Writing Europe's Pasts: Germany's Twentieth Century

Article excerpt


All articles in this special issue of the Australian Journal of Politics and History originated in papers presented at the thirteenth biennial conference of the Australasian Association for European History, Auckland, 9-12 July 2001. As reflected by this special issue, modern German history constituted a central focus of the conference. The themes of the articles gathered here span the history of Germany during the twentieth century with some covering issues that will continue to occupy the discourse on Germany's recent history in the twenty-first century.

Arguably, the twentieth century was "Germany's century" -- though primarily in a negative sense. By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, largely due to the policies of the Wilhelmine leadership, Germany had already established itself as a global power -- certainly in economic terms, but also more consequentially in terms of its military might. At the beginning of the twenty-first century Germany continues to be a global economic power and, though militarily far weaker than at the beginning of the previous century, again occupies an influential political role abroad.

In the intervening century, Germany very probably underwent more dramatic than any other nation worldwide. Few societies can "boast" having experienced the range of radical political transformations that affected Germany. A German citizen born at the beginning of the twentieth century would have grown up in an authoritarian monarchy, experienced Germany's first democratic republic as a young adult, reached middle age in an extreme right-wing dictatorship and spent a few years in one of the occupation zones run by the Allies. If the particular zone had been the Soviet one, the citizen would have grown old under a communist dictatorship (unless, of course, he like many of his co-citizens had made his way across into the democratic western part of divided Germany) and eventually, at the ripe old age of ninety, he would have found himself back in a democratic republic. The very same citizen would have lived through the economic ups and downs of the first half of the twentieth century and through the massive international changes that transformed Germany from military power to international pariah to military power to international outcast (all within less than half a century).

Germany and its citizens did, of course, not experience these changes in isolation. All too often, the country's internal developments and the policies of its governments impinged directly upon other states and peoples, culminating in their most extreme form in the aggressive expansionism and genocidal destructionism of the Nazi regime. The shadow of the monstrous policies implemented by Hitler and his followers in the self-styled Third Reich is long and enduring. This shadow finds its obvious reflection in this special issue, in particular in Anthony Long's examination of the Holocaust denial scene in Germany and Thomas Huber's inquiry into aspects and effects of global Holocaust compensation proceedings. It may, in fact, be argued that a third article, John Milfull's critical contemplations on the German Democratic Republic, is indirectly also concerned with this shadow. One of the major effects of Hitler's lust for war, and the resultant total defeat of Nazi Germany, was the subsequent division of Germany and, with the creation of the GDR, the eventual legacy of two distinct criminal systems.

Both Andrew Bonnell's assessment of the level of knowledge of Marxist theory among supporters of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Douglas Newton's detailed study of a noteworthy World War I peace initiative concern themselves with crucial aspects of the Wilhelmine period (though more indirectly in the case of the latter). …