Watch on the Rhine?

November 7, 1997

The fall of the Berlin Wall did trigger a re-evaluation of German history, but it would be wrong to see in this a disturbing revival of nationalism, argues Richard Evans

Eight years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Has it led to a resurgence of German nationalism in the wake of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's triumphant reunification of the two Germanies in 1990? Are we witnessing a wholesale rewriting of German history, in which the kind of doubts historians expressed in the 1970s about German national identity have been swept away by a tidal wave of belief in the legitimacy of German claims to nationhood? And if this has happened, how has it affected our views of the first unification of Germany under Otto von Bismarck in 1866-71, of the rise of pan-German nationalism under Kaiser Wilhelm II before 1914, and of the German bid for world domination in 1933-45?

Certainly, over the past few years there have been signs that the left-liberal version of modern German history that made all the running in the old West Germany for much of the 1970s and 1980s has run out of steam. Historians like Hans-Ulrich Wehler, of Bielefeld University, or Wolfgang Mommsen, former director of the German Historical Institute in London, have recently produced works that run counter to many of the interpretations they supported before reunification.

The most startling change in their views, perhaps, has been the abandonment of the idea that the triumph of Nazism in 1933 can be explained in terms of the weaknesses of the German middle class in terms of a "deficit of bourgeois values" in German society, which can ultimately be read back to the failure of the German bourgeoisie to unite the country under liberal auspices in 1848. In fact, in terms of establishing a successful civil society under the rule of law, 1848 was surprisingly successful. German society in the late 19th century and after, it is now conceded, was thoroughly bourgeois in character. The rise of Nazism can no longer be ascribed to the problems of Germany's "special path" to modernity, in which a manipulative Junker aristocracy tried to stave off political democracy in the 19th century by conjuring up the sorcerer's apprentice of radical popular nationalism. The first unification of Germany under Bismarck in 1866-71 was an inevitable process, the only possible way in which the legitimate claims of the Germans to national sovereignty could be realised under the conditions obtaining in 19th-century Europe.

There has been no lack of reassessments of the more recent German past either. German liberals were shocked in 1995 when the respected left-liberal historian Hans Mommsen, commissioned to write on the Third Reich in a prestigious multi-volume history of Germany, was sacked from the series and replaced by the young, right-wing political scientist Karlheinz Weissmann. He produced a book which blamed Hitler's appointment as Reich chancellor in 1933 on the Social Democrats, portrayed Nazism as a left-wing creed, and devoted no more space to the extermination of the Jews than to film and sport under the Third Reich during peacetime. Worried critics warned that antiliberalism was spreading among intellectuals in the wake of reunification.

To interpret such incidents as evidence of a wholesale capitulation of Germany's historians to a revived German nationalism is wholly misleading. Nationalist history, after all, has been around for a long time. One of the most controversial, Hellmut Diwald's history of the Germans, which told the tale in reverse chronological order and moved away from a shameful present to what the author presented as a glorious past, was published in 1978. The notorious Historikerstreit, in which conservative historians attempted to "normalise" German history by relativising the Nazi past so that it seemed no more reprehensible than many episodes in other nations' pasts, was written almost entirely before reunification.

There has in fact been no observable increase in the publication of nationalist readings of the German past since reunification. Karlheinz Weissmann's history of the Third Reich was the product of a peculiar set of circumstances, in which the author commissioned to write the volume failed to deliver a manuscript, and the publisher was taken over by another publishing house dedicated to the politics of the radical right. As a result of the furore over the book, the new owner sold his stake in the series' publisher, not least because subscribers to the series were returning their copies in droves.

More strikingly still, a book by the American political scientist Daniel Goldhagen, in which he argued that the Germans had been "Hitler's willing executioners", and which blamed the extermination of the Jews on deep-rooted flaws in German culture reaching back into the past, was a runaway success when it came out in German in 1996. As he toured the country promoting his book in debates with German historians, Goldhagen attracted huge crowds, who howled down his critics when they attempted to point out the book's flaws. There was little sign of a revival of nationalism here, nor of any belief that it was time to forget the crimes of Germany's recent past.

That is not to say, however, that there have been no changes in the writing of German history since reunification. There has indeed been an increased focus on German identity, for example. But it would be surprising if there had not. For reunification has been one of those great facts which have inevitably changed the way in which historians see the past. It put the question of national identity very much on the agenda, not least because it soon became clear that while a general sense of common Germanness had survived the 40 years of Germany's division, east and west Germans had very different expectations of what reunification would bring. Rather than causing historians to celebrate and legitimise German national identity, it has led them to interrogate it. There has, for example, been new historical research into the origins of Germany's peculiar concept of national citizenship, which depends on descent rather than residence, and so denies basic civil rights to millions of people born in Germany but who have the misfortune to be the children of Turkish and other immigrants.

Moreover, the trend in Germany away from social history towards a revival of political and cultural history cannot simply be ascribed to the impact of reunification. It is a much wider phenomenon, observable in other countries too. Well before the end of the 1980s a "revival of narrative" was in progress in Britain, Italy, the United States, even France, restoring human agency and contingency to history, and refocusing attention on what social historians had long dismissed as the surface froth of events. German historians are following broader international trends in the discipline.

This is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from recent changes in German historians' interpretations of their country's past. History as a discipline is never immune completely from present-day political and cultural influences but it does possess a relative autonomy from them. Historical interpretations are developed under many influences, but one of these is undoubtedly the accumulation of historical knowledge itself. The fate of the old argument, so dear to left-liberal historians in Germany in the 1970s, that the weak German bourgeoisie was culturally dominated by the Junker aristocracy, and that Germany suffered from a long-term deficit in bourgeois civic culture, is a case in point.

When this argument was challenged by some historians in the early 1980s, its German proponents responded by initiating a series of research projects into the history of the German middle classes in a comparative European context, concentrating on the 19th century. Millions of marks were raised from the German government research agency, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, teams of doctoral students set to work. By the early 1990s the resulting research was reported in scores of dissertations and articles.

Yet, despite the hypotheses on which its organisers had based them, these great research projects exploded the old theory of a passive, subservient German bourgeoisie, weaker than its French and British counterparts, politically supine, culturally impotent, socially dominated by a rampant Junker aristocracy. What Hans-Ulrich Wehler, the historian chiefly responsible for setting up the research, was doing when he retreated from this theory in his history of imperial Germany, published in 1996, was recognising that advances in historical knowledge had rendered it untenable.

Germany's past will always be contested among historians. But it is no mere empty vessel into which historians pour their own interpretations in order to serve the present's political purposes. If postmodernist hyper-relativism is largely absent from the German scene, this is perhaps because the importance of problematic historical facts such as Auschwitz is too obvious for intellectuals to indulge in games which deny the possibility of an objective recovery of the past. What happened in the past, and the objective knowledge historians gain about it through research, really does limit the range of interpretations it is possible to advance. Anyone who denies this is running the risk of opening the door to far-right versions of history, whose contempt for human suffering has so far cut little ice either with the German historical profession or the German reading public.

Richard J. Evans is professor-elect of modern history in the University of Cambridge and author of Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification 1800-1996, published this month by Routledge, Pounds 15.99.

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