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The Peculiar Course of German History

Edgar Feuchtwanger warns against exaggerating the extent or significance of liberalism’s failure in German history.

The weakness of German liberalism usually figures prominently in anything written about modern German history. It is also central to the thesis of a German Sonderweg (separate path), that German history, from at least the nineteenth century onwards, deviated significantly from more benign developments in Western Europe. The argument is that in Germany, as compared with France and particularly Britain, the middle class, the main carrier of the liberal idea, was weak. Hence the progress from absolute monarchy through parliamentary government to democracy was stalled. The revolution of 1848, meant to bring parliamentary government to Germany, was defeated. Instead Bismarck carried out a revolution from above on behalf of the Prussian military monarchy, whose powers therefore remained largely intact, when elsewhere monarchies became constitutional or were replaced by republics. 

Historiographical Debate

This argument, or variants of it, became a virtual orthodoxy in writing on German history after the Second World War. There was an overwhelming need to find a satisfactory explanation for the rise of Hitler, with all the devastating moral and material consequences of the Third Reich for Germany in particular and for the world in general. Some nationalist and conservative German historians still tried to account for Hitler's rise as a kind of alien intrusion into the normal course of events. They wanted to rebut the view that something was flawed in the whole of Germany's modern development. For most observers, however, the treatment of Hitler as an unfortunate traffic accident of history was not adequate and the 'weakness of liberalism' and 'Sonderweg' theses seemed more satisfying.

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