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Imperial instead of National History: Positioning Modern German History on the Map of European Empires PHILIPP THER The initial inspiration for this article comes from recent models of empire.1 If one may combine Dominic Lieven’s and Alfred Rieber’s definitions of empire, it amounts to be “a very great power that has left its mark on the international relations of an era,” “a polity that rules over wide territories and many peoples” which has left “a major impact on the history of world civilization,”2 and which is not based on a democratic, but on a dynastic or ideological legitimization of power. Although the German Empire established in 1871 fully complies with this definition, the historiography about 19th century continental empires in Europe commonly restricts itself on the Habsburg, the Ottoman and the Russian Empires.3 This article explores whether and where the German Empire could be located on this map of continental European empires. Postwar historiography in Germany has reached a consensus on this question. It has viewed 19th century German history primarily as the past of a nation state inhabited by an ethnically homogenous German society. The term empire had been discredited by the National Socialists and their megalomaniac attempt to create a racially clean “Tausendjähriges Reich.” However, the reduction of German history to a narrative of a homogenous nation state and society also provides an element of continuity between the historiography before 1945 and in the Federal Republic. Even the blossoming of theories and empirical studies of imperialism in the 1960s and 1970s did not fundamentally change the aforementioned consensus, because according to the predominant Marxist viewpoint German imperialism was regarded as the result of a capitalist nation state destroyed by its self-destructive contradictions. German imperialism was portrayed as the externalization of interior problems, but not as a form of being or an essence of a state.4 The common view of 19th century German history as a national history has been hardened by its legitimizing function for the merger of the GDR and the Federal Republic in 1990. The unification was portrayed as a better version of the first nation state formation in 1871. According to Chancellor Kohl and the political establishment, the Germans again formed a nation state but this time without “blood and iron.” IMPERIAL RULE Through this diachronic comparison and the reference to Bismarck, both Germanies of 1871 and of 1990 have been reified as nation states. It is the goal of this article to show the potential of re-assessing modern German history under the paradigm of imperial rule and of putting it into the context of the three other continental empires in Europe. It should be mentioned that this is meant to be an additional rather than an alternative approach for the aforementioned interpretation of German history in the late 19th and early 20th century. One can write about many aspects of Germany in this period without putting much emphasis on empire. But associating modern German history with recent studies and models of empire can be beneficial to both sides. Firstly, it provides an opportunity to go beyond the prevalent ethnocentrism of postwar historiography. Using an empire approach can help to Europeanize and even globalize German history . It can help the Federal Republic to understand that Germans used to live with people of different origin, denomination and language in one common state, and thus contribute to the acceptance of minorities and cultural diversity. Moreover, the various non-German populations were not just objects of German rule, but they deeply influenced German history. Secondly, it is hoped that the inclusion of Germany in models of empire can contribute to their development and universality. Germany fills the void between the three continentals Central and East-European and the maritime Western empires. It shared characteristics of both types of empire with a tendency toward the former. The case of Germany shows that the experience of empire is not restricted to the very extreme West and the East of the continent, but a common feature of European history from the Atlantic to the Urals until World War I. This has implications for our understanding of modernity. If indeed Europe was still primarily driven and structured by empires until 1918, it means that the formation of nation states cannot be regarded any more as a key step of modernization.5 Although the German Empire was destroyed in two World Wars, there still is a double legacy of empire among the population of...


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