The Peculiar Course of German History: Edgar Feuchtwanger Warns against Exaggerating the Extent or Significance of Liberalism's Failure in German History. (the Unpredictable Past)

By Feuchtwanger, Edgar | History Review, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Peculiar Course of German History: Edgar Feuchtwanger Warns against Exaggerating the Extent or Significance of Liberalism's Failure in German History. (the Unpredictable Past)


Feuchtwanger, Edgar, History Review


The weakness of German liberalism usually figures prominently in anything written about modern German history. It is also central to the thesis of a German Sonderweg (separate path), that German history, from at least the nineteenth century onwards, deviated significantly from more benign developments in Western Europe. The argument is that in Germany, as compared with France and particularly Britain, the middle class, the main carrier of the liberal idea, was weak. Hence the progress from absolute monarchy through parliamentary government to democracy was stalled. The revolution of 1848, meant to bring parliamentary government to Germany, was defeated. Instead Bismarck carried out a revolution from above on behalf of the Prussian military monarchy, whose powers therefore remained largely intact, when elsewhere monarchies became constitutional, or were replaced by republics.

Historiographical Debate

This argument, or variants of it, became a virtual orthodoxy in writing on German history after the Second World War. There was an overwhelming need to find a satisfactory explanation for the rise of Hitler, with all the devastating moral and material consequences of the Third Reich for Germany in particular and for the world in general. Some nationalist and conservative German historians still tried to account for Hitler's rise as a kind of alien intrusion into the normal course of events. They wanted to rebut the view that something was flawed in the whole of Germany's modern development. For most observers, however, the treatment of Hitler as an unfortunate traffic accident of history was not adequate and the `weakness of liberalism' and `Sonderweg' theses seemed more satisfying.

More recently, these theses have themselves been questioned, most notably by two British historians, Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn, in The Peculiarities of German History. They argued that the idea of a German Sonderweg is only meaningful if there is a normal path to modernity. Modernisation is nowadays a well-established concept used by historians, signifying the various ways in which societies move from the pre-modern, pre-industrial state towards industrialisation, urbanisation and beyond. The British way--the first and therefore the classical model--from which the German is held to have deviated, is, however, merely another special development, for all national histories have their peculiarities. Moreover, the German middle class was by no means as weak and constantly defeated as the proponents of the `weakness of German liberalism' make out. Revolutions, like the French of 1789, are not necessarily the sign of a successful middle class, and nor was the failure of the 1848 revolution in Germany a conclusive defeat of the middle class. Revolution, a violent lurch in the normal evolution of history, is itself an idea fraught with difficulties of definition. In the decades after 1848 the German bourgeoisie still led the transformation of Germany into an industrial nation and even Bismarck had to make a pact with it.

The German historian most closely associated with the Sonderweg thesis, H.-U. Wehler, has also modified his views. He stated his theory of the political retardation of Germany most coherently in a book The German Empire 1871-1918, first published in German in 1973 and in English in 1985. He has now published a massive three-volume history of German society up to 1914. In it he lists a series of factors that distinguish Germany from Western European nations. They include the dominance of a charismatic personality, namely Bismarck, in the formation of the nation and the direct control by the monarch, rather than parliament, of the military. The predominance of the bourgeoisie was restricted, from above, not only by the survival of a powerful monarchy and the aristocracy associated with it, but also, from below, by a strong and radical labour movement. …

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