Posts Tagged With: kaiserriech

Hysterical Men


Lerner, Paul.  Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Lerner’s book centers on a German debate over how to interpret the “debilitating shakes, stutters, tics and tremors, and dramatic disorders of sight, hearing and gait” that were plaguing the nation’s veterans of the Great War (1).  Throughout his book, he traces the shift from describing such ailments as the result of “trauma” to being the outward symptoms of a deeper, inner “hysteria.”  This shift represented a growing power of psychiatrists in Germany, and Lerner shows that it also had ramifications on Germany’s laws, economy, and notions of masculinity.

The work of psychiatrist Hermann Oppenheim in the 1870s and 1880s demonstrated that the stutters, tics, and tremors that some men were experiencing were symptomatic of “trauma,” which was caused by external shocks and accidents.  Oppenheim’s work was successful enough that Bismarck included trauma as a legitimate reason for claiming insurance pensions in 1889 (pg 9).  The discourse was quickly replaced by a newer generation of psychiatrists and policy makers, though, who claimed that such a connection would “pension neurosis,” or a debilitating addiction to pensions (33).  In other words, a diagnosis of “trauma” would cast the men as victims and allow them to feel entitled to pension payment from the state.  Instead, a new diagnosis emerged:  men’s tics and tremors were manifestations of “hysteria”, a deeply rooted flaw of the person’s character.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, the nationalistic, conservative psychiatrists saw the conflict as a chance to harden up Germany’s weak and hysterical men.  But, by the time that hundreds of thousands of men were complaining of trauma during WWI, the situation became more serious, particularly as the state faced paying out insurance claims to all of its veterans.  The psychiatrists used their superior social stances to launch another “war on hysteria,” which included new therapies like “suggestive preparation” (103) and other “active treatments” like electro-shock therapy.  Lerner asserts that by claiming that these hysterical men were themselves flawed, psychiatrists absolving the state of any responsibility since these men’s ailments were not caused by any traumatic event of the war.  More importantly than saving the state any moral responsibility, a diagnosis of “hysteria” (versus “trauma”) would save the state money since it no longer had to pay out insurance pensions.  So, in imperial Germany, economic concerns overlapped with scientific changes, and economics always remained intertwined with the debate (85).  Once the men were deemed “cured” they were sent to support the war effort not on the front line, but in the labor force on the home front.

But Lerner reveals that much more was a stake here than money.  “Psychiatry was at once a product of modernity and a forum for critiquing modernity” (15).  In other words, while psychiatry was itself a modern science, psychiatrists saw themselves as trying to cure the weaknesses caused by modernity.  “Curing male hysterics meant medically manufacturing proper German subjects” (7).  They attempted to define a renewed German masculinity centered on patriotism, self-sacrifice, and economic productivity.  “The specter of the male hysteric, then, haunted the German imagination as the nation progressed along the path to modernity…To the conservative, stridently nationalistic psychiatric profession, male hysterics symbolized Germany’s social, political, and economic catastrophe” (250).  Psychiatrists then attempted to shape the national memory of the war and its conclusion in clinical terms.  The loss of 1918 was then portrayed as the result of Germany’s exhausted nerves, and the November revolutions were depicted as outbursts of mass insanity.

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

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Absolute Destruction


Hull, Isabell V.  Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.

In a provocative book, Hull studies the ways that military extremism developed in Imperial Germany and was unleashed on people (soldiers and civilians alike) in Southwest Africa and later in Europe.  Her work focuses on “institutional” extremism as separate from any type of ideological extremism like racism.  As such, she claims that “it has been possible to destroy whole peoples without ideological motives” (2).

Central to Hull’s argument about the violent extremism of German military culture is her understanding of “culture” itself, which Part II of her book is dedicating to explaining. “The power of culture is derived from the fact that it operates as a set of assumptions that are unconscious and taken for granted” (95).  Part of these assumptions was the definition of victory, which the German military (and, indeed, any military) defined as total and complete victory in any situation through military force. Hull is careful to reiterate that a military’s expertise is the skilled use of violence, and that naturally violence would be the means to the end of a military victory.  Such a conviction that violence is the best means to an end “reduces the panoply of possible military options, which is actually quite broad” (100).  This limitation of possibilities, paired with the desire for total victory led to extreme forms of violence.

She shows that Southwest Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century was the area where the German military could practice for later European wars (3).  This is a drastically different stance than other scholars that hold that excessive violence was ideologically “acceptable” in the colonies because of the subjects’ inferior status.  But Hull argues that in the colonies is where German military leaders learned to do away with the barrier between combatants and non-combatants, a method of “military necessity” that carried over into Europe during World War One.  Purposefully using provocative word choice, Hull argues that the insistence on total military victory at all costs led to a number of “final solutions,” including the almost complete annihilation of the Herero in South West Africa, the disregard of international protection of civilians during WWI, and even tacit approval of the Armenian genocide in Turkey.

This military extremism evolved into such an orgy of violence that, by 1918, the German military proposed an Endkampf, in which Germany would hold out long enough and destroy what they had until the moment their opponent would deem the war was not worth fighting and give up (thus leaving Germany with a “victory”).  Hull argues that this Endkampf failed because Germany simply didn’t have the resources (even though the military had taken control of the economy, further blurring the line between soldier and civilian) or troop morale to support such a self-destructive campaign.  This “inflated and exclusivist definition of victory” was the main legacy of the Wilhelmine military culture on the National Socialist regime (333).

Hull’s argument seems like it would apply to all militaries in the Western world.  Indeed, she says that “the late nineteenth century Western world thus placed military might at the heart of state self-definition” (326).  But only in Germany was the army established (by the constitution) outside of civilian oversight.  Therefore, it had no one to rein it in as it began to develop excessively violent solutions to problems.  Ultimately, she concludes that “The Imperial German case shows that militaries, because violence is their business, do not need external ideologies or motivations to encourage excess.”

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

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Imperial Germany & the Great War


Chickering, Roger.  Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 

Chickering’s book is a study of Imperial Germany’s (the Kaiserreich’s) actions during the First World War.  He does not spend much time considering Germany’s role in the outbreak of the war, but instead focuses on what he considers to be crucial miscalculations on the part of Germany’s leaders in carrying out the nation’s war effort.  Upon finishing the book, one gets the impression not of imperial leaders diabolically starting a war for national gain, but instead one in which Germany’s leaders were stuck in a bygone age, unwilling to understand their new, modern world, and thus causing more devastation than was necessary.

Chickering asserts that Germany’s leaders realized the potential for overseas colonies and warfare to forge a sense of national unity at home; in other words, domestic affairs could be solved through foreign affairs.  That is why, as potential war built up in 1914, the German Empire’s leaders felt ready to undertake the effort.  Chickering then describes the “spirit of 1914” that was present in Germany, a “spontaneous and overpowering sense of national unity, a unanimity of view about the origins and meaning of the conflict that was beginning” (14).  Furthermore, many felt that the coming war would decide once and for all between the shallow, materialistic Gesellschaft in favor of the communal, patriotic and ideal Gemeinschaft.

While the “spirit of 1914” may have bolstered a sense of unity, it only set the Germans up for disillusionment, Chickering argues, because it did not take into account the new technologies that would make this war something completely different than anything before it.  For Chickering, the prime symbol of German leaders’ inability to adjust to the modern world is the Schlieffen Plan and its failure because of its basis on outdated notions of warfare that did not take technological innovations seriously enough.  After 1914 proved not to bring a quick military victory, it became apparent to the leaders that the war was to be won or lost “elsewhere than on the field of battle” (31).  In other words, because warfare itself had changed, resources and sustainability would be the deciding factors.  This gave the home front unprecedented importance (and thus power), so when social unrest broke out by the second half of the war, the main form of protest was the industrial strike.  Moreover, as manual labor became increasingly important to the war effort, the boundaries between blue and white collared workers became blurred. As the war raged on and took its toll on the home front, the costs of war were not equally shared.  While the war sometimes exacerbated old social divisions, new ones were also created.  Chickering, then, sees the many Vereine as the fragmentation of German society, an attempt for Germans to confront the war’s meaning by grouping together with others based on some broader interpretive framework like economic class (133).

Throughout the book, Chickering closely traces the tension between the military and civilian leadership of the government.  By 1916, the army had become the dominant political force in Germany, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff mobilized total war based both on flawed understandings of economics and idealized notions of conditions on the ground, thus undermining their own goals.  Resources were poorly allocated and their attempts to micromanage the economy failed.  When it became apparent in 1918 that the military could not win the war, “the burden of making the fundamental decisions shifted… from the soldiers to statesmen and political leaders” (187). Handing the reigns over to civilians at the moment of defeat laid the groundwork for the “stab in the back” theory that would dominate a majority of Germans’ understanding the war’s end until 1945.

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

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German Nationalism & Religious Conflict


Smith, Helmut Walser.  German Nationalism and Religious Conflict: Culture, Ideology, Politics, 1870-1914.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

“Although unified politically, the German empire of 1871 was a deeply divided state,” Smith states (233).  This was not due to any lack of nationalism to bind the loyalties of the multiple localities to a single state.  Instead, this division was the result of multiple nationalisms based on confessional divides, each of which was trying to define, in its own terms, what it meant to be German.  In this regard, Smith’s book is not just a study of political or cultural nationalism, but of religious nationalism as well.

Smith positions himself against previous historians who viewed nationalism as a functionalist tool used by elites to forge a unified sentiment of loyalty to the new nation and empire.  Smith’s work displays a plurality of nationalities arising from below and trying to define the boundaries of German identity.  So, rather than diminishing Protestant and Catholic divides, nationalism(s) actually exacerbated differences among Protestants and Catholics.  “The move toward national unity intensified group tensions within the society by raising settled cultural forms out of their particular context, expanding them into general allegiances, and politicizing them” (239).  Protestants, who were the majority in the newly unified Germany, saw their Reich as being deeply tied to Protestantism, and so when Bismarck launched the Kulturkampf, they did not necessarily see it as a struggle between Church and state, but instead understood it as the imperial government forging a Protestant nation.

The Protestant League was founded in 1866 in an effort to further these goals.  But the end of Bismarck’s official Kulturkampf a year later did not mean that German Catholics and Protestants had settled their differences.  On the contrary, the Protestant League picked up the slack and tried to “break the power of Rome on German soil” (52).  They tried to emphasize that Germany was a specifically Protestant nation, and they went as far as supporting the turn of the century “Away from Rome” Protestant uprisings in the Habsburg territories.  These efforts were ultimately a failure and only resulted in the Protestant League losing money and its reputation.

By the first years of the twentieth century, the Protestant League had radicalized and was even willing to oppose the German government, which they saw as weak in the face of Catholic influence, particularly when it legalized Catholic religious orders in 1902.  In an effort to defeat the Center Party, which was open to Catholics, the Protestant League had to endorse the Social Democrat party, an act that caused more strife and divisions in the conservative League.

Ultimately, Smith’s book reveals that there were a multitude of nationalisms in existence during this period.  While Catholics and Protestants were busy promoting national identities based on confessional divides, other nationalist associations like the Agrarian League and Pan Germans sought to promote the Germanness of the Reich and downplay confessional loyalties.

Smith’s work also questions the role of religion in the “modern” world.  In other words, by bringing attention back to religion in the process of nation-building, he re-conceptualizes the role of confessional loyalties in the process of modernization.  Whereas a defining attribute of being modern is traditionally understood as being secular, Smith shows that religion and confessional divides were at the heart of issues of national identity.  Instead of being a “backward” hold out of a previous era, confessional conflict was an “integral part” of becoming modern for people who “often perceived themselves as forward looking” (235).

Fore more books on German history, see my list of book reviews HERE.

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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.

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Practicing Democracy


Anderson, Margaret Lavinia.  Practicing Democracy:  Elections and Political Culture in Imperial Germany.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Positioning herself firmly against the Sonderweg thesis, Anderson reconstructs an entirely new understanding of imperial Germany.  Unlike Wehler, who views assemblies like the Reichstag as nothing more than the symbol of a sham constitutional monarchy, Anderson takes the Reichstag and its members seriously.  She does so because she argues that the members themselves took their positions seriously.  If we accept Anderson’s argument, we are forced to see imperial Germany in a whole new light.  Instead of a power hungry, conservative elite manipulating the German populace into submission and onto a “special path,” we see an active Mittelstand that took advantage of every opportunity given to it.  Moreover, assemblies like the Reichstag were not shams at all, but instead vital institutions that created and fostered a democratic culture in imperial Germany.

Bismarck implemented universal manhood suffrage for Reichstag representatives in 1867 as a way to implement (and control) socio-political reform from above and use the power of the masses for his own gains.  But Anderson argues that the Reichstag representatives (and the men voting for them) took the position seriously. The dual nature of the German system meant that the Reichstag neither chose nor could depose the government (10), and so Bismarck thought that he could tap into a larger power base without the uncertainties of democracy.  But, according to Anderson, the very fact that a democratic institution with universal male suffrage now existed began to cultivate a democratic culture among Germany’s male population.

So, the existence of universal male suffrage politicized millions of Germans beginning in 1867, but another important step came in 1903 when Chancellor Bülow granted secret ballots for Reichstag elections.  This was important, because up to that point, community leaders and bosses would use their influence to pressure voters to vote a certain way.  Making the ballots secret removed communal pressure and thus made Germany’s democratic institution more individualized.  Another challenge to communal pressure came in the form of the nationalist associations, which encouraged voters to throw off the chains of local pressure in exchange for larger, more nationalistic goals.  “It was not in the exercise of individual freedom, but in competition between groups that democratic practice took hold in Germany” (417).  Anderson argues that the first minority to fully politicize its members were the Catholics (84).

Moreover, as time went on the existence – and the growing power – of the Reichstag became not only taken for granted, but expected to be an integral part of politics.  And when men felt that their votes were being abused by unwanted influence, they appealed to the Reichstag and the government.  Anderson argues that the sheer number of appeals and vote challenges on any number of issues shows just how seriously people took this ‘experiment’ with representation (33).  And by the time the government threatened to do away with the Reichstag in the 1890s, they were continually thwarted, and the illegality of the government’s attempts seemed abhorrent to a group of men for whom a democratic sense had already been cultivated (247).

Ultimately, the Reichstag elections (and the corresponding political mobilization of the masses) acted as a legitimizer – both for the imperial institutions that created the Reichstag, but also for the opposition who now had a legitimate way to voice dissent.  Anderson’s work shows that while the Weimar Republic was Germany’s first democratic state, it wasn’t the Germans’ first experience with democracy.  They had “practiced” democracy for decades.

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Enlightened Nationalism


Levinger, Matthew.  Enlightened Nationalism: the Transformation of Prussian Political Culture, 1806-1848.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Levinger’s book explores how conservatives and reformers alike tried to define Prussian, and perhaps German, identity in the face of pressure from France as well as unrest from within.  The story of these four decades that emerges from Levinger’s work is not one of strong disagreement and infighting.  Instead, consensus exemplifies the overall mood; both reformers and reactionaries held political harmony as the goal of any development.  There were three main reasons for the perceived need for harmony: the ideals of the Enlightenment, French aggression, and the absence of a single nation state (228-229).

Levinger shows that the terms “conservative” and “reformer” may be too simple to describe the forces that were trying to stabilize Prussia after Napoleon’s conquest and later ousting.  He shows that all aristocrats were not necessarily against representative assemblies, nor were all reformers against the monarchy.  In fact, the goal of both sides was political harmony through “Enlightened nationalism,” which would allow a peaceful coexistence of nation and monarchy (229).  One would assume that such a coexistence would require dramatic compromise on the part of both conservatives and liberal reformers.  But Levinger shows that both sides envisioned a rationalized monarchy that coexisted with an Enlightened, educated populace.  In this sense, nationalism was not anti-monarchy, because the Enlightened nation was to be organized for the king, not against him (229).  Indeed, what both sides strived for was an “enlightened nationalism,” where nationalism referred to the Prussian leadership’s plan to mobilize the whole population, and enlightened refers to an emphasis on Bildung and state rationalization as a means to that end.  Dedication to this Enlightenment Bildung is an important part of Levinger’s book, and he demonstrates that both reformers and reactionaries were dedicated to the establishment of an Erziehungsstaat.

The presence of the French forces also plays a vital role in Levinger’s story.  For, when one was under foreign rule, one had to speak of national interests, not just the selfish interests of one’s own estate (94).  The political leaders wanted to invigorate the people against the French, but didn’t want to give up the traditional hierarchies.  This forced both the monarchy and the landed aristocrats to confront the notion of nationalism – and what form German nationalism should take.

Methodologically, he explores political discourse and its implications, showing that “words have consequences” (93), and sometimes unintended ones at that.   As the aristocracy campaigned for civic freedoms and Bildung to achieve their own goals, these ideals spread to other estates where they worked against the supremacy of the aristocracy.  Moreover, Levinger reveals the direct interaction of discourse and action by showing how the discourses of the Enlightenment ideals limited the actions that political actors could potentially take.  For example, the Enlightenment ideal of harmony would not allow serious reformers to undertake radical action, which would create chaos (225).

Ultimately, the liberal revolutions of 1848 failed because the understanding of the German “nation” was too contested and therefore could not stand against a united, conservative will.  But I wonder how much of a failure 1848 could be, in Levinger’s terms, if both sides had the same goal (rational monarchy & enlightened populace), because, as he states, in 1848, Wilhelm II decreed a constitution, and Prussia became a constitutional monarchy.

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