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

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