The German Mystery Case

The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany

by David Blackbourn, by Geoff Eley
Oxford University Press, 300 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Reflexionen Finsterer Zeit: Zwei Vorträge

by Fritz Stern, by Hans Jonas
J.C.B. Mohr, 94 pp., DM28

Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich

by Jeffrey Herf
Cambridge University Press, 251 pp., $29.95

The Ideological Origins of Nazi Imperialism

by Woodruff D. Smith
Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $35.95

The enormity of the crimes committed during the Third Reich has confronted historians with the problem of explaining how a nation as progressive and cultured as Germany could have brought forth and tolerated the regime that committed them. Earlier answers to this problem, which varied from arguments based upon explorations of the German mind to attributions of baleful influence to the Prussian military, have been superseded since the 1960s by sociological and structural ones.

The most popular of these emphasize a lack of coordination between Germany’s economic growth in the modern period and its social and political development. Because of the failure of the revolution of 1848 and Bismarck’s subsequent unification of Germany by a combination of diplomatic guile and military brutality, the middle class, it is argued, lost confidence in its own political and social goals, submitted to the all-powerful state, compromised with the Junker agriculturists (the so-called marriage of iron and rye), and tamely accepted the values of the aristocratic establishment (the feudalization of the bourgeoisie). These surrenders destroyed the possibility of progress toward liberalism and democracy by confirming the old preindustrial elite in power, giving it the opportunity, indeed, to survive the end of the monarchy, to subvert the foundations of the Weimar Republic, and to project Hitler into power. Thus the failed bourgeois revolution is the key to Germany’s Sonderweg, its pronounced deviation from the road followed by its western neighbors and its catastrophic surrender to Nazism.

Five years ago, in a book published first in Germany, two young British historians, David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, submitted this thesis to a meticulous examination and declared it unsatisfactory; the vigor of their attack and the forth-rightness with which they rejected views held by leading German historians caused a great roiling of the academic waters that has not yet entirely subsided. The Sonderweg controversy became for the 1980s what the Fischer controversy over German aims in the First World War was for the 1960s; nor were the two unconnected. Eley and Blackbourn have now prepared an English version of their original book, expanded both in text and footnotes, and provided with a substantial introduction that places their work in the context of the continuing discussion.

At the risk of doing an injustice to the sophistication of their argument and the wealth of material they adduce to support it, one can say that the two authors are intent above all on demonstrating that a comparison of the experience of the German middle class with that of the British or French bourgeoisie does not reveal the differences that have been taken for granted. If there was no successful bourgeois revolution in Germany, in the sense of a classical rising that successfully unseated a ruling aristocracy, there was none in the other countries either. The bourgeoisie, Blackbourn writes, “characteristically became the dominant class in European countries, although seldom the ruling class and never the sole ruling class, through means other than the heroic, purposive conquest of power. Its …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.