One of the traditional roles played by historians – in addition to simply recounting historical narrative - is to explain why history unfolded in the particular manner that it has. Those committed to the explanation of history develop models and perspectives by which historical discourse can occur. The horrors of the German national socialist regime posed difficult questions to historians: how could citizens of a seemingly civilized nation perform mass murder on a previously unimaginable scale, and how could others within that society approve of (or acquiesce in) the execution of such monstrous deeds?
This article examines attempts by historians to elucidate the reasons for the particular course of history that led to the rise in power of the Nazi Party in Germany. The central focus of this work is on the evolution of the Sonderweg (“special path”) thesis, first espoused by nationalistic (or what Wehler termed as “imperial patriotism” ) late nineteenth century German writers as a celebration of Kaiserreich social, economic, and political values, but which became a controversial explanation for the emergence of the Third Reich. The object of this essay is not to propose a new model for modern German history, but rather to highlight for non-specialists some of the major schools of thought and central arguments related to the concept of Sonderweg.
The failure of liberal democratic structures to develop in Germany did not go unnoticed by nineteenth-century writers. Karl Marx composed a blistering polemic on the unsuccessful 1848 bourgeois revolution in his “The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution”:
The German bourgeoisie developed so sluggishly, timidly and slowly that at the moment when it menacingly confronted feudalism and absolutism, it saw menacingly pitted against itself the proletariat and all sections of the middle class whose interests and ideas were related to those of the proletariat… Unlike the French bourgeoisie of 1789, the Prussian bourgeoisie, when it confronted monarchy and aristocracy, the representatives of the old society, was not a class speaking for the whole of modern society. It had been reduced to a kind of estate as clearly distinct from the Crown as it was from the people, with a strong bend to oppose both adversaries and irresolute towards each of them individually because it always saw both of them either in front of it or behind it. From the first it was inclined to betray the people and to compromise with the crowned representatives of the old society, for it already belonged itself to the old society; it did not advance the interests of a new society against an old one, but represented refurbished interests within an obsolete society… It did not trust its own slogans, used phrases instead of ideas, it was intimidated by the world storm and exploited it for its own ends… haggling over its own demands, without initiative, without faith in itself, without faith in the people, without a historic mission, an abominable dotard finding himself condemned to lead and to mislead the first youthful impulses of a virile people so as to make them serve his own senile interests – sans eyes, sans ears, sans teeth, sans everything – this was the Prussian bourgeoisie which found itself at the helm of the Prussian state after the March revolution.The question facing historians is to what extent the illiberal unified Germany was responsible for the militarist authoritarianism of the Wilhelmine era and – more importantly – the murderous fascism of the Hitler dictatorship.
Early Twentieth-Century Moves Away from Imperialist History
Thorstein Veblen was among the first writers to view the concept of Sonderweg in a negative light. He composed two of his most influential books during the First World War, Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution and An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace and the Terms of its Perpetuation, both of which examine the rise of the Kaiserreich as a dominant industrial nation with pre-modern, authoritarian political and social structures. Veblen foreshadowed many of the critiques of post-World War II historians as to the intrinsic characteristics of Wilhelmine Germany that could be construed as a “special path” leading to the rise of the Third Reich; the Kaiserreich, in Veblen’s opinion, was ill-suited to handle the modern industrial state, and its monarchical and aristocratic institutions remained hostile to liberal democracy:
Germany is still a dynastic State. That is to say, its national establishment is, in effect, a self-appointed and irresponsible autocracy which holds the nation in usufruct, working through the appropriate bureaucratic organization, and the people is imbued with that spirit of abnegation and devotion that is involved in their enthusiastically supporting a government of that character. Now, it is the nature of a dynastic State to seek dominion, that being the whole of its nature. And a dynastic establishment which enjoys the unqualified usufruct of such resources as are placed at its disposal by the feudalistic loyalty of the German people runs no chance of keeping the peace, except on terms of the unconditional surrender of all those whom it may concern. No solemn engagement and no pious resolution has any weight in the balance against a cultural fatality of this magnitude.Max Weber argued that the German bourgeoisie failed to adopt the liberal traditions of its British rivals. Wilhelmine Germany, argued Weber, was nation dedicated to the idea that bureaucracy was the very means by which social and political problems could be solved, and he believed that the unification achieved by Bismarck was destined for disaster:
We have to grasp that German unification was a youthful exploit, upon which our nation embarked in its old age, but which might have been, because of its high cost, better left undone, if it is to be the end rather than the starting point of a German world power policy (Weltmachtpolitik).Historians in the decade after the Second World War tended to explain the Nazi regime as a consequence of the harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles and the economic chaos that resulted from the Great Depression on the 1930s. Somewhat prescient of this school of historiography was John Maynard Keynes, whose 1919 book The Economic Consequences of the Peace criticized the onerous reparations imposed on Germany by the victorious Allies after World War I:
…I believe that the campaign for securing out of Germany the general costs of the war was one of the most serious acts of political unwisdom for which our statesmen have ever been responsible. To what a different future Europe might have looked forward if either Mr. Lloyd George or Mr. Wilson had apprehended that the most serious of the problems which claimed their attention were not political or territorial but financial and economic, and that the perils of the future lay not in frontiers or sovereignties but in food, coal, and transport. Neither of them paid adequate attention to these problems at any stage of the Conference. But in any event the atmosphere for the wise and reasonable consideration of them was hopelessly befogged by the commitments of the British delegation on the question of Indemnities. The hopes to which the Prime Minister had given rise not only compelled him to advocate an unjust and unworkable economic basis to the Treaty with Germany, but set him at variance with the President, and on the other hand with competing interests to those of France and Belgium.One of the first post-Nazi books to consider the reasons for the rise of the Third Reich was Friedrich Meinecke’s 1946 Die Deutsche Katastrophe (“The German Catastrophe”), which presented the era of Hitler as a historical aberration without direct connections to imperial Germany. The Third Reich, argued Meinecke, should properly be viewed as a deadly tsunami that “burst upon Germany,” and Hitler shoulod be understood as a historical phenomenon with no relation to the German past:
This fellow does not belong to our race at all. There is something wholly foreign about him, something like an otherwise extinct primitive race that is still completely amoral in its nature . . . in spite of his very close connection with the life of his time, there lay something foreign to us Germans and difficult to understand.Reassessment: After the Fall of the Third Reich
Fritz Fischer ignited a firestorm of controversy in 1961 with Griff nach der Weltmacht (“The Grasp for World Power”), the first of his works that attacked historians in the tradition of Meinecke, who he deplored as an apologist for the Nazi regime. Orlow succinctly noted that Fischer viewed the Kaiserreich as “an unholy alliance of Germany’s military, industrial, and political leaders” bent on maintaining the power of “authoritarianism at home and hegemony abroad.” Imperial Germany, argued Fischer, was directly responsible for the outbreak of hostilities in World War I:
There is no doubt that the war which the German politicians started in July 1914 was not a preventive war fought out of fear and despair. It was an attempt to defeat the enemy powers before they became too strong, and to realise Germany’s political ambitions which may be summed up as German hegemony over Europe.Most provocative among Fischer’s arguments was the idea that German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg actively campaigned to provoke a war with European rivals, and that there was a concerted effort on the part of Kaiserreich oficials to annex parts of France, Russia, and Belgium. Fischer provided excerpts of imperial documents that imply a policy of territorial aggrandizement on the part of Bethman Hollweg and his advisors:
The general aim of the war is security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time. For this purpose France must be so weakened as to make her revival as a great power impossible for all time. Russia must be thrust back as far as possible from Germany's eastern frontier and her domination over the non-Russian vassal peoples broken.Historians differ on the interpretation of such passages, and many scholars question whether this is evidence of a master plan to dominate Europe or merely, as Orlow described, a war of “domestic and foreign policy opportunity.” Retallack depicted Bethman Hollweg’s strategy as expecting a lightning-quick war which would be a “calculated risk to shore up Germany’s diplomatic position,” and that the German chancellor’s true aims were to split the Entente, allow Austria-Hungary a free hand in the Balkans, and avoid a general European continental war. Chickering argued that Bethman Hollweg pursued “a somewhat more cautious policy” that owed as much to his concern about the survival of the Habsburg monarchy as it did to territorial acquisition. Feuchtwanger maintained that Bethmann Hollweg was actually a moderate on war aims, and it was this moderation that “undermined his position and was a major factor in his eventual downfall.” Nonetheless, it can be safely argued that Fischer’s thesis opened the proverbial floodgates of an inversion of the traditional “positive” Sonderweg perspective, and there has been no shortage in the subsequent decades of historians desirous of weighing in on the Sonderweg debate.
Perhaps the most noteworthy of the post-Nazi Sonderweg interpretations was developed by Hans-Ulrich Wehler, who argued that historians “cannot grasp the history of the Third Reich without recourse to the history of the German Empire of 1871.” Wehler depicted a reactionary aristocratic class that strove to maintain dominance through a political system he suggested might best be described as a “pseudo-constituional semi-absolutism.” The ruling class, argued Wehler, attempted to divert the attention of the “feudalized bourgeoisie” away from domestic politics – and the lack of democratic structures in imperial Germany – through an aggressive and expeansionist foreign policy. It was the failure of the imperial Germany to transition to liberal political traditions, maintained Wehler, that led to the horrors of the Nazi regime:
In the years before 1945, and indeed in some respects beyond this, the fatal successes of Imeprial Germany’s ruling élites, assisted by older historical traditions and new experiences, continued to exert an influence. In the widespread susceptibility toward authoritarian policies, in the hostility toward democracy in education and political life, in the continuing influence of pre-industrial ruling élites, there begins a long inventory of serious historical problems. To this list we must add the tenacity of the German ideology of the state, its myth of the bureaucracy, the superimposition of class differences on those between the traditional late-feudal estates and the manipulation of political antisemitism. It is because of all these factors that a knowledge of the history of the German Empire between 1871 and 1918 remains absolutely indispensable for an understanding of German history over the past decades.Wehler, to his credit, acknowledged that critics would be able to “discover considerable gaps in my analysis,” noting for example that his analysis was based heavily on Prussian sources. Wehler admitted that he composed Deutsche Kaiserreich with “many sentences and judgments [that] have been put very pointedly,” and argued that his objective with the text had been to spark debate and reflection.
Wolfgang Mommsen, while acknowledging some of the shortcomings of Wehler’s analysis, argued that the Sonderweg thesis was “more than just a concoction on the part of left-wing intellectuals” and that “the process of change that took place in Germany was a distinctive one [emphasis in original].” Agreeing with Wehler and Max Weber, Mommsen argued that the imperial German bureaucracy underpinned the state by providing a career track for the educated middle class, and also acted as a “protective shield” for the aristocracy and the monarchy. Moreover, noted Mommsen, the bureaucracy thus had a vested interest in the perpetuation of the authoritarian state, and it actively worked to stifle potential constitutional reforms.
Wehler’s Sonderweg thesis elicited plenty of contrary responses from his contemporaries, and perhaps the pair most often identified as debunkers of Sonderweg were David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, whose 1984 The Peculiarities of German History took aim at some of basic assumptions of Wehler and other Sonderweg proponents. Eley contested the idea of a “failed bourgeois revolution” often cited by Sonderweg proponents, arguing that this implies that all modern industrial societies – in deterministic fashion - must pass through a bourgeois revolution of the British or French type. Moreover, argued Eley, the very notion of such an ideal type of bourgeois revolution – marked by a “forcibly acquired liberal democracy seized by a triumphant bourgeoisie, acting politically as a class, in conscious struggle against a feudal aristocracy” – has been discredited by many mainstream Marxists, including E.P. Thompson. Eley also provided a considerable number of examples of the German bourgeoisie undertaking attempts to reform the Empire, and while liberal elements were largely unsuccessful in their efforts, this hardly constituted a subordinated or feudalized bourgeoisie.
Blackbourn developed the case for what he termed the “silent bourgeois revolution” in which liberal elements had to carefully choose the appropriate times for advancing their cause. Given the social and political hierarchies in post-unification Germany, argued Blackbourn, bourgeois dominance “was most effective where it was most silent and anonymous, where its forms and institutions came to seem most natural,” and the author described a number of positive achievements that the German bourgeoisie did accomplish. In addition, noted Blackbourn, what Sonderweg proponents describe as a “feudalized bourgeoisie” might just as easily be expressed as social and political conservatism. Finally, Blackbourn dismissed the Sonderweg notion of a “revolution from above” directed by Bismarck, noting that there was always political action by a variety of competing groups from below during the Imperial era.
The Sonderweg debate will continue to be a fruitful academic pursuit for the foreseeable future, as historians on both sides of the debate continue to refine and attack the idea that the failure of liberal democratic traditions to take hold in imperial Germany foreshadowed the fascist regime of the National Socialists. The more deterministic aspects of Wehler’s groundbreaking Deutsche Kaiserreich have fallen from favor, and yet even the most diehard opponents of the Sonderweg thesis generally agree that the authoritarian nature of imperial Germany influenced the rise of the Third Reich.
Despite his efforts to debunk the “peculiarities” of Sonderweg, Blackbourn noted that the “distinctiveness of German history is best recognized if we do not see it (before 1945) as a permanent falling-away from the ‘normal.’” Blackbourn called instead for historians to understand that there is much in the history of Germany that is similar to the histories of other industrialized nations:
In many respects, as I have tried to show, the German experience constituted a heightened version of what occurred elsewhere. This is true of Germany’s dynamic capitalism, and of the social and political consequences it generated. It is true of the complex mesh of public and private virtues which were characteristic of German bourgeois society. It is true of a widespread sentiment like cultural despair, and of the crass materialism which unwittingly reinforced it. It is true, I believe – although not all will want to accept this – of the way in which these and other phenomena discussed above combined to produce Germany’s exceptionally radical form of fascism.Finally, if there are indeed lessons to be learned from history – and if societies are actually capable of learning from such lessons – one would hope that a study of the “peculiarities” of the German experience might highlight the possibility that these factors are universal. It is certainly within the realm of the possible that another fascist regime could emerge in global politics that parallels the Third Reich, and a blind acceptance of a German Sonderweg could lull citizens of the world into a false sense of security. The geopolitics of the twenty-first century provide many examples of authoritarian regimes seeking rapid industrialization and in possession of a bourgeois class more concerned with individual fortunes than with egalitarian ideals, and perhaps history is capable of repeating itself.