Nineteenth Century German History -What Exactly Is It?

On a cold early-spring evening when one's mind wonders on to the subject of Nineteenth century German history, it comes across as a simple history of the unforeseen consequences of German unification, ending in the year 1945. Well balderdash and piffle say many! The desire to no longer end on that note led to a veritable explosion of work on the post-war period throughout the 1990s, including histories of the German Democratic Republic, and the twentieth century as history of Germany.

At first, that shift to the present seemed to reduce scholars’ interest in the nineteenth century. Increasingly, however, as historians of Germany have begun reflecting on the ways in which they approached the past from a series of predictable defining moments (1914, 1918, 1933, 1939, 1945, and 1989 etc), many have recognized the degree to which the history of the nineteenth century has been held hostage by the twentieth. They have also realized the many disadvantages that emerged as the late nineteenth century in particular was transformed into a historiographical battleground for scholars interested in locating the origins of National Socialism.

Recent work on globalization has also underscored the problematic domination of the twentieth century over the more distant past. Scholars such as Jurgen Osterhammel (who's very handy introduction to Globilisation I reviewed for the blog last year) have not only challenged the present notions of many political scientists and sociologists engaged in theorizing globalization as a fairly recent phenomenon; they have also used their global perspectives to rethink the contours of German history. The great potential in the work of scholars like Osterhammel lies in their ability to step back from the geographical and temporal boundaries in our heads to think us through a German history that is not limited to the last two centuries, does not privilege the Weimar, Nazi, or more contemporary periods, and is not dependent on uncritical notions of the modern. Osterhammel’s transnational and global approach, for example, frees contemporary Germany, as much as German history, from the constraints of national and nationalist narratives that gained much of their importance from events in the twentieth century.
That insight has tremendous implications; among other things, it helps us better understand eighteenth and nineteenth-century Germans’ engagement with the world as cosmopolitans who eagerly rallied to Herder’s global moment in the Baltic Sea and quickly made Humboldt’s Kosmos a five-volume blockbuster.

Humboldt, the man who some nationalists argued had stopped being German after residing so long in Paris, was indeed a global historian focused on the Europeanization of the world and serious environmental history long before these became fashionable subjects. For these and other reasons, he and Herder had tremendous appeal. Thinking through the intellectual and cultural trajectories that run through Herder and Humboldt and right past Hitler opens up a German history which has sadly, too easily been obstructed. It provides historians with a means for tracing out connections across the last three centuries that scholars have often overlooked or ignored, and historians would do well to take Osterhammel’s argument about these alternative trajectories seriously.

However, one need not be dedicated to the latest transnational methods or engaging theories of globalization to shake off the dominant mode of thinking about German history that developed during the twentieth century and to approach the past with a new critical eye. There are other ways to think past these historiographic barriers, and a number of historians have begun doing just that.

Indeed, with the recent shift toward transnational history there has been almost a backlash, or at least a reiteration that nineteenth-century Germans’ interactions with the broader world, for example, were extensive long before the acquisition of overseas colonies in 1884 and that even under the Kaiserreich Germans’ connections to the world were not always already framed by imperialist interests abroad. Moreover, a number of scholars have begun to argue that when such interests came into play, they remained focused much closer to home. Philipp Ther, for example, in his provocative contribution to Das Kaiserreich Transnational: Deutschland in der Welt 1871–1914 (edited by Sebastian Conrad and Jurgen Osterhammel), argues that the Prussian state was imperial long before it became part of the German nation-state. According to Ther, with the Prussian acquisition of parts of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795, we can see the beginnings of a drive to the East that ended only after the Cold War. To his mind, the German Reich was an empire even at its founding, with great desires to the East that far outshone the overseas excursions that followed. “Since the middle of the nineteenth century,” he argues, many Germans regarded the “Eastern settlements” as “colonial” territories, treating the people there as other European powers might be expected to treat colonial subjects, while many of the Poles, Sorbs, Kaschuben, and Masuren who came under Prussian rule regarded the Germans as colonizers as well. While sketching out this longer history of Prussia and the East, Ther posits a new periodization for German imperialism, one that identifies three main phases of Prussian colonialist activities long before 1884: the first during the initial acquisition of territories, the second after Polish gains were upheld in 1815, and the third following an 1863 uprising, after which the state adopted a more racially coded attitude toward its non-German subjects. This places Eastern Europe front and centre in Germans’ imperial imagination, demonstrating much greater and more direct continuities between the nineteenth century and the Third Reich. Moreover, it reminds us that such imperialist interactions existed long before the creation of nation-states, not simply during and after them.

It looks as if the fate of Germany’s nineteenth century in recent historiography is now going to be part of a broader, more inclusive German history. Whether driven primarily by cultural, economic, political, or social questions, a noticeable number of historians have demonstrated a bold commitment to reshaping the very contours in which we narrate German history. There is an increased willingness to move unhindered across a range of what had come to be regarded as almost impermeable historiographic boundaries and to trace out the extensive continuities and the considerable differences in content and context that inform the trajectories of German history.

Michael Geyer has argued, “German history will thrive” in this new environment, “not as the history of a nation among others, but as an element in a contentious European history that was central to the making of the modern world.” Within that process, the fate of the nineteenth century in German historiography is surely to become a much broader period, defined less by the radical political ruptures of 1789 and 1914, or the “vanishing points” of the twentieth century, than by its intimate and diffuse connections to both the century that preceded it and the one that followed. Indeed, the nineteenth century may finally be explored, as so many scholars continue to advocate, “on its own terms.” If pursued in this fashion, the nineteenth century is fated to be in the middle of a much longer, more inclusive, and more interconnected German history.