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Looking Back on the Sonderweg

  • Jürgen Kocka (a1)
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Central European History has opened its pages again and again to the controversial debate about the so-called German Sonderweg. With that in mind, and on the occasion of this important journal's fiftieth anniversary, the following essay presents some very selective and personal thoughts on this topic. Although discussed and promoted much less frequently now than in previous decades, and although there are understandable reasons why it has left the center stage of scholarly debate, the approach to modern German history signified by this problematic concept has not been disproven or become obsolete. But, confronted by severe criticism, it has been—and can be—rethought and revised.

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1 For a good introduction to the debate, see Smith, Helmut Walser, “When the Sonderweg Debate Left Us,” German Studies Review 31, no. 2 (2008): 225–40. The following remarks are partly based on Kocka, Jürgen, “Asymmetrical Historical Comparison: The Case of the German Sonderweg,” History and Theory 38, no. 1 (1999): 4051. That article contains detailed references not included in the present essay.

2 Veblen, Thorstein, Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (New York: Macmillan, 1915). Historians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries advocated a more positive variant of the Sonderweg thesis, one that stressed the benefits and advantages of German history relative to “the West.” This affirmative variant of the Sonderweg is not discussed in the following essay. On that, as well as on many other important points that I cover here, see Sheehan, James J., “Paradigm Lost? The ‘Sonderweg’ Revisited,” in Transnationale Geschichte. Themen, Tendenzen und Theorien, ed. Budde, Gunilla et al. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010), 150–60.

3 It is not correct to assume that the Sonderweg thesis held a monopoly of sorts in German-language historiography. See Dickinson, Edward Ross, “Biopolitics, Fascim, Democracy: Some Reflections on Our Discourse About Modernity”, Central European History (CEH) 37, no. 1 (2004): 1. On debates in the interwar period, see Everett, Annie, “The Genesis of the Sonderweg,” International Social Science Review 91, no. 2 (2015) (https://digitalcommons.northgeorgia.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1130&context=issr).

4 For a penetrating case study, see Hagen, William W., “Descent of the Sonderweg: Hans Rosenberg's History of Old-Regime Prussia,” CEH 24, no. 1 (1991): 2450. Also see Daum, Andreas, Lehmann, Hartmut, and Sheehan, James J., eds., The Second Generation: Émigrés from Nazi Germany as Historians (New York: Berghahn, 2016).

5 See the interpretations of German history after World War II by two historians who subscribed to the Sonderweg approach with respect to earlier periods of German history: Wehler, Hans-Ulrich, Deutsche Geschichte, vol. 5: Bundesrepublik und DDR 1949–1990 (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2008); Winkler, Heinrich August, Der lange Weg nach Westen. Deutsche Geschichte, Bd. 2: Vom “Dritten Reich” bis zur Wiedervereinigung (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2000).

6 See Baldwin, Peter, ed., Reworking the Past: Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Historians' Debate (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990); Port, Andrew I., ed., “Holocaust Scholarship and Politics in the Public Sphere: Reexamining the Causes, Consequences, and Controversy of the Historikerstreit and the Goldhagen Debate: A Forum with Gerrit Dworok, Richard J. Evans, Mary Fulbrook, Wendy Lower, A. Dirk Moses, Jeffrey K. Olick, and Timothy D. Snyder,” CEH 50, no. 3 (2017): 375403.

7 See, e. g., Ritter, Gerhard A., Deutscher und britischer Parlamentarismus (Tübingen: Mohr, 1962). For new insights on this topic, see Spenkuch, Hartwin, “Vergleichsweise besonders? Politisches System und Strukturen Preussens als Kern des deutschen Sonderwegs,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 29, no. 2 (2003): 262–93; Kreuzer, Michael, “Parliamentarization and the Question of German Exceptionalism, 1867–1918,” CEH 36, no. 3 (2003): 327–57.

8 This was one of several central arguments in Blackbourn, David and Eley, Geoff, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984); a slimmer German version had appeared in 1980 as Mythen deutscher Geschichtsschreibung. Die gescheiterte bürgerliche Revolution von 1848 (Berlin: Ullstein, 1980). On the origins and impact of this important book, see the interviews with the authors that was published as a Forum” in German History 22, no. 2 (2004): 229–45. It was here (p. 233) that David Blackbourn compared the Sonderweg thesis to Frederick Jackson Turner's “Frontier Thesis.” There are certainly less significant intellectual constructs with which to be compared. For a discussion of related problems of comparison, see Kocka, Jürgen and Haupt, Heinz-Gerhard, “Comparison and Beyond: Traditions, Scope, and Perspectives of  Comparative History,” in Comparative and Transnational History: Central European Approaches and New Perspectives, ed. Haupt, Heinz-Gerhard and Kocka, Jürgen (New York: Berghahn, 2010), 130. Also see Ledford, Kenneth F., “Comparing Comparisons: Disciplines and the Sonderweg,” CEH 36, no. 3 (2003): 367–74.

9 To cite just one important contribution: Anderson, Margaret Lavinia, Practicing Democracy: Elections and Political Culture in Imperial Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). Also see the exchange between Anderson, and Berghahn, Volker R. in CEH 35, no. 1 (2002): 7590.

10 See Kaelble, Hartmut, “Wie feudal waren die Unternehmer im Kaiserreich?,” in Beiträge zur quantitativen deutschen Unternehmergeschichte, ed. Tilly, Richard (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1985), 148–74; Augustine, Dolores L., Patricians and Parvenus: Wealth and High Society in Wilhelmine Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). These findings correspond to the results of a major comparative research project conducted in Bielefeld in 1986–1987 on the bourgeoisie in nineteenth-century Europe; this is documented in Kocka, Jürgen and Mitchell, Allan, eds., Bourgeois Society in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1993). Geoff Eley correctly emphasizes that the criticism of the Sonderweg approach, especially in the book he coauthored with David Blackbourn (see note 8), was a stimulus—one among several, it should be emphasized—that motivated this large-scale research project; see p. 235 of the 2004 German History forum cited in note 8.

11 See Smith, Helmut Walser, “The Vanishing Point of German History: An Essay on Perspective,” History and Memory 17, no. 1/2 (2005): 269–95.

12 See Fitzpatrick, Matthew, “The Pre-History of the Holocaust? The Sonderweg and the Historikerstreit Debates and the Abject Colonial Past,” CEH 41, no. 3 (2008): 477503. By contrast, the Sonderweg approach is used to criticize unilinear concepts in postcolonial studies. See Lim, Jie-Hyun, “A Postcolonial reading of the Sonderweg: Marxist Historicism Revisited,” Journal of Modern European History 12, no. 2 (2014): 280–94.

13 For comments by a staunch defender of the Sonderweg approach who has long advocated the “Westernization” of Germany, see Winkler, Heinrich August, Zerbricht der Westen? Über die gegenwärtige Krise in Europa und Amerika (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2017).

14 See Haupt, Heinz-Gerhard, “Historische Komparatistik in der internationalen Geschichtsschreibung,” in Transnationale Geschichte. Themen, Tendenzen und Theorien, ed. Budde, Gunilla et al. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006): 137–49 (esp. p. 143).

15 A comparison of Hans-Ulrich Wehler's treatment of the German Empire in Das Deutsche Kaiserreich 1871–1918 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1973) with his Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, Bd. 3: Von der “Deutschen Doppelrevolution” bis zum Beginn des Ersten Weltkrieges, 1849–1914 (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1995) shows that the author's use of the Sonderweg approach became much more subtle and nuanced over time.

16 As formulated in Kocka, “Asymmetrical Historical Comparison,” 45–46. For a more detailed discussion, see idem, Bürgertum und Sonderweg,” in Sozial- und Kulturgeschichte des Bürgertums, ed. Lundgreen, Peter (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000), 93110.

17 See Berghahn, Volker, “German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler,” German Studies Review 40, no. 1 (2017): 147–62 (esp. p. 158).

I want to express my thanks to Andrew Port for his comments and criticisms, as well as for his help in making this text more readable.

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Central European History
  • ISSN: 0008-9389
  • EISSN: 1569-1616
  • URL: /core/journals/central-european-history
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