Helmut Schmidt Prize 2007

Laudatio for Volker Berghahn 

Professor Gerald D. Feldman (University of California at Berkeley) 

I am greatly honored to have been asked to give the Laudatio for Volker Berghahn on this auspicious occasion.  It is also a great personal pleasure.  I have been an avid consumer of his work for forty years, and I have always regretted that we lived so far from one another most of the time.  When Volker was in England, I was either in the United States or in Germany, and when he went to Brown and then Columbia, I was most of the time in California or in Germany.   Our main personal encounters, therefore, have almost always been at meetings.  Although this personal encounter, which I so much looked forward to, is a victim of the weather, I can assure you that it is not the weather in California!  Nevertheless, I have always felt quite close to Volker because of so many shared interests, and to this must be added that Columbia College is my alma mater, and I am thrilled that it made so distinguished and welcome an appointment in German history.  I will be speaking today mainly about Volker's scholarship, but I do want to say a word about him as a teacher.  One of my very, very best undergraduates at Berkeley was Jonathan Wiesen, now a tenured professor at Southern Illinois. I desperately wanted to have him as a graduate student, but I knew it was important for him to go elsewhere, and I urged him to study with Volker at Brown.  It was a good deed and a good move, and this gives me an opportunity to thank Volker personally for the skill and humanity with which he mentored this young historian and helped shape what is a very successful career.  There was another great plus in Volker's coming to the United States, and that has been the opportunity to see more of Marion, in whose employ most of us appear to be—indeed, we often see more of her than we do of Volker—and for whom we have great affection.  Volker and Marion have always been very much a team, and we congratulate both of them not only on this award, but also on Volker's birthday and their wedding anniversary. 

The Helmut Schmidt Prize is awarded for distinguished work in the field of German-American Economic History.  This field, however, is broadly conceived, and the prize is intended to promote work that is transatlantic in character and scope but also to encourage an engagement with economic history that links business, industrial, and economic history with politics and culture.  Today's prize winner, for example, has written a splendid article on the "Bauhaus, Transatlantic Relations, and the Historians" for a conference held at the GHI in 2005 in which he argues that the study of the Bauhaus must be interdisciplinary and that any syllabus for a course on this subject should include "the most important works on the New Deal."  Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Volker Berghahn did not begin as a transatlanticist, unless crossing the North Sea would automatically qualify him as one.  He launched his career with works relating to the classic problems of German militarism, his first book of 1966, his doctoral dissertation under the German refugee historian Francis L. Carsten, dealt with Weimar's most important veteran's organization, the Stahlhelm.  It was a significant organization with all kinds of links to business interest groups, other right-wing organizations, and political interests, and it played a major role in the undermining of Weimar democracy.  Berghahn used a host of previously unexamined primary sources, and it was a noteworthy illustration for his capacity for deep archival research but also his talent for detecting and exploring the linkages between the host of interest groups, parties, and political personages that constituted the right-wing milieu standing behind the Stahlhelm at the highest levels but also the role played by the publicists and ideologists who fired up this brand of right-wing politics.  Volker's book successfully gave the Stahlhelm the bad name it deserved and has retained, and the study has remained for half a century the standard work in the field and the takeoff point for those interested in paramilitary organizations in the Weimar Republic. 

These qualities characterized the work of 1971 for which he became most famous in the field of German history, "The Tirpitz Plan.  Genesis and Disintegration of a Domestic-Political Crisis Strategy under William II."   This magnum opus, with its wonderful cover of a huge German battleship probably going nowhere, explored naval planning in the Empire in copious detail, dealt of course with one of the most fatal developments from the standpoint of the foreign policy of pre-1914 Germany, namely, the building of a high seas fleet which did so much to bring Great Britain into the war against German.  Berghahn showed that the naval programme was intended by Tirpitz as a challenge to England, but that its underpinning was a strategy for excluding the parliament from decision making in naval matters by creating an automatic increase of expenditure to meet the alleged needs of the navy without need for recourse to the Reichstag.  It was, in short, a domestic as well as foreign policy measure that at once sought to ward off domestic political crisis, undermined chances for democratic development, and inevitably exacerbated the problems of imperial governance. 

This interpretation threw Volker smack into the middle of the great historical debate that raged through the 1970s and afterwards, namely the Sonderweg debate, the argument about German exceptionalism and about the historical contribution of William II's empire to the subsequent disastrous course of German history.  Volker has been and remains a "Sonderwegler."  He believes that the political culture and political structure of the Empire made war inevitable in 1914 and German defeat inevitable as well and paved the way for the dysfunctionalities of the Weimar Republic and a second German stab at hegemony subsequently.  This is the also the message of his subsequent and widely-used and influential texts, especially "Germany and the Approach of War in 1914." It is a position that he has reiterated very strongly in opposition to arguments claiming that Germany was no more exceptional than other European societies and that, without the First World War, Germany might have evolved into a parliamentary and democratic society.  For Berghahn, much of the new cultural, social, and regional research that has come in the wake of more benevolent interpretations of the Kaiserreich has been mistaking the trees for the forest.  He has likened its practitioners to blind person touching the side of an elephant and failing to recognize what it is they are really touching.  Volker has been and remains committed to the big picture, and speculating about what might have happened if there was no war is something akin to saying that if one's grandmother had wheels, she would be a bus.  What she really was, Volker insists, was that battleship on the cover of his book, at once a vehicle of Germany's advanced technology, industrialization, and dynamism and the product of social and political backwardness and a fatal deficit when it came to democratic belief and practice.  Throughout his career, Volker has remained a pessimist about the Kaiserreich and performs a very useful and important function in reminding us all that while it might have been nice if the course of twentieth century German history had been otherwise, it was what it was, and it was no accident. 

If the Kaisereich and its problems, however, this was not a rut in which Volker Berghahn intended to be stuck historiographically, and in the 1980s he turned his attention to what appeared to be an entirely new field of research, postwar German business history and the problems of German and European capitalism.  I say that this appeared to be an entirely new field of research because it really reflected a trajectory of interests and concerns which grew out of his previous concentration on problems of German imperialism and domestic political development.  Berghahn had always been acutely aware that the question of Germany's role in the European and world economy and the peculiarities of German business organization have accompanied the course of German History from the Kaiserreich to 1945 and that the defeat of the drive for hegemony between 1914 and 1918 and 1933 and 1945 left behind the continuing issue of the role of Germany in Europe and the world.  He perceived that the ways in which this role would be played out would, on the one hand, be determined by the course taken by the German business community and, on the other hand, by the international constellation of economic and political forces in a world where Germany would be a part of an international and especially transatlantic community.  As critical as he had always been of German political and social development, Volker had never been caught up in the anti-capitalist, Marxist interpretations of German history, so that the evolution of the institutions of German capitalism, their path dependency, was one of his preoccupations from the beginning.  At the same time, he has always maintained that the role of Germany in the world was a transcendent issue in German history throughout the 20th century, and that the unfortunate forms that it took and the sorry juncture of 1945 in no eliminated its continuing relevance.  Indeed, if I were to single out any specific realm in which Volker has made a unique contribution, it is in his on-going exploration and discussion of the relationship between the evolution of the institutions of German capitalism and the great transformation of German polity and society as a result of the German defeat in 1945.  There is no Stunde Null in Volker's work and Germany's role in the post-1945 world economy is quite brilliantly embedded in the continuities and discontinuities of the organizations, institutions, and practices of German capitalism. 

This became evident in his path breaking "Americanisation of West German Industry, 1945-1973" of 1986, which explored the transformation of German industrial culture after the war.  It is important to note that Volker never pretended or suggested that this was some simple process of "Americanisation."  For one thing, he has always recognized that the so called Americanisation was by no means something new, and the discussion of Americanisation dates back to the interwar period, if not before, and has always encompassed not only the appropriation of American productive techniques, Taylorism, Fordism, assembly-line production, but also advertising and consumerism.  Also, it was never a one-way street, either before or after 1945, and we now know that many techniques and trends allegedly taken from America by Europeans were often indigenous to Germany and Europe.  What he has shown, and this is not always as obvious as it seems, is the struggle of the German business community to cope with the hegemonic influence of the United States after the war and the not-so-simple task of dealing with its own restructuring in the process.  As we all know there more than a few continuities in Germany after 1945, some less attractive than others, but it has been Volker's achievement to chart the continuities and breaks in the early industrial history of post-1945, breaks that were structural involving the eclipse of the long-dominant forces of heavy industry, and breaks that were generational.  It is in this context that American influences and ways of doing things made themselves felt, and Volker has managed to chart  two closely related developments, the reemergence of Germany into the world economy in a global context and without hegemonic pretensions, and the adaptation of German business to the social market economy and the social-liberal coalition in 1972. He has convincingly placed these two developments in the context of the indisputable "Americanisation" that occurred in Germany and elsewhere during the postwar period. 

There is so much historical, political economy, and political science literature on the Americansation of Germany and Europe these days that it is very easy to forget that Volker started the ball rolling and raised the key questions.  If there are questions, debates, and doubts, this too is to his credit since where would the discussion be without his immense contribution?  As we all know, there is much talk today about whether "German capitalism" has a future in the face of the demands of globalization and the liberal market model of the United States which seems better suited to dealing with globalization that the so-called post-liberal German model with its emphasis on economic coordination, stakeholder rather than shareholder values, and the social net.  Berghahn has not shied away from this discussion, as shown by his recent collection of essays with Sigurt Vitols, "Gibt es einen Deutschen Kapitalismus?" and especially by his truly brilliant introduction to that volume.  Berghahn is a liberal, socially-minded supporter of the social market economy as it developed after 1945, but he is too much of a historian to fall into the trap of thinking that there is some kind of "German capitalism" that can be posited as an alternative to the Anglo-American model in what has been termed a battle of economic cultures.  Insofar as there was a German capitalism, he argues quite rightly, it found its ultimate expression in the National Socialist regime and its imperialism and not in some welfare state rooted in the Kaiserreich.  If one wishes to contest neo-liberal ideology, one must do it on other and securer grounds.  In any case, he cogently claims that the present German economy and business culture cannot be understood without taking into account powerful American influences and, as he argues in his splendid and pioneering study of "America and the Intellectual Cold Wars in Europe" that this is as true in cultural and intellectual life as it is in economics.  Volker Berghahn has always made and continues to make wonderful contributions to the historical literature and remains the great researcher and writer he has always been, but in these past decades, he has functioned as a pioneer in transatlantic history and a scholar who has set important agendas in history and the other social sciences for which we are all truly grateful and which makes him an especially worthy recipient of the Helmut Schmidt Prize.