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Master Narratives of Nineteenth-Century German History

  • Jonathan Sperber (a1)
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I would like to thank Susan Porter Benson and Steven Watts of the University of Missouri and Robert G. L. Waite of the Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences at Williams College for their helpful comments on and criticism of an earlier version of this essay.

1. Faulenbach's, Bernd article, “Deutsche Geschichte im 19. Jahrhundert: Zu neueren Gesamtdarstellungen und Interpretationen”. Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 27 (1987): 499528, gives a good overview of this development; Wehler, Hans-Ulrich, “Der neue Mut zur historischen Synthese,” in his Aus der Geschichte lernen? (Munich, 1986), 6690, provides a sharp interpretative essay.

2. There were, naturally, German historians who did not fit this rule, such as Lamprecht, Karl, or, most prominently, Franz Schnabel, in his unfinished history of nineteenth-century Germany, Deutsche Geschichte im neunzehnten Jahrhundert, 4 vols., 3rd edition (Freiburg im Breisgau, 19491955), but these remained very much the exceptions. A good discussion of this tendency, on the eve of the renaissance of works of synthesis, is Wehler, Hans-Ulrich, “Historische Handbücher—ein schwieriges Geschäft,” in his Preussen ist wieder chic… (Frankfurt, 1983), 116–20.

3. Zeldin, Theodore, France 1848–1945, 2 vols. (Oxford, 19731977), vol. 1, Anxiety, Love, and Politics, vol. 2, Intellect, Taste and Anxiety; Adam, Wandruszka and Peter, Urbanitsch, eds., Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, 6 vols. to date (Vienna, 1973– ).

4. See, for instance, Bender, Thomas, “Wholes and Parts: The Need for synthesis in American History,” Journal of American History 73 (1986): 120–36.

5. Adherents of post-structuralist and postmodernist intellectual trends, whose influence has been gradually seeping into the historical profession from literary studies, have taken this observation and carried it to an extreme conclusion by proclaiming the theoretical impossibility of synthesis and the repressive character (since it must suppress some facet of the past to achieve its harmony) of any master narrative. For postmodernists, the only legitimate representation of the past is a fragmentary and disconnected one. However, as the previous issue of Central European History (volume 22 nos. 3–4, devoted to exploring the relationship between these new intellectual trends and German history) demonstrates, such trends have as yet had virtually no influence on the writing of German history.

6. Nipperdey, Thomas, Deutsche Geschichte 1800–1866: Bürgerwelt und starker Staat (Munich, 1983), hereafter cited as DG; Wehler, Hans-Ulrich, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, 2 vols. to date (Munich, 1987–), hereafter cited as DGg; and Sheehan, James, German History 1770–1866 (Oxford, 1989), hereafter cited as GH.

7. Cf., for instance, DGg, 1:421, where Wehler provides Table 10, only to tell the reader, right beneath it, that the figures in it are incorrect, or 2:92, where the meaning of the first part of Table 31 is unclear. Table 12.4 in GH, 776, by only showing a few selected years, gives the impression that real wages declined between 1850 and 1865, even though taking multiyear averages would show a substantial increase in that period. Cf. the superior handling of the same subject in Table 31, DG, 237.

8. DG, 11.

9. DG, 147.

10. DG, 114, 410.

11. DG, 114, 122, 132, 138, 140, 156–57, 167, 171–73, 182, 198, 231, 235. There is a similar criticism in Wehler, “Der neue Mut zur historischen Synthese,” 71–72.

12. Cf. Nipperdey's criticism of one of the major and most successful products of the critical school, Wehler's, Hans-UlrichDas deutsche Kaiserreich, Wehler's ‘Kaiserreich’: Eine Kritische Auseinandersetzung,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 1 (1975): 339–60, also available in Nipperdey, Thomas, Gesellschaft, Kultur, Theorie: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur neueren Geschichte (Göttingen, 1976), 360–69.

13. DG, 469, 481, 536.

14. See Nipperdey's brief discussion of historicism in his account of Ranke, DG, 514–15, and his detailed methodological defense of historicism, “Historismus und Historismuskritik heute,” in Gesellschaft, Kultur, Theorie, 59–73.

15. DG, 313, 593.

16. DG, 504.

17. Cf., for instance, his excellent discussions of political movements on the eve of the revolution of 1848 and during the 1860s; DG, 377–96, 718–49.

18. DG, 369, 386.

19. DG, 323, 325–26, 600. These, and other examples (cf. 68–69, 270, 299–300, 331, 335–36, 400–401, 810) reflect the strong influence of Koselleck, Reinhart, whose Preussen zwischen Reform und Revolution (Stuttgart, 1967) is a major source of leitmotifs for Nipperdey's work.

20. DG, 655. Nipperdey's introduction to this line of reasoning begins in classically historicist fashion: “So dear to us as this fundamental democratic right is, it is legitimate to ask if Germany… as early as 1848 was in the condition for it.”

21. Cf., for instance, his discussion of how the repressive, authoritarian policies of the Vormärz governments contributed to the intellectually abstract, impractical tone of German politics, or his sharp comments on the pernicious consequences of chauvinist nationalism for German-Polish relations; DG, 378, 628.

22. A particularly good example, although just one of many, is the discussion of the literature on the development of the German artisanate in the first half of the nineteenth century; DGg, 2:6163.

23. DGg, 1:115–16, 282–83; 2:222, 604–11, 697–98.

24. DGg, 1:631.

25. Since the two following volumes are planned to cover the years 1849–1918 and 1919–1949 respectively, it is likely that they will also end with similar narrative chapters

26. Some theories of social change, the Marxist one for instance, avoid this difficulty by designating one aspect or dimension of human society as dominant, using it as a key to the interpretation and understanding of all others. This is a viewpoint that Wehler, siding with Weber and against Marx, explicitly rejects; DGg, 1:8.

27. See, for instance, his discussion of the development of elementary education during the first half of the nineteenth century; DGg, 2:478–91.

28. DGg, 1:333–34, 370, 401, 535, 537; 2:547–48, 595, 661, 663, 674–76, 693–94, 768, 778, and passim.

29. For Wehler's critique of teleology, see his scathing remarks on the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the revolution of 1848; DGg, 2:690.

30. DGg, 1:35.

31. DGg, 1:148, 167; 2:149, 155, 200201; other examples, ibid., 2:36, 148, 161.

32. DGg, 1:236; 2:210–11; similary, 1:258, 353.

33. For Nipperdey and Koselleck, see above, n. 19. Wehler's work, by contrast, is filled with open and implicit criticisms of Koselleck's ideas: DGg, 1:243, 453, 620n. 55, 629n. 38, 652n. 52; 2:320, 344.

34. DGg, 1:94119, 493505; 2:64106, 185210, 241–81, 589640. Wehler's discussion of the origins, course, and consequences of the revolution of 1848–1849 has many of the same virtues, particularly its detailed discussion of popular mass movements and extraparliamentary political organization, although I did feel that in this case his use of theory tended to place his otherwise excellent argument into a Procrustean bed of multiple crises of modernization; DGg, 2:641758.

35. Two approaches to the controversy, which offer different but related interpretations to the one presented here, are Caplan, Jane, “Myths, Models, and Missing Revolutions: Comments on a Debate in German History,” Radical History Review 34 (1986): 8799; and Geyer, Michael, “Looking Back at the International Style: Some Reflections on the Current State of German History,” German Studies Review 13 (1990): 112–27.

36. DGg, 2:878 n. 9. A preview of Wehler's future account of the Kaiserreich is in his essay, “Wie bürgerlich war das deutsche Kaiserreich?” in Jürgen, Kocka, ed., Bürger und Bürgerlichkeit im 19. Jahrhundert (Göttingen, 1987), 243–80. Wehler's essay should be read along with David Blackbourn's commentary on it, ibid., 281–87.

37. DGg, 1:388–96.

38. DGg, 1:425. The way Wehler poses the alternatives overlooks the possibility of other kinds of agrarian reforms, such as those carried out in Schleswig-Holstein and the Rhineland, which resulted in both a productive agricultural capitalism and a substantial landowning peasantry.

39. DGg, 1:506–30, esp. 506–9, 515–23. A clue to Wehler's attitude might be found in his comments about how nationalism was “primarily not a political program but was based on the overflowing feeling of quasi-religious devotion to a community of common belief, on the submergence of the individual in the elan, the ecstasy of the security-granting flood of a mass movement”. Although such an explanation is hardly within the parameters of modernization theory, it might refer to the experiences Wehler (who was born in 1931) had under the Nazi regime.

40. DGg, 2:465 (Protestantism); 2:471, 475, 497, 855–56 n. 4; other attacks on the Catholic church and historians favorable to it, 1:278–80. Wehler does manage to talk positively of “currents of renewal” in early nineteenth-century German Catholicism, which, on closer examination, prove to be identical to the other aspects of the church which he condemns; DGg, 2:476–77.

41. DGg, 1:294–96; 2:470, 472–73, 476. On this point, cf. Nipperdey's critical comments in his review of the book, Wehler's Gesellschaftsgeschichte,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 14 (1988): 403–15, esp. 406–7, and, conversely, Wehler's criticism of Nipperdey's treatment of the Catholic church in “Der neue Mut zur historischen Synthese,” 69.

42. DGg, 2:5, 191–93, 498–99, 736. Cf. DG, 114–30; GH, 82; and the many index entries under “women” and “family”.

43. To be sure, Wehler is aware of this problem and even devotes a footnote to the issue of integrating institutions like the family into his analytical scheme (DGg, 1: 553 n. 4), but his actual account is little affected by such considerations.

44. Cf. DGg, 1: 125.

45. GH, vii, 912. The symmetry of the four chronological parts is not quite complete, since the segment on the era of the French Revolution lacks a chapter on society and economy.

46. GH, 764–65, 769, 802–20.

47. GH, 24–41. Sheehan's use of Herrschaft is quite different from Wehler's, the latter's being much closer to what Sheehan calls Verwaltung.

48. GH, 142–43. These “non-noble elites” seem very similar to the “movers and doers” of Walker's, MackGerman Home Towns (Ithaca, 1971). In many ways Mack Walker is as much a source of motifs for Sheehan's work as Reinhart Koselleck is for Nipperdey's.

49. There is a detailed discussion of Sheehan's model in his article, “What Is German History? Reflections on the Role of the Nation in German History and Historiography,” Journal of Modern History 53 (1981): 123.

50. GH, 31; similarly, 32–34, 41–41.

51. GH, 494–500, 731–47. Nipperdey's discussion of Industrialization, although much briefer and less detailed, employs many of the same themes as Wehler's (even at one point describing, in Weberian terms, “the European heritage…reationality and science, legal order and urbanization, greed and the tendency towards the mastery of nature, asceticism and the ethos of labor”) and tends to come to similar conclusions. Although Nipperdey's account, unlike Wehler's is not guided by theory, it does involve a description of causative factors and of interconnections between developments in a way Sheehan's does not; DG, 178–248; the quotation is from 179.

52. GH, 151–52, 251, 319, 539.

53. On this point, cf. Wehler's very interesting discussion of the symbolism of noble superiority in the eighteenth century, DGg, 1:144–46, with Sheehan's account of the coronation in Frankfurt.

54. GH, 85–86, 560. Of course, one could argue that scholarship in this area is just in its earliest beginnings, or that empirical evidence is lacking to resolve such questions. It does seem possible to me, though, that sources bearing directly on popular life—court records, for instance, or the correspondence of the parish clergy—open the possibility of answering such questions.

55. Sheehan, James, German Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, 1978), 23.

56. GH, 379, 384, 387.

57. GH, 375.

58. DG, 304. Nipperdey continues, “both are legitimate and both are, as we know, not identical; the weight of this double problem and its tensions has marked the history and tragedy of the German nationalist movement for more than a century.” Whatever one thinks of this as a description of German nationalism in the first half of the nineteenth century, one must wonder about its validity (“for more than a century”) for the years after 1871.

59. DG, 25, 29–30. In this vein, Joseph Görres appears to Nipperdey as a former Jacobin who became “a determined opponent of Napoleon and adherent of a romantically colored national democracy” (ibid., 29). Cf. also his description of Andreas Hofer and the other “martyrs… of the national and emancipatory movement [nationalen und freiheitlichen Bewegung] of the 19th century” (ibid., 25).

60. GH, 249–50, 385–87, 504, 689, 851, 868. Sheehan's distaste for the kleindeutsch solution to the German national question is particularly apparent in his essay, “The Problem of the Nation in German History,” in Otto, Büsch and James, Sheehan, eds., Die Rolle der Nation in der deutschen Geschichte und Gegenwart (West Berlin, 1985), 320, esp. 12.

61. A look at the tables in Wehler's work will confirm this. Nipperdey, on the other hand, is careful to incorporate Austrian examples into his statistics, insofar as the sources permit it; cf. DG, 154–55, 170, 185–88, 195–97, 204.

62. GH, 744–47.

63. GH, 747.

64. DG, 782–84; GH, 906–7.

65. DG, 798–803.

66. GH, 908n. 90, 910–11, 913–14. It is difficult to avoid noting the strained and forced character of both authors' interpretations of the results of 1866, suggesting the extent to which present-day historians, even of differing political viewpoints, have problems coming to grips with it.

67. This conclusion seems to confirm the postmodernist assertion of the impossibility of any generally accepted synthesis (cf. n. 5, above). However, the fact of competing syntheses hardly legitimates the further conclusion—and this jump to extreme conclusions unwarranted by preceding argument does seem typical of postmodernist thought in general—that only fragmentary and disconnected representations of the past can be successful.

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Central European History
  • ISSN: 0008-9389
  • EISSN: 1569-1616
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