Speaking Volumes: Aristocracy and the Middle Classes in Germany

October 20, 1995

Eva Kolinsky on Ernest K. Bramsted's Aristocracy and the Middle Classes in Germany: Social Types in German Literature 1830-1900.

I remember the excitement when I first read Ernest K. Bramsted's book: here was an author who was a sociologist and literary critic and seemed to have no fear of crossing boundaries between disciplines that led a neatly segregated existence in German university life at the time.

As a student of German literature, sociology and political science at the Free University of Berlin, looking back I believe I gravitated towards German literature since it allowed me more scope to escape conformism. Focusing on the analysis of the literary form was like learning a craft.

Society, politics, history and in particular the troubled history of Germany with its unanswered questions - why democracy failed, why National Socialism rose, why nationalism and genocide lay so close together and had been endorsed by the generations of my parents and grandparents - all these dimensions seemed to be excluded from the seminar room. This is why discovering Bramsted meant so much to me.

When Bramsted published Aristocracy and the Middle Classes in Germany in 1937 he lived in London in exile. Since German academe had so eagerly endorsed National Socialism, any book by a Jewish author was ignored. This exclusion, however, continued even after the second edition appeared in 1964. Now his book fell between stools. Sociology and German literary studies, which Bramsted brought together in his book, remained as far apart as ever in universities.

Bramsted, drawing on the work of Karl Mannheim, argues that economically, the aristocracy was on the defensive throughout the 19th century while continuing to dominate politically and socially. Moral virtues and industriousness may have given the middle class a certain self-confidence and place in society, but always in the second rank. The attempt by the German middle class to emulate aristocratic styles extended to rejecting the development of democracy in the wake of socioeconomic modernisation. Nationalism and anti-Semitism followed. Quoting Ludwig Borne, Bramsted observes: "He who cannot be an aristocrat so that he may look down on the burghers wishes at least that he be a Christian so that he have the Jews to look down upon."

Soll und Haben, one of the novels discussed in the book, juxtaposes a good middle-class German merchant and a bad Jew and makes anti-Semitism seem normal and justified. Well into the early 1960s, German parents gave Soll und Haben to their children when a guidebook for life was called for. At a time when Germans did their utmost to remember only the highpoints of German culture, Bramsted dared to focus on blackspots and present an analysis of change in society and culture without false accusatory tones and without false optimism.

Eva Kolinsky is professor of modern German studies, University of Keele.

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