- Civil Society and Dictatorship in Modern German History
Kocka has turned the Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures that he gave ten years ago into a book, addressing the changing questions and methods with which the course of modern German history has been interpreted. [End Page 296] The book is both history and a discussion of traditions and innovations in the study of Germany from national unification to dictatorship, partition, and re-unification, offering observations on the methodologies with which Kocka and others of his generation, in reaction to current pressures and opportunities, constructed interpretations of the past.
Kocka's emphasis throughout is on social history, but social history expanded—attuned to a fuller reality—by the inclusion of political and cultural elements, not as embellishments but as significant forces that shaped society as they were shaped by it. He begins with a discussion of Germany's bourgeois culture and civil society in a European context, using the "semantic ambivalence" of the German word Bürger to signify both bourgeois and citizen to develop a model for studying the creation of a society possessing great strengths, which were also peculiarly susceptible to forces destructive of their own values.
Next he compares the East German dictatorship with the earlier dictatorship of the Third Reich, stressing some of the ways in which the historical interpretation of these systems is influenced by the consequences of their break-up. The collapse of the German Democratic Republic (gdr) and of other European state-socialist regimes emphasized the strength of their replacements—civil societies "whose logic distinguishes them both from capitalist markets and from state-controlled bureaucracies," which in turn shaped the interpretation of the Third Reich and the gdr (64). He suggests that if the achievements of these successor societies fade under the current economic crisis, our view of their precursors may also change.
Kocka then discusses the phenomenon of "Difficult Pasts," a major factor in the history of the two Germanies after 1945—the collective German memories of the Third Reich, and, after re-unification, the recollections of the now vanished gdr. The reconstruction in memory of the two German dictatorships did not follow a straight path, but adjusted itself to changing political and economic conditions. Driven by the concerns of a later time, collective memories searched for, and emphasized, certain particulars while obscuring others, even as historical research continued to add new facts that the young generation and its parents had to face or repress. Kocka admirably sorts out and analyzes the major currents of this process, the most recent of which he identifies as the integration of Europe. As it progresses, he suggests, the comparison of European memories and their interaction may be turning into a new area of enquiry.
He concludes with comments about the role of fashion in the writing of history. The motives for changes in theme and method and for their wider adoption range from the perception of new issues to narrow career considerations, contradictory tendencies that even in a work as brief as this one might have been treated more expansively. The book as a whole, personal yet even-handed, does not claim to break new ground in its positive evaluation of comparative and interdisciplinary history. [End Page 297] But as the author reflects on his work, on that of his contemporaries, and on the ways in which historians think about the past as they confront the present, he creates a valuable and interesting addition to our discipline's efforts at self-understanding.