Politics and Culture in Wilhelmine Germany: The Case of Industrial Architecture

By Matthew Jefferies | Go to book overview

Introduction

The English historian David Blackbourn, noting that 'the German bourgeoisie has had a bad press',1. once claimed: 'we hear much about the Germany of the spiked helmet and too little about top-hatted Germany, much about the feudalisation of the German bourgeoisie and too little about the embourgeoisement of German society'.2. This book may help to redress the balance, for it is 'top-hatted Germany' which lies at the heart of the following chapters.

Whilst the question 'who ruled in Berlin?' has lost none of its perennial fascination for historians of Wilhelmine Germany, it has to some extent been superseded by another deceptively simple query: 'how modern was the Kaiserreich?'. One of the many historians to have wrestled with this theme was the late Thomas Nipperdey: 'was it an authoritarian state, a society of classes and vassals, thoroughly old-fashioned, or was it on the verge of modernity, poised to become the bourgeois society of the present century? Was it up a dead-end street, incapable of further development without war and revolution, or was it on the way to more reasonable, liberal, and democratic forms? Was it a precursor to 1933, or rather more of Weimar and the Federal Republic?'3.

The alleged failure of Germany to undergo a thorough process of 'modernisation' in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has often been cited as the underlying cause of the nation's later misfortunes. It is suggested that the survival in powerful positions of 'pre-industrial élites', and the apparent willingness of bourgeois Germans to embrace 'feudal' values, ensured that Germany did not take the western world's recommended route to modernity, but instead embarked on a Sonderweg, with fateful consequences for all concerned. For the generation of 'critical' historians, which first came to prominence in the Federal Republic during the heady days of the late 1960s, the German middle classes appeared to bear a particularly heavy burden of guilt. Not only had they failed to fulfil their historic function in 1848, but had thereafter shown an unhealthy willingness to compromise with the old élites, preferring personal

____________________
1.
D. Blackbourn, Populists and Patricians, Oxford, 1984, p. 67.
2.
D. Blackbourn, ibid., p. 13.
3.
T. Nipperdey, Wie modern war das Kaiserreich? Das Beispiel der Schule, Opladen, 1986, p.5.

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