Reshaping the German Right



Eley, Geoff.  Reshaping the German Right: Radical Nationalism and Political Change after Bismarck.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

In this work, Eley takes on the main trend of historiography about the German Empire (1871-1918).  The Kaiserreich was conventionally portrayed as a society in which a pre-industrial elite controlled revolutions from above and pushed Germany onto an authoritarian Sonderweg.  Eley claims that this is too simplistic and argues that the landed elite were actually reacting to radical impulses from below.

By 1890, the maturation of Germany’s capitalism brought about economic and social changes that, in turn, made the Mittelstand (petty bourgeoisie) realize that they were being completely left out of the political structure.  Political parties, particularly the National Liberal Party, which claimed to be on the side of the Mittelstand, failed to actually fit their interests.   The Mittelstand viewed the National Liberal’s continued use of Honoratiorenpolitik (‘politics by the notables’) as outdated.  Moreover, this is what kept members of the Mittelstand out of the political structure (184).  So, they formed nationale Verbände, or nationalist pressure groups, such as the Navy League and the Pan-German League, to essentially take matters into their own hands outside of the existing political structure.  These radical Verbände emphasized militant nationalism and imperialism and were highly critical of the government.  Both the Navy League and the Agrarian League stood for “a transformation of political style” that stemmed from “the self-activation of subaltern groups and the unprecedented demagogic campaigns they waged against the authorities during the 1890s, invariably against the counsels and sometimes the vigorous opposition of older-style Conservatives” (218).  This tension between the Old and New Right led to a ideological showdown that would define the position of the Right for decades.

In the face of this attack by the “new Right,” the “old Right” could have instituted systems of self-reform in the areas of traditional hereditary rights and control of the government, economy, and military.  But it instead decided to accommodate nationalist groups beginning in 1911.  The result was an alliance between the new big industry and the old agricultural elite, an alliance colored with a strain of radical nationalism.  This new alliance, or “New Right Cartel” was brought closer together by the fear of the Left, which had won considerable gains in 1912.   This new cartel downplayed conservative party lines and was also forced to take a critical stance against the imperial government.

The main difference between the old and new Rights was their respective stance towards the government.  The New Right was critical of Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg’s imperial government, and the Old Right followed suit in order to keep the boundaries between Left and Right as clear as possible.  According to Eley, this represented a radicalization of the right.

In this light, radical nationalism was no longer an ideological weapon wielded by the imperial and aristocratic elite to forge uniformity support of the government; instead, nationalism was a “grass roots” movement that was largely anti-governmental.

If I understood his argument correctly, it seems like Eley is trying to explain the connections between the Second and Third Reichs in new ways.  Instead of seeing the connection between Imperial & Nazi Germany as any persistent influence of a militaristic, imperial elite, Eley posits this larger, structural radicalization and nationalization of the Right as laying the groundwork for the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.

For more books on modern German History, see my list of reviews HERE.

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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