Wilhelminism and Its Legacies: German Modernities, Imperialism, and the Meanings of Reform, 1890-1930

Wilhelminism and Its Legacies: German Modernities, Imperialism, and the Meanings of Reform, 1890-1930

Wilhelminism and Its Legacies: German Modernities, Imperialism, and the Meanings of Reform, 1890-1930

Wilhelminism and Its Legacies: German Modernities, Imperialism, and the Meanings of Reform, 1890-1930

Synopsis

What was distinctive-and distinctively "modern"-about German society and politics in the age of Kaiser Wilhelm II? In addressing this question, these essays assemble cutting-edge research by fourteen international scholars. Based on evidence of an explicit and self-confidently "bourgeois" formation in German public culture, the contributors suggest new ways of interpreting its reformist potential and advance alternative readings of German political history before 1914. While proposing a more measured understanding of Wilhelmine Germany's extraordinarily dynamic society, they also grapple with the ambivalent, cross-cutting nature of German "modernities" and reassess their impact on long-term developments running through the Wilhelmine age.

Excerpt

More than three decades have now elapsed since the “Fischer Controversy” dramatically opened the Kaiserreich for serious historical research. The interpretations that quickly established their ascendancy during the initial rush of publication will be familiar enough. They amounted to a powerful claim about German exceptionalism—Germany’s differentness from “the West.” That claim was rooted in arguments about political backwardness and Germany’s persisting authoritarianism, which allegedly stacked the decks (or set the points) in favor of the eventual triumph of the Nazis. From the upsurge of scholarship produced between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s came a series of lasting and almost axiomatic perspectives: the importance of direct continuities linking Bismarck with Hitler; the effects of a structural contradiction between economic modernity and political backwardness that destabilized the Kaiserreich’s political institutions; the view that Germany never experienced the crucial emancipatory transformation of a bourgeois revolution in the nineteenth century, remaining subject instead to the authoritarianism of old-style “preindustrial elites” in the political system; the notion that those elites ruled by repression, social imperialism, and other manipulative techniques of rule; and the belief that German history was stamped by a calamitous “misdevelopment” in contrast to the healthier trajectories of societies farther to the west.

What came to be termed the “new orthodoxy” of the mid-1970s converged in important ways with an existing Anglo-American body of interpretation produced largely by emigrés and often drawing upon older, pre-1933 critical traditions of German political life. But the revisionist West German historians of the 1960s and 1970s sharpened these earlier claims and carried the argument much further. They insisted that backward political interests—the traditional power elites and their preindustrial mentalities—preempted any democratic modernizing of the political system and allowed what Karl Dietrich Bracher termed “authoritarian and anti-democratic struc-

Notes for this section begin on page 13.

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