Historians, it has been said, spend the first third of their career attacking the errors of their elders, the second third putting forward their own, more convincing interpretations to replace them, and the last third defending historical truth against the misguided iconoclasm of their younger colleagues. But it has also been said that as historians get older, the firm, clear-cut views with which they begin their career become fuzzier and more complex in the light of their increasing knowledge, until they are so nuanced that scarcely anything is left of the grand simplicities with which they set out. This, no doubt, is what gives each new generation of historians its opportunity to challenge existing ways of looking at the past. But it is also how historical understanding advances over time.
Comparing Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s major new book on Germany from 1849 to 1914 (1995) with his brief but epoch-making study of The German Empire 1871-1918 (1985), first published in German in 1973, 2 in many ways illustrates the truth of these observations. In his earlier book, and in many other works, Wehler and his associates, in what has come to be known as the ‘Bielefeld school’ of historians, criticized an older German historiography which denied the long-term roots of Nazism in German history and, under the sign of the ‘primacy of foreign policy’, insisted on the ‘encirclement’ of Germany before 1914 and the iniquities of the Treaty of Versailles as the root causes of the collapse of civilized standards in the age of mass democracy under the Weimar Republic. In its place, Wehler advanced a new theory of German history, based on a fusion of Marxism and Weberian modernization theory. The sources of Germany’s descent into barbarism in 1933 were to be sought, he insisted, not in its geopolitical predicament in the middle of Europe, but in the ‘special path’ or Sonderweg taken by German society to modernity between the middle of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth. In 1848, so the argument went, the German bourgeoisie failed in its attempt to wrest power from the aristocracy in the way that its counterparts in other countries had done; in England in 1640 for example, or France in 1789. As a result, the Prussian aristocracy was able to preserve its sociopolitical hegemony. It