological frame which takes in the whole century beginning in 1871 and does not stop short in 1945. No doubt it will be said that all divisions of history into periods are artificial and that it is a waste of time to argue about them. But the way we divide history up, the events we select for emphasis, and the dates we pick out as turning points are important because they reflect our whole view of the past, and the liberal periodization of German history reflects an outlook we no longer share. It is geared to political events, puts more emphasis on legal and constitutional forms than on social and economic relationships, and makes the national state its criterion. Fritz Stern, in his recent book The Failure of Illiberalism, has shown how inadequate this frame of reference is, and his analysis indicates some of the main points any new view of German history must take into account.

Stern attacks the conventional view of modern German history at two decisive points, the beginnings of the new German national state after 1871 and the last years of the Weimar Republic. For Holborn, as we have seen—and in this respect, of course, he is representative of historians of his generation—Bismarck’s unification of Germany in 1871 marks the beginning of a new period. Stern rejects this facile equation. For him, it was “the triumph of industrial capitalism” rather than “the achievement of national unification” that “changed the reality of German life.” In 1871, he writes, “Bismarck unified the German states, not the Germans,” and what he “sought to save at the visible top of the political system, the spread of capitalism undermined at the largely invisible substratum.” Where Holborn sees Bismarck’s work between 1871 and 1890 as “the consolidation of the German empire,” Stern maintains that “he created a system of checks and imbalances destined not to work”; “the dominant note,” he says, almost as if to contradict Holborn’s formulation, “was conflict, not consolidation.”

When we turn from the end of the nineteenth century to the Weimar period, the differences of interpretation are no less pronounced. Holborn begins his history of the Weimar Republic, characteristically, with an elaborate analysis of the machinery of the Weimar constitution and the party structure, and ends with the Nazi seizure of power on January 30, 1933. Stern, on the contrary, emphasizes that only “the form of the state, not the structure of society, was changed in 1918-19,” and refuses to treat January 30, 1933, as the end of a chapter. It was “not Hitler’s rise to power but his end,” he insists, that “marked the true break in German history.” Moreover, “the disintegration of the Weimar republic and the rise of Nazism were two distinct, if overlapping processes. By 1932 the collapse of Weimar had become inevitable; Hitler’s triumph had not.” This is clearly another way of saying that we should pause before we dismiss the Weimar Republic as (in David Felix’s words) simply “an antechamber to the Nazi period.”

The changes in perspective that Stern suggests are important because they alter the whole framework of modern German history. He does not, of course, stand alone. His view of Bismarck’s Germany is closely related to the interpretations put forward by Helmut Böhme and Hans-Ulrich Wehler,4 and his interpretation of the critical years after 1930 is similar to that of Mau and Bracher.5 What we are witnessing, in fact, is a piecemeal assault on the conventional liberal interpretation of modern German history, and Stern’s endorsement of the position of the younger generation marks a decisive stage in the confrontation. It signifies that the new view, which at least in the case of Böhme and Wehler has come under heavy attack from the liberal side, is at last finding general acceptance.

The essential difference is, of course, the precedence which the younger historians give to social and economic realities. And with the rejection of the primacy of politics goes the dismantling of the old political mold in which German history has traditionally been cast. For Böhme the two decisive events in the period with which he deals were the slumps of 1857 and 1873, not the foundation of the Second Empire in 1871, and the real turning point, the “end of an epoch,” came between 1876 and 1879 when Bismarck “re-founded” the Reich on foundations which were to last until 1917 and beyond.

Can we, on this basis, construct a new view of German history which is closer to reality than the old? I think we can, though I can do no more than suggest the broad, tentative outlines. To begin with, a large question mark overhangs the very concept of 1871-1945 as one self-contained period. But the main point is the inadequacy of the old political divisions, their failure to pick out the really decisive turning points. The dates that loom so large—1871, 1890, 1918, 1933, 1945—are not the dates that matter: not, at least, if what we are concerned with is the history of the German people and not the history of the German state.

The first step, decisive for all others, is to remove 1871 from the position it has so long occupied as the starting point of modern German history. The importance attached by liberal historians to 1871, and their view of the years between 1871 and Bismarck’s departure from office in 1890 as a single undivided period, rest largely on myth: first, the notorious Bismarck myth, the legendary picture of the colossus bestriding Europe and guiding Germany’s destiny, and, secondly, the liberal myth of the Second Empire as the fulfillment of the aspiration for German unity. Neither is true, and we should be grateful to Fritz Stern for exposing their falsity.

Bismarck after 1871 was buffeted by the gathering storms of an industrialism he did not understand, and was never in sovereign command. The imperial structure thrown together in 1871 was a hasty improvisation. Furthermore, the new Empire was a denial rather than a fulfillment of national unity, and even before Bismarck left the scene the urge was stirring to gather together the Germans outside its frontiers, particularly the Germans of Austria, in a vast encompassing Reich stretching, as the liberals of 1848 had dreamed, from the North Sea to the Vistula and from the Baltic to the Adriatic.

Judged by realities and not by appearances, the events of 1871 were not the start of a new period in German history but rather a temporary halt, a provisional solution which could not last and did not last. It was later, in 1879, that the decisive realignment took place. For the younger generation of historians, the so-called Gründerjahre, the period of rising industrial capitalism between 1852 and 1873, was the prelude to modern German history. Its real beginning was 1879 when Bismarck, in a sharp reaction to the economic crisis and the social antagonisms it called forth, particularly the growth of social democracy, engineered the coalition of Junkers and industrialists, the “militarist-Prussian-conservative” alliance, which was to exert so powerful an influence for the next sixty years.

  1. 1

    Holborn, A History of Modern Germany, 1840-1945 (Knopf, 1970), and Bracher, The German Dictatorship (Praeger, 1970).

  2. 2

    NYR, October 19 and November 2.

  3. 3

    The classical liberal view of the events of 1918-1919 is critically examined in Vom Kaiserreich zur Weimarer Republik, edited by Eberhard Kolb (Cologne, Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 1972).

  4. 4

    Deutschlands Weg zur Grossmacht by Helmut Böhme (Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 1966). Bismarck und der Imperialismus by Hans-Ulrich Wehler (Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 1969).

  5. 5

    Hermann Mau, “The Second Revolution,” and Karl Dietrich Bracher, “Stages of Totalitarian Integration,” in Republic to Reich: The Making of the Nazi Revolution edited by Hajo Holborn (Pantheon, 1972).

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