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Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association

The German Empire, 1871-1914: Reflections on the Direction of Recent Research

Author(s): Volker R. Berghahn
Source: Central European History, Vol. 35, No. 1 (2002), pp. 75-81
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of Conference Group for Central
European History of the American Historical Association
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The German Empire, 1871-1914:

Reflections on the Direction of
Recent Research
Volker R. Berghahn

to the direction that much of recent research on Imperial Germany has

THIS rather brief essay represents an attempt to raise a problem relating

taken. The deliberations that follow emerge from a renewed and quite

extensive reading of the secondary literature on the history of the German

Empire that I undertook in connection with my contribution to the 1806?
1918 volume ofthe 10th edition of Gehhardt's Handbuch der Deutschen Geschichte,

edited by Jiirgen Kocka. Although my research interests had moved into other

fields of German and European history following my work on the sociopolitical history of the Wilhelmian period, I confess that, like so many fellow histo?
rians, I continue to be fascinated by those decades before 1914. So, even if I have

not been back to the archives, I have been trying to follow the no doubt rich
"post-Bielefeld" output of what are by now at least two consecutive generations
of younger scholars in this field.

The beginnings of the evolution of research on the German Empire are by

now very familiar and have been rehearsed at regular intervals in review articles
or collections of essays on the Bismarckian and Wilhelmian eras: if it is not Fritz

Fischer's work that is mentioned first, the "Bielefelders" are certain to provide
the starting point. Hans-Ulrich Wehler's The German Empire is then cited as the

prime example of a particular approach to pre-1914 German history against

which the rebellion of a group of British historians and of Geoff Eley, David
Blackbourn, and Richard Evans in particular is said to have set in.1 It is almost

de rigueur to refer to Evans's challenge as articulated in his introduction to

Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany.2 This is usually followed by a discus-

1. Fritz Fischer, Grif nach der Weltmacht (Diisseldorf, 1964); Hans-Ulrich Wehler, The German

Empire, 1871-1918 (Leamington Spa, 1986).

2. Richard J. Evans, ed., Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (London, 1978), 23, where the

"Bielefelders" are said to treat "political processes, changes and influences. . . as flowing downwards?though now from the elites who controlled the State, rather than from the socially vaguer
entity of the State itself?not upwards from the people. The actions and beliefs of the masses are
Central European History, vol. 35, no. 1, 75?81


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76 THE GERMAN EMPIRE, 1871-1914

sion of Eley's and Blackbourns even more revisionist The Peculiarities of G

History? It must be said that the initial reaction by Wehler and others

criticism of their work was not exactly generous.4 Nor did they react kind

the notions of Alltagsgeschichte that Alf Liidtke and his colleagues began t

mulate in Gottingen at about the same time, partly in response to broader

opments in the field of sociocultural history, inspired by anthropology, th

began to sweep the board in France, Britain, and the United States.5

Apart from the debate over how best to study the German Empire (top

or bottom-up; from the Prussian center or from the "other-German" p

ery), there was also Eley's challenge to the tenability of modernization

and the notion of a German Sonderweg that underlay the work of the
felders." Again other scholars have traced this story, and I do not want to

it here.6 The important point is that this controversy is still rumbling on

given its enormous implications I wonder if it will ever be resolved. L

Bielefelders may have softened their position, but they have continu

uphold its essentials, while a younger generation of German historia

tended to discard it almost completely, asserting that all European cou

took their own Sonderweg into the twentieth century and that there is

nothing special about the German road.7 To be sure, at the end of this

there is still the big stumbling block ofthe Third Reich, and it may well b

no historian of modern Germany will ever escape being slotted on one

the divide or the other.8

The trouble is that this debate and its larger ramifications have distracte

torians ofthe Bismarckian and Wilhelmian Empire from their more imme

task, i.e., to explain not how Germany landed itself in the Third Reich in
but how the country got into a "great war" in 1914 that?all are agreed

nothing less than catastrophic for the Germans and for the rest of Europ

explained in terms ofthe influence exerted on them by manipulative elites at the top of

The German Empire is presented as a puppet theatre, with the Junkers and industrialists pul

strings, and the middle and lower classes dancing jerkily across the state of history towards t
curtain of the Third Reich."

3. Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn, The Peculiarities of German History (Oxford, 1984).

4. See, e.g., Hans-Ulrich Wehler, "Deutscher Sonderweg oder allgemeine Probleme des westlichen Kapitalismus?" in Merkur 35 (1981): 478-87.
5. See, e.g., Detlef Peukert, "Neuere Alltagsgeschichte und historische Anthropologie," in
Historische Anthropologie, ed. H. Siissmuth (Gottingen, 1984), 57-72; Alf Liidtke, ed., The History of
Every day Life (Princeton, 1995), and Wehler's response, e.g., in: "Der Bauernbandit als neuer Heros,"
in Die Zeit, 18 January 1981, p. 44, and "Geschichte von unten gesehen" in ibid., 3 May 1985, p. 64.

6. Robert G. Moeller, "The Kaiserreich Recast?" in JSH 17 (1984): 655-83; J. N. Retallack,

"Social History with a Vengeance?" in German Studies Review 1 (1984): 423-50; R. Fletcher,
"Recent Developments in West German Historiography," in ibid., 451-80.
7. See Jiirgen Kocka, "Nach dem Ende des Sonderwegs: Zur Tragfahigkeit eines Konzepts," in
Doppelte Zeitgeschichte, ed. A. Bauernkamper et al. (Gottingen, 1998), 364-75, esp. 370.

8. See Hans-Ulrich Wehler, "A Guide to Future Research on the Kaiserreich?" in Central

European History 29, no. 4 (1996): 541-72, and Eleys reply ibid., 31, no. 3 (1998): 197-227.

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find a plausible answer to this question has been diffi

it is my impression that, despite massive research on

past two decades, we have come no closer to an ans

direction that scholarship has taken in this period.

in the wake of the Eley/Blackbourn challenge to th

into topics on cultural developments at the grass ro

and the shift seems to have made an answer to the

less likely.

Let me be clear that I am not hostile to this research in principle. It has

yielded much that is most valuable, and I hope these lines will not be quickly
brushed aside as coming from an antediluvian who has lost touch. The prob?
lem is that much recent work has been produced in the context of a phase of
historical writing in which the past is seen as not only immensely complex and

diverse, but also as totally fragmented and decentered. My question is whether

the time has come to ask if, in the midst of all the deconstruction, contingency,

agency, and indeterminacy that is being highlighted everywhere, we have lost

sight ofthe forest because we are so firmly focused on the trees. To be sure, we

have to have more meticulous research on artistic and scientific developments,

on minorities, women, childhood and old age, rural piety, and urban crime.
Upper Franconia or local Heimat movements in Wurttemberg, pub-life in
Wilhelmshaven and monuments in Koblenz are significant topics. We must also
continue to investigate if groups and individuals had agency and Eigensinn. But
are we not in danger of forgetting that they were equally embedded in socioeconomic and political power structures? If women and men made their own
history, please could we also think once more about the conditions under which
they willy-nilly had to operate?
Looking at the historiography of the German Empire in the English-speaking world, it is difficult to underestimate the influence that the critics of the
Bielefelders have had on those who have come after them. At the same time

they have had their no less influential counterparts in the Federal Republic,

the most prominent among them being Thomas Nipperdey. Although he

approached German history from a very different ideological angle than Eley,

he too has been among those who have vigorously opposed the Bielefelder
view of Imperial Germany, and with remarkable effect. The pull of his Deutsche

Geschichte?perhaps also because it was in tune with the more conservative

Zeitgeist in the Federal Republic during the 1980s and 1990s?has been so
strong that the "critical" historians ofthe "long generation" have found it dif?
ficult to escape it. Thus, Wehler's interest in the role of the Burgertum and espe?
cially its influence on the shaping of urban life and politics, has led him to stress

the emergence of a modern civil society and to extol the virtues ofthe admin-

istrative justice system and the achievements of the Wilhelmian bourgeoisie.

And, as Paul Nolte has added, even central spaces of the new cultural history

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78 THE GERMAN EMPIRE, 1871-1914

have, much to the chagrin of their juniors, been cleverly occupied by tho

have dominated the field in Germany since the 1970s.9

It is in the context of the changing thrust and tone of research o

German Empire that recent work on political culture is particularly instr

One would have expected scholars of this aspect to be more aware than

rians of, say, high culture of the ways in which power was wielded in Im

Germany, and up to a point they no doubt are. Nevertheless, some ofthe

ments that have recently been advanced are somewhat puzzling and have

fore stimulated me to raise the questions that I formulated at the beginn

this essay. A good example is Margaret Anderson's Practicing Democracy,

whose rich and broad empirical base is to be greatly admired.10 At the

of this study is the evolution of the universal manhood suffrage that th

adopted in 1871 at the national level, though retaining the restrictive sys

the level ofthe Bundesstaaten. If one approaches this book from one persp

it contains, page after page, descriptions of how elite groups in the rural a

urban parts of Germany put innumerable obstacles in the way of making

secret, and equal vote a reality for at least the male part of the population

mind the other half that remained completely disenfranchised until the

the monarchy in 1918. The corruption and manipulation ofthe system

above" at election time and beyond was certainly remarkable. As An

admits, "much of our discussion in these pages has concerned itself with
ers to exercising a free vote."11

Later on, Anderson also examines the many acts of resistance and p
against the ways in which the suffrage was handled by the authorities

local notables. Still, it is in fact the conclusion that she draws from her pa

ing research that is surprising to anyone who is not familiar with recent

in the debate on the basic character of the German Empire. Of course,

far too circumspect a historian not to come back, in her conclusions,

many inequities and injustices that continued to be upheld down to

whatever the smaller concessions that "democracy s apprentices"12 succee

wringing from the powerful through their persistent agitation. She has n

"to exaggerate the progressive features of Germany s electoral politics,

inequality and intimidation, especially in the eastern provinces, time and

"provoked smoldering fiiry." But in her view "democracy was moving fo

and not only by convinced democrats." It may have been at snail's pac

9. Paul Nolte, "Die Historiker der Bundesrepublik: Ruckblick auf eine 'lange Generatio
Merkur 5 (May 1999): 431. The situation was different in this respect in the English-speakin
where generational change was much less slow.
10. Margaret L. Anderson, Practicing Democracy: Elections and Political Culture in Imperial G

11. Ibid., 415.
12. Ibid., 419.

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moving forward it did. The fact that his successors

from dissolving the Reichstag prematurely for fear o

by her as evidence of this forward march. Nor, she ad

if repeatedly contemplated by the government, eve

an important element in the process of change.

Similarly, "the repeated decision to accept procedu

ling conflict over any alternative" as well as other

widely shared contention that 'through its posit

Reichstag of the empire was fully unsuited to becomi

of a democratic parliament.'" Other authors are chi

in the footnotes for their erroneous views. In the end the author herself raises

the question of whether it might not be "Panglossian to assign such positive

weight to the empire s nasty, bitter, unresolved conflicts. . . as motors forcing

groups to compact on procedural modus vivendi?"13 And finally, "does not the

institutionalist emphasis on democracy 'as a matter primarily of procedure

rather than substance' run the danger of overlooking the proverbial six-ton elephant in the room: the destructive feelings?anger, contempt, self-righteousness,

even hatred?that accompanied these conflicts and were fostered by them?"

Anderson does not overlook the elephant; but after listing further problematical developments nudges it gently to the side to clear the way for looking at

the legacies that the empire bequeathed to the Weimar Republic, concluding
that "Imperial Germany s worst legacy to the next generation was not its polit?

ical culture, but its war." She adds: "What would have happened had there been
no war?the war that Germany s governors, although not solely responsible, did

so much to bring about?" According to her, "some kind of 'jump' would surely

have been necessary at the national level to have moved Germany from dualism to a parliamentary regime." However, this jump "need not have been violent." And then comes the most remarkable counterfactual of all: "Perhaps

the death of the kaiser at eighty-three would have sped a regime change?in
1941?analogous to Spain's at the death of Franco at the same age in 1975." Of
course, Anderson is right: "We cannot know" what would have happened if
there had been no war. But should this kind of argument that has the parliamentarism of the Federal Republic in its visor?a counterfactual of a snail's
pace evolution almost as audacious as Niall Ferguson's recent ruminations on
what the European situation would be like in the 1990s if Britain had stayed
out of World War I?14 stop us from dealing with the six-ton elephant that is
still standing pat in the middle of our study, i.e., the possible link between the

(worsening) domestic and international predicament of the German Empire

toward 1914 and the decisions of its "governors" to unleash World War I?
13. Ibid., 429.
14. Ibid., 437. Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (New York, 1999).

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80 THE GERMAN EMPIRE, 1871-1914

In order to do this, it is of course not enough to focus on the achi

of the German bourgeoisie and the beneficence of administrative law

essary to inquire into the meaning of those many free speech libel su

ordinary citizens of which Bismarck alone is estimated to have initia

one thousand. Imagine the anxieties and misery of those who, for th
other reasons, found themselves hauled through the courts and were

harsher sentences because it was thought that this is what defendants

to. We need to re-read not just Anderson's early chapters on the m

ofthe suffrage (and put her conclusions once again on their feet),but

Saul's study on the authorities' totally unequal and arbitrary tre

strikers and employers, never mind censorship practices and the
Drohfunktion of the army as it kept its orders on how to deal with
in the cities" in the top drawers.15

Of course, we need to focus on the existential situation of bour

fathers and their civic pride, but we should also continue to ponder t

icance ofthe Zabern Affair or ofthe strange experience that Eda Sagar

had in Imperial Berlin.16 Above all, we should not forget millions o

women who continued to live under the Gesindeordnung in the count

below the poverty line in the cities. As late as 1913 this latter group

to 72 percent of the population, and still provides a rich field of stud

gender historians.
Furthermore, analyses should include the growing indebtedness of

suries, the incredible mess of the inadequate tax reforms, the increasi

treatment ofthe Polish and other minorities.17 Especially the finan

which requires plowing through seemingly very boring files and, wor

should remind us of Joseph Schumpeter s dictum that in it we can he

tant thunder of world history. The growing polarization of society

15. K. Saul, Staat, Industrie und Arbeiterbewegung im Kaiserreich (Diisseldorf, 197

"Armee in Staat und Gesellschaft, 1890-1914," in Das kaiserliche Deutschland, ed. Mic
(Diisseldorf, 1970), 312-39; S. Forster, Der doppelte Militarismus (Wiesbaden, 1985).

16. E. Sagarra, A Social History of Germany, 1648-1914 (London, 1977), 242: "An in
rienced by my father as a student visiting Berlin in 1913 aptly illustrates the mil
German society which foreigners found so strange. He had come to Berlin to meet
greetings of Irish colleagues to Kuno Meyer, the renowned professor of Gaelic, at t

University. Walking together along the Kurfurstendamm, they were approached by a y

with a crimson stripe on the trousers, denoting membership of the General Staff. M
down on to the roadway as he passed; my father, protected by his ignorance ofthe lang
custom ofthe country, walked on. He was less astonished when he had understood w
on, by the anger of the officer upbraiding him than the anxiety of the professor to e
young blood that my father was a foreigner and knew no better."

17. P.-C. Witt, Die Finanzpolitik des Deutschen Reiches von 1903 bis 1914 (Lub

R. Kroboth, Die Finanzpolitik des Deutschen Reiches wdhrend der Reichskanzlerschaft Bethma

und die Geld- und Kreditmarktverhdltnisse 1909-1913/14 (Frankfurt am Main, 1986); W

Germans, Poles, and Jews (Chicago, 1980); R. C. Murphy, Guestworkers in the German R


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Jelavich has emphasized?even reflected in the d

culture.18 All this, together with wild chauvinistic

ciaHsm, pushed the Reich and its government in

pictures of Heimat are barely able to capture. And

seem to offer a way out of the manifest crisis, f

sphere in which, guaranteed by the Constitution, t

had some room for maneuver.

All this means that the time may have come to

the German Empire since the 1960s and to try to r

work with scholarship that has not been invalid

longer bother to look at it. There were, I though

signs of such a move, for example, at the Sixth T

in German History: Germany in the Imperial A

in Berlin in April 2000. According to the rappor
society marked by national and religious conflic

repeatedly applied to explain the behavior of ind

the cultural climate, particularly ofthe fin de siecl

der roles, power structures, and intellectual author

discussants linked the diagnosis of crisis to the gr

German Burgertum and the Bildungsbiirgertum

debate apparently homed in on the supposed "tre

with the result that "historians are [once again]

studying language and symbols." My sense is tha

lot of this kind of historiography and that this

answers to the really taxing questions about the

ofthe German Empire in the years before 1914 a
Columbia University

18. Peter Jelavich, Munich and Theatrical Modemism (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), 6?: "T
opment discredited both liberalism and political Catholicism in the eyes of the moderni
own political views became increasingly polarized and radicalized." And p. 9: "To be sure
decades that preceded the outbreak of World War I were certainly 'golden' in compa
events after August 1914, but the horrors of war and its aftermath should not blind one to
ical and cultural conflicts of Munich's modernist community at the turn ofthe century
some ineffable gemutlich quality of Bavarian life that led to Munich's modernist fluore
rather the myriad of tensions, uncertainties, and frustrations."
19. A. W Daum in: Bulletin ofthe German Historical Institute 27 (2000): 193f.

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