The Grimm splendour of a grand hotel

The Fontana History of Germany 1780-1914
July 4, 1997

David Blackbourn is one of the brightest of a younger generation of Anglo-American scholars whose work has transformed the historiography of modern Germany over the past two decades, among them R. J. Evans, Geoff Eley, J. J. Sheehan, Harold James and Niall Ferguson. With the present magisterial volume, Blackbourn establishes himself if not as leader of his school at least as primus inter pares. His first book, a monograph on the Centre party in Wurttemberg, restored Catholicism to its rightful place in the politics of imperial Germany. His polemical work, The Peculiarities of German History, written with Geoff Eley, set out their reasons for rejecting the past orthodoxy that Germany had followed a "special path" throughout modern history. He followed this with a valuable collection of shorter studies, Populists and Patricians, and edited a useful volume on The German Bourgeoisie. All these themes were combined and elaborated in Marpingen, his microcosm of Bismarckian Germany, which drew wide-ranging conclusions from a Montaillou-like investigation into visions of the Virgin Mary during the Kulturkampf.

In reviewing the last, I suggested Blackbourn should write a history of 19th-century Germany. Little did I expect him to do so with such aplomb, and only four years later. His new volume is dedicated to John Plumb, whom he rightly credits with a strong belief in "professional historians writing books for a wider public". Blackbourn himself has now successfully made the transition from specialist to generalist and, although he has now taught at Stanford and Harvard for many years, it is perhaps not absurd to suppose that one of our great universities might soon tempt him to return to this country to ensure its pre-eminence in his field at a time when relations with Germany have never been more important and false interpretations of German history have never been more dangerous.

The most obvious strength of this Fontana history is its brevity, which renders it far more suitable as a textbook than the three-volume histories by Thomas Nipperdey and Hans-Ulrich Wehler, now the standard works in German. Thirty years separate it from the only other single-volume works covering roughly the same period by Golo Mann and Agatha Ramm.

Even the two less obsolescent Oxford volumes by James J. Sheehan (1770-1866) and Gordon Craig (1866-1945) are more constrained by their narrative straitjacket and indeed by the publisher's arbitrary need to treat the unification of 1866-71 as an absolute caesura. There is much to be gained from Blackbourn's synoptic view of the "long 19th century", which can emphasise continuities from the Kleinstaaterei of Metternich's Germany to the Prussian ascendancy of Bismarck's. Quite rightly, he sees the unification of "lesser Germany" as a disguised partition, and so treats Austria as part of Germany until 1866. "Accounts of German unification generally take 1871 as the end point," he remarks. "Actually it was just the beginning."

A second strength of Blackbourn's approach is his distinctive synthesis of political with social, economic, intellectual and cultural scholarship. He aptly compares history to a grand hotel, in which guests from every specialism stay together but do not always communicate. The danger is a tour d'horizon that never becomes detailed enough to convey a sense of what Leopold von Ranke summed up as "how it really was". Here the interdisciplinary problem has been solved as well as it can be. One never feels uncomfortable with the author's grasp of his kaleidoscopic sources, and if his concrete, factual mode of discourse subordinates the history of German science, say, to that of German industrialisation, that is inevitable. "Hotel history" would go bust if it did not treat some guests as VIPs, while assigning others to humbler rooms.

The book opens with an account of the reality that underlay the tales of the Brothers Grimm: the witches, stepmothers and orphans, the hunger and infanticide. A brilliant idea, and a good example of Blackbourn's third great asset, often underestimated by academic historians, but one for which readers will be grateful: the man can write. He has a gift for the vivid, memorable phrase. The Holy Roman Empire, for instance, was "an archipelago of jurisdictions" that "protected the particular in the name of the universal". The "perpetual-motion political adventurers" of the radical right in the Wilhelmine era denounced kosher butchers and demanded the autobahn. On the obsession of mid-19th century Germany with religion: "If God was dead, theology certainly was not."

Effective stylist, though he is, Blackbourn is no A. J. P. Taylor, scattering arresting paradoxes that, on reflection, prove glib; rather, he specialises in blunting the sharpest critics of German society by revealing them to be peddling half-truths. Thus the "feudalisation" of the German bourgeoisie is exaggerated: the British aristocracy was far more effective than the Prussian Junker class at assimilating new blood. Against the left-liberal consensus, he defends the Social Democrats in 1918-19: "Accused by the German right of stabbing the monarchy in the back, they are now more likely to be accused of not stabbing it hard enough." Against the notion of "the unpolitical German", he demonstrates that the degree of politicisation of Wilhelmine Germany was probably unique in the western world. The wave of martial enthusiasm in August 1914 was a myth; most Germans were "sombrely resolute".

Ultimately, this book was written in defence of Blackbourn's most passionately held conviction: "There is no straight line running from 1848, or Bismarck, to Hitler." At a time when such a unilinear view of German history is - thanks to the Daniel Goldhagen debate on the origins of the Holocaust - gaining popularity once more, Blackbourn is firm in his rejection of historical inevitability. He devotes many pages to anti-Semitism before 1914, but he is sure that at that date, "it would have taken a great leap of imagination to nominate Germany as the future perpetrator of genocide against the Jews".

Blackbourn believes - and I am sure he is right - that "what happened in Germany after 1918 is unimaginable without the war". This thesis, too, needs explanation. His provocative yet persuasive book points towards a new field for its author to conquer: the Weimar Republic and beyond.

Daniel Johnson is assistant editor, The Times.

The Fontana History of Germany 1780-1914: The Long 19th Century

Author - David Blackbourn
ISBN - 0 00 255677 4 and 686128 8
Publisher - Fontana
Price - £.50 and £9.95
Pages - 578

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