The Peculiarities of German History

David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley’s study The Peculiarities of German History is a combination of three essays originally published in German as Mythen deutscher Geschichtsschreibung in 1980.  In these essays, both Blackbourn and Eley directly dispute the concept of the German Sonderweg and suggest alternative ways to interpret Germany’s special path.  Both scholars are British historians of Germany and focus on the Second Empire, or Kaiserreich, and criticize recent scholarship on the empire that seeks out the roots of German Nazism.  By searching for the roots of Nazism, the authors contend, historians are failing to ask “what happened” and instead asking “what didn’t happen?”  The authors suggest that this line of questioning results in bad history and misrepresents what actually occurred in Germany.  Moreover, the authors argue that the idea of German exceptionalism, German peculiarities, or a special way to modernity is inaccurate as all nations reach or achieve modernity differently and at different times.  By arguing against the existence of a “normal” bourgeois evolution to liberal democracy, they first attempt to locate a European model to compare Imperial Germany and, having rejected the idea of a “normal” bourgeois revolutionary model, they suggest that by examining German civil society one can observe the evolution of a successful bourgeois class in imperial Germany.

In the introductory coauthored essay, the authors examine the development of the Sonderweg thesis exhibiting its development since the 19th century and demonstrating that before 1945 the Sonderweg was a positive model.  The Germans were proud of their special path and accentuated the German combination of political, economic, social, and military influences that led to modernity.  However, with the concept of the Sonderweg revived in the 1960s, the idea became negative as historians sought for the roots of Nazism in Germany’s imperial era.  This created a wide diverse study of the Second Empire led by Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and while Blackbourn and Eley do not discount the Sonderweg as a method of analysis, they believe it has become overused, especially in Germany’s comparison to Great Britain, and this has dulled its analytical strength.  Moreover, these scholars of Imperial Germany aim to rescue the era from “the tyranny of hindsight.” (33)  They believe that historians’ search for the root of Nazism distorts the historical record as they attempt to locate the roadmap to Nazism rather than show what happened.

Eley’s essay “The British Model and the German Road” sets out to explore the nature of German differences by examining the concepts used to define it and argues that imperial Germany was less backward and more modern than most historians have been prepared to admit.  While Eley makes many valid critiques of the Sonderweg thesis, his strongest argument focuses on the idea that Germany failed to have a proper bourgeois revolution like France and Great Britain which led to its misdevelopment.  This concept raises many questions for Eley and asks is the bourgeois always uniform? Does a bourgeois always have liberal inclinations? Are the only outcomes a liberal victory or armed resurgent authoritarians? Did a bourgeois revolution occur in Great Britain and France?  These questions form the basis of Eley’s study and his answers reveal that there is no one path to liberal democracy and that every nations is exceptional; that because the British achieved liberalism first, they have become a model but every nation is unique and cannot fit within this model.  Moreover, Eley argues that the German bourgeois secured its interests under the Bismarckian state which historians characterize as dysfunctional because they are looking through the lens of liberal democracy, an abstract idea, rather how contemporaries understood the period.  Thus, Eley concludes that bourgeois revolutions occur differently in each nation and that Germany did have one but it was not a violent battle; furthermore, those scholars who stress imperial Germany’s reactionary qualities fail to observe the progressive character of German unification.

While Eley’s essay is more abstract and theoretical, Blackbourn’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois” examines bourgeois behavior during the Kaiserriech focusing on the economic, social, and political spheres.  Blackbourn argues that in the economic and social spheres Germany’s bourgeois class was very similar to those in Great Britain and France and he discusses fashion, philanthropic associations, business pursuits, rule of law, and even the importance of the zoo.  In his examination of bourgeois social and economic spheres, Blackbourn concedes that the increasingly wealthy German bourgeois were susceptible to the aristocratic lifestyle but argues that this too was not unusual as shown by historian Marin Weiner in his study The Decline of the Industrial Spirit which argues that the British bourgeois class also sought to imitate the aristocracy.  In the political sphere, Blackbourn states that bourgeois were not prominent but this was a result of their economic success which made political power less necessary, and, if it was less necessary, than it was less desirable.  Furthermore, on the political level, the bourgeois became more divisive and broke into warring factions which hid their social and economic unity.  Thus for Blackbourn, the German bourgeois class was successful but it was discreet because they did not exert themselves politically and , when they did, they broke into smaller parties, factions, and regions which is what historians usually see rather than the great gains made by the bourgeois in the social and economic spheres.

Ultimately, the authors engage with the scholarship on the Sonderweg and validly critique the scholarship in support of this concept; however, their arguments rely on the theoretical and abstract and remain devoid of primary sources.  Now that they have made their argument and revealed the flaws of the Sonderweg thesis, they need to further expand on their ideas by utilizing primary source research.  For Eley, this may include examining the “revolutionary moments” in Great Britain, France, and Germany and demonstrating the diversity of the bourgeois in each case, the uniqueness of each nation’s arrival to modernity – why there is no model, and how contemporaries understood their nation’s arrival at modernity.   Blackbourn also needs to base his arguments in the sources as his arguments and critiques appear convincing but his use of primary sources remains weak.  By furthering his arguments, such as showing that the German social and political spheres were as advanced as the French and British and basing these arguments in primary documents, Blackbourn can support and validate his arguments.  Though these types of assessments would require contrasting the three nations which the authors consider an overused methodology, a comparison appears to be the best way to dispel the concept of the Sonderweg.

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