Academic journal article The Historian

Nationalism, Ethnic Preoccupation, and the Decline of German Liberalism: A Silesian Case Study, 1898-1933

Academic journal article The Historian

Nationalism, Ethnic Preoccupation, and the Decline of German Liberalism: A Silesian Case Study, 1898-1933

Article excerpt

I

ON 5 MARCH 1933 political liberalism disappeared from Germany. As the election returns came in, it became clear that in little more than fourteen years, nineteen out of twenty liberal voters had defected to the Nazi Party. (1) In light of this precipitous decline the liberal leader Kurt Maeder wondered, on the one hand, whether "the last fighters for the liberal idea should give up the struggle and see the decline ... as inevitable" or form a "loose association" of "cultural liberals" to wait patiently until the Third Reich had run its course. To be sure, Napoleon had lasted only fifteen years; Hitler might not survive any longer. On the other hand, however, what true liberal "did not receive joyously" Hitler's "great, national assemblies"? Indeed, Maeder continued, "Within the realm of national goals there existed only the difference that we [the liberals] were a reform party, and they [the Nazis] a revolutionary party." After some soul-searching, Maeder therefore concluded that liberalism possessed "a national as well as a liberal heart," and that because the "national heart [could] not stop beating," German liberals should feel no shame in giving themselves over to Hitler. (2) Maeder's suggestion was more than a tactical accommodation of National Socialism. It represented a final, blatant rejection of "liberal" values in the name of exclusionary, volkisch nationalism, the virulent form of race-based nationalism that spread throughout Central Europe in the last decade of the nineteenth century and found its purest manifestation in Hitler's Nazi Party. (3)

Yet German historiography of the postwar generation has tended to overlook this last, rather easy, liberal capitulation to the racist and nationalist aspects of the Nazi program. Indeed, while many historians have recognized the imperialist trends within German liberalism after 1870, most have chosen to emphasize alternative factors in explaining liberal decline, and none have traced a direct political, intellectual, and cultural genealogy from liberalism to Nazism. (4) Wishing to exculpate ordinary Germans of any direct responsibility for National Socialism, most conservative scholarship blames the collapse of liberal democracy (and hence the rise of Hitler) on an unfortunate series of political and economic crises fomented beyond Germany's borders (the First World War, the Versailles Treaty, hyperinflation, depression, etc.). (5) Not surprisingly, a number of historians have countered this emphasis on external factors (Aussenpolitik) with arguments focused on domestic social and political factors (Innenpolitik). While sympathetic to the efforts of contemporary liberals, who in good conscience worked to reform Germany's backward institutions, these historians argue that Germany followed a "special path" (Sondwerweg) to modernity. Instead of pushing for liberal-democratic revolution like their "Western" counterparts, Britain and France, the Sonderweg historians argue that the German bourgeoisie became socially reactionary and economically self-satisfied, leaving politics to traditional conservative elites who plunged Germany into war and National Socialism in a desperate effort to stave off social and political modernization. For these historians, German ethnic (volkisch) nationalism, even Nazi racial persecution and genocide, was simply the unfortunate byproduct of Germany's conservative traditions, not a motive of political and ideological force endemic both to the traditional right-wing and the liberal middle classes. (6)

In the last twenty years, however, a new generation of British and American scholars has challenged this Sonderweg paradigm. Calling into question the very premise of German historical peculiarity, these historians argue that imperial Germany was socially and culturally not very different from Victorian Britain, republican France, or even the United States. By further emphasizing the imperialist and conservative trends in British society of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, revisionist scholars deconstructed the traditional Whiggish model of liberal, Anglo-Saxon "modernity" held up by Sonderweg historians as the ideal form of social and political development. …

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