A New View of German History: Part III

The Failure of Illiberalism

by Fritz Stern
Knopf, 233 pp., $7.95


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.

The reason 1879 is a significant date and 1871 is not is that 1879 saw a radical redistribution of social and economic power, and 1871 did not. Until 1879 it was possible that Germany might make a peaceful transition to modern industrial capitalism; after 1879 that was no longer the case. The great overriding problems which dominated German history until Hitler liquidated them in an orgy of destruction all date from 1879. The alliance between Junker agrarians and heavy industry, preceded in 1878 by Bismarck’s attack on social democracy, was the beginning of the “conservative counterrevolution” which came to a head in 1930 and reached its dismal end in 1944. The “presidential system” of 1930 looked back to Bismarck’s schemes of nonparliamentary government in and after 1880, and a direct line leads from the projects put forward at that time for a “central European union” under German leadership to Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938.

The second period over which the younger generation of historians has challenged the existing interpretation of modern German history is that between 1930 and 1934. Just as 1871 has been displaced by 1879, so 1933 has lost the place it has so long occupied as a pivotal date in German history. As Mau and Bracher have demonstrated, the view that January 30, 1933, saw the displacement of a parliamentary system by totalitarian dictatorship is wide of the mark. For the younger generation of historians, the breakdown of parliamentary democracy dates from 1930, the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship from 1934 or even later. These, not 1933, are the real turning points.

This shift of emphasis has important implications for the history both of National Socialism and of the Weimar Republic. David Childs is right in saying6 that it is impossible “to pinpoint the moment when Hitler’s dictatorship was finally and irrevocably established,” but there is no doubt that it occurred later and more gradually than the older generation of historians would have us believe. In 1933 Hitler was the last of the series of “presidential chancellors” who had ruled Germany since 1930. His independent position was certainly not stabilized before the death of Hindenburg in August, 1934, probably not before 1936 when Himmler provided the dictatorship with a firm institutional basis in the form of the Gestapo and SS. Martin Broszat has even maintained, in my view convincingly, that the great divide—the moment when the countervailing forces were eliminated and the Nazis took full control—only came in the winter of 1937-1938.7

What is important about this change of attitude, of course, is less the exact date than the abandonment of the old view of the Third Reich as a monolithic totalitarian order operating without break from 1933 to 1945. By dethroning 1933 from its pivotal position, the younger historians have put the history of National Socialism in a new perspective. The same is true of the Weimar Republic. As the older generation of historians saw it, the years between 1919 and 1933 constituted a single self-contained period characterized by the prevalence of the parliamentary system set up under the Weimar constitution. In reality, the period divides sharply in 1930, just as the period 1871-1890 divides sharply in 1879. Nor is this the only division. Harold Gordon8 has characterized the early Weimar years as “the era of Putsches,” and this period, extending down to the end of 1923, is as different from the period that followed as that period is different from the period of authoritarian presidential government which commenced in 1930.

The result is a far more differentiated picture of Weimar Germany. The older historians saw the whole period between 1919 and 1933 as an uneasy interlude between the Hohenzollerns and Hitler, almost as a steady progression to Nazism. For the younger historians the decisive factors were not the constitutional changes in 1919, but the restoration of economic stability following the stabilization of the currency at the end of 1923, which brought to an end the “era of Putsches,” and the destabilization following the world economic crisis of 1929, which ushered in the period of “conservative counterrevolution.”

After 1924 we can observe a perceptible shift in power relations, reflected in the growing strength of social democracy and the success of the Social Democrats in the elections of 1928. It was fear that this redistribution of power, if consolidated, might become irreversible that inspired the conservative counterrevolution of 1930, just as similar fears accounted for Bismarck’s change of course in 1879. That is why Stern calls the chancellorship of Brüning, which inaugurated the counterrevolution, “the hinge of Nazism.” Just as Hitler’s beer hall Putsch of 1923 was a typical manifestation of the “era of Putsches,” so the so-called “seizure of power” on January 30, 1933, was part of the conservative reaction—the self-styled period of “national concentration” or “national awakening”—that began in 1930.


These are some of the salient differences of interpretation that divide the younger and older generations of historians. Rather than pursue them further, let us draw the threads together and try, briefly and necessarily dogmatically, to set out the new view of German history they suggest.

First of all, our starting point, for reasons already explained, is 1879 rather than 1871. The more difficult question is when the first period ends. Certainly Bismarck’s dismissal in 1890 was not a turning point. Under his successors there was much reshuffling of the political cards, but no fundamental change in the structure of power. At the same time the system was becoming increasingly antiquated and unworkable. In 1871 the Social Democrats had polled 125,000 votes; in 1903 they polled over three million. The strains and stresses that resulted in a system designed to hold them in check and keep them out of power are obvious, and by 1909 at the latest they had reached the breaking point. As A.J.P. Taylor long ago pointed out, “The events of 1906-09 reduced the Bismarckian constitution to chaos,”9 and when Bülow resigned in 1909 the period that began in 1879 came to an end.

It was followed by a period which Taylor rightly calls an “interregnum.” It runs without break from 1909 to 1917, and the traditional division in 1914 is as meaningless as that in 1890. If the German ruling classes decided in 1914 to run the risk of a great European war, the reason, as Halévy long ago pointed out, was their fear of revolution.10 After 1910 more and more voices are heard calling for war as the only outlet from the intolerable tensions at home. Whether victory would have saved the system we do not know, though it is unlikely; unsuccessful war ruined it. When in 1917 the tottering Prussian monarchy was displaced, in fact if not in name, by the dictatorship of Ludendorff, it was the end not only of a period but of a system of government.

The revolutionary period that followed extends from the great strikes and naval unrest in the spring and summer of 1917, with no real break in 1918 or 1919, to 1923. Ludendorff’s dictatorship had been a last desperate attempt—the last until Hitler—to stave up an obsolete social and political system. The fundamental question in the succeeding period was what should succeed it. The answer is mirrored in the Weimar constitution of 1919; no return to the prewar system, but also no genuine break with the past. The shortsightedness of the Social Democrat leadership in 1918 and 1919 left the Germans a bitterly divided, disunited people, in many ways more so than before 1914. Furthermore, the resuscitation of the forces behind the old order—above all, the officer corps and the bureaucracy—at a moment when they were totally discredited and could easily have been swept away, stoked the fires of nascent civil war. The result was the prolongation of revolution and counterrevolution until 1923.

The period that followed, from 1924 to 1930, was nevertheless more than an interlude. David Felix has rightly protested in his new book against the tendency to write off the Weimar Republic as “an accident of history,” foredoomed to failure.11 The revolution of 1918 may not have produced fundamental changes in the structure of German society, but the defeat of the Kapp Putsch in 1920, not to mention Hitler’s fiasco in 1923, shows at least that the different elements in German society were more evenly balanced than before, and once economic stability had been restored at the end of 1923, there is plenty of evidence, as I have already pointed out, that the popular forces were making headway. Nazism at this period was a fringe movement of insignificant proportions, and after 1924 (as Felix says) the general assumption, even on the part of right-wing nationalists, was that the republic “would continue to exist.” All in all, Grosser is almost certainly right when he says that, but for the onset of the world economic crisis in 1929, “the Weimar republic would probably have succeeded in consolidating its strength.”12

The Great Depression and the divisions and hesitations of the left in confronting it gave the forces of reaction their chance and ushered in the period of conservative counterrevolution. Overshadowed as it is by the Nazi dictatorship, it can easily be regarded simply as the prelude to Nazism; but it has its own place in German history as the last fling of the old order, the last attempt by the forces Bismarck had put in the saddle in 1879 to turn the clock back. After 1930 National Socialism was certainly an important factor; but Hermann Mau is right to emphasize that the “central figure” during the period 1930-1934 was Hindenburg, not Hitler, just as in 1923 it was not Hitler but Ludendorff. The destruction of parliamentary democracy was the work of the conservatives, not of the Nazis, who were only called in at the last moment when it looked as though without them the counterrevolution would not succeed. Authoritarian government dates from March, 1930, not from January, 1933, and after January, 1933, the only question was what sort of authoritarianism it would be.

The answer hung in the balance for many months and was not decided before August, 1934, at the earliest, and probably a good deal later. As Bracher has shown, the so-called “seizure of power” is a piece of Nazi mythology, and the army demonstrated with the utmost clarity who was in command when it forced Hitler to turn on Roehm and the SA on June 30, 1934. Slowly, thereafter, the position was reversed. The years 1933 to 1945 are far from being one continuous period of history. Down to 1938 the conservatives might still have asserted control (though with diminishing prospects as time passed), but they were inhibited by their nationalist ambitions and their hostility to the left. After 1938, when they woke up to the danger, it was too late.

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. 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).

  6. 6

    Germany Since 1918 by David Childs (Harper and Row, 1972).

  7. 7

    Der Staat Hitler by Martin Broszat (Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, 1969).

  8. 8

    Hitler and the Beer Hall Putsch by Harold J. Gordon, Jr. (Princeton, 1972).

  9. 9

    The Course of German History by A.J.P. Taylor (London, 1945, and many subsequent reprints).

  10. 10

    The World Crisis of 1914-1918 Oxford, 1930) reprinted in The Era of Tyrannies by E. Halévy (Anchor Books, 1965).

  11. 11

    Walther Rathenau and the Weimar Republic: The Politics of Reparations by David Felix (Johns Hopkins, 1971).

  12. 12

    Germany in Our Time by Alfred Grosser (Praeger, 1971).

  13. 13

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

  14. 14

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

  15. 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).

  16. 16

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