German Historiography in Transatlantic Perspective: Interview with Hans-Ulrich Wehler

Andreas Daum

At its meeting in Chicago in early January 2000 the American Historical Association (AHA) announced its decision to bestow upon German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler an honorary foreign membership. The AHA is the oldest and largest professional organization for historians in the United States; its first honorary foreign member was Leopold von Ranke in 1885. Altogether there are now eight Germans who have received this honor, including Theodor Mommsen (1900), Friedrich Meinecke (1947), Franz Schnabel (1952), Gerhard Ritter (1959), Fritz Fischer (1984), and Karl Bosl (1990). The AHA confers this special membership on scholars who are distinguished in their fields and have notably aided the work of American historians.

Hans-Ulrich Wehler was born in 1931 and studied history, sociology, and economics at the universities of Cologne and Bonn, and at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in 1960 and completed his Habilitation in 1968, both at the University of Cologne. Wehler taught German history in Cologne and American history at the John F. Kennedy Institute of the Free University of Berlin before assuming a chair of history at the University of Bielefeld in 1971. Since then he also has held several visiting professorships at American universities, such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale.

At the center of Hans-Ulrich Wehler's work stand problems of modern German history with a particular focus on the rise of industrial society and imperialism, the formation of authoritarian political structures, and the social, economic, and political problems inherent in the processes of modernization. Wehler has published numerous books, including his monographs Sozialdemokratie und Nationalstaat: Nationalitätenfragen in Deutschland 1840­1914 (2d ed., 1971), Bismarck und der Imperialismus (5th ed., 1984), and Das deutsche Kaiserreich 1871­1918 (10th ed., 2000; English ed., 1985). Many of Wehler's essays have been published in collected volumes, the latest of which are Politik in der Geschichte (1998), Die Herausforderung der Kulturgeschichte (1998), and Nationalsozialismus und Historiker (forthcoming, 2000). His interest in the history of the United States found its expression in his books, Der Aufstieg des amerikanischen Imperialismus: Studien zur Entwicklung des Imperium Americanum 1865­1900 (1974) and Grundzüge der amerikanischen Außenpolitik 1750­1900 (1983).

Wehler's work has culminated in his broad societal history of modern Germany, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, published by Beck Verlag in Munich since 1987, with three volumes covering the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. Wehler is currently working on the fourth volume, which will deal with the era between World War I and German unification. Wehler also is the co-editor of Kritische Studien zur Geschichtswissenschaft, a monograph series, and the journal Geschichte und Gesellschaft. The founding of both reflected the agenda of what Wehler, Jürgen Kocka, and other German historians in the early 1970s called Historische Sozialwissenschaft or historical social science. Historical social science was designed as a new and critical approach to modern history that was based on the use of analytical social sciences, demanded theoretical sophistication, and focused on long-term structural processes and the changing role of social classes and groups.


GHI: Professor Wehler, how do you feel as a successor of Leopold von Ranke as an honorary foreign member of the American Historical Association?

WEHLER: I accepted with great pleasure the honorary membership of the American Historical Association because for nearly fifty years I have felt closely connected to the professional American historical community. I generally turn down memberships in academic commissions and academies because they absorb a great deal of time. And by the way, I don't feel myself to be Leopold von Ranke's or Friedrich Meinecke's successor, both of whom received the same honor from the AHA, because I have repeatedly stressed that scholars of modern history can learn much more from Max Weber and Karl Marx.

Could you tell us something about your first encounters with America?

My first contact with American culture and political life occurred while I attended Gymnasium in a small city in the barren eastern part of the Prussian Rhineland. There, we were introduced to modern American literature very early on, and for my generation there was immediacy to the study of contemporary American politics.

In the 1950s you spent a year as a student in Athens, Ohio. What was that experience like?

I was fortunate that right after my Abitur I received a scholarship from the Fulbright Commission and was able to go to America during my second semester. At that time America was for us the "promised land" in many respects - political, cultural, economic, and, last but not least, athletic. Therefore, I considered it to be a great privilege to be allowed to study in America. Naturally, we all wanted to attend one of the famous East Coast universities. But in fact I learned much more about America in the Midwest. After the academic year had ended, I worked for six months as a welder and a truck driver in Los Angeles.

You have frequently returned to the United States to do research or to teach as a visiting professor. How have your perceptions of American academic life changed over time?

After finishing my dissertation in 1960 I chose for the subject of my Habilitation project American imperialism between 1865 and 1900. With support from the American Council of Learned Societies, I was able to stay in the United States in 1962-3 with my family and to spend one and a half years in archives and special libraries. Thereafter, I have often been invited to be a visiting professor, for example, in Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. These visits yielded the acquaintance, even the friendship of several American colleagues, and above all close contact with undergraduate and graduate students. At the same time I could observe the latest trends in American historical scholarship.

Since my experiences as a student in Ohio I have always advocated the adoption of the American academic model in Germany: We also should allow four years for basic studies, concluding with exams, after which the majority of students would leave university. And we should introduce a graduate program for M.A. and doctoral students. It has always been illusory to treat every German student as a potential scholar in the sense of Wilhelm von Humboldt. I am of course also a supporter of the idea that each university should be able to select its own students, assess its own fees, and enter a lively competition for the best minds. This opinion has repeatedly been strengthened during each of my trips to America. I don't see any better alternative to the rational restructuring of the mass university from within.

Against the backdrop of your personal experiences, how would you characterize the American contribution to your intellectual life?

The nearly six years altogether that I spent in the United States have influenced me mostly in the direction of a kind of political liberalism, which in the 1950s and 1960s was seen as "leftist" in the old Federal Republic. I also have been influenced by the more flexible American style of discussion. In contrast, the epistemological positivism in the U.S. has horrified me from the beginning - and still does to this day.

How did your acquaintance or friendship with German émigré scholars living in the United States influence the development of your historical thinking?

Without question, I have been deeply influenced by personal friendships with German historians who were forced by the Nazi regime to leave the country. This is true above all in the case of my long-term relationship with Hans Rosenberg, but also is true for scholars such as Dietrich Gerhard, Hajo Holborn, Alfred Vagts, as well as the children of émigrés such as Fritz Stern, Klaus Epstein, and others. When we were searching for forerunners for a new social history, reference to the works of these historians played an important role, especially the fact that all of them could be considered political liberals.

How would you describe the connections between the American theoretical debates of the last twenty years - for example, feminist theory, the linguistic turn, the New Cultural History - and the development of your major project, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte?

Work on my "history of society" (Gesellschaftsgeschichte) has been conducted independent of the fashionable trends in the United States. I myself experienced the short-lived rise of psychohistory, cliometrics, and culturalism. These fashionable trends spread like brush fires through American history departments and disappeared just as quickly as they started. The so-called linguistic turn is epistemologically the return of a neo-Kantian epistemology. I don't see anything new, especially with regard to relative constructivism, which has greatly informed the New Cultural History. The rise of gender history, however, closes a long existing gap, but my own work certainly doesn't satisfy the expectations of its proponents.

In your view, what is the current state of the transatlantic historiographical dialog?

The transatlantic dialog between American and German historians since the late 1940s is based on the fundamental experiences of the political generations that lived through the Nazi dictatorship, World War II, the postwar years, and the founding of the Federal Republic. These common experiences led to close contacts; I am someone who has profited 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 generation in Germany to which I belong. Perhaps they also took up this or that stimulus from our side. Nonetheless, there remain surprising gaps. As an approach cliometrics has almost been completely ignored in the Federal Republic. Our type of political social history has not been adopted by American new social historians with their faith in quantification. Our argument in regard to a German Sonderweg - an interpretation that is of course specific to the "civilization break" in 1933 - has not persuaded all of our American friends. But what remains is an exceptionally intensive discussion that has been sustained over the course of several decades. I hope very much that this discussion among the younger generations in Germany and in America doesn't come to an end.

Why do you think the approach of Alltagsgeschichte plays a more prominent role among American students of German history than among German historians?

It has been clear for some time that the "history of everyday life" (Alltagsgeschichte) has been a failure, theoretically speaking. All of the smart people have moved on to the New Cultural History. This development also will take its course in America, where currently students of those historians who once declared themselves enthusiastically for the history of everyday life are fighting a rearguard battle.

How would you evaluate the American reading of your work and the American perception of "historical social science" - an approach that you and others have promulgated since the late 1960s?

What we had in mind as an "historical social science" (Historische Sozialwissenschaft) and then pragmatically translated into actual studies, especially social historical ones, as well as into syntheses of the history of society, has been received by our American colleagues with a friendly curiosity. Like their German counterparts, a younger generation of American historians, which is interested in women's history, ethnic studies, and the New Cultural History, has been less interested in our project. It remains to be seen what the outcome of this duel will be in the short or long term. I am still confident that historical social science, with its foci on social, economic, and political history and its theoretical sophistication, will hold its own in this debate. Above all, historical social science can absorb important trends emerging from the New Cultural History rather than the other way around.

How would you compare your Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte to other histories of Germany in the nineteenth century written in English?

I certainly will not engage in a detailed comparison of my own attempt to synthesize the history of society with the attempts of others. The synthetic works of American and British historians with which I am familiar basically are still framed in the language of conventional political history. I don't see anywhere in the general histories, not to mention in "textbooks" (with the one exception of Volker Berghahn's), an indication that they have much in common with our ideas on the history of society. To that extent, the Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte perhaps represents a welcome addition.

What do you see as the relative strengths and weaknesses of the historical professions in Germany and the United States?

As far as a cost-benefit analysis regarding American and German historical scholarship is concerned, German provincialism has without doubt remained rather frightening. There are very few faculties where the history of southern or western Europe is taught, let alone the history of Latin America, Africa, or Asia. You can easily count the number of practitioners in these fields on one hand. At every major university in the United States the situation is fundamentally different; this reflects the much broader range of historical interests in America. However, I think the training of our doctoral students is much better. The best of our future scholars have studied two subjects, for example, history and sociology. They also are more theoretically minded. Within a few years of the dissertation they write a second study (Habilitationsschrift) on a different problem, in a different time period, and on a different country than they did for the dissertation. This system allows them to have broader interests and to be less narrow. I know only a few American Ph.D. dissertations that can compare with the excellent doctoral works, let alone the Habilitationsschriften, of our best young scholars.

The institutionalization of professional historical scholarship in both countries is similar. We have fewer professional organizations than in America. However, the influence of German historical scholarship on the German public is comparatively much greater than that of the American guild on its respective public. At any time we can intervene on television, on the radio, and in the cultural pages of the major newspapers. Many of us do this on a regular basis. In America that is rarely the case; you must be an adviser of the president in order to attract media attention. Looking back, it is clearly apparent that the West German invention of contemporary history, which had not really existed beforehand, and the enormously important role of modern history in general for West German political consciousness have had an enlightening effect in the positive sense.

Where do you situate National Socialism in the history of the twentieth century?

The experiences of the Nazi dictatorship, its war of extermination, and its mass murder particularly of the Jews and Slavs remains an integral part of German history in the twentieth century. I believe this history will continue to be treated in a privileged way by the international community of scholars. Even for comparative history the experience of the German dictatorship continues to be a horrifying example. One can try to understand this history from various points of view, but certainly not in the sense of the "trashbook" by Daniel Goldhagen.

What impact will the passage of time have on Germany's political self-definition with respect to the Nazi past?

Of course, the temporal distance grows, and a new political generation's experiences are referenced to fifty peaceful years of the Federal Republic. However, I believe that the break with civilization in the 1930s and 1940s will continue to be an indispensable point of orientation for German political consciousness. One cannot steal away from this context, as we have seen in the debate over compensating forced laborers. In the near future we will finally turn to the problem of the Aryanization of Jewish businesses during the Nazi period.

Will recent research on the history of the GDR change views of the history of West Germany?

I don't believe for a minute that research on the history of the GDR will essentially change the perspective on West German history. There is no way to get around the fact that the second German dictatorship failed in every respect. It is one of the bitterest experiences of eastern Germans that they cannot contribute anything lasting to the unification process, neither political, nor economic, nor social. One can criticize this statement as a judgment from the era of the Cold War, but I believe that the West clearly won the Cold War and that this victory will continue to have an effect on interpretations of German postwar history, and should continue to have normative effects.

What do you see as the major challenges for the writing of German history in the future?

German historical scholarship will face a number of challenges in the future. In many respects it already finds itself in the middle of a lively debate. The relations between social and cultural history have to be clarified. In particular, the epistemological bases, which are deplorably undeveloped in many cultural historical projects, will have to be clarified. Moreover, support of economic and political history should not be neglected. In the era of globalization and the new international constellation since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the decline of economic and political history in Germany is practically a disaster. Women's history needs to be expanded into gender history because the real world is made up of two genders after all, much like an ellipse with its two foci. Above all, however, academic history has to stay conscious of the unavoidable political implications of its work. There is no room for a retreat to an apolitical position, which can be clearly discerned in the work of some cultural historians.

To conclude with two general questions, what would you say are the three or four most important influences on the writing of German history in the twentieth century?

When it comes to the greatest influences, I would have to say again that Max Weber and Karl Marx have offered the most stimulating ideas. The most important German historian of the first half of the twentieth century was Otto Hintze. After that, I would mention Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (the only genius I ever met) and Ernst Troeltsch

If the last page of the last volume of Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte was written and you had time to write a small book, what would you write about?

When I finally throw off the burden of this enormous project, that is, when the fourth volume (which covers the period from 1914 to 1990) is published, I would in fact like to turn to the writing of a small book. I would probably attempt to write a fusion of social, political, and cultural history, for example, an outline of the history of modern nationalism.