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Rethinking the Role of Artisans in Modern German Development


Since so much of what distinguishes Germany's social-economic development from that of other advanced capitalist societies derives from the prominence of the handicrafts (Handwerk) and their institutional legacy, it is regrettable that artisan sightings have become so rare in recent central European scholarship.1 It is especially so because disparaging postwar historiographic portrayals of “backward” late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century artisans leave us without a way to understand the emergence of a prosperous Mittelstand of small and medium-sized craft producers in the postwar years. Moreover, inasmuch as the existence of a vibrant, legally distinct class of handicraft firms constitutes one of the most striking features of the modern German political economy, we need an account of how it evolved and why.2 Furthermore, without this, we have no way to explain several other distinctive “peculiarities” of German institutional arrangements: an educational system that directs a majority of young Germans to practically oriented, work-based apprenticeships supplemented by part-time schooling instead of academically oriented, full-time secondary schools; a labor market that effectively professionalized all occupations and limited the creation of mere “jobs”; and a training system that, as it diffused from the craft to the industrial and service sectors, reinforced Germany's historic manufacturing preference for producing diversified, high-quality goods and services.3 In short, no history of modern German economic, social, or political development can afford to dispense with artisans or their institutions.

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Rosenberg , Grosse Depression und Bismarkzeit (Berlin: Ullstein, 1967)

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James Coleman , “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” American Journal of Sociology 94 (Supplement): 95120

Jochen Streb , Jörg Baten , and Shuxi Yin , “Technological Knowledge Spillover in the German Empire 1877–1918,” in Economic History Review 59, no. 2 (2006): 347373

Rudolf Boch , “The Rise and Decline of ‘Flexible Production’: The Cutlery Industry of Solingen since the Eighteenth Century,” in Worlds of Possibility: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization, ed. Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin , “Historical Alternatives to Mass Production,” in Past and Present 108 (August 1985): 133176

Manfred Hettling , Reform ohne Revolution. Bürgertum, Bürokratie und kommunale Selbstverwaltung in Württemberg von 1800 bis 1850 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990)

Jörg Baten , Anna Spadavecchia , Jochen Streb , and Shuxi Yin concluded in “What made southwest German firms innovative around 1900? Assessing the Importance of Intra- and Inter-Industry Externalities,” Oxford Economic Papers 59 (2007): i105i126

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