Philipp Stelzel: Lecture- The Myth of the Resentful Émigré

2018.04.08 - Philipp StelzelSkye Doney: So thank you all for being here on this very nice day. I, I know it’s a difficult choice, when the sun finally returns. So, Philipp Stelzel. He comes to us today from the Duquesne University in the Department of History, where he has been since 2014. He completed his PhD at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with Konrad Jarausch. And the resulting dissertation was a finalist for the Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize. His research has focused so far on émigré historians and the intense transatlantic exchange of ideas and theories of history between the US and Germany in the postwar period. His book, History After Hitler, includes many Madison connections, including George Mosse’s attempt to get Fritz Ernst hired at UW-Madison in 1955 and Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s praise of the “Wisconsin school” of diplomatic history led by William Appleman Williams.

History After Hitler, I think, is a model for studying an international exchange of ideas. Philipp draws on personal letters, newspapers, institutional records, and, importantly, historiographic conflict, to excavate how “a German-American community of historians developed that eclipsed other transnational counterparts with respect to the intensity of scholarly interactions,” as he states early on in the work. If you want to know still more after the talk, I would encourage you to read Philipp’s excellent blog post on the Mosse Program website. I am looking forward to learning more. Philipp?

Philipp Stelzel: Thank you for this kind introduction, and of course even more for the invitation. I thank yinz, as we would say in Pittsburgh, for choosing a Hitler related topic to 70 degrees outside. I admire you. If I weren’t giving the talk, I don’t think I would be somewhere inside. It’s especially nice to be back in Madison, not just because everybody I met here in my first stay in 2006, especially John Tortorice, was extremely generous, and hospitable to me, but also because when you go back to a place where you did some research for your dissertation and then it finally becomes a dissertation and then it finally becomes a book and then you come with the book to that place where you did the research, it just makes you feel good, and as a college professor in the humanities there are not many moments where one feels good these days. So, let me begin with two quotes, which I think get at one the main arguments of my book:

In 1949, Gerhard Ritter, one of the most influential historians in West Germany in the fifties and sixties had the following to say: “Writings on the German problem by German émigrés in England and the United States have often been confusing rather than enlightening. Where it rules without restraint, resentment is not a fertile soil for sober and objective history, and long-term alienation from Germany easily leads to a distorted view of reality.”[1]

Now, this statement illustrates how not just Ritter – but also many of his peers – thought about the work of their German émigré colleagues in the United States. Indeed, their suspicion extended beyond the émigrés, as Germans also tended to dismiss American-born historians of Germany as unable to produce “sober and objective” (in Ritter’s words) studies on the recent German past. This widespread belief found its way into many book reviews as well as personal letters and indicated a defensive German attitude that proved difficult to overcome.

Five decades later, [in 2001], Hans-Ulrich Wehler, of his generation, you know, two generations after Gerhard Ritter, but in his days equally, if not more, influential in the West German historical profession, expressed a very different opinion, yet one that was similarly representative of German historians at the time. He said:

“The transatlantic dialogue between American and German historians since the late 1940s is based on the fundamental experiences of the political generation that lived through the Nazi dictatorship, World War II, the postwar years and the founding of the Federal Republic. These common experiences have led to close contacts; I am someone who has benefited immensely from them. The generations of Carl Schorske, Leonard Krieger, Hajo Holborn, Arno Mayer, Jim Sheehan, Henry Turner, Gerald Feldman, Charles Maier, and others have influenced in a lasting way the political generations in Germany to which I belong.”[2]

Now the difference between Ritter’s claim and Wehler’s claim points to a fundamental transformation, which stands at the center of this book. Because the decades, decades following World War II witnessed the establishment of a large and diverse German-American scholarly community of modern German history. Several factors fostered its development. First, as a result of both National Socialism and the Cold War, American interest in Germany grew remarkably, which led to a quantitative expansion of the discipline. In addition, a small but increasingly influential cohort of émigré historians researching and teaching in the United States, including Hajo Holborn, Felix Gilbert, Hans Rosenberg, Fritz Stern, and George L. Mosse, served as transatlantic intermediaries. Finally, the strong appeal of American academia to West German historians of different generations, but primarily to those born in the 1930s and 1940s, led many of them to form and maintain close ties with their American colleagues. As a result, a German-American community of historians developed that eclipsed other transnational counterparts with respect to the intensity of scholarly interactions.

Now, in my talk, which I think hopefully will not take more than 40 minutes, including my intro, I’ll do the following: I will briefly tell you what the book as a whole is all about and then I’ll zoom in, so to speak, on the émigrés and their role in this transatlantic scholarly community, I’ll spend some time on the Sonderweg, the special path debates and the role émigrés’s writings displayed in them. Then I’ll conclude with some thoughts on this transatlantic conversation, that, I argue, emerged in the decades after World War II, and if I still have time, I’ll offer a couple of thoughts that are beyond this book in the sense of how can this book be of any interest for people who don’t care about Germany, or transatlantic relations or émigrés. I don’t know if there are people who don’t care about either of that, but I think that even to these people, my book has something to offer.

History after Hitler does a number of things. At first, it looks at the development of the historical discipline in West Germany after World War II and the extent to which, initially, at least for the first 15 or 20 years, most West German historians were quite defensive with regard to foreign views on Germany. The book then crosses the Atlantic or the book’s perspective and focuses on the development of German history as a discipline in the United States and the way in which the conditions that I just mentioned, the Cold War, the institutional expansion of higher education, but also strong interest in Germany as a result of National Socialism how that grew the field of German history and also made it qualitatively better also as a result of the émigrés historians who were now teaching and researching in the United States. The book then follows a small group of German social historians, the so-called Bielefeld school, which in the 1970s try to re-transform the West German historical profession in a number of ways. And I’m happy to talk about that if anybody is interested, but I focus on these social historians who came to the United States as students in the 1950s and early sixties and then return later as postdocs and remain very closely connected to the American historical profession. And I explore the extent to which their version of social history was actually inspired by, by American examples. Finally, then, I look at that school, this Bielefeld school, not dissimilar actually to the Wisconsin School in the sense that it was a pretty prominent movement within the discipline, but never one that gained sort of the influence over the sub-discipline of diplomatic history or social history as a whole.

So, I look at what happened to this Bielefeld school once they’re established, one they have their chairs, their research money, and how they then tried to essentially defend their intellectual positions within West Germany and again how Americans relate to that. So, I think, I was somewhat pleased actually or surprised, I have to say, that this book was considered for an intellectual history series because it’s at least as much political and institutional history as it is intellectual history. I’m actually not quite smart enough to be a proper intellectual historian, so I chose to do this compromise. So, having said this about the book as a whole, let me look at the perceptions of the émigrés by their German colleagues.

In general, between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s, it is safe to say that the more conservative an émigré was, the more attractive he was for the postwar West German historical profession. This was simply a reflection of the political leanings of the overwhelming majority of German historians. By the 1950s, the conservative Hans Rothfels, one of the few émigres who returned to Germany permanently, fit into the field much better than the liberal Hans Rosenberg ever could. German preferences became apparent among both the first and the second generation of émigrés. That is, those historians who left or fled Germany as historians, first generation, and then second generation, you know, the Fritz Sterns, the George Mosses, the Peter Gays, and the George Iggers, who fled as children or teenagers and then became historians in the United States. So, it’s true for both, this defensive attitude.

Therefore, it was only symptomatic, therefore, that Theodor Schieder, who due to his towering significance within the West German historical profession certainly had greater influence on job distributions than any of his colleagues, suggested Klaus Epstein, a second generation émigré, who was, of course, not a conservative like Rothfels) when asked for the names of promising younger scholars who could occupy a German chair, this is was in the 1960s. Commenting on possible candidates for a chair at the University of Bonn, Schieder recommended Epstein, who had not only an “extraordinarily sharp mind,” but also, and more importantly, an “impressive ability to empathize with the German conditions, from which he had been removed through his course of life.”[3] By hiring Epstein, the German historical profession would have been able to signal its openness toward “foreign” perspectives without running the risk of pushing revisionism too far. Schieder’s remark suggests that not all émigré historians could be trusted to express the same empathy and understanding, so Einfühlungsvermögen was something that many Germans wanted. After all, throughout the first two postwar decades, German conservatives often accused scholars advancing disagreeable views of harboring “émigré resentment, emigrantisches Ressentiment.”[4]

To Schieder’s credit, he did point out that an appointment of Epstein would constitute “a significant addition to the German historical profession” – his position vis-à- vis Epstein was in line with his general moderate openness toward different methodologies and interpretations. Yet the exact nature of his assessment of Epstein also points to the limits of what kind of émigré historian was acceptable for a moderate conservative like Schieder.

By contrast, it is difficult to imagine George Mosse or Fritz Stern being considered for an appointment at a German university during the early 1960s. Their interpretations of modern German history, particularly ideological currents in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Germany, their outspoken liberal political positions and – at least in Stern’s case – their participation in German debates were not acceptable for most of their influential German colleagues during that decade. What German historians thought about Stern became apparent during the Fischer-Kontroverse, which was a major debate in the 1960s West Germany, of course, about the origins of World War I. Fritz Fishcer after whom this controversy is named, had written a book blaming, or putting a lot of emphasis on German Empire’s responsibility in 1914, and with that he was sort of beyond the pale for most of his nationalists Germans and Americans, like Stern, were supportive of Fischer.

So, during this controversy, the publisher of German journal Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht (GWU) suggested including Stern’s contribution to the Historikertag, the convention of German historical association, which had strongly supported Fritz Fischer’s position, in a forthcoming issue. The editor of the journal, however, Karl Dietrich Erdmann, who had been a strong supporter of National Socialism, but had been able to cover up his brown spots or large patches on his, you know on his biography after World War II, he responded that Stern’s paper was merely emotional in nature and contained not a single factual argument (“Appell an Emotionen, kein einziges Argument zur Sache”). Eventually, the journal decided not to print Stern’s paper.[5] Complaining to Erdmann about, das Geschwätz von Herrn Stern,” “Mr. Stern’s babble” at the Historikertag, which had deeply annoyed him, Gerhard Ritter voiced a similar sentiment.[6]

The perceived ability to empathize with the peculiarities of German history, which apparently distinguished Klaus Epstein from others, was an appealing quality to be found in an American scholar. It was also a yardstick that some German historians until the early 1960s still used to assess their foreign colleagues, and émigrés were certainly not an exempted from that, from that assessment.

Even German-born and-trained historians teaching overseas were suspected of having lost their ability to empathize, as Gerhard Ritter found it necessary to tell Hajo Holborn, a first generation émigré, who actually had done his habilitation even in Germany, he was one of the few non-Jewish émigrés which also might explain why he got a job at Yale, while others didn’t. Anyway, when the first volume of Hajo Holborn’s first volume of his “German History” was published in 1960, Ritter wrote to him: “One has to praise you for having preserved true sympathy and understanding for the history of your German fatherland, as far as I can see, despite your Americanism and despite the great distance to Germany, in which you have lived since the 1930s.”[7]

These “compliments,” which were paid to a number of historians based in the United States throughout the first two postwar decades, reveal a persistent belief among German scholars that the different personal backgrounds and experiences of both American-born and émigré historians might pose some obstacles to an appropriate Einfühlen (empathizing) into the German conditions of German history. So I could have, I could cite countless examples from book reviews, so this was not just something that they did not just expresses in personal letters, but they all thought that was something that was acceptable to write in a book review.[8]

Now, even some émigrés historians, such as Klaus Epstein himself, did not shy away from a similar claim. In a review essay on three American studies of German socialism in the early twentieth century Epstein argued that American scholars sympathizing with the left wing of the Social Democrats had, because of their nationality, difficulties understanding the no-win situation in which the moderate Social Democrats had found themselves. In Epstein’s words, “American historians are handicapped when dealing with German developments by the deep-rooted American faith that all problems can be solved by intelligence and good will … American historians have underestimated the impersonal forces and conditions which have made German socialists act the way they did, and they have engaged in the futile search for villains.”[9] Now, ironically, one of the historians charged with having such a handicap was Epstein’s fellow émigré Peter Gay, who in contrast to his critic, who had left Germany at the age of eight, had spent most of his teenage years in Germany. So, it is one of my favorite examples because it shows the absurdity of sort of attributing, you know, advantages and disadvantages to the biographical background.

By the late 1960s, however, most historians of Epstein’s age cohort, and certainly the overwhelming majority of scholars of the succeeding generations, deemed such an argument to be inappropriate; at least, it began to disappear from book reviews. This might have been the result of increasing German familiarity with first-rate scholarship on German history produced in the United States, or of just the decline of the traditional sort of nationalist positions among German historians as a result of generational changes.[10]

Now I’d like to talk a little bit about the German Sonderweg, special path, debates because that is an area where you can, where we can see the extent and limits of émigré influence on their German colleagues. It’s especially worth looking at the émigrés’s contribution to the intellectual and cultural history of modern Germany. They deserve special attention not just as scholarly achievements per se, but also as examples of a genre that was underrepresented among West German historians during the same period. For every American graduate student of German, and maybe also more generally European, history in the 1960s and 1970s, George Mosse’s Crisis of German Ideology and Fritz Stern’s Politics of Cultural Despair had become required reading.[11]

Stern’s study focused on three representatives of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cultural criticism, Paul de Lagarde, Julius Langbehn, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck.[12] Stern argued that while historians in their search for the causes of National Socialism had thus far examined everything “from the dangers of Article 48 of the Weimar constitution to the role of big business,” they had not “sufficiently reckoned with the politically exploitable discontent which for so long has been embedded in German culture.”[13] What proved. Lagarde, Langbehn, and Moeller van den Bruck were, according to Stern, uprooted intellectuals who felt alienated from the progress of modernity, rationalism, and science, and who hated above all, liberalism. They wanted to overcome these evils of modernity by a “conservative revolution,” and their ideas taken together constituted what Stern termed the “Germanic ideology.”[14] What proved fatal for the course of German history was that the National Socialists appropriated some elements of this ideology. Furthermore, the ideology also affected the “educated, civilized classes,” and these are quotes from Stern, who were thus likely to be attracted by at least some elements of National Socialism.[15] Finally, while Stern conceded that “the conservative revolution was a European phenomenon,” he emphasized that “only in Germany did it become a decisive intellectual and political force.”[16]

So that’s also one of the key questions that historians are always asking: to what extent this is really a special path, a Sonderweg, or to what extent this is something, you know, just a national example of a broader European trend.

In contrast to Stern, George Mosse focused not only on intellectuals, or, as Stern had called his three “‘anti-intellectual’ intellectuals,” but on figures of high and popular culture alike.[17] Mosse explicitly rejected Gerhard Ritter’s attempted Europeanization of National Socialist ideology and stated that “rather than to explain away this fact – that the völkisch movement had “deeply penetrated into the national fabric” – it would seem more profitable to ask how this could have been accomplished.”[18]Like Stern, Mosse emphasized that historians thus far had not taken National Socialist ideology seriously enough, either because they had regarded it as mere propaganda, or because they had “found these ideas so nebulous and incomprehensible that they had dismissed them as unimportant.”[19] The essential element in the “völkisch” ideology for Mosse was “the linking of the human soul with its natural surroundings, with the ‘essence’ of nature.”[20] Mosse also devoted considerable attention to the dissemination of these ideas, for “education preeminently institutionalized the ideology. Before 1918, no political organization or group of like-minded people was as important as educators in anchoring the Germanic faith within the German nation.”[21] And since these “völkisch” ideas in the 1920s permeated not only the National Socialists but the entire German Right, the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 was anything but an accident for Mosse even though he made it clear that it was not inevitable for him, either.[22]

Incidentally, two other second-generation émigrés reviewed Stern’s and Mosse’s studies in the leading American journals, and their reviews illustrated the diversity for opinions, of opinions among them.

Which also is, more evidence, that this imagined émigré resentment is simply wrong.

Klaus Epstein characterized Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair as an “important contribution to the understanding of the roots of National Socialism” which at the same time paid attention to cultural pessimists outside of Germany.[23] However, Klemens von Klemperer, who praised Stern’s study as “superb cultural history” criticized Mosse sharply for the latter’s “vastly exaggerated” conclusions, especially regarding Wilhelmian Germany that, according to Klemperer, had been forced by Mosse “into a Volkish strait jacket.[24] Klemperer added: “Just because it is understandable and indeed inevitable that in these days German history should be written with the catastrophe in mind, it is up to the historian to exercise the necessary restraint.”[25] But Klemperer’s criticism should not detract from the fact that Mosse’s book was extremely influential. As Saul Friedländer, for example, has indicated: “For those of us who, in the mid-1960s, started teaching modern history, particularly the history of Nazism, Nazi antisemitism, and the origins of the Final Solution, The Crisis [of German Ideology] opened new vistas.”[26]

Now, in contrast to the United States, the reception of Stern’s and Mosse’s studies in Germany was by and large a non-reception. The books did not receive reviews in Historische Zeitschrift, the leading journal, reviewed neither of the two, and even though The Politics of Cultural Despair was published in German in 1963, it does not seem to have stimulated further research among German historians.[27] Several factors might account for this fact. First, historians of Gerhard Ritter’s generation, whose influence was waning anyways during the 1960s, were likely to ignore studies that all too critically examined the ideological orientations of the German Bildungsbürgertum. Second, if German historians in the 1960s examined the roots of National Socialism, they generally focused on the Weimar Republic, debating, for example, whether the Social Democrats in the 1918 revolution had failed to push through more democratic reforms, which could have weakened anti-democratic forces in Germany and prevented the Nazi take over in 1933.[28]

Alternatively, they argued about missed opportunities and misguided policies at the end of the Weimar Republic.[29] You know, to what extent did Heinrich Bruening’s deflationary politics make the situation worse and such things. And third, historians of National Socialism were caught up in the fascism/totalitarianism debate, and both concepts did not pay much attention to ideology in a long-term perspective. Similarly, most of the younger historians in Germany such as Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen focused on the structures of the National Socialist regime rather than its ideological roots.[30]

And yet, I would argue that the non-reception of the American studies in intellectual and cultural history by the German contemporaries remains puzzling for another reason. After all, Stern and Mosse, similar to Hans Kohn and Leonard Krieger, outlined a German Sonderweg, a special path, and even though theirs was ideological or cultural, one might have expected the German historians who in the 1970s developed a social and political Sonderweg thesis to pay more attention to it. This lack of reception is even more surprising when one considers that these German scholars, that’s the Bielefeld school people, were generally very aware of American literature on German history because of their close contacts with American historians. So how do we explain this?

In the debates in West Germany about the “brown roots” of social, of German social history –because actually the teachers of the Bielefeld school people, Werner Conze and Theodor Schieder, had been deeply compromised during National Socialism like Erdmann, whom I had mentioned earlier, had managed to nevertheless have successful careers and the extent to which they have cooperated with the regime did not become a common knowledge only after their death. So the question was then to what extent does their Nazi past compromise the socialist views of their students.

So. in this debate some German historians, some German observers, had explained that the social historians focus on structures and processes instead of agency and ideology with their allegiance to their teachers, Werner Conze and Theodor Schieder. Since they have compromised themselves during the Nazi years, they probably were not very interested in questions of agency and individual responsibility.[31] By resorting to structural and process-oriented approaches, their students avoided these tricky issues, tricky issues – and remained in their advisers’ good graces. While these views on social history have been developed within a specific German context as an exercise in “intellectual parricide,”[32] as Charles Maier has termed it, Steven Aschheim has provided a less polemical, yet similar explanation. In his comparison of German-Jewish intellectual and cultural historians and German (non-Jewish) social historians, Aschheim has labeled Wehler’s and others’ brand of social history as being “at once skeptical and protective” and “a navigation exercise: formulating a necessarily critical narrative of the past while at the same time leaving questions of personal complicity and ideological and intellectual convictions relatively untouched.”[33]

My interpretation is a different one: younger German social historians tended to view intellectual history as unsuitable for less opportunistic, opportunistic or even implicitly apologetic reasons. German historians of Wehler’s generation associated intellectual history with an older German historiographical tradition, namely Friedrich Meinecke’s, which they considered potentially apologetic or heuristically of limited use.[34] I would argue that within the German historical, historiographical context of the 1950s and early 1960s, this assessment was not unfounded.

The biographical background of the respective historians offers a second explanation of their methodological and theoretical orientation. While Aschheim reveals how the personal experiences of Fritz Stern, George Mosse, Peter Gay, and Walter Laqueur influenced their scholarly work, he fails to provide the same for the younger German social historians. Unlike the German-Jewish émigrés, this generation of German social historians had of course not been personally affected by Nazi antisemitism in the 1930s and therefore might have been less likely to study its origins and development. For the same generation’s historiography on National Socialism, one could posit a similar argument in explaining the relative neglect of the victims by non-Jewish German historians. For those growing up in the society of perpetrators, the focus on those perpetrators rather than the victims of National Socialism was maybe not all that surprising. Finally, one has to note the age difference of about ten to twenty years between the intellectual and cultural historians, born in the late 1910s to mid-1920s, and the social historians, born around 1930 and 1940.

The latter encountered as students historical professions that had begun to pay more attention to the social sciences, which might explain for their, for their being drawn into that orbit. These observations are neither a verdict in favor of social history nor one against intellectual and cultural history. I actually find these debates about inherent validity of certain sub-disciplines incredibly boring. They don’t get us anywhere, and also these arguments that social historians used against political historians and then later cultural historians against social historians, if you take away the labels, they say exactly the same thing. So, I think that these observations are not me taking the position for one or another subfield, but they offer an explanation that does not suspect the German social historians of Wehler’s generation of ulterior motives. More generally, to label certain methodologies per se “apologetic” is only possible through a very selective reception of historiographical developments of recent decades.

And why do I say this? Because I think his book in English came out in the Mosse series Nicholas Berg in my opinion is somebody who has done that. He connects certain methodologies to, you know, looks at them in a very moralistic way, which I think is problematic. I mean, his book has certainly merits, but I think that is a weakness.

Despite the divergence of the socio-political and the intellectual-cultural Sonderweg paradigms, there was a strong sense among young German historians in the late 1970s, especially social historians in one way or another associated with the Bielefeld school, that American historians of modern Germany, including the émigrés, were in interpretive agreement with them.[35] So now I’m getting to the transatlantic conversation. So this leads us to an argument about the post-World War II German-American community of historians more generally. As I indicated in the beginning, these postwar decades witnessed the establishment and consolidation of a large and diverse American, German-American scholarly community. The creation of a continuous transatlantic conversation, in which the national background of the participants became less and less important, unquestionably constitutes an impressive achievement. To dismiss American historians as lacking the proper understanding of the peculiarities of German history today would be perceived as unacceptable. And anybody making that argument would seem pretty foolish.

As German historians realized that the intellectual isolation and the dismissal of American – and other foreign – perspectives on German history was no longer a viable option, they increasingly co-opted American colleagues who happened to share their views. So, this is a shift that occurs in the 1960s during that decade, where German historians begin to look for Americans who share their views, share their methodological orientations, and then, in the German context, will argue, well, look, as American historian agrees with me, so I must be right. And this is also with the Bielefeld school coming to the picture, this is sort of the first generation that attributes “progress” and “modernity” to whatever happens to American historical profession. They also have a very selective, a very selective take on the American historical profession, but that’s a topic that I didn’t really delve into, but just wanted to bring it back to the overall argument of the book that is something that occurs in the 1960s, this shift. Rather than attributing a lack of empathy and understanding to American writings on German history, now younger Germans associated the American discipline with progress and modernity.

Now, my remarks are not meant to reduce international scholarly cooperation to its function within academic politics. Because German historians certainly reached out to their colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic because of shared interests and approaches as well. But American colleagues often became supposedly impartial scholarly arbiters, whose opinion conveniently served to bolster the respective German positions – of conservatives and of progressives.[36]

So, for example, in the 1970s, the Bielefeld school, establishes itself institutionally, they create their own journal and a book series and that kind of stuff, and always claiming that what they are doing is bringing the western historical profession up to speed with the American side, and then in the early 1980s, when Stern publishes his dual biography of Bismarck and his banker Bleichroder, and Otto Pflanze, another American historian of Germany publishes two or three volumes of Bismarck biography, who both sort of argued against much of what the Bielefeld school says, German political historians who were sort of more traditional latched on to that immediately because they too realized “oh, that’s great, now we have American who’s more on our side.” So, it’s really funny how this is something that was not done just by the Bielefeld school, but also by others. It even goes so far that when two British historians, Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn, published a pretty strong critique of the Sonderweg, The Peculiarties of German History, a German review actually says: well, these British historians are Marxists or Neo-Marxists, but it’s ok, because they are good historians, and of course, good historians for that reader was that they don’t agree with the Bielefeld, so that’s why they’re good. So, this is, I think, one of the many examples of the interesting alliances that we see in that decade.

So, despite the emergence of this transnational conversation, we should not assume that German and American historians were working toward a common goal in terms of interpretation. Instead, I think we should think of them as proceeding on different trajectories. Immediately after World War II, and well into the 1960s, American historians were likely to believe in a German Sonderweg. For some, this Sonderweg manifested itself in German militarism and the influence of military elites on political developments, as Gordon Craig, for example, argued in the 1950s. Other historians, such as Leonard Krieger, Fritz Stern, and George Mosse, ventured into the realm of ideas and attributed the “special path” to a “German mind” or a “Germanic ideology.” None of these historians argued that the decline into the Nazi rule was inevitable. But the claim of a peculiar German trajectory existed implicitly or explicitly existed in all of these studies. In addition, while the American historical profession was diverse enough to offer space to German historians of all political shades, Americans scrutinized their West German colleagues’ treatment of particularly delicate areas of German history. And subsequently, they did not shy away from criticizing what they perceived as apologetic tendencies or from praising critical ones.

So, another émigré historian, I could have mentioned, Gerhard Weinberg, a historian of Nazi foreign policy in World War II, you know, in the 1950s, 1960s, repeatedly intervened in German debates where some German historians made the argument that operation Barbarossa, the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, was a preemptive, was a preemptive war. So, he gets very involved in that. In other words, when the intervention is always possible when they found it of particularly critical in nature.

In many respects, the German-American community of historians fits neatly into the broader picture of the post-1945 German and transatlantic history. The decline of radical nationalism in postwar Germany also occurred among German historians. I mean, I end my book in 1990, so 2019 maybe, you know, I think we see a return of radical German nationalism, but that was not the subject of the book.

Similarly, the gradual cultural opening of the West German society toward the United States mirrored over time the attitudes of most academics in the Federal Republic. And just as the Americanization of West Germany was a process of selective appropriation, so German academics observed American academia with growing curiosity, but without embracing all popular trends on the other side of the Atlantic. So, you know, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, who was very likely to embrace, this Bielefeld school historian, was very likely to embrace, you know, things that American historians were doing, was horrified that Michel Foucault was so much more popular in the United States than in Germany because he hated Foucault.

Yet in one respect, despite this sort of, you know, convergence of the history of Germany and the history of transatlantic relations, of the history of the transatlantic scholarly community, in one respect academia differs from society at large: many Germans still struggled to comprehend American politics and in particular the country’s political system, and German attitudes toward the United States fluctuate not insignificantly, depending on the respective occupant of the White House. By contrast, the German-American community is characterized, the German-American community of scholars is characterized by a much greater degree of stability, much to the credit of the historians at the center of this book.

Now this is sort of my first conclusion and now I promised that I was gonna suggest three ways in which my book could be interested, interesting to people who do not care about history in Germany, German history or émigrés, or transatlantic relations.

First, I think that historians regardless of their area of expertise could benefit from pondering the value, but also the limitations, of transnational communities for scholarly research. We tend to view international, transnational scholarly cooperation as positive, for obvious reasons. But can we always assume this to be the case?

We could make an example about the Gerhard Ritter who is sort of my scapegoat, you know, like the embodiment of the narrow-minded German nationalism, he was also a scholar of the Reformation, and you know a Lutheran, and he formed ties with American, very conservative waspy American church historians, and they re-founded the archive for reformation research, and they in their correspondence, talk very openly about their views of society and the American church historians are horrified that now Jews and African-American are also allowed to become historians because traditionally that had not been the case. So that’s also transnational academic community but one that, you know, professes values, ideas that I think aren’t entirely unproblematic.

Second, is the connection between methodology and politics. And I think this is something that is interesting or worthwhile for everybody, for every historian to ask him or herself: do we consider certain methodologies more “modern” or more “progressive” and thus preferable to others? Or do we reject what we think of as too “radical” or maybe just “fashionable”?

So, that’s another area in which my book might be of interest for people beyond the immediate areas.

And then third, is the question of “empathy” and “understanding” – have we moved beyond the assumption that in order to properly write about a certain kind of history, or a certain group of people, that a historian’s personal background might be advantageous, or an obstacle?

And what I’m pointing to you here this tendency, and obviously I think it’s important to keep diversifying our discipline, but – if one, hears the argument, this is more something that I think occupies scholars of US history, that if you don’t belong to certain minority in the United States, you ought not to write the history of that minority. Isn’t it very similar to the idea of the nationalists Germans, that you have to be German in order to properly understand and empathize with German history? So, with these questions I thank you for your attention and I look forward to questions and criticism, thank you.


[Questions and Answers follow for remaining 13:03]

[1] Gerhard Ritter, “Review of Hans Rothfels, The German Opposition to Hitler,” Historische Zeitschrift 169 (1949): 402–405, quote on 402.
[2] Andreas Daum, “German Historiography in a Transatlantic Perspective: Interview with Hans-Ulrich Wehler,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C. 26 (2001): 121.
[3] Theodor Schieder to Dekan H. Moser, February 5, 1964, BAK, NL Schieder, Box 115. As early as 1963, Schieder had recommended Epstein for a position at the University of Frankfurt. See the letter from Theodor Schieder to Dietrich Geyer (History Department, University of Frankfurt), January 30, 1963, BAK, NL Schieder, Box 115.
[4] For example, Gerhard Ritter rejected Helmuth Plessner’s Verspätete Nation, considering it “not real history, but the product of an émigré’s imagination.” The original stated “nicht echte Historie sondern Konstruktion aus Emigrantenfantasie.” Gerhard Ritter to Theodor Schieder, [undated, ca. 1961], BAK, NL Schieder, Box 506. Helmuth Plessner (1892-1985), was a sociologist whose study Verspätete Nation (Belated Nation) analyzed what Plessner considered the belated and defective form of modernization of German economy and society (in particular of the Bürgertum). See Carola Dietze’s biography Nachgeholtes Leben. Helmuth Plessner, 1892- 1985 (Göttingen, 2006).
[5] See the letters from Friedrich Dieckmann to Karl Dietrich Erdmann, October 21, 1964, and Karl Dietrich Erdmann to Friedrich Dieckmann, November 1, 1964, BAK, NL Erdmann, Box 21.
[6] Gerhard Ritter to Karl Dietrich Erdmann, October 14, 1964, BAK, NL Ritter, Box 270.
[7] Gerhard Ritter to Hajo Holborn, October 13, 1960, BAK, NL Ritter, Box 350.
[8] Hans Herzfeld, Historische Zeitschrift 182 (1956), 402-05, quotes on 402.
[9] Klaus Epstein, “Three Studies of German Socialism,” World Politics 11 (1959), 650-651. The studies under review were Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein’s Challenge to Marx (New York, 1952); Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism (Cambridge, MA, 1955); and Joseph Berlau, German Social Democracy, 1914-1924 (New York, 1949).
[10] Iggers, “The Decline of the Classical National Tradition of German Historiography,” (see fn 6).
[11] The significance of Mosse’s Crisis emphasizes Saul Friedländer, “Mosse’s Influence on the Historiography of the Holocaust”, in Stanley G. Payne et al., eds., What History Tells: George L. Mosse and the Culture of Modern Europe (Madison, WI, 2003), 135. Cf. See also Steven Aschheim, “The Tensions of Historical Wissenschaft: The Émigré Historians and the Making of German Cultural History,” in ibid., Beyond the Border: The German-Jewish Legacy Abroad (Princeton, NJ, 2007), 45-80; interview with Jeffrey Herf, September 12, 2006.
[12] See Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1961).
[13] Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair, xv. Article 48 of the Weimar constitution granted the Reichspräsident far-reaching political power. Some historians argued that this constitutional element had weakened the Weimar Republic from the outset.
[14] Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair, 267.
[15] Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair, 292-294.
[16] Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair, xxiii.
[17] Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair, 276. George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (New York, 1964).
[18] Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology, 8.
[19] Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology, 1.
[20] Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology, 4.
[21] Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology, 152.
[22] See Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology, 8.
[23] Klaus Epstein, “Review of Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair. A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology,” in American Historical Review 67 (1962), 713.
[24] Klemens von Klemperer, “Review of The Politics of Cultural Despair. A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology,” in Journal of Modern History 34 (1962), 350.
[25] Klemens von Klemperer, “Review of George Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology. Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich,” in American Historical Review 71 (1966), 609.
[26] Saul Friedländer, “Mosse’s Influence on the Historiography of the Holocaust,” 135.
[27] Fritz Stern, Kulturpessimismus als politische Gefahr. Eine Analyse nationaler Ideologie in Deutschland (Bern and Stuttgart, 1963).
[28] See the studies on the German soviets 1918/19, which were published at the same time: Eberhard Kolb, Die Arbeiterräte in der deutschen Innenpolitik, 1918-1919 (Dusseldorf, 1962); and Peter von Oertzen, Betriebsräte in der Novemberrevolution. Eine politikwissenschaftliche Untersuchung über Ideengehalt und Struktur betrieblicher und wirtschaftlicher Arbeiterräte in der deutschen Revolution 1918/19 (Düsseldorf, 1963).
[29] In the 1950s and early 1960s, Karl Dietrich Bracher and Werner Conze clashed about the role of Chancellor Heinrich Brüning. Compare Bracher’s seminal Die Auflösung der Weimarer Republik. Eine Studie zum Problem des Machtverfalls in der Demokratie (Villingen, 1955) and Conze’s articles “Die Krise des Parteienstaates in Deutschland 1929/30,” in Historische Zeitschrift 178 (1954), 47-83; and “Brünings Politik unter dem Druck der großen Krise,” in Historische Zeitschrift 199 (1964), 529-550.
[30] See Martin Broszat, Der Staat Hitlers. Grundlegung und Entwicklung seiner inneren Verfassung (Munich, 1969); and Hans Mommsen, Beamtentum im Dritten Reich (Stuttgart, 1966). Eberhard Jäckel’s studies Hitler’s Weltanschauung (Tübingen, 1969) and Hitler’s Herrschaft (Stuttgart, 1986) do not engage Mosse’s and Stern’s studies, as they focus on the dictator rather than the broader Nazi or völkisch milieu.
[31] See Peter Schöttler, “Von der rheinischen Landesgeschichte zur nazistischen Volksgeschichte oder die ‘unhörbare Stimme des Blutes,’” in Winfried Schulze and Otto G. Oexle, eds., Deutsche Historiker im Nationalsozialismus (Frankfurt/M., 1999), 89-113; Götz Aly, “Theodor Schieder, Werner Conze oder die Vorstufen der physischen Vernichtung,” in ibid., 163-82; Berg, Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker, 563ff.
[32] Charles S. Maier, “Comment,” in Hartmut Lehmann and James van Horn Melton, eds., Paths of Continuity: Central European Historiography from the 1930s to the 1950s (Cambridge, UK, 1994), 395.
[33] Aschheim, “The Tensions of Historical Wissenschaft,” 52.
[34] Paul Nolte, “Die Historiker der Bundesrepublik: Rückblick auf eine ‘lange Generation,’” Merkur 53 (1999). 413-432; for Wehler’s views on intellectual history, see his “Geschichtswissenschaft heute,” in Wehler Historische Sozialwissenschaft und Geschichtsschreibung: Studien zu Aufgaben und Traditionen deutscher Geschichtswissenschaft (Göttingen, 1980), 13-41.
[35] See, for example, the statement by Hans-Ulrich Wehler quoted at the beginning of this article. See also Ernst Schulin’s assertion that “Anglo-American critical interest in German history influenced and assisted in the modernization of West German historical writing.” Schulin, “German and American Historiography in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in Lehmann and Sheehan, An Interrupted Past, 8-31; quote on 31.
[36] Other foreign historians could serve in the same role. This constitutes one of two main reasons why Geoff Eley’s, David Blackbourn’s, and Richard J. Evans’s critique of the Sonderweg paradigm warmed the hearts of German conservatives. British historians could hardly be accused of an apologetic stance toward Imperial Germany. The critics’ neo-Marxist orientation provided even more reason for satisfaction, since the Bielefelder were attacked by fellow “progressives.”

Philip StelzelPhilipp Stelzel studied modern European and German history at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Columbia University (MA), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (PhD). He has taught at Duke University, Boston College, and has been assistant professor of history at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh since 2014. His first book, History after Hitler: a Transatlantic Enterprise (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) analyzes the intellectual exchange between German and American historians of modern Germany from the end of World War II to the 1980s.


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