Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte


Wehler, Hans-Ulrich.  Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte: Bänder 1 bis 5.  Munich:  C.H. Beck Verlag:  Erster Band, 1987; Zweiter Band, 1987; Dritter Band, 1995; Vierter Band, 2003; Fünfter Band 2008.


In these five volumes (totaling over 4,300 pages), Wehler produces a history of Germany from 1700 to 1990 that attempts to provide a “total” view of the centuries under study.

Summary and Author’s Main Arguments:

Representing over thirty years of work, Wehler’s Gesellschaftsgeschichte is an impressive show of energy and commitment.  It is also an important contribution to anyone studying German history.  His approach, “societal” or “social” history, should not be confused with the “social history” of the Anglo-American world of historians, which omits politics and/or culture.  For, Wehler’s history (though seemingly “total” in nature) is organized around three axes: 1) economics, 2) power (Herrschaft), and 3) culture.  This political/power aspect is central to Wehler’s history, because his is ultimately defending the German Sonderweg thesis, asserting that the problem in German history is of a political nature.  Therefore, these volumes (the first four, a least) can be seen as an attempt to explain the origins of the Third Reich’s National Socialism.

In the first volume (1700-1815), Wehler sets the stage for the German Sonderweg.  Germany’s eighteenth century regimes were characterized (or more accurately: plagued) by social, institutional, and fiscal constraints on territorial absolutism.  In this “backwards” situation, bureaucratic absolutism had merged with feudal social relations, thus, Wehler argues, rendering these regimes unable or unwilling to carry out the “revolution from above” that they are usually posited with.  Instead, the German lands were forced to undergo a “defensive modernization” (defensive Modernisierung) in the face of French occupation and Napoleonic reform.  This already sets Germany apart from other Western European entities, like England and France, that underwent a self-propelled modernization.

The second volume (1815-1845/49) looks more closely as this process of ‘defensive modernization’ to see what it actually looked like.  He warns against overemphasizing the emergence of any industrial revolution during this time by highlighting the fact that agrarian production (and the correlating social relations) remained dominant until the mid 19th century.  In the end, he does cede that the years from 1750 to 1850 constitute a “fundamental break” in German historical development; so Germany ultimately modernizes, though in a different manner than France and England.  According to Wehler, the years between 1845 and 1849 represent a “double revolution” (Doppelrevolution) that Germany experienced:  1) a successful industrial/economic (capitalistic) revolution, and 2) a failed, political (liberal, popular) revolution.  Again, these developments lead German society more firmly along its Sonderweg.

The third volume (1849-1914) covers the era from the end of the “double revolution” to the beginning of the First World War.  This obviously includes the “settling” of the German question with a forging of a “kleindeutschland” through Otto von Bismarck’s “iron and blood” policies. The Bismarck of this book is portrayed as one that sat atop a conservative, traditionally aristocratic ruling elite, and repressed German liberalism’s advance towards its political goals.  Therefore, this takes the ‘blame’ for Germany’s failed social and political revolution away from the bourgeoisie and places it at the feet of the elite.   Ultimately, this volume concludes that Germany’s rigid class structure, “sham parliamentarianism,” exclusive national identities, and its partial modernization (a pre-industrial elite ruling over an industrial society) all contributed to the triumph of National Socialism in 1933.

The fourth volume (1914-1949) covers both World Wars as well as the four years of direct Allied control over a divided Germany.  Wehler’s criticism of several groups becomes apparent in this volume, beginning with social elites (especially the Bildungsbürgerturm and the nobility), but he also criticizes the radical left for also not being willing to compromise (the Communist Party’s hostility towards the Weimar Republic and the SPD, for instance).  In Wehler’s eyes, it seems like the Weimar was doomed to fail because the democratization did not come from a long, internal process, but was forced on Germany by the Allies (and accepted internally only as a “cynical last-minute reflex to avert full-scale revolution”).  He then turns his criticism towards the democratic forces in play at that time, arguing that they were not assertive or demanding enough in their efforts to bring fruitful democracy to Germany.  When addressing the Third Reich (the violent, genocidal culmination of Germany’s Sonderweg), Wehler’s debt to Max Weber becomes apparent.  For, he uses Weber’s theory of charismatic ruler to analyze Adolf Hitler’s influence over the Nazi State, concluding that Hitler’s personality provided much dynamism to the party and granted him his legitimacy.  Wehler almost unwillingly concedes that the Third Reich did have some modernizing aspects; other historians have also talked about these “successes” of the Nazi Party between 1933 and 1939.  Wehler points to a growing social equality within the framework of the Volksgemeinschaft, however emphasizes that this “national community” was defined on very narrow, racial terms.  Lastly, Wehler attributes both the survival of portions of Germany’s industrial sector (namely a few plants and a highly trained workforce) and the success of the Marshal Plan (and currency reform) as the driving factors for West Germany’s rapid economic recovery.

In volume 5 (1949-1990), Wehler focuses mainly on West Germany in the “short twentieth century.”  He argues that this short twentieth century ends in the year 1990 with the absorption of the DDR into the Federal Republic (as opposed to 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union).  He backs up this claim by suggesting that the fall of the USSR in 1991 actually begins a new era (and doesn’t end one), because with the absence of the Soviet Union, the world is no longer under a polar system of power.  While the United States enjoyed a brief moment of hegemony, other powers were able to step onto the world stage in the USSR’s absence:  China & India.  Moreover, he states that by the mid 1990s, religion had taken on a surprisingly (“breathtakingly”) powerful role in the world.  When looking the new German states during this time, Wehler adds a fourth axis around which German history turns:  social inequality.  This theme features prominently in this volume, and in fact, it is one that he helps define the new 21st century.

Wehler unapologetically grants most of his attention to West Germany after 1949, and claims that the DDR never existed in its own right, but was merely a satrap of the Soviet Empire.  Significant cultural or social developments didn’t occur because innovative impulses had been shut off from East German cultural life by the Party’s dictatorship. The Federal Republic, on the other hand, immediately developed into a parliamentary republic with a future.  The implantation of a soziale Markwirtschaft was only possible in (West) Germany because Germany had had a tradition of state intervention that ran longer and deeper than anywhere else in Europe.   Moreover, Wehler doesn’t grant as much attention to the DDR because it was doomed to fail, he says, and it has become the burden of the new Federal Republic to correct the former DDR based on the West German model.

Concluding Comments:

Wehler’s work is impressive and intimidating.  It is interesting, though to see him formulate and defend the Sonderweg thesis (I was quite convinced by Blackbourn and Eley’s argument against characterizing Germany’s process of modernization as “peculiar).  The sheer thoroughness of Wehler’s evidence gives weight to his argument, though.  But I’m not convinced, for one particular reason:  While Wehler’s work constitute a rather “total” history of the last 300 years of German history, it’s lacking any color.  By that I mean, the ‘real,’ everyday people are missing, though, it is granted that he never said Alltagsgeschichte would be one of his three axes around which German history rotated.  As a result, his work seems very scientific: beginning with a hypothesis/theory, and then proving it with evidence.  But then again, this is Wehler’s intention: to create a historic social science.

Lastly, the last volume seems to directly confront the argument of a German Sonderweg that he had been establishing since the beginning of his work.  “Despite all of the burdens that were bound to it by its special historical conditions, Germany remained an undisputed part of the Western world until 1914.  Beginning with the First World War, and then fully by 1933, it had completely diverged itself from the western cultural sphere with the fatalist of consequences” (425).  Only after 1945 did West Germany, with determined effort, return back into the West (with not all thanks being reserved for the work of the Allies).  In fact, the quick rebirth of West Germany (economically, politically, and culturally) can be traced, above all, Wehler says, to the fact that a basis of political and mental traditions survived the chaotic epoch of the “Second Thirty Years War.”     This new approach of Wehler’s takes the Third Reich not as the culmination of a longer Sonderweg (as he says he is looking for in Volume 1), but instead as a 12 year, short Sonderweg, after which, West Germany quickly regains its spot in the West through strong continuities that may have been shaken by two world wars, but remained intact.


(Volumes 1 & 2): Charles E. McClelland in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Mar., 1990):  184-186.

(Volumes 1 & 2):  James Van Horn Metlon in The American Historical Review, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Feb. 1990): 189-190.

(Volume 3):  James Retallack, in German Studies Review, Vol. 20, No. 2 (May, 1997):  339-340.

(Volume 4): Raffael Scheck in German Studies Review, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 2006):  198-200.


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

Categories: Book Review, German History | Leave a comment

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