Whither Germany? Historiography and Public Reckoning with the National Past

News Abroad
tags: historiography, Nazism, German history

Samuel Miner is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland. He recently successfully defended his dissertation, entitled “The Exiles’ Return: Emigres, Anti-Nazis, and the Basic Law.”


Reviews of the German historian Hedwig Richter’s new book Demokratie: eine Deutsche Affäre (Democracy: A German Affair) have started an important debate in Germany about the relationship between democracy and dictatorship in German history. This article translates and summarizes the current conversation in German academic and media circles. It also looks at recent newspaper articles to illustrate how some historians link arguments about the past with prescriptions for the present.


Germany, like so many other western nations, faces uncertain times. After sixteen years of even-keeled leadership, Angela Merkel will step down as Chancellor this fall. A complex electoral situation shows Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance losing ground over claims of mismanagement during the COVID pandemic. Electoral unknowns include the meteoric rise of the Green Party, the continued withering of the Social Democrats, and the far-right “Alternatives for Germany” (AfD) likely continuing to have representation in the parliament. So far, nothing unusual. Germany, like all of its European partners, faces important challenges: populist nationalism and xenophobia, dilemmas over European integration, navigating the pandemic, addressing climate change and the turn to renewable energies, and perhaps renegotiating the country’s relationship with the United States after the presidency of Donald Trump.

The end of the Merkel era, dealing with America’s descent into populist nationalism, and perhaps Brexit as well signal another important (and perhaps unique) problem for Germany: what role should Germany now play on the global stage or in promoting further integration efforts into the European Union? Should Germany have a more robust defense policy independent of the United States and NATO? Should Germany take the lead on international agreements to address climate change? Debates about the independent use of the German military, the European Union, and unilateral diplomacy have been a matter of introspection for many Germans since the end of the Second World War.

Enter the historian Hedwig Richter (University of the Bundeswehr, Munich) and her new book Demokratie: eine Deutsche Affäre [Democracy: A German Affair] (2020). As the title suggests, the book is about Germany’s long “affair” with democracy. In her book, Richter suggests Germany has had a much longer relationship with democracy than has been previously acknowledged. Rather than writing history of Germany as a “long road west” as Heinrich August Winkler famously did, Richter claims that Germany has always been part of the west, but that the western tradition includes positive norms as equality freedom, and justice as well as obviously negative traits including racism, militarism, and nationalism. Little can stand in the way of Richter’s account of Germany’s long relationship with democracy. The Wilhelmine Empire, in Richter’s reading, was in fact a state more defined by the democratic politics of mass participation than it was authoritarian constitutional monarchy offering a prime example of the ‘persistence of the old regime.’ In the same vein of the irresistible force of democracy, Nazism was not so much a break with the democratic traditions of the Weimar Republic, but rather a “totalitarian democracy” built on mass politics.  

Around this core conceptualization, Richter pursues four theses. First, that genuine democratic reforms in Germany was not a project of revolutionaries and the masses, but rather an elite-driven phenomenon. Second, that more often than not popular revolutions in German history failed and reform has been more successful in achieving democratic transitions (except for 1848 and 1989). Third, Richter connects the history of democracy to the history of the body, “its mishandling, its care, its wanting, and its dignity.” Finally, she claims that the history of democracy must be an international history looking beyond national borders.

These theses all reject the argument of Germany’s “special path” (Sonderweg) to modernity. This thesis, from the post-1945 period, held that Germany was a “belated nation” whose delayed national unification in 1871 and late industrialization fostered a continuity of pre-industrial elites, preventing a successful bourgeois rights revolution akin to France and Great Britain. While the best historiography from the period always avoided the teleological line ‘between Luther and Hitler,’ special path historiography posited there were some continuities of German history from the Wilhelmine period (1871-1918) that helped explain Hitler’s rise to power and the subsequent support for the Nazi dictatorship.

Written with a popular audience in mind, Richter’s book surveys Germany’s relationship to democracy from the end of the eighteenth century to the present. The book has received plaudits in the form of the prestigious Anna Krüger Prize and a nomination for the Bavarian Book Prize. Despite some mixed reviews from media outlets, the book has been very commercially successful, and Richter has been a guest on numerous public outlets in Germany.

For all its public praise, Democracy: A German Affair has come under serious scrutiny from some of the big names of German history. At the beginning of February 2021, Christian Jansen (University of Trier) wrote a review for the popular online German news forum H-Soz-Kult and concurrently published an even longer review on his personal Academia page. In that review, he criticized Richter for ignoring historiography, using language unbefitting a serious academic book, terminological imprecision, and generally factual discrepancies and exclusions of inconvenient facts. In March, the director of the Institute for Contemporary History Andreas Wirsching wrote another negative review in the online German journal Sehepunkte. He suggested that the only affair—in the scandalous meaning of the word—surrounding the book was that the book was published by a renowned German publisher (C.H. Beck), treated uncritically in many newspaper reviews, and deemed prizeworthy.

While never mentioning the book by name, the emeritus historian Ulrich Herbert (Freiburg) was asked about recent discussions regarding the relationship between National Socialism and democracy:

Democracy is something different than the mobilization of the masses. While national conservatives and pre-industrial elites—not just in Germany—saw in the rise of the masses approaching doom, the National Socialists relied entirely on the dynamism of the mass movement. The concept of democracy is devalued if one sees an element of “democracy” in the rule of the Nazi regime, which destroyed all democratic institutions, got rid of free voting and imprisoned and killed hundreds-of-thousands of Germans.

In yet another recent interview, the emeritus historian Jürgen Kocka (Free University of Berlin) offered a dualistic assessment of the recent controversy about the book, focusing his attention more on the reception of the chapters around the Wilhelmine Empire:

One must accept that the Wilhelmine Empire was both an authoritarian militarist-and-civil-servant state, which pursued aggressive colonial politics and bred extreme nationalism until the First World War; at the same time, it was the casing for enormous economic ascent, for quick societal and cultural changes, for a great awakening and emancipation. The new research has found a great deal of new material about the second aspect but occasionally loses the first from its view.

The dispute also revealed some methodological quarrels which might sound familiar to an American audience. More positive reviewers praised Richter for her ‘imaginative writing’ and her ability to provide a digestible history in a field saturated with dense academic writing. As much as anything, Richter’s defenders took a stand against the tone of critical reviews. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the history correspondent Patrick Bahners wrote a personal polemic against Jansen and Wirsching in response to their own supposedly overblown criticism of Democracy: A German Affair. Under the name “An Inverted Stab in the Back Myth,” Bahners accused Jansen and Wirsching of mischaracterizing the very mixed reviews newspapers had given Richter’s work. The personal tone of his polemic was, ironically, unmatched by any of the reviews.

Hedwig Richter is a young, media-savvy female historian working in a field where many of the important positions are still held by older men. Is her addition to the historiography a new and creative way to bring history to a broader audience with an imaginative thesis meant to reconceptualize German history, or is it a violation of academic standards with an ill-defined and poorly articulated methodology? Not for the first time, the profession of history finds dissenters in the ranks of some journalists, public intellectuals, and opinion-makers.

A recent set of articles in the German newspapers Die Zeit and Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed just how much these historical-methodological debates in Richter’s book had been about revising modern Germany’s democratic self-perception. Under the title “The Angst about the Volk,” Richter and the associate editor of Die Zeit Bernd Ulrich complained that the idea of Germany’s “special path” to modernity is “chained to the Raison d'être of the Federal Republic” in a way that means German political and media elites are distrustful of the German people.

Why do German politics have such an angst about the Volk, that it does not dare say anything about Corona or the climate, let alone do anything about it in time? Why does Germany fluctuate between admiration and dismay at the United States? Why is it not able to accomplish a deployment-ready army? All of these things have different reasons and yet one common ground: an overwhelmed and one-sided relationship to Germany’s own past.

Germany tells the story of its past as “not a hero-or-victim history, but rather as one of guilt and purification.” This was somewhat for the good: “to recognize their guilt rather than relativizing, to accept responsibility for the terror of National Socialism and for the unique crime of the Holocaust has made Germans more humble, civil, and reflective—and carried them to their rehabilitation after 1945.” But this recognition was taken too far by people who pursued the special path thesis of German history:

In the public sphere there is a specific meaning of German guilt, in which the depth of the civilizational break is expanded with a bold causal logic into the depths of German history. Especially since the Wilhelmine Empire, but also where possible since Herder or Luther or even since the German Tribes in their dark forests, the Germans pursued their special path and manifested an almost mystical Germanness of difference and danger. The acceptance of a special Volk has important ramifications: up until today it sustains a hysteria and paralysis of the Federal Republic. 

The special path historiography had a pernicious impact on Germany up until today, according to Richter and Ulrich:

International comparative studies showed in the last years, that every country has its own history and its own uniqueness, but that the same time parallel changes in the north Atlantic region existed. And to remain by the time of the Wilhelmine Empire: antisemitism, racism or militarism can barely be analyzed without looking at their global aggressivity.

It is important not to simplify in national terms the good or bad phenomenon of high modernity around 1900. Modern states discovered on the one hand an impressive power of inclusion and participatory attractiveness, they bound a large part of the people with national feelings on the state and made passible the development of economic, scientific, and intellectual competencies. On the other side these states became brutal machines of war, who conquered continents, robbed other people, or annihilated them. It is a violence that—next to authoritarian elites—the masses and democratic elements demand and that is open for Fascist attempts at rule.

Richter and Ulrich argued that the special path thesis overlooked the unique short-term historical circumstances explaining the rise of the Nazis. About the identity of this group who simplified German history, Richter and Ulrich had this to say:

That the thesis of a special path, from the destiny-driven predisposition of the Germans for barbarity and from an inevitable path from the Wilhelmine Empire to National Socialism finds few voices and is in the historical profession almost entirely gone, does not mitigate its power in politics and media. The leading generation of political and media figures were raised with this view of Germany and the world and chained it to the Raison Raison d'être of the Federal Republic. Only the special path accounts protected the Republic from a relativization of the Holocaust, in short, and prevented a relapse into Fascism.

It is not the historical profession, but rather the “leading generation of political and media figures” who hold this view of Germany.

The historians Christina Morina (Bielefeld University) and Dietmar Süß (University of Augsburg) published a retort to this article with a piece in the Süddeutsche Zeitung called “German Spring.” The piece attacked what they see as Richter and Ulrich’s call for “a radical turn in the [German] culture of memory” about the Nazi period. First, they argued the piece in Die Zeit was bad history, as it “sacrifice[d] a differentiated view of the complexities of the present and history for a throwaway line.” Richter and Ulrich’s piece created a strawman of Sonderweg theory, held in fact by no particular German historian:

The historical discussion about the “special path” was about the question of structural foundations and societal bases for the rise of National Socialism. It dealt with Germany as a ‘delayed nation,’ democratic deficits and the meaning of the authoritarian state and militarism. The theses of the fifties, where a straight line led from Luther to Hitler found engagement almost nowhere … It [the ‘special path’] is a reason for the “Angst about the Volk” thought in the “leading” circles of politics and media. Who is meant by this? Die Zeit? Ministerial Civil Servants in the Federal Defense Ministry? The German World Service? The Government? The question remains open. Empirical evidence: nothing doing.

Accordingly, in their account of the “Special Path” Richter and Ulrich ignored the core of that historical controversy: why did such a large part of middle-class society, white collar workers, civil servants and also the workers so willingly associate themselves with the Völkisch movement of Adolf Hitler? Why did racism and antisemitism find such fruitful ground in Germany? Why, only here, did such a murderous stew emerge out of a longing for ‘community,’ for ‘leadership’ and a radical ‘decency’? With reference to the underestimated democratic traditions in Germany and the relative ‘normality’ of racism and nationalism in other counties, one does not do justice to the matter. Rather, the question of specific German histories of violence are lost in a universal no-mans-land.

To Morina and Süß, the argument about the place of the special path of German history was specious. Instead, the main point of the article was to revise the view of the German past with an eye to the German present:

The considerations of Hedwig Richter and Bernd Ulrich therefore represent nothing less than a deep historical-political cut. With their plea to get away from the “chains” of the until-now “Raison d'être” of the Federal Republic, and to solve the until-now valid “zombie paradigms,” they bring into question the place the fundamental consensus of a basically self-critical addressing of the Nazi period… Those who are interested in a ‘more sovereign’ Germany, a more forward-looking commitment to Europe, a more robust foreign policy, a more creative crisis management, and more justice should not sacrifice a critical relationship to their own history. Inner sovereignty and democratic creative power do not benefit from rhetorical swaggering and nationally-tinted quick-fix visions, but from the ability and will to achieve the highest possible degree of participation, individual freedom, and common good.

It took a long time for the realization to prevail in this country that National Socialism did not break over the Germans like a natural disaster. The critical visualization of this history as a factor of burden is nothing else than the old call for a thick line to be drawn through the past. The fact that the German history of democracy is being mobilized for this is what makes its advancement particularly embarrassing.

Morina and Süß’s critique of the article in Die Zeit lays out, perhaps more clearly, the stakes of the current debate in Germany. If it is true that Germany is in “chains” from a sixty-year-old historical dispute about the continuities of German history which leads to “zombie paradigms” about the German people on the part of political and media elites, then the politics of memory in Germany do need radical rethinking. If, on the other hand, this is an artificial crisis created by a historian and a journalist then one has to ask: who does it serve?

A basic question seems to be emerging from the ongoing disputes: what does the culture of critical historical self-reflection about the German past have to do with solving the pressing issues in contemporary Germany? To Christina Morina and Dietmar Süß, very little. Germany can have a more participatory democracy, a debate about independence from the United States, and a more active role in the EU without sacrificing an unflinchingly critical examination of the German past. To Bernd Ulrich and Hedwig Richter, Germany remains shackled by its past with leaders who do not trust the German people for their supposed proclivities towards authoritarian demagoguery. The identity of these Germanophobic German leaders is unclear. One thing is undeniable: the central role of commemorating the Nazi past in modern German public life is a very new and precarious phenomenon and its current location in German public consciousness can never be taken for granted. This is neither the first, nor the last time that a historian has recommended changing Germany’s historical self-perception. The historian Christian Goschler made the point that perhaps what is more novel in the recent controversy is that it reveals the fault-lines of public trust in academic work and professional gatekeeping. This problem of the culture of remembrance also touches larger debates about truth claims, scientific research, and the dissemination of knowledge.

The methodological issues debated by our German colleagues need to be heard in American universities. For Americans living in the era of Black Lives Matter, police violence, voter suppression, discussions about reparations for slavery, and a critical reexamination of the nation’s founding it might be useful to think about the international comparative dimensions of coming to terms with troubled pasts and the role historians are currently playing in this process elsewhere.

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