"Long Live Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Dynamite:" (1) the German Bourgeoisie and the Constructing of Popular Liberal and National-Socialist Subcultures in Marginal Germany

By Heilbronner, Oded | Journal of Social History, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

"Long Live Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Dynamite:" (1) the German Bourgeoisie and the Constructing of Popular Liberal and National-Socialist Subcultures in Marginal Germany


Heilbronner, Oded, Journal of Social History


Interest in European Liberalism as a cultural phenomenon and its relation to the European Bourgeoisie has certainly increased in the last decade. One of the new arguments is that, like Socialism and Catholicism in continental Europe, Liberalism in 19th-early 20th century Europe was not an elitist bourgeois movement but a mass-movement, and sometimes a radical one. (2) This argument, however, is not applied to Germany. Liberalism as a mass democratic movement, and the German Burgertum as a cultural liberal formation, it was said until recently, only existed in Germany until 1849, or, some will say, until the early 1870s, after which both lost their mass democratic-liberal appeal. (3)

In this article, however, I would like to speak of German 19th and early 20th-century Liberalism not in terms of crisis and collapse. I would like to offer new interpretations of the strength and peculiarities of Liberalism in Germany by introducing the term Popular Liberalism, hitherto usually applied to a pattern of political behavior in mid and late 19th-century Britain. (4)

In using the term Popular Liberalism in the context of German Liberalism and German Bourgeoisie for the first time, I am trying to clarify political, social and cultural patterns in Germany up to the early 1930s. I argue that popular-radical liberal bourgeois pressure-groups and parties persistently focussed their criticism on the need to move the political system of the German Second Reich and the Weimar Republic in a more radical direction. By studying this political and cultural formation, I believe I can prove the existence of German Popular Liberalism in a specific region: Greater Swabia in South Germany. In this region the local bourgeoisie (artisans, rich farmers, small businessmen, civil servants, small entrepreneurs), as members in Liberal movements, fought hard to retain their constituents' loyalty. With varying degrees of success, they opened up the party leadership to new voices, evolved new organizational forms, and sought to placate their electorate by aggressive defense of local industrial interests. In Greater Swabia, local Liberals (mostly members of the National-Liberal Party and peasant organisations) were proudly conscious of their radical identity and strongly determined to survive as an electoral and social force. It can even be said that in some southern regions Popular Liberalism dominanted the school, the pub, the local voluntary association (Verein), and the Old Catholic church. Together with the popular Catholics, the Popular Liberals were the movers and shakers of the local political culture. In short, the existence of a long tradition of plebeian radicalism and its cultural and institutional expression are undoubtedly of great significance.

The major goal of my article is to offer a new explanation for the success of National Socialism before 1933 in certain regions in South Germany: one connected with the fact that there was a substantial continuity in Popular Liberalism throughout the second half of the 19th and the first third of the 20th century.

Now, one of the difficulties about discussing the linkages between German Bourgeoisie, German Liberalism and National Socialism is that it is a subject we seem to know so well that we are unable to reconsider its historical roots. In my study, I wish to re-examine the relations between Popular-Liberalism and National Socialism, in the hope that a different viewpoint will produce a deeper understanding of the discourse of the German Bourgeoisie with relation to the Nazi success before 1933. My argument is based on the continuity of radical-liberal bourgeois politics, which in this period continued to be dominant in many parties, pressure-groups and bourgeois associations. According to this interpretation, the post 1920s National Socialism drew from a variety of cultural sources and, especially before 1933, reacted pragmatically to changing circumstances. It is further argued that National Socialist thought and actions did not just emerge from within the Nazi Party itself, but also developed autonomously and concurrently within the various subcultures and regions of Weimar Germany with predominantly rural liberal traditions.

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