- Imperial Germany, 1871 - 1918: Short Oxford History of Germany
The study of imperial Germany remains vibrant, as the essays in this volume of the Short Oxford History of Germany demonstrate. A combination of well-established historians and the leading scholars of a new generation have written a series of lively contributions, each of which is opened by a [End Page 377] short anecdote illustrating some of the central issues identified in the excellent introduction by James Retallack. Alongside two chapters examining the politics of Bismarckian and Wilhelmine Germany, there are thematic essays on the economy, society, religion, culture, gender, bourgeois reform, political culture, militarism, and Germany in the world, before a concluding chapter on the First World War. Four themes form the 'interpretative arc' of the volume: social and economic change, the relationship of the middle classes to the state, conflict, and the relationship between authoritarian and modern features of imperial Germany.
These issues have been at the heart of research since the 1960s, but in this volume they are reworked in important ways. In particular, Retallack notes that historians have developed different geographical frames in which to locate modern German history. The attention to the local and, at the other end of the scale, the global framework of German history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has opened new perspectives. For example, national identity and the process of state formation were heavily influenced by responses to such diverse issues as the increasingly interdependent world economy and the emergence of new elites in towns and villages around the country. For example, Christopher Clark's chapter on religion begins with a story about a conflict over the commemoration of the Lutheran Reformation in Affaltrach in Württemberg and concludes with a comment on the Continent-wide dimension of church-state conflict in the late nineteenth century.
A second important development is that the history of imperial Germany is no longer read as the precursor to the Third Reich. The debate about Germany's special path, or Sonderweg, gave a particular intensity to the historiographical debates between the 1960s and 1980s. The relationship between imperial and Nazi Germany remains on the research agenda, as recent debates about military culture and colonial warfare have demonstrated. In this volume, however, the editor and the contributors have generally resisted drawing a line between Bismarck and Hitler. Retallack concludes that the subjects of imperial Germany would have been astonished by the idea that the Third Reich would constitute their nation's future. Instead the half-century dividing the founding of the Kaiserreich and its downfall was a period of transition, in which contemporaries struggled, but often succeeded, in coming to terms with change. It was a period with many possible outcomes, 'an object worthy of study in its own right.' By releasing imperial Germany from the teleological straitjacket of 1933, it encourages historians to explore a much wider range of themes and issues than had been the case in the heyday of the Sonderweg debate. Topics such as reform-minded bourgeois groups and the rich texture of civil society become more interesting if they are not written off as the dead ends of German history. [End Page 378]
If the volume is a marker for the state of the current debates on imperial Germany, Retallack also offers some sage advice about future research directions. Given the renewed interest in military history, in the broadest sense of the term, it is no surprise to see the First World War highlighted as an important area of research, though he suggests that the experience of the war years needs to be integrated into general histories of imperial Germany. Pushing the study of the emergence of mass politics in the 1870s and 1880s might give a more rounded view of the Bismarckian era, which is dominated by the character of the Iron Chancellor.
By summarizing the complexities of the current debate and setting out fresh research agendas, Retallack's volume will offer an invaluable guide to both experts and students.