Positioning Modern German History
on the Map of European Empires
The initial inspiration for this article comes from recent models of empire.1 If one may combine Dominic Lieven's and Alfred Rieber's definitions of empire, it amounts to be [a very great power that has left its mark on the international relations of an era,] [a polity that rules over wide territories and many peoples] which has left [a major impact on the history of world civilization,]2 and which is not based on a democratic, but on a dynastic or ideological legitimization of power. Although the German Empire established in 1871 fully complies with this definition, the historiography about 19th century continental empires in Europe commonly restricts itself on the Habsburg, the Ottoman and the Russian Empires.3 This article explores whether and where the German Empire could be located on this map of continental European empires.
Postwar historiography in Germany has reached a consensus on this question. It has viewed 19th century German history primarily as the past of a nation state inhabited by an ethnically homogenous German society. The term empire had been discredited by the National Socialists and their megalomaniac attempt to create a racially clean [Tausendjähriges Reich.] However, the reduction of German history to a narrative of a homogenous nation state and society also provides an element of continuity between the historiography before 1945 and in the Federal Republic. Even the blossoming of theories and empirical studies of imperialism in the 1960s and 1970s did not fundamentally change the aforementioned consensus, because according to the predominant Marxist viewpoint German imperialism was regarded as the result of a capitalist nation state destroyed by its self-destructive contradictions. German imperialism was portrayed as the externalization of interior problems, but not as a form of being or an essence of a state.4 The common view of 19th century German history as a national history has been hardened by its legitimizing function for the merger of the GDR and the Federal Republic in 1990. The unification was portrayed as a better version of the first nation state formation in 1871. According to Chancellor Kohl and the political establishment, the Germans again formed a nation state but this time without [blood and iron.]