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A New View of German History: Part III

Whether we like it or not, Hitler was the first German politician to come to terms with the realities of mass politics. This was his strength and perhaps the main positive consequence of Nazism in German history. Though the conservative reaction gave him his chance, he had too much sense to identify his movement with it, and when the conservatives turned on him in 1944 he destroyed them without compunction. Hitler’s social revolution was brutal, capricious, unplanned, but it was also real. By destroying the old conservatism as a coherent, organized political force, he freed Germany (as Dahrendorf puts it) from the “mortgage” of the past and “made modernity and liberalism a real possibility.”

It is more difficult to map out the stages of German history after 1944. Grosser and Childs provide the facts in abundance, but it is less easy to articulate them. What both make clear is that the conventional view of 1945 as an “absolute zero” is misleading and unacceptable. Defeat was certainly more of a breach of continuity in 1945 than in 1918, but the German capitulation was only one point in a twilight period that began in June or July, 1944, and continued until 1948 or 1949. Once again, as after the First World War, it was economic rehabilitation—the currency reform of June, 1948—that marked the beginning of a new period. This time it was accompanied by the division of Germany and the setting up of the Federal and Democratic Republics in 1949.

The succeeding period is best characterized as the time when the two Germanies established their separate identities. Neither in east nor in west was this the intention in 1949; it was a solution produced by the passage of time and by events. As after 1918 there were powerful, backward-looking tendencies, whose rallying cry was the rejection of the consequences of unsuccessful war. Nevertheless restoration was impossible. In the west, any idea of radically reconstructing German society was quickly jettisoned, political questions were shelved, and energy directed to economic rebuilding.

But all the time a silent social revolution was going on beneath the stagnant political surface. As Golo Mann has said,13 German society changed more profoundly between 1949 and 1963 than in the whole previous century. In the east, the program of socialization went steadily ahead, bringing with it a fundamental shift in class structure. In the west, a strongly middle-class society emerged, but it was, in Mann’s words, “a bourgeois society completely freed from the old hierarchy.” That is why the numerous small right-wing parties in the Federal Republic were powerless. Unlike the extremist splinter groups in Weimar days, they lacked the backing of a coherent conservative opposition, and even the most powerful of them, the National Democratic Party, founded in 1964, faded after a few years.

By the time Adenauer left office in 1963 this period was visibly drawing to a close. In the west, in particular, the stagnation of political life, especially the failure to carry through any real policy of social democracy, produced an atmosphere of disillusion. As the 1960s progressed, a new generation was taking over. In the Federal Republic, the so-called “economic miracle” had called forth a new business elite, largely self-made, which regarded the old class conflicts as outdated and self-defeating. In the Democratic Republic it was the new generation of students who graduated after 1952 that was responsible, as David Childs points out, for the remarkable economic progress of Eastern Germany after 1963. By 1964 the new generation had captured more than half the places on the central committee of the Socialist Unity Party.

With the succession of Brandt in 1969 and the recognition of the separate existence of the two Germanies, a new period of German history begins. The process of adjustment to modern industrial society was still in many ways incomplete, but the old problems which had haunted German history ever since the days of Bismarck and lingered on until the end of the 1950s had spent their force. As Dahrendorf put it, “The past as it was embodied in imperial Germany” had been “finally abolished”; which is another way of saying that the epoch which began in 1879 had come to an end.


Does this revision of the basic chronological framework of modern German history really matter, or is it simply a reshuffling of the cards? It matters, I think, in a number of fundamental ways.

First, it gives due precedence to social realities. It emphasizes the central point Dahrendorf makes about the German question, that it is essentially not a political or national question but a social question. The new generation of historians, as Stern says, “has foresworn the national-liberal traditions.” Their standard of measurement, the central thread they see running through German history, is not the formation, consolidation, reconstitution, and ultimately the destruction of national unity, but the process by which Germany was transformed from a premodern, quasi-feudal into a modern industrial society. That is what Dahrendorf means when he says that they write history “from a social rather than a national point of view.”

Second, their standard of measurement is not, like that of their liberal predecessors, legal and constitutional. When David Childs writes of “the limited value of constitutional devices,” he is speaking for the new generation as a whole. Holborn could still suggest that Article 48 of the Weimar constitution was the fatal flaw enabling Hitler “to lay…the secure foundation of the Nazi dictatorship,” and that the Enabling Act of March, 1933, was the “final step” making Hitler “the dictatorial ruler of Germany.” Bracher rightly dismisses such arguments as “purely formalistic,” because (as he says) the character of any government is revealed not by its “legalistic façade” but by “analysis of the actual relations of power.”

Third, the course of German history is no longer made to hinge on individuals and personalities. The older historians almost unanimously attributed the failures and vacillations of German policy after 1890 to the personal deficiencies of Bismarck’s successors and of William II. In reality, the twists and turns of Caprivi, Hohenlohe, and Bülow, as they strove desperately to make an unworkable system work, are evidence of the growing discrepancy between the political superstructure and the social infrastructure, which was something that no one, including Bismarck himself, could have solved. The refusal to get bogged down in personalities is an important step forward. The time is past when anyone really cares whether Bethmann Hollweg and Brüning were honest and well-intentioned or not, and the interminable controversies between their detractors and their defenders—between Fischer and Zechlin and between Bracher and K.D. Erdmann—are a distraction rather than a help in assessing the objective factors in the situation.

Fourth, this rejection of interpretations based on personal factors sets new standards for research. It is a vital question, for example, how far the German people supported and how far they opposed Hitler, but what, over and above subjective impressions, do we know about it? As Erich Matthias has said, the older historians diverted the history of the German resistance into “a biographical blind alley.”14 Concerned above all else to prove that there were “good” Germans in the ranks of the educated and professional classes, willing (as Holborn puts it) to “demonstrate by the sacrifice of their lives…that…humane values had not perished in Germany,” they concentrated on the credentials and motives of the participants in the July plot of 1944.

The real point, needless to say, is quite different. What we need is a precise quantitative analysis, class by class and group by group, of the extent and nature of opposition on all levels, and this requires a new methodology.15 When we are told that “the Germans” in the 1920s yearned for “national greatness” we shall ask for detailed statistical evidence which we can test and check, and also for systematic group analysis indicating as exactly as possible which Germans yearned how much. No doubt, this means foregoing the sweeping moral judgments in which old-fashioned historians delight—and which, to be fair, is what the great reading public asks of history—but in compensation it will bring us, at last, face to face with the great unknown, the German people, who in conventional accounts remain hidden, a faceless mass, behind a glittering façade of generals, politicians, professors, and business tycoons.

Fifth, the new view of German history makes German foreign policy intelligible by relating it to the internal situation. “Illiberalism at home,” as Stern says, “prescribed an aggressive stance in German policy abroad.” Wehler describes Bismarck’s colonial policy as “a form of escapism”—escape from the insistent social problems at home—and the same is true of Bülow’s Weltpolitik and of the Pan-German pressures for expansion in east and southeast Europe. The frenetic, unstable, restless character of German foreign policy after 1897, inexplicable if analyzed (as Holborn does) in the framework of international diplomacy, becomes intelligible once we realize the extent to which it mirrors the internal tensions in German society.

Sixth, we are enabled to see the way in which these tensions, arising in the wake of the depression of 1873 and only gradually assuaged after 1945, are a key factor—perhaps the key factor—in modern German history. For the younger historians, the central theme is not the rise of Nazism, but the incipient class conflict, the deepening antagonism between a powerful but increasingly anachronistic authoritarianism and a growing democratic movement. This is the thread which lends unity to the period 1879-1969, and Nazism is only one strand in it. Class conflict, of course, was endemic in other countries, but Stern has analyzed the factors—the peculiar “German ambivalence to wealth and capitalism” and the uncompromising intransigence of the privileged classes—which made it particularly unrelenting in Germany.

Seventh, emphasis on the long-term social dichotomies (instead of smoothing them over) puts National Socialism into historical perspective. The obsessive preoccupation of the older historians with the rise of Nazism, as though it were the main content of German history since Bismarck, was bound to result in distortion. The younger historians have restored the balance. No doubt, if our concern is to explain the beastliness of the Nazis after they came to power, we shall still have to probe below the historical surface. But Nazism as a historical rather than a psychological phenomenon is only intelligible when related to the tensions and antagonisms of German society since Bismarck.

I do not mean simply that the conservative counterreaction in its blindness called in forces which destroyed that society (though that also is true). What I mean is that the conservative counterrevolution was bound eventually to trigger off a widespread popular movement, a rebellion of the deprived, disinherited, exploited, and deceived. That is why Stern is right to emphasize “the idealistic appeal of the Nazis.” Nazism was the German revolution, the German equivalent of 1789, the substitute for the revolution that failed in 1918, the product of all the tensions bottled up since 1919, the ultimate revulsion, all the more radical because it was delayed, against the old, authoritarian, semi-feudal society foisted on Germany by Bismarck. That is its place in German history, seen in the longer perspective which has opened out after twenty-five years.

Finally, the new view enables us—and it was high time—to fit the postwar period into the mainstream of German history. Contrary to commonly accepted opinion, 1945 was not (in Holborn’s words) “a new beginning.” The German revolution did not stop dead in its tracks, still less go into reverse, with the elimination of the Nazi leadership at Nuremberg in 1946, any more than the French revolution stopped dead with the execution of Robespierre and his supporters in 1794. I have no desire to propound specious parallels, but, looked at from the vantage point of the present, the Federal Republic after 1949 plainly appears to represent what Crane Brinton called “the Thermidorean reaction,” when gradually “the politically proscribed are amnestied and come back” and “the new ruling class”—“a very miscellaneous lot”—“settles down to do as good a job as”—by its mundane standards—“it can.”16 The question today is whether the period which opened in 1969 will see a real effort to come to terms with the many social problems brushed aside between 1949 and 1969, or whether—in the west at least—the German revolution has played itself out. In 1972, it must be confessed, the latter looks more likely.

Twenty-five years after the end of the war a new view of German history was long overdue. It may be that I have not presented it as clearly or persuasively as possible, but that does not detract from the importance of the work of the younger historians who have made it possible. The liberal interpretation of German history was a loaded interpretation, loaded with the burden of guilt and the emotional associations of 1945. The younger historians, who do not share these emotions, necessarily look at the German past from a different angle.

Bracher took Ritter to task for complaining of historians’ “unending fascination with the horrors of the Hitler dictatorship”; but there is a sense in which Ritter was right. As David Felix says, Germany today “lives in a new long run”—“beyond Weimar and Nazi Germany”—and our view of German history must take account of this fact. Politically, the German question has burned itself out; but it continues to haunt our history books. The new view is important because it shifts attention to other aspects, particularly to the long-term social and economic realities.

This is sometimes described as the substitution of “the primacy of internal policy” for the characteristically liberal emphasis on the “primacy of external policy.” We shall probably do better to avoid such simplifying formulations. What it signifies, in fact, is that the unifying thread of modern German history, including its foreign policy, is seen to have been its response to the rise of modern industrial capitalism. In this respect its history is not basically different from that of other countries in other parts of the world, and one of the main consequences of the change of perspective is that it enables us to view the German past (as Grosser puts it) “in the light of those coherent principles that may be applied to all political systems,” instead of treating Germany as a pariah among nations, whose aberrations have to be condemned or explained away.

That does not mean, of course, that the German response to the impact of industrial capitalism was “normal”—whatever “normal” may be—though one has only to look round the world today to see that it was less abnormal than at one time it seemed. What it does mean is that Germany has at last completed what Dahrendorf calls the “revolution of modernity”—not very successfully, perhaps, but unmistakably, both in the Democratic and in the Federal Republics. This is what Grosser has in mind when, almost regretfully, he describes contemporary Germany as “normal to excess.” If, as is often said, Germany from Bismarck to Adenauer was weighed down by the burden of the past, since 1963 it has cast the burden off—except in the minds and writings of a handful of liberal historians. This, again, is part—a substantial part—of the German revolution.

Paradoxical though it may sound at the end of this long—some will say overlong—survey, my conclusion is that we have suffered in the last quarter of a century from a surfeit of German history—or at least of the wrong sort of German history. Now that every minnow in the muddy Nazi pool has found his biographer, the time has surely come to call a truce. I do not mean that there is not still plenty to do. On the contrary, the preoccupation of the older historians with the highlights of German history has left many blind spots and dark corners. There was another Germany, not the “other Germany” of which we hear so much, the Germany of humane liberalism, but the Germany of people not concerned with “national greatness” but with jobs and wages, with the eight-hour day and equal opportunities for their children. About that Germany historians so far have had little to say. It is time the balance was redressed. Since 1945 the world has moved on, at a stupendous pace, and historians must move with it. Happily there are signs that some, at least, are beginning to do so.

(This is the last of three articles on modern German history.)

  1. 13

    The History of Germany Since 1789 by Golo Mann (London, 1968).

  2. 14

    Erich Matthias, “The Downfall of the Old Social Democratic Party in 1933,” in Republic to Reich, edited by Hajo Holborn (Pantheon, 1972).

  3. 15

    Two recent books make a beginning: Gegen den Nationalsozialismus by Kurt Klotzbach (Hannover, 1969), a study of the resistance in Dortmund, and Widerstand und Verfolgung in Essen by Hans-Josef Steinberg (Hannover, 1969).

  4. 16

    The Anatomy of Revolution by Crane Brinton (revised edition, Random House, 1952).

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