Monday, March 26, 2007

The Germans Are Coming: Two Myths About the Kaiserreich.

Some while back in the comments boxes, there was some controversy about bourgeois ideological tropes about 'German Guilt', in which we are to count our blessings for the British Empire because (so Niall Ferguson's counterfactuals tell us) the alternative was either a terrible Russian Empire, or a terrible German one. There are two myths about Imperial Germany, Germany before 1918, that sustain this trope, and I address them here in two main parts (with references and page numbers where appropriate - it's that kind of post). The first myth is what is known as 'Burgfrieden', variously and inaccurately translated in English, which refers to the idea that World War One created a "Spirit of 1914" among Germans, who were altogether rather chipper about the idea of blasting the French and the Russians to bits, and consequently 'united' in a truce with any aspect of Wilhelmine Germany that they might otherwise have disliked. The second is what is known as 'Sonderweg', which roughly means 'special path' - it is the idea that Germany followed an unusual, deviant course in world history, that led to the Nazis. The political imperatives behind both myths will become clear, I hope: and they have not ceased to function simply because we are in a new century, and a new millenium.

On the face of it, Kaiser Wilhelm’s declaration was decisive and greeted with overwhelming if not unanimous support: “I recognise no more parties: I know only Germans.” It crystallised a sense of national unity that “led to the political truce of Burgfrieden”. (Seligman & McLean, 2000: 158). Again, war was initially greeted with “national enthusiasm”, “considerable jubilation”. “Even a considerable number of socialists at least formally supported the war effort.” (Fulbrook, 1991: 151) Further, “popular support for the war was not universal, but the relatively few voices raised against war were drowned by a chorus of approval in the popular press, in the churches and even among organised labour”. So much for the SPD, who were “as German as their class enemies”, in fact “more assimilated – and patriotic – than they dared to admit.” And those who were not had to think on the possibility of alienating the mass of the members who believed conflict was “forced” on Germany. The satirical magazine Simplicissimus reflected the patriotic line, as did the left-liberal Hamburger Fremdenblatt: when the parties accepted Burgfrieden (“the truce of the fortress”), so did the press. (Winter, 1988: 164-6). James Joll writes of a “mood of 1914” that represented a “widespread revolt against the liberal values of peace and rational solutions of all problems”. (Joll, 1984: 184).

‘Natonal unity’ is a nebulous concept and ‘a sense of national unity’ is potentially even more obscure, but even so, there are some clear dimensions of it put forward here: support for the war from internal antagonists, specifically the SPD and labour movement; overwhelming popular enthusiasm; the subsumption of parties under the royal military command; the overwhelming support of the national press. I will have issue with the ‘Burgfrieden thesis’. There is something to it, but I argue the following: that the images we have of popular enthusiasm are not completely accurate; that the Left’s accommodation was not total or always enthusiastic, and was forced upon it to a substantial degree; that the fissures in German politics and society were rapidly exposed to and intensified in the course of war; and that the often futile propaganda efforts and strict martial law were necessary to overcome those fissures, and were then only partially successfully in doing so. Indeed, arguably the decision to go to war was at least in part animated by an effort to finally obliterate internal schism – instead, it led to revolution. I will conclude with an attempt to explain what I take to be the crucial factor in the creation of the Burgfrieden myth: the social-democratic acquiescence.

July Crisis and August Drumbeat I: Image
Even Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet speaks of “euphoria” and “patriotic noise in the streets” if only to advert to its absence by 1915. (Luxemburg, 2003). Large rallies spoke of a national euphoria. Hitler attended one such rally and recalled how he was “carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment” and thanked the heavens for being permitted to “live in such a time”. (Hitler, 2002). Images are by nature polyvalent, but those which have been preserved tend to come from the pliant press of the time, and were therefore already overlaid with nationalist dramaturgy. The spectacle is a social relation mediated by images: these images reflected the decisive control taken by the non-parliamentary Imperial leadership from July 1914. Verhey argues that this has presented us with a myth of “the spirit of 1914” that occludes a much more fundamental picture of deep schism. In the first instance, because the crowds in these images embodied a number of different attitudes: not only “euphoria” or “jubilation” but fear, curiosity, excitement at removal from the humdrum and the mundane, and so on. Further, they were substantially outnumbered by larger antiwar rallies organised by socialists, which were censored from the national press. Finally, those most supportive of war tended to be the bourgeois elements, while those most critical of it tended to be agrarian dwellers and the working class: class and political tensions were at best temporarily suppressed. (Verhey, 2000: 72-113). David Blackbourn argues that “the patriotic demonstrations of late July involved relatively small groups, with students and young salesmen prominent” (Harman, 1999: 406).

July Crisis and August Drumbeat II: ‘Augusterlebnis’

Still, though, the crowds of war supporters were real enough. What is more, even if they weren’t, there is ample evidence of broad support for the war in decisive layers. Left opinion was in flux, moreover. As a friendly critic of Verhey points out, “popular support for the government's policy grew as the central issue changed from an endorsement of the Austrian ultimatum against Serbia to a desire to prevent the mobilization of the Russian army for an attack on Germany”. (Hamerow, 2001: 129). And while activists staged antiwar demonstrations, the leadership of the SPD had assured Chancellor Hollweg that they would not oppose preparations for war. (Joll, 1984: 117). All the parties, as Verhey (2000) points out, voted for war credits on 4th August 1914, and the parliamentary Social Democrats (SPD) voted unanimously for them. (Joll, 1984: 117). In the same month, socialist deputies would attend the Kaiser’s reception for the first time. (Joll, 1984: 184). Aside from the Social Democrats, every remaining party was fully signed up to the war effort. By November 1914, the only division was over whether the aims of the war should be annexationist and seek “world leadership”, as per the preferences of the Alldeutscher Verband, the Free Conservatives, the Farmers League, the National Liberals, the German Conservatives and the Bund der Industriellen; or whether it should instead seek indemnities from France, as well as her colonies and possibly the imposition of a customs union that would place Germany at the centre of a “financial world economy” as the advocated by the liberal Walter Rathenau, and supported by the left-liberal Progressive People’s Party, the Hansa League, a few left National Liberals, and the right-wing of social democracy. (Fischer, 1975: 516-523).

If the parties united, did it express a national collective will? The early military mobilisation, producing “a rush to join the armed forces”, appears to tell in its favour. The German army grew from an enormous 800,000 to 3 million after August’s rallies. By January 1915, the full might of the Germany army included 4,357,934 men. (Bessel, 2000: 438). Yet, this by no means speaks of unanimity or even unity in its restricted sense. In the first instance, this enthusiasm drew on already existing reservoirs of mass support for the military in the form of the Navy League, Army League, various paramilitary youth organisations Prussian veterans’ associations which claimed 1.5 million members, and the kyffhauserbund, which had approximately 2.5 million members. All told, the military had “a grip” on at least five million adult Germans before 1914, and most of these organisations were avowedly anti-socialist in drift. (Wehler, 1985: 163). This is not to say that none of the socialist working class evinced such enthusiasm, but that the already strong bedrock that the military had acquired was sufficient to account for a great deal of it. Further, as we will now see, it was precisely the scale of the mobilisation that stored up problems for the Reich.

War, Crisis and Discipline
The earliest impact of mobilisation was a sharp spike in unemployment: among unionised workers, unemployment in June 1914 had been 2.5%. By August 1914, it was 22.4%. Cities were emptied out rapidly, and many factories lost so much of their workforce that they had to close. (Bessel, 2000: 440). Soon, moreover, there were food shortages caused by an Allied blockade, and compounded by the military high command’s insistence that the military’s food needs be prioritised. Prior to the war, 19% of foods had been imported. An unfettered free market in food would now lead to undersupply and lead to rapid inflation – even so attempts to politically manage the food supply were hampered by disarticulated local regimens, so that when local authorities imposed price caps, traders simply diverted their food to those areas without caps. (Offer, 2000: 175-6; Winter, 1988: 178). If the traders had a sense of ‘national unity’, they had not lost their sense of the provincial. Prices soared, and this produced food riots by 1915 (Fulbrook, 1991: 152). At the same time as the elderly and those on fixed incomes suffered from , profits rose dramatically in the war supply industries, and the benefits for the rich were “not hidden”, with holiday resorts and spas booming in trade. In ever year of the war, real wages for all employees dropped 10%. (Winter, 1988: 178).

Aside from growing class polarisation, patriotism was being sapped: by February 1916, the Saxon Interior Ministry was being told of the “frequently heard wish that the war will soon come to an end”. (Bessel, 2000: 447). The efforts by the German state to overcome this problem, particularly after the disastrous harvest of 1916, foundered. On the one hand, the Hindenburg Programme compelled a massive civilian mobilisation programme to raise productivity, to little effect. (Bessel, 2000: 444-5) On the other, a propaganda effort aimed at keeping the country supportive of the war effort and stimulating financial support for the government through the purchase of war bonds was “never geared to the language of the population”. Conflicts between the civilian and military authorities disrupted the attempts at a smooth propaganda flow, so that the army had to produce its own press service, which ensured that propaganda was issued in the register of a Prussian officer, usually emphasising the themes of Pflicht (duty) and Opfer (sacrifice). (Winter, 1988: 185; Bessel, 2000: 449). In dealing with the stressful effects of war, moreover, the state ensured that the medical establishment did not become patients’ allies: rather, beholden to Social Darwinism, they frequently saw their role as weeding out the “malingerers” and “moral weaklings”, such that enmity was embedded in therapeutic as well as disciplinary practises. (Eckhart, 2000: 134-42). Despite what Bessel calls the “initial success of psychological mobilisation”, the demoralisation by 1917 was such that soldiers were urging loved ones not to subscribe to the war loans. The Landrat in Rudesheim noted in November 1917 that the poor response demonstrated that patriotic feeling was “declining more and more”. (Bessel, 2000: 447-50).

Strikes in all the war-making powers increased drastically in 1917, but increased most of all in Germany. They were often pecuniary, rather than political in motivation, but since the state had imposed wartime controls over the economy, it ensured the politicisation of economic struggles. There was also an increasing profile for women and children in the strikes and, lacking the discipline of the shop floor that older men tended to acquire, they were more militant. (Winter, 1988: 192-6). A faction of the SPD broke away to form the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany), and it would go on to take part in political strikes against the war and demands for fundamental social change. In November 1918, the SPD were to be the principle beneficiaries of discontent, as a new parliamentary system was created with an advanced welfare state and progressive citizenship rights. (Fulbrook, 1991: 152-5). So far from creating “a sense of national unity”, therefore, the war at first gave the German state the ability to suppress or override differences, and later, it saw the monarchy consumed by them. As Winter argues, the war did not create this political struggle, but it did open up a new phase in it. (Winter, 1988: 196).

The Conundrum of the Social Democrats
It made sense for the Social Democrats in supporting the war to emphasise continuity with their principles, although presumably not the tradition of left-wing support for empire that led Kautsky to say in 1882 that “in so far as they cannot be assimilated by modern culture, the wild peoples will have to disappear from the surface of the earth” (Koch, 1987). On the contrary, August Bebel had argued that they had a class interest in war with Russia, asserting that “the German fatherland” belonged to the masses more than it did anyone else, and therefore if Russia “the champion of terror and barbarism” were to attack Germany, the SPD cadre would resist. They continued to make this case after the August 4th vote. (Joll, 1984: 180-1; Verhey, 166-169). While anti-militarists demanded a general strike against imperialism, the leadership of the SPD declared that “General strike is general nonsense”. (Joll, 1984: 180).

Yet, however it was put, the acquiescence of the Social Democrats was a stunning rapprochement with a political elite that had fought pitch legal and political battles against it (Hall, 1974), and considered it such a dangerous enemy that it prepared military offensives against them (Wehler, 1984: 157-8). If we want to understand a decisive element in the creation of the myth of ‘Burgfrieden’, we need to answer some questions. As Fischer (1975) points out, Kautsky’s study of the documents after the war concluded that the country had been tricked, and that the German ruling class was responsible for its beginning. Were the internal foes of Wilhelmine Germany so easily fooled? And why did they continue to support the war despite its savagery and the terrible class-polarising effects? On the one hand, there was state-repression to consider: it was only when the Chancellor was assured by socialist leaders of their loyalty that he persuaded army leaders not to arrest the socialists. (Joll, 1984: 117).

Secondly, there was the rightward drift of a substantial segment of the Social Democratic Party leadership, with great prominence for Fabian-influenced reformists like Bernstein. The 1907 elections in particular had split the party on the colonial question, as Chancellor Bulow had managed to create a conservative coalition, drawing in sections of the progressive middle classes over support for the idea of Germany as a “world power”. The dramatic losses for the SPD pushed Kautsky radically to the left, while the revisionists were convinced that there was a “reactionary mass” that could not be persuaded of a radical anti-imperialist stance. At the Stuttgart Conference of European socialists in the same year, it became clear that the revisionists were the strongest faction in the SPD. Further, the Imperial government had proved willing to assist August Bebel in bringing the Social Democrats into line in accordance with the War Minister’s injunction in December 2007. (Koch, 1987: 526; Schorske, 1983: 59-108). Subsequently, while the conservative coalition broke down in 1909 over the intransigence of agrarian conservatives over agrarian conservative opposition to fiscal reform, the SPD saw their best results for years in 1912 and were to prove instrumental in voting for tax increases to pay for military build-up in 1913. The party leadership now believed it could achieve reforms by cooperating with the war effort. (Eley, 1991: 254; Berghahn, 1994: 292; Joll, 1984: 117). Kautsky’s response to the 1907 elections had been to wonder if the state had finally found the answer to socialism in “the fascinating effect of the colonial state of the future”. Arguably, it would be the integration of a section of social democracy into the imperial project that was central in producing a temporary fascination. (Schorske, 1983: 63).


Of all master-narratives, the ‘Sonderweg’ thesis is particularly enigmatic. The problem it addresses is simple, on the face of it: “Why did Germany – unlike comparable countries in the West and North – turn to fascist and/or totalitarian perversion?” (Kocka, 1999: 41). Yet that, aside from already curtailing the discussion in ways Kocka indicates – it omits the positive ‘Sonderweg’ elaborated by historians like von Treitschke – this question contains a multitude of sins. We shall leave aside the polysemic nature of ‘totalitarianism’ and focus on the question’s other dimensions. In what sense is fascism a ‘perversion’? What does it pervert? In what ways is Germany “comparable” to other countries in the West and the North but not, say, those of southern Europe? As for Germany – von Treitschke knew what it was when he coined the ‘Sonderweg’ (Sheehan, 1981: 2): do we have such knowledge in ways that would make the discussion of a special path, perversion or anomaly meaningful? I shall argue that the ‘Sonderweg’ functions less as a legitimate heuristic than as an ideological trope which validates those states that Germany is compared to. It contains implicit “normative assumptions” so that “sometimes explicitly and often implicitly, it was ‘western’ and most particularly Anglo-American and French developments that were taken as a yardstick against which German history was measured and found wanting”. (Eley & Blackbourn, 1984: 10).

The Case for the ‘Sonderweg’

On the principle that it is pointless to address a mistake no one is likely to make, I will follow Kocka in focusing on the critical ‘Sonderweg’. The appeal of the ‘Sonderweg’ is clear enough: the experience of Nazism was unique and unprecedented, and countless superlatives could be expended on this point. The usual array of short-term explanatory factors – defeat in World War One, the harshness of terms of Versaille, the inflation and depression – don’t seem satisfactory. What is more, although I have obliquely indicated that fascism did occur in other states, it nowhere took the “extreme, racist and destructive form” that it did in Germany. Nowhere did parliamentary democracy implode with such speed even given prevailing conditions that weren’t much better. (Evans, 1987: 94) The ‘Sonderweg’ is therefore an attempt at a long-term structural explanation. It locates the problem as follows: the Kaiserreich’s system of government blocked parliamentarisation and created a rigid and fragmented party system; it encouraged the long-term development of illiberal, anti-pluralistic trends; pre-industrial elites such as the Junkers retained substantial influence and power; the Bismarck’s creation of Germany from ‘Blut und Eisen’ gave the officer corps exaggerated weight in German society. (Kocka, 1999: 42).

Another consistent theme is the weakness of the national bourgeoisie. Weber had suggested that the German bourgeoisie was “feudalised” and relatively unbourgeois, while Talcott Parsons argued that feudalism persisted in some forms. Parsons also argued that the strength of the bureaucratic tradition in Germany was a factor, as was the bourgeoisie’s fondness for titles. Ralf Dahrendorf favourably cited Veblen’s thesis that the bourgeoisie had internalised aristocratic values. Others argue that the German bourgeoisie had its chance to subordinate the military to parliament in 1848 and 1870, and thus create a liberal state, but failed. The notion is, suffice to say, ubiquitous. (Evans, 1987: 94-6). There are important elements of truth in this, and to the extent that most of the officer class was composed of nobility right until 1914 (Joll, 1984), the enduring strength of the “pre-industrial elites” is intimately connected with the strength of martial traditions, whose social weight is attested to by the variety of mass pro-military associations that by 1914 had the support of approximately 5 million German adults (Wehler, 1985: 163). What is more, the conditions of its emergence as a nation-state involved it in the massive state-led construction of railroads and ships, which contributed to the emergence of a strong bureaucratic state and an efficient civil service (Beaud, 2002: chapter four; Kocka, 1999: 46).

Although none of the problems faced by the German state were necessarily unique, the confluence of three issues was: specifically, the formation of the nation state, the constitutional question, and the social question. The circumstances under which the Kaiserreich emerged meant that it faced a special problem with the growing strength of the working class which, given the narrowness of bourgeois rule in parliament produced a virulently illiberal tradition. Despite anti-socialist laws in Germany, the social democrats’ clandestine action had started to pay off by 1884, with them receiving some 550,000 votes. Even when the anti-socialist laws were relaxed in 1890, the state continued to fight a legal battle against the social-democrats, and the military elite continued to see them as the most pressing threat to German security, planning urban counter-insurgency operations against them. Indeed, the imperial tradition was seen as an excellent counterweight to the socialist challenge. (Kocka, 1999: 45; Beaud, 2002: chapter four; Hall, 1974; Wehler, 1985: 157-8). When the social democrats gained in strength, at the turn of the century, Chancellor Bulow sought to undercut them by building a conservative alliance based on a strong colonial future – but even this temporarily successful coalition had fragmented by 1909 on account of the intransigent of “pre-industrial elites”, and the social democrats were resurgent in 1912. (Eley, 1991: 254; Schorske, 1983: 59-108). So, while the working class expanded and the socialist challenge advanced, and the aristrocracy retained substantial social weight, the bourgeoisie modelled German society much less than it did in France, Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands. (Kocka, 1999: 46). This and the weakness of Germany’s representative institutions (for example, the restricted suffrage in Prussia) would appear to give substantial empirical weight to a thesis whose explanatory appeal is clear. A ‘feudalised’ elite in bitter combat with a militant working class, with impoverished liberal traditions – such a society exposed to such crises as the German state was might easily experience Nazism.

Kocka, a critical defender of the ‘Sonderweg’ thesis, allows the following problems: it establishes an unwarranted “normal path” (this is the Blackbourn and Eley criticism), and if one doubts the superiority of the West, the thesis loses its attractiveness; aristocratic influence on Germany society was, on the most recent research, no greater in late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century Germany than in many other European societies – indeed, it was the rule rather than exception that the aristocracy governed alongside the bourgeoisie; the pre-modernism of the Kaiserreich is exaggerated, since the Reich was full of modern dynamism with respect to science, scholarship and the arts; it has limited explanatory power beyond its “comparative core”; and the sketch of the foil can so easily be idealised, stylised, distorted etc. Yet, for all this, Kocka argues that there remain strong empirical claims for the model, and its weakness can be avoided with a little care. (Kocka, 1999: 44-9; Kocka, 1988: 9; Eley & Blackbourn, 1984: 13-14). It can explain Germany’s “totalitarian perversion” provided scrupulous comparisons are made with societies in which similar conditions obtained. Furthermore, while notions of Western superiority are disreputable, Kocka maintains that from a point of view of fascism versus liberal democracy, the West was superior. He concludes that “the structures and processes identified by the Sonderweg thesis did indeed facilitate the collapse of Weimar and, eventually, the victorious rise of Nazism”. (Kocka, 1988: 11).

Eley and Blackbourn accept that such comparisons can be made, provided “they work, illuminate, turn up new questions”. However, other comparisons - with Italy, Belgium, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe – might also be illuminating. (Eley & Blackbourn, 1984: 11). Not only that, but there remains the question of how far back the special path extends. Richard Evans, by no means a supporter of ‘Sonderweg’, argues that aspects of the Nazi dictatorship have definite historical precedents – the Prussian military tradition goes back to the seventeenth century, while the ‘great man’ tradition embodied by Hitler has its precedents in Bismarck and Wilhelm. (Evans, 2003: 8; Evans, 1987, 57). Another prominent historian held that German’s nationhood was stoked up from the dying embers of the Thirty Year War by Frederick the Great Elector (Schevill, 1947). As Eley & Blackbourn point out, one can go further back and posit a direct line from Luther to Hitler. (Eley & Blackbourn, 1984: 39). There is a point at which such claims become either underwhelmingly empirical or underwhelmingly metaphysical, either focusing on narrow and tenuous connections or on sweeping mythopoeic narratives.

There are continuities to be sure, but some of them were shared by the states traditionally designated as comparable in the Sonderweg thesis: genocide, racial domination, the promotion of eugenics and the attempt to sidetrack the growing working class challenge with the creation of an imperial ‘frontier’ were all mirrored in the United States (Jenkins, 2002). France and Britain were not fundamentally different to Germany in their approach to the colonies. Bismarck was rejecting proposals to set up colonies throughout the 1870s, and tried initially to avoid direct responsibility for territory – what Bismarck called the “French system” – relying on a tobacco merchant acquiring what would become German South-West Africa on its behalf. (Koskenniemi, 2004: chapter 2). Germany may have represented a ‘totalitarian perversion’ but, as Domenico Losurdo points out, that was a name the Nazis also used for their opponents. Indeed, in its early variants, the ‘totalitarianism’ thesis specifically impugned British imperialism. (Losurdo, 2004: 28). If Germany’s ‘path’ was a ‘perversion’ on account of its unprecedented brutality and colossal waste of life, then logically every other ‘path’ that was unsurpassed before being surpassed by the Nazi period also represented a ‘perversion’, and there are no shortage of comparable monstrosities. One is left to wonder who is normal. As Alan Confino writes, by creating an ideal-type of modernity, the ‘Sonderweg’ thesis says that German history is wrong, a sequence of errors. (Confino, 1997: 5-6). Yet there would seem to be no solid basis for insisting on France, England or America as embodying a ‘norm’ and therefore no point to the centrality of ‘Sonderweg’ in explaining Germany’s past. Eley and Blackbourn were right to decentre it.

Further, in what sense are these continuities intimately connected with something called ‘Germany’? As Sheehan writes, if Germany didn’t exist as a coherent entity either in terms of language, politics, or physical boundaries in the eighteenth century, the notion of a single German culture isn’t sensible. It is an abstraction, whether it is supposed to apply to the whole of the German-speaking territories or to that part of them later incorporated into the Bismarckian state. Further, while one can speak of German state-builders and their supporters, a narrative which omits opponents and those indifferent to German nationalism, not to mention the millions with ties to German social, cultural, economic and political life but were excluded from the Bismarckian state, does violence to the facts. (Sheehan, 1981: 6-22).

The charge of Germany’s perversion is rooted in the exigencies of war, and as such comes overlaid with political agendas. Allied wartime propaganda described the reactionary reflux in Germany as part of its “national character”, while the First World War saw ample references to Germany’s uniquely feudal social arrangements from such figures as Churchill and Northcliffe. (Evans, 1987: 94-5). In its political uses, the ‘Sonderweg’ thesis resembles the ‘totalitarianism’ thesis, except that where ‘totalitarianism’ points to similarities in different states, the whole point of ‘Sonderweg’ is to accentuate difference. It can be seen as a convenient antidote to the universalising marxist critique which held that capitalism was generally responsible for the depravity of fascism, and therefore a friendly accompaniment to the Americans on the Rhine. Yet, if we must single out German society as unique, it was precisely distinguished by the acute nature of its class confrontation, which consumed the society’s rulers. And it was not pre-capitalist privilege being conserved by the imperial state: even the agrarian aristocratic elites were pre-industrial, not precapitalist. (Kolchin, 1994). What is striking about the German state in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century is not some putative backwardness or oddity: it is the alacrity with which it picked up European traditions.


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