The Peculiarities of German History


Blackbourn, David and Geoff Eley.  The Peculiarities of German History:  Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1984.


This book reexamines the theory of a German Sonderweg, which posits that German took a very distinct path of development in the 19th century – distinct from other Western nations, that is.  This allowed for a pre-industrial elite to maintain strong, authoritarian power over an industrial nation, which set the stage for Nazism.  The authors of the book wish to challenge this idea and probe to see if this was really the case.

Authors’ Main Arguments:

This work not only questions particular processes and historical findings of Germany in the 19th century, but also poses important historiographical questions for scholars.   The classic argument for Germany’s peculiar modernization process posits that the liberal, bourgeois revolution of 1848 failed, thus leaving pre-industrial, aristocratic elite in charge of an industrializing capitalistic nation.  Therefore, the political and economic spheres remained uniquely separated in Germany.  Blackbourn and Eley begin their study by questioning multiple assumptions that have become taken for granted (often, suggested arguments can harden into formulae, into taken-for-granted facts, they say):  1) the definition of revolution as referring to a single dramatic episode; 2) the assumption that capitalism and bourgeois democracy are intimately connected.  The authors argue that if one refines these definitions and assumptions to more accurately reflect historical reality, one will find that German history does not represent a Sonderweg, but rather a heightened version of what occurred elsewhere in Europe; in other words, Germany was much more the intensified version of the norm than the exception.

To challenge the idea of a “failed bourgeois revolution,” the authors put forward the idea of a “silent bourgeois revolution,” in which capitalism and the emerging class or “estate” of the bourgeois developed just fine in Germany – and along similar lines to that class in other European nations, though relatively later.  The German bourgeois’ relationship to politics is what makes the class particular (though not peculiar): they may have had a less public role in politics as the capitalists in other nations did, but this does not mean that they had nothing to do with politics as those supporting the Sonderweg thesis claim.  In order to understand the German bourgeois’ relationship to politics, the authors tell us that we have to question the assumption that the “normal” set of events (and thus the measuring stick for success) goes like this:  Bourgeios material achievements lead to parliamentarianism, which leads to liberalism, which leads to democracy.  The question of the “failure” of the bourgeois to achieve political dominance and the question of the “failure” of liberal democratic reform are not the same questions, the authors insist.

The bourgeois may have been united by economic factors, but they were politically diverse.  This is why, the authors argue, they actively retreated from the political sphere, where their differences (and weaknesses) were most visible to society at large.  They sought to solve their problems by less political means, including striking alliances with the old, aristocratic elite.  This is important because it grants agency to the emerging bourgeois and damages the myth that the old elite diabolically manipulated the lower classes and the political sphere to retain their wealth and power, thus single-handedly pushing Germany’s development “off course.”  Blackbourn and Eley even suggest why the bourgeois may have resisted democracy:  greater democratic powers would benefit the SPD, the largest single party, one that supported workers’ rights, which would be a threat to capitalists’ power.

Just because Germany did not experience the same level of “progressive” developments through the political sphere, that does not mean that such developments didn’t exist.  Beginning in the 1890s, developments in the public health movement, the statistical movement, housing reform, poor law, town planning, local financing, educational activity, processes of professionalization, labor legislation (accident and sickness insurance, provisions for old age, factory inspection, unemployment provisions, and so on – these were being developed “only very ambiguously with the concerns of parliamentary liberalism.  This was the authentic domain of bourgeois political achievement…that owed nothing to the existence of a liberal democratic state.  It was perfectly compatible with the latter, but certainly did not require it.”  Moreover, the alliances forged with the old elite (who still constituted much of the Kaiser’s government) also produced “progressive” developments:  unification itself consolidated national markets, called for national institutions, constitutional regulation, national economic integration, and the rule of law became the centerpiece of discussion.

This was one result of the bourgeois taking matters into their own hands (away from democracy); the other was that grievances caused by capitalism were forced onto the political realm, where the capitalists themselves were generally quiet.  This created an unstable political sphere.


For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, German History | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “The Peculiarities of German History

  1. I think the “special path” idea holds water in the general sense, but I agree that the *esp* urban reforms that took place around the turn of the century combined with the splash that Weimar culture made helps support the authors’ arguments that this is a more complex issue. Cheers, Jake! Good luck with your exams.

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