For many years, Thomas Nipperdey was a leading opponent of the ‘critical school’ of German historians, who have seen the nineteenth century above all as the period in which the foundations were laid for the triumph of Nazism in 1933. The upheavals of the early part of the century, the Napoleonic Wars and the reforms they brought about, only served, in this view, to strengthen the structures of absolutism and underpin the dominance of aristocratic elites in German society. The 1848 Revolution failed to pave the way for a bourgeois society such as had been ushered in by the 1789 Revolution in France. Instead, German society diverged from the normal path towards modernity taken by the other Western nations. The unification of Germany under Bismarck created a German Empire that was dominated by the authoritarian, backward-looking values of its ruling caste, the Prussian military and landowning aristocracy. Despite its booming industrial economy, the Empire’s social and political structures were in many ways ‘feudalized’, its middle classes cowed and deferential to the state and the titled nobility, its urban and rural masses regimented into loyalty and obedience by the disciplining influence of the army, the police, the judiciary and the educational system, all of which were geared to producing not independent, thinking citizens but supine, unquestioning subjects. Bismarck, as Gladstone once observed, may have made Germany great, but he made the Germans small; and in the view of the ‘critical’ historians it was hardly surprising, therefore, that after the collapse of the Empire in the Revolution of 1918 that followed Germany’s defeat in the First World War, so many millions of Germans were unable to come to terms with the uncertainties of democracy and fell prey to the demagogic authoritarianism of the National Socialists.
This ‘critical’ view of the German past, which located the roots of Nazism in the structural flaws of German history in the nineteenth century, was not, of course, shared by everyone who wrote on the subject, perhaps not even by a majority; but it was propounded in a wide range of general surveys,