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boundary 2 27.3 (2000) 79-101

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“Berlin Days,” 1892–1894:
W. E. B. Du Bois and German Political Economy

Kenneth D. Barkin

If I had not gone to Germany, I would have been locked in a completely colored world, Self-sufficient and provincial.

—W. E. B. Du Bois, “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom,” in What the Negro Wants

Although W. E. B. Du Bois’s life has been examined under a scholarly microscope for the past two decades, his two years of graduate study in Berlin (1892–1894) have not received the attention they merit.1 Throughout his life, indeed, Du Bois stressed the importance of his “Berlin days” on his subsequent intellectual development.2 In “My Evolving Program for [End Page 79] Negro Freedom,” an essay he wrote in 1944 for Rayford Logan’s What the Negro Wants, Du Bois was quite clear about the importance of the year 1910, when he abandoned the Germans Gustav Schmoller and Max Weber (although I believe he meant Adolf Wagner rather than Weber) in favor of his Harvard professors William James and Josiah Royce.3 The implications of his essay have been missed by many Du Bois scholars; there is much evidence that his professors in Berlin were critical contributors to the strategy he embraced to mitigate racism in the United States for at least a decade, from his return in 1894 until 1910. In this essay, my goal, as a German historian, is to illuminate the ideas Du Bois imbibed from his Berlin professors and to point to the evidence of their influence in his first three books as well as on the Atlanta University Research Series on southern blacks after the turn of the century. This series has been ignored by American scholars, whose discourse has concerned whether Du Bois returned with German völkisch ideas.

Du Bois’s thoughts had turned to Germany long before he enrolled at the University of Berlin. He had studied the German language for three years at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and delivered his valedictory address in 1888 on Otto von Bismarck.4 The German chancellor’s single-mindedness and determination to create a German nation-state impressed the twenty-year-old Du Bois. The W. E. B. Du Bois Papers in the Special Collections and Archives section in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries contains a poem that the young Du Bois wrote while at Fisk, in which he implores German immigrants to the United States to resist white racism in their new fatherland.5 At Harvard, Du Bois authored two [End Page 80] research papers dealing with the Germans: one on the creation of a railway system and the other on Tacitus’s Germania. Thus, unlike the hundreds of American students who enrolled at German universities in the nineteenth century, Du Bois was well prepared for the German Empire he experienced during those two years.

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Before moving on to Du Bois’s professors, it is important to understand both the political and economic situation in Germany during the 1890s. Du Bois arrived in Germany two years after Bismarck, the idol of his youth, was removed from the chancellorship by William II, the brash thirty-one-year-old emperor who had replaced his nonagenarian grandfather, William I, in 1888. Leopold von Caprivi, a former general and naval officer with no political experience, was William’s choice to replace the seventy-five-year-old Bismarck. Economically, the nation was undergoing rapid industrialization as well as urbanization. During Du Bois’s two years in Berlin, Germany passed from a predominantly rural to an urban demographic base. Rural farm workers from the poor eastern provinces flooded German cities in search of higher-paying jobs.

This transition had a significant impact on the German political system. By 1890, the Socialist Party, which would, in 1891, adopt a Marxist platform, was one of the most popular of the six major parties.6 The next decade was marked by struggles between the proponents of the new industrial economy and those who suffered the...