Posts Tagged With: sonderweg

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   The Mittelstand viewed the National Liberal’s continued use of Honoratiorenpolitik (‘politics by the notables’) as outdated.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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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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