Land of Extremes: German History in the 20th Century, an Interpretation

Apr 04, 2013

Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Ulrich Herbert (University of Freiburg)

Ulrich Herbert is professor of 19th and 20th century history at the University of Freiburg. Since 2007 he has been the Director of the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Freiburg. His research focuses on the history of migration and foreign labor in Germany, particularly during the Third Reich. In 1999 Prof. Herbert received the Leibniz Award of the German Research Association (DFG) in modern and contemporary history. Konrad Jarausch is the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has researched and written on a wide array of topics in 20th century German history. He is currently at work on a history of 20th century Europe focused on the theme "taming modernity.

Event Report

In this lecture, Ulrich Herbert provided a grand overview of 20th-century German history that sought to give equal weight to both halves of the 20th century. In the lecture's first section Herbert examined "the dynamics of modernity" in the period 1885-1914, which he analyzed as an era of "accelerated change," during which industrialization, urbanization, the rise of mass movements, the global spread of market relations, and other processes of change posed exceptional challenges to all European societies. Noting that Germany experienced these processes with more rapidity and vehemence than its neighbors, Herbert argued that Germany took over the role of "laboratory of modernity" from Britain, with the result that both fascism and communism developed most strongly in Germany. In the lecture's second section, on "the dynamics of violence," Herbert argued that National Socialism was a self-consciously "modern" political system whose most essential element was violence. The regime's anti-Semitism was at least partly fueled by the fact that much of the population saw Jews as the exponents and beneficiaries of modernity.


In the lecture's third part Herbert examined the "conservative stabilization" that took place in western Germany in the postwar period. He began by noting that the question of the appropriate social order for industrial capitalism remained open for most Germans in the early postwar years: the right-wing solution had been discredited, but it was not clear that the democratic-liberal model would succeed; there were many discussions of a "third way" and of socialism. In East Germany the SED was unable to win over the majority of the population. Moreover, socialism was based on industrialism, so that the existence of socialism in a postindustrial economy was unforeseen. In West Germany, he argued, the development of liberal democracy was facilitated by four factors: nearly continuous economic growth until the 1970s; the top-down establishment of a democratic constitutional state; Adenauer's reliance on the United States and the Western powers; and the fact that the Cold War threat to the existence of West Germany made its integration into the West appear as the only alternative. In his analysis of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Herbert stressed the disconnect between democratic political institutions and more authoritarian social practices that characterized West Germany well into the 1960s. The German student movement's attempt to link authoritarian structures to National Socialism in order to delegitimize them was in many ways successful (and distinguished Germany's experience of the student revolutions of 1968 from that of its neighbors). By 1976, the Social Democratic Party was able to speak of Germany as a "model" democracy. After some reflections on the decline of the traditional industrial economy in the wake of the economic crisis of 1973/74, Herbert concluded his lecture with the observation that it is in some ways easier to explain the rise of Nazism then the success of democracy in postwar Germany. West Germany's return into the mainstream of European development was a gradual process that was facilitated by the experience of total defeat, economic success, fear of Bolshevism, political stability, and the social welfare state.

In his comment, Konrad Jarausch agreed that it is important to combine an historical analysis of the first and second halves of the 20th century. He also noted that he was in full agreement with Herbert's stress on the modernity of National Socialism as well as the central role of violence in the Nazi regime. Turning to his critical points, he argued that Herbert overestimated the supposed crisis of the middle classes around 1900 (Jarausch held that liberal confidence was only broken by the First World War); that the Weimar Republic should be treated as a separate point of reference without any teleology toward 1933; that we need a clearer term to define Nazi modernity (whether it be organic modernity or reactionary modernism); and that more attention must be paid to the history of the German Democratic Republic, examining its "soft stabilizers" rather than simply the support of the Soviet Union. Returning to the title of the lecture ("Land of Extremes"), Jarausch concluded by asking the question whether Germany was in fact more "extreme" than other countries. In the second half of the 20th century, he argued, Germany did find the path to the middle way, and he urged listeners to think of German history as the combination of multiple, intersecting stories rather than a single unified story.

After a brief response to Jarausch's comment from Ulrich Herbert, there was a lively question-and-answer session with the audience, which reflected the great interest in a whole range of questions concerning 20th-century German history.