The Genesis of the Sonderweg.

AuthorEveret, Annie

The age: everything that has appeared in the War and after the War was already there. --Musil, Tagebucher

Since Germany's defeat in 1945, scholars have debated the place of National Socialism in German history and the role continuity plays in telling the larger German story. This is no mere object of idle curiosity, since the very legitimacy of the modern, peaceful, and democratic Federal Republic of Germany has always hinged on its ability to distance itself from the violence and illiberalism of the Third Reich. Such an undertaking has naturally led historians to ask whether the Nazi dictatorship represented a short-lived aberration in an otherwise linear progression towards a democratic state, or rather a horrific denouement to a longer tradition of authoritarianism and bellicosity. Thus the key problem for scholars in today's Germany, as Konrad Jarausch explains, is to account for "the incommensurability of simultaneous man-made life-worlds of utter privilege, wealth, and consumption and death-worlds of utter degradation, starvation, and brutal annihilation."(1)

One way scholars respond to this dilemma is through the concept of a German Sonderweg, or "separate path." This term refers to a modernization paradigm with origins in the polemical writings of Fritz Fischer and Hans-Ulrich Wehler in the 1960s and 1970s. They suggested that long-term deviations in German modernization in the nineteenth century serve to explain the rise of Nazism in the twentieth. The subsequent historiography surrounding Germany and the Third Reich has created so-called "master narratives," which attempt to interpret German history on a large scale, as accounts of the ways in which modern industrialization and tradition coalesced in the German Empire to produce a powerful nation-state with an inclination towards war in 1914 and a public rejection of democracy in 1933. In this way, the Sonderweg thesis represents a meaningful contribution to the larger task of coming to terms with Nazism and the extremities of the Holocaust.

This study will first lay out the course of the German Sonderweg in post-1945 historiography, the intent being to construct a clear assessment of the thesis as it has evolved over the past fifty years. In doing so, this study will address how and why the Sonderweg thesis has been heavily criticized in the past few decades by scholars who complain about its attempt on the one hand to normalize the histories of other Western nations, (2) and on the other to see every episode of the past 250 years as leading to the Third Reich and the Holocaust. (3) Intense debate over the Sonderweg thesis has lasted for over two decades, and this scrutiny has led to a decline in the Sonderweg's explanatory power. As a result, historians such as Helmut Walser Smith are left to bemoan the absence of viable explanatory alternatives to fill the gap left by a discredited Sonderweg. (4) To understand why this beleaguered thesis has endured such intense controversy, this project begins by asking why the notion of a "separate path" has been so deeply ingrained in contemporary thought, and to discover when, where, and in what form the notion of a "separate path" took hold in Germany.

Much more than a simple reconstruction of previous Sonderweg debates, this study intends to break down the various diagnoses offered as a solution to Germany's ills by turning away from postwar historians to focus specifically on treatises published by leading German intellectuals throughout the Weimar period (1919-1933). This study applies Fritz Fischer and Hans-Ulrich Wehler's understandings of the Sonderweg to the pre-Nazi era, exploring the existence of a specifically Weimar Sonderweg and analyzing the ways in which the concept of a German Sonderweg differed between the 1920s and the postwar period. From this premise, this project will analyze three prominent German intellectuals of the Weimar period: the artist Hugo Ball, the novelist Thomas Mann, and the essayist Robert Musil. Beyond their public presence and wealth of publications, these three intellectuals offered valuable critiques of the Weimar period predicated on their own singular understandings of the German past, and their writings would go on to shape notions of German identity in the following decades. It is this paper's argument that the Weimar era constitutes a significant moment in the construction of a specifically twentieth-century German identity and that notions of a German Sonderweg heavily informed the intellectual capital produced throughout the period.

The Course of the Sonderweg

According to Helmut Walser Smith, 1941, among the other markers of the Germany past (1914, 1918, 1933, 1939, 1945), is the "vanishing point" of German history; (5) it is the moment around which decades of postwar historiography have revolved. In reconciling the postwar period with the Final Solution, many historians utilized the Sonderweg thesis as a means of contextualizing the Third Reich within a broader German history. Wielded as a methodological tool, the Sonderweg thesis became a significant paradigm of historical thinking which has transformed present-day interpretations of German history as a whole. As a result, the past fifty years of German historiography have consistently dealt with the Sonderweg on some level or another. Helmut Walser Smith's most recent work claims that the era of the Sonderweg has at last come to a close, yet without an alternative narrative in place to structure our views of the German past, the Sonderweg remains a powerful teleological device for explaining German actions in the twentieth century. The following lays out the course of the Sonderweg thesis in postwar historiography, emphasizing how conventional understandings of the thesis have become embedded in our historical consciousness as part of a greater German saga. These historiographical trends help explain why the Sonderweg is a narrative to which many continue to cling.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many German intellectuals believed in the existence of a positive "German way." (6) In general, the notion of a "special path" meant that the German-speaking lands had taken a route from aristocracy to democracy that was unlike any other in Europe, as a midway between the materialism and utilitarianism of the Western democratic systems on the one hand, and the autocracy of Tsarist Russia on the other. (7) In the nineteenth century, this course was a source of pride. The German path represented a distinctive form of democratization that occurred as a movement "from above," in contrast to the grassroots democratic movements that played out in Britain and France, with reform occurring "from below." The German authoritarian state enacted reform of its own accord, and Germans citizens considered this path a superior alternative. With unification in 1871 came a tendency to exalt a particular German combination of political, economic, military, and educational institutions. As a whole, the German monarchy and the nation's industrial success, alongside its army and universities, were tied to a positive historical paradigm that understood German history as a road to success. (8) With the turn of the twentieth century, the ideas of the Imperial Age transitioned into modernity, and the "ideas of 1914" were linked to the understanding of a positive Sonderweg, tying the concept to the First World War and retaining powerful purchase throughout the Weimar years. (9)

Pushed beyond recognition by Nazi zealots, however, this positive perception of the German Sonderweg lost much of its intellectual credibility and moral authority in the postwar world. As a consequence, German tendencies towards the military and authoritarianism have been labeled the "peculiarities" of German history. (10) The resonance and importance attached to these peculiarities has been examined critically in the postwar period. With the defeat of Germany in 1945, scholars asked how the German catastrophe had been possible. During the immediate postwar period the German population maintained varying images of the Third Reich as a time of order and prosperity, and this ambivalence left a mark on the professional sector. (11) Much of the historical research produced in Germany throughout the 1950s explored a predominately political focus detailing the collapse of Weimar, the Nazi seizure of power, and the unleashing of the Second World War. Within Germany an embattled politics of memory emerged--Germans who were prepared to accept Hitler's responsibility for the Second World War found it hard to reopen the question of war guilt for the First World War. (12) Thus, much of the original critique that linked the German peculiarities of the nineteenth century to the atrocities of the twentieth came from historians outside of Germany, such as Pierre Renouvin, Bernadotte Schmitt, and Luigi Albertini. (13) These scholars focused on specific peculiarities: some concentrated on the happenstance of geography, on Germany's fatal position between east and west on the European continent; others expanded upon a German exceptionalism that was enacted via military force; and still others detailed a peculiar German mind warped by irrationalism, the glorification of martial values, obedience by the subject, and contempt for Western values. (14)

In Germany, Fritz Fischer's 1961 analysis of German war aims in the First World War broke the historiographical mold. (15) Regarded as the first German historian to recognize the need for a critical review of German actions during the First World War, Fischer placed responsibility for the start of the conflict squarely on the shoulders of the Imperial German government. Fischer posited that the Great War was a culmination of Germany's "will to power." (16) In Fischer's view, the German Empire created in 1871 was a partnership between the Prussian military and an authoritarian state administration, which...

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