One more amble over the Sonderweg

A History of Modern Germany since 1815
December 3, 2004

Germany has an image problem in Britain. Despite, or perhaps because of this, modern German history continues to fascinate Britain's students and educated readers. The fulcrum of modern European history, German history is a spectacular combination of achievement and atrocity. The sudden and unexpected collapse of the East German state and the unification of Germany have further fuelled students' interest and led to the appearance of a range of excellent textbooks published in the 1990s.

A History of Modern Germany since 1815 is the most comprehensive single-volume textbook to enter this crowded market in recent years.

Students of 20th-century German history have been well served by the publications of Mary Fulbrook, and those interested in the 19th century can choose from works by James Sheehan, Thomas Nipperdey and David Blackbourn.

Frank Tipton offers a detailed overview of German history from the creation in 1815 of the post-Napoleonic German Confederation to the present. The book's length prevents it supplanting Fulbrook's Concise History of Germany (1991) as the best introduction to modern German history, but it expands on much of Fulbrook's material.

Tipton takes students systematically through successive periods of modern German history. Detailed contents pages and chapter subsections enable students to read the text chronologically or thematically.

Tipton's approach to his material is admirably even-handed. He challenges the idea of a unique and deviant German path - or Sonderweg - through modern history and takes care to place the German experience in a comparative context. He is wary of excessively teleological approaches to German history that see the roots of Nazism at every turn in Germany's past, and for each period provides students with eyewitness accounts of contemporary Germans.

However, one misses any sustained engagement with the debates about modern Germany that have raged within the historical profession. Tipton surveys the economic, social and political background to crucial junctures in German history such as the revolution of 1848, the First World War, the Holocaust and reunification. But he provides surprisingly little insight into the interaction between these spheres and does not evaluate which elements might have proved dominant or decisive in each case. For example, while the section on the unification of Germany in 1871 provides students with useful information about the renewed rise of popular nationalism in the 1850s and 1860s, we gain little sense of the impact of these developments on political decisions taken by Bismarck. The emphasis is still on Bismarck as the arch-manipulator and architect of German unification, revealing little of the complex interaction between high politics and popular ideologies and pressure groups.

Students interested in the cut and thrust of modern German historiography will still need to refer to the magisterial German History since 1800 , a collection of essays by leading historians of Germany, edited by Fulbrook.

However, students in search of an informative and wide-ranging historical narrative will do well to start here.

Anita Bunyan is fellow and director of studies in modern languages, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

A History of Modern Germany since 1815

Author - Frank B. Tipton
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 730
Price - £85.00 and £25.00
ISBN - 0 8264 4909 3 and 4910 7

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