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…

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