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  • The German Right 1860-1920: Political Limits of the Authoritarian Imagination
  • Thomas J. Saunders
James Retallack . The German Right 1860–1920: Political Limits of the Authoritarian Imagination. University of Toronto Press. xiv, 432. $35.00

The German Right draws together new and previously published material into ten essays that offer a fresh perspective on German political culture from Bismarck to the fall of the second empire. In their current form the essays rework and update the original publications and are introduced by a wide-ranging examination of the place of the Right in the historiography of the empire. The volume is organized into three sections, moving broadly from the general to the particular. The first section considers the conservative milieu in the nineteenth century and evaluates how it has been constructed by several generations of scholars, examines the relationship between conservatism and mass mobilization, and weighs the elements of upheaval and continuity that provided the vital context for change on the Right. Part 2 addresses the wider issues raised by regional or territorial history and then through two case studies, one on franchise reform in the state of Saxony, and the other on philanthropy, civic mindedness, and the municipal franchise in three Saxon cities inquires into contemporary understandings of the boundaries of political participation. Part 3 opens with a chapter on the uneasy tie between conservatism and the burgeoning mass press before turning to two central questions in the literature on the Kaiserreich: the dimensions and function of anti-Semitism on the Right and the uneven relationship between conservatism and the kaiser and his government.

The essays balance analytical precision in framing the large questions and focus on specific cases. Their point of departure is the underlying and persisting tension between, on the one hand, democratization and the 'demagoguery' it fostered and, on the other hand, the authoritarian foundations of both the empire and right-wing politics. Methodologically, they represent political history in both a social and cultural key, and they are attentive to the spatial and comparative dimensions of historical research. They also nicely embody the dialectic of generalization and particularization that befits study of a nation newly formed and uncertain about both its identity and the coexistence of its constituent parts. [End Page 273]

In synthesizing close readings of the relevant literature and his own extensive research Retallack poses questions and offers answers that consistently challenge our understandings of the political culture of the period and in some instances overturns them. The Right portrayed here is familiar in its predispositions but often departs from type in its behaviours, resisting the turning points that have been said to mark its development. Retallack's regional expertise, particularly in the history of Saxony, combined with his command of national politics, allows him to explore how issues of broad political import played out at the state and municipal levels. He argues persuasively, for instance, against prevailing wisdom on the subject, that anti-Semitism among conservatives was less an accommodation to the radical parties that emerged in the 1880s than an integral element of the right-wing milieu of imperial Germany: it was endemic and systemic before it was tactical.

The German Right is a rewarding and highly readable study. As the distillation of many years of intensive study of the German Right, the essays here are models of incisiveness that still remain open-ended, deliberately raising more questions than they can answer in order to suggest avenues of future research. Indeed, they represent the capacity of the historical discipline to construct, from careful scholarship and analysis, nuanced and refined pictures of the past and thereby to provoke, in the very best sense, further investigation and reflection.

As models they invite a broader conclusion about the practice of history. In contextualizing the Right as effectively as they do, not least vis-à-vis liberalism, they demonstrate that trenchant scholarship tends to deconstruct the object of its search. Even as nuance and precision characterize historiographical advance, the generalizations – such as 'the Right' – by which we code historical knowledge become increasingly problematic. As a footnote in the final essay grants, who and what constituted the German Right remain open to divergent readings. Thus where...


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