Sonderweg (literally: "special path") is a controversial theory in German historiography that considers the German-speaking lands, or the country Germany, to have followed a unique course from aristocracy into democracy, distinct from other European countries. It is also used to explain German foreign policy and ideology before and during World War I, which was characterized by trying to find a "Third Way" to be implemented for the world, other than western "vulgar" democracy or eastern Czaristic autocracy.

The modern school of thought by that name arose early during World War II in consequence of the rise of Nazi Germany. In consequence of the scale of the devastation wrought on Europe by Nazi Germany, the Sonderweg theory of German history has progressively gained a following inside and outside of Germany, especially since the late 1960s. In particular, its proponents argue that the way Germany developed over the centuries virtually ensured the evolution of a social and political order along the lines of Nazi Germany. In their view, German mentalities, the structure of society, and institutional developments followed a different course in comparison with the other nations of the West, which had a "normal" development of their histories.

19th century Edit

The term Sonderweg was first used by German conservatives in the Imperial period, starting in the late 19th century as a source of pride at the "Golden Mean"[1] of governance that in their view had been attained by the German state, whose distinctiveness as an authoritarian state lay in taking the initiative in instituting social reforms, imposing them without waiting to be pressured by demands "from below". This type of authoritarianism was seen avoiding both the autocracy of Imperial Russia and what they regarded as the weak, decadent and ineffective democratic governments of the United Kingdom and France.[2] The idea of Germany as a great Central European power, neither of the West nor of the East was to be a recurring feature of right-wing German thought right up to 1945.

20th century Edit

During World War II Edit

Nazi Germany's occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and its invasion of Poland in September 1939 (the latter invasion immediately drawing France and Britain into war and thus starting what would become World War II) provoked the drive to explain the phenomenon of Nazi Germany. In 1940, Sebastian Haffner, a German émigré living in Britain, published Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, in which he argued it was Adolf Hitler alone, by the force of his peculiar personality, who had brought about Nazi Germany. In 1941, the British diplomat Robert Vansittart published The Black Record: Germans Past And Present, according to which Nazism was only the latest manifestation of what Vansittart argued were the exclusively German traits of aggressiveness and brutality. Other books with a thesis similar to Vansittart's were Rohan O'Butler's The Roots of National Socialism (1941) and William Montgomery McGovern's From Luther to Hitler: The History of Nazi-Fascist Philosophy (1946).[3]

Early postwar period Edit

After Germany's defeat in World War II in 1945, the term Sonderweg lost its positive connotations from the 19th century and acquired its present negative meaning. There was much debate about the origins of this "German catastrophe" (as the German historian Meinecke titled his 1946 book) of Nazi Germany's rise and fall. Since then, scholars have examined developments in intellectual, political, social, economic and cultural history to investigate why German democracy failed during the Weimar Republic and which factors led to the rise of National Socialism.[2] In the 1960s, many historians concluded that the failure of Germany to develop firm democratic institutions in the 19th century had been decisive for the failure of the Weimar Republic in the 20th century.[2]

Until the mid-1960s, the Sonderweg debate was polarized with most non-German participants at one pole and German participants at the other. Historians like Léon Poliakov, A. J. P. Taylor, and Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier, echoed by journalists like the American William L. Shirer, portrayed Nazism as the inevitable result of German history, reflecting unique flaws in "German national character" that went back to the days of Martin Luther, if not earlier. During the Raleigh Lecture on History in 1944, Namier stated that the German liberals in the Revolution of 1848 were "in reality forerunners of Hitler", whose views about the Poles and Czechs presaged the great international crises of 1938-39, and called the 1848 revolution "a touchstone of German mentality and a decisive element in East-European politics"[4] In his lecture, Namier described the 1848 revolution as "the early manifestations of aggressive nationalism, especially of German nationalism which derives from the much belaudned Frankfort Parliament rather than from Bismarck and "Prussianism"[4]. Namier concluded "had not Hitler and his associates blindly accepted the legend which latter-day liberals, German and foreign had spun around 1848, they might well have found a great deal to extol in the deutsche Männer und Freunde of the Frankfort Assembly"[4]. Taylor wrote in his 1945 book The Course of German History that the Nazi regime "represented the deepest wishes of the German people", and that it was the first and only German government created by the Germans as the Holy Roman Empire had been created by France and Austria, the German Confederation by Austria and Prussia and the Weimar Republic by the Allies[5]. By contrast, Taylor argued "But the Third Reich rested solely on German force and impulse; it owned nothing to alien forces. It was a tyranny imposed upon the German people by themselves"[5]. Taylor argued that National Socialism was inevitable because the Germans wanted "to repudiate the equality with the peoples of eastern Europe which had then been forced upon them" after 1918[6]. Taylor wrote that:

"During the preceding eighty years the Germans had sacrificed to the Reich all their liberties; they demanded as a reward the enslavement of others. No German recognized the Czechs or Poles as equals. Therefore, every German desired the achievement which only total war could give. By no other means could the Reich be held together. It had been made by conquest and for conquest; if it ever gave up its career of conquest, it would dissolve.[7]"
The American historian Peter Viereck wrote in his 1949 book Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against the Revolt 1815-1949 that:
"Is it being unhistorical to judge the anti-Metternichian nationalism and racism of 19th century Germany by its Nazi consequences? Were those consequences the logical outcome or a modern accident for which nationalism should not be blamed? Is it a case of the wise-after-the-fallacy to read so much into those early rebels of 1806-1848, whom many historians still consider great liberals?...The liberal university professors, Metternich's fiercest foes and now so prominent in 1848, were often far from the cloudy idealists pictured in our textbooks. From his own viewpoint, Bismack erred in mocking their lack of Realpolitik. The majority... was more Bismarckian than Bismarck ever realized. Many liberals... later became leading propagandists for Bismarck, along with the new National Liberal Party. Only an honorable few continued to oppose him and the militarist success-worship that followed his victorious wars".[4]
Poliakov wrote that even if not all Germans supported the Holocaust, it was "tacitly accepted by the popular will"[8] The French historian Edmond Vermeil wrote in his 1952 book L'Allemagne contemporaine (Contemporary Germany) that Nazi Germany was not "a purely adventitious episode appearing on the fringes of the German tradition"[4] Instead, Vermeil contended that German nationalism had an especially aggressive character, which had been restrained only by Bismarck[4]. After Bismarck's dismissal in 1890, Vermeil wrote "It was after his fall, under William II, that this nationalism, breaking all barriers and escaping from the grip of a weak government, gave rise to a state of mind and a general situation that we have to analyze, for otherwise Nazism with its momentary triumphs and its terrible collapse will remain incomprehensible"[9]. Vermeil concluded that Germany will remain on a separate path, "always placing the spirit of its implacable technical discipline at the service of those visions of the future that its eternal romanticisim begets"[4].

Shirer in his 1960 book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich argued for the view that German history proceeded logically from "Luther to Hitler"[10], seeing Hitler's rise to power as an expression of German character, rather than of the international phenomenon of totalitarianism.[11][12][13] Shirer encapsulated this view with the passage, "...the course of German history... made blind obedience to temporal rulers the highest virtue of Germanic man and put a premium on servility."[14]

In contrast, German historians such as Friedrich Meinecke, Hans Rothfels, and Gerhard Ritter, joined by a few non-German historians such as Pieter Geyl, contended that the Nazi period had no relationship to earlier periods of German history, and that German traditions were at sharp variance with the totalitarianism of the Nazi movement. Meinecke famously described National Socialism in his 1946 book Die Deutsche Katastrophe ("The German Catastrophe") as a particularly unfortunate Betriebsunfall ("on-the-job accident") of history.[15] Although opposed to what they regarded as Meinecke's excessively defensive tone, Ritter and Rothfels have been joined by their intellectual heirs Klaus Hildebrand, Karl Dietrich Bracher, and Henry Ashby Turner in contending that though the Nazi dictatorship was rooted in the German past, it was individual choices made during the later Weimar years that led to the Nazi years.

Since ca. 1965 Edit

Starting in the 1960s, historians such as Fritz Fischer and Hans-Ulrich Wehler argued that, unlike France and the United Kingdom, Germany had experienced only "partial modernization", in which industrialization was not followed by changes in the political and social spheres, which in the opinion of Fischer and Wehler continued to be dominated by a "pre-modern" aristocratic elite.[16] In the opinion of the proponents of the Sonderweg thesis, the crucial turning point was the Revolution of 1848, when German liberals failed to seize power and consequently either emigrated or chose to resign themselves to being ruled by a reactionary elite, living in a society that taught its children obedience, glorification of militarism, and pride in a very complex notion of German culture. During the latter half of the Second Reich, from about 1890 to 1918, this pride, they argued, developed into hubris. Since 1950, historians such as Fischer, Wehler, and Hans Mommsen have drawn a harsh indictment of the German elite of the period 1870-1945, who were accused of promoting authoritarian values during the Second Reich, being solely responsible for launching World War I, sabotaging the democratic Weimar Republic, and aiding and abetting the Nazi dictatorship in internal repression, war, and genocide. In the view of Wehler, Fischer, and their supporters, only the German defeat in 1945 put an end to the “premodern” social structure which had led to and then sustained traditional German authoritarianism and its more radical variant, National Socialism.

Another version of the Sonderweg thesis emerged in the United States in the 1950s-1960s, when historians such as Fritz Stern and George Mosse examined ideas and culture in 19th century Germany, especially those of the virulently anti-Semitic völkisch movement. Mosse and Stern both concluded that the intellectual and cultural elites in Germany by and large chose to consciously reject modernity and along with it those groups they identified with modernity, such as Jews, and embraced anti-Semitism as the basis for their Weltanschauung (world-view). However, in recent years, Stern has abandoned his conclusion and now argues against the Sonderweg thesis, holding the views of the völkisch movement to be a mere “dark undercurrent” in the Second Reich.

In 1990, Jürgen Kocka wrote about the Sonderweg's theories:

"Yet, at the same time, researches looked back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to uncover the deeper roots of the Third Reich. Through comparisons with England, France, the United States, or simply "the West", they attempted to identify the peculiarities of Germany history, those structures and processes, experiences, and turning points, which while they may not have led directly to National Socialism, nevertheless hindered the long term development of liberal democracy in Germany and eventually facilitated the triumph of fascism. Many authors made various contributions to the elaboration of this argument, usually without actually using the word Sonderweg.

Helmuth Plessner, for example, spoke of the "belated nation" (die verspätete Nation), the delayed creation of a nation-state from above. Other historians have argued that nationalism played an especially aggressive, precociously right-wing destructive role during the Second Empire. Ernst Fraenkel, the young Karl Dietrich Bracher, Gerhard A. Ritter, M. Rainer Lepsius, and others identified powerful long-term weaknesses in the Empire's system of government: the blocked development of parliamentarianism, the severely fragmented system of parties that resembled self-contained blocks, and other factors that later burdened Weimar and contributed to its breakdown. Leonard Krieger, Fritz Stern, George Mosse and Kurt Sontheimer emphasized the illiberal, antipluralistic elements in German political culture upon which National Socialist ideas could later build.

Hans Rosenberg and others argued that preindustrial elites, especially the east Elbian landowners (the Junkers), upper-level civil servants and the officer corps retained great power and influence well into the twentieth century. In the long term, they represented an obstacle to democratization and parliamentarianism. As Heinrich August Winkler has shown, their effort is visible in the pernicious role played by agrarian interests in the collapse of the Weimar Republic. The unification of Germany by means of "blood and iron" under Prussian hegemony expanded the political influence and social weight of the officer corps with its status-oriented claims to exclusivity and autonomy. Along with the old elites, many traditional and preindustrial norms, ways of thinking and modes of life also survived. These included the authoritarian outlook and antiproletarian claims of the petty bourgeoise as well as militarisitc elements of middle-class political culture, such as the institution of the "reserve officer. The liberal Max Weber criticized the "feudalization" of the upper bourgeoisie, which seemed to accept both the disproportional representation of the nobility in politics as well as aristocratic norms and practices instead of striving for power on its own terms or cultivating a distinctly middle-class culture. Lacking the experience of a successful revolution from below, schooled in a long tradition of bureaucratically led reforms from above, and challenged by a growing workers' movement, the German bourgeoise appeared relatively weak and-compared with the West-almost "unbourgeois"[17]

Another variant of the Sonderweg theory has been provided by Michael Stürmer who, echoing claims of conservative historians during the Imperial and Weimar periods, argues that it was geography that was the key to German history. Stürmer contends that what he regards as Germany’s precarious geographical situation in the heart of Central Europe left successive German governments no other choice but to engage in authoritarianism. Stürmer’s views have been very controversial; they would become one of the central issues in the notorious Historikerstreit ("Historians’ Quarrel") of the mid 1980s. One of Stürmer’s leading critics, Jürgen Kocka, himself a proponent of the Sonderweg view of history, argued that “Geography is not destiny”[18], suggesting that the reasons for the Sonderweg were political and cultural instead. Kocka wrote against Stürmer that both Switzerland and Poland were also "lands in the middle", and yet neither country went in the same authoritarian direction as Germany[18].

Subdebate over history of German anti-Semitism Edit

Christopher Browning in his 1992 book Ordinary Men opposed the theory that Germans in the Nazi era were motivated by an especially virulent anti-Semitism that had characterized German culture for centuries. Analyzing the troops of the special police battalion units, who were the ones who directly killed Jews in the mass raids phase of the Holocaust (prior to the death camps), Browning concluded that these typical middle class workers were not ingrained with anti-Semitism, but rather became killers through peer pressure and indoctrination.

The debate on the Sonderweg was renewed by American scholar Daniel Goldhagen with his 1996 book, Hitler's Willing Executioners. Goldhagen countered that German society, politics, and life up until 1945 were characterized by a unique version of extreme anti-Semitism that held the murder of Jews as the highest possible national value. His critics (e.g., Yehuda Bauer) replied that Goldhagen ignored most recent research and ignored other developments both in Germany and abroad.[19] Ruth Birn asserts that Goldhagen "allow[ed] his thesis to dictate his presentation of the evidence".[20] Nonetheless, Goldhagen is often held to have succeeded in reviving the debate on the question of a German "collective guilt", and, in Germany, of bringing many Germans to a modern confrontation with, and a lively and fruitful debate about, the legacy of the Holocaust.

Criticism Edit

The leading critics of the Sonderweg thesis have been two British Marxist historians, Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn, who in their 1984 book The Peculiarities of German History (first published in German in 1980 as Mythen deutscher Geschichtsschreibung: Die gescheiterte bürgerliche Revolution von 1848) argued that there is no "normal" course of social and political change; that the experience of France and Britain in the 19th century was not the norm for Europe; and that even if the liberal German middle class was disempowered at the national political level, it nevertheless dominated the social, economic and cultural life of 19th century Germany.[2]. This embourgeoisement of German social life was greater than in Britain and France, which in the opinion of Eley and Blackbourn was more distinctly marked by aristocratic values than was Germany.[2] Blackbourn and Eley rejected the entire concept of the Sonderweg as a flawed construct supported by a "a curious mixture of idealistic analysis and vulgar materialism" that led to an "exaggerated linear continuity between the nineteenth century and the 1930s".[21] In the view of Blackbourn and Eley, there was no Sonderweg, and it is ahistorical to judge why Germany did not become Britain for the simple reason that Germany is Germany and Britain is Britain.[21] Moreover, Eley and Blackbourn argued that after 1890 there was a tendency towards greater democratization in German society with the growth of civil society as reflected in the growth of trade unions and a more or less free press.[21]

Many scholars have disputed Eley's and Blackbourn's conclusions, among them Jürgen Kocka and Wolfgang Mommsen. Kocka in particular has argued that while the Sonderweg thesis may not explain the reasons for the rise of the Nazi movement, it still explains the failure of the democratic Weimar Republic.[2] This seems to entail that the issue of the Sonderweg is limited to an individual development (albeit of a type frequently encountered). Thus, many historians today feel that the Sonderweg theory fails to account for similarities and distinctions with other dictatorships and ethnic cleansings.

Attempted application of the concept to German history before 1806 Edit

Charlemagne's coronation by the Roman Pope in 800 A.D. as King of the Franks (and consequently, if not immediately, as the first "Holy Roman Emperor") marked a medieval ideal of a reconstituted Roman Empire in the West. However, throughout the early modern period, the power of the Holy Roman Emperor, who generally had to rely on his dukes and kings until and unless the strongest of these became Emperor with repeated dynastic shifts, diminished continuously after the golden sunset under Charles V.

There have been those who applied the Sonderweg theory to German history before the 1806 breakup of the Holy Roman Empire,[citation needed] arguing that while every other country in 18th and early 19th century Europe (with the exception of the Italian lands) was consolidating into more or less coherent nation-states with virtually "fixed" and often natural boundaries, "Germany" was in fact disintegrating into ever smaller autonomous regions under the nominal control of the Holy Roman Emperor. This supposedly set a unique pattern among European states that resulted in Nazism. This view ignores the long and consciously held self identification that the Holy Roman Empire was a supranational structure in the literal sense, i.e. many nations were rightfully and even naturally part of it, e.g., Czech speaking Bohemia along with numerous Italian speaking polities south of the Alps down to and occasionally including Sicily. Only over time did "the Empire" come to be more and more delimited to its Germanic areas, and come to be identified with varying degrees of formality and officialness as "Das Heilige Römische Reich Deutscher Nation", The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

As Schubert states,[22] the history of the Holy Roman Empire is not to be confused with the Sonderweg, which can only be seen as a result of the concept of German identity, developing in the Romanticism of the late 18th century, enforced by the French revolutionary war against Germany. Previous events, especially not the Holy Roman Empire,[23] cannot be related to the evolution of Nazism.

See alsoEdit


  1. Hinde, John "Sonderweg" pages 934-935 from Modern Germany An Encyclopedia of History, People and Culture 1871-1990 edited by Dieter Buse and Juergen Doerr Volume 2, New York: Garland Publishing, 1998 page 934.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Hinde, John "Sonderweg" pages 934-935 from Modern Germany An Encyclopedia of History, People and Culture 1871-1990 edited by Dieter Buse and Juergen Doerr Volume 2, New York: Garland Publishing, 1998 page 935.
  3. Kershaw 2000:8
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Hamerow, Theodore "Guilt, Redemption and Writing German History" pages 53-72 from The American Historical Review, 1983 page 56.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Taylor, A.J.P. The Course of German History, Hamish Hamilton 1945 page 213.
  6. Taylor, A.J.P. The Course of German History, Hamish Hamilton 1945 pages 213-214.
  7. Taylor, A.J.P. The Course of German History, Hamish Hamilton 1945 pages 213-214
  8. Marrus, Michael The Holocaust in History, Key Porter: Toronto 2000 page 86.
  9. Hamerow, Theodore "Guilt, Redemption and Writing German History" pages 53-72 from The American Historical Review, 1983 pages 56-57.
  10. "The notion that 'rectitude and authenticity [were] integrally German attributes in contrast to Roman or Latin influences which were degrading' held to have originated with Luther developed with German Romanticism in the 19th Century and culminated with National Socialism." Johnson 2001
  11. Shirer pg. 236
  12. Rosenfeld 1994, pp. 101-102
  13. Evans 2004, pg. xxiv
  14. Shirer, pg. 1080
  15. Kershaw 2000:7
  16. Lorenz, Chris "Wehler, Hans-Ulrich" pages 1289–1290 from The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Volume 2, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishings, 1999 page 1289; Bruce, Gary "Germany: 1800-1945" pages 453-457 from The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writings edited by Kelly Boyd, Volume 1, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishings, 1999 page 455; Moses, John "Fischer, Fritz" pages 386-387 from The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing edited by Kelly Boyd, Volume 1, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999
  17. Kocka, Jürgen "German Identity and Historical Comparison: After the Historikerstreit" pages 279-294 from Reworking the Past edited by Peter Baldwin, Beacon Press: Boston, 1990 pages 283-284
  18. 18.0 18.1 Kocka, Jürgen "Hitler Should Not Be Repressed by Stalin and Pol Pot" pages 85-92 from Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993 page 91.
  19. Bauer, Yehuda. Rethinking the Holocaust. 2002, page 99-102
  20. Cesarani, David and Kavanaugh, Sarah. Holocaust. 2004, page 363
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Hamerow, Theodore S. "Guilt, Redemption and Writing German History" pages 53-72 from The American Historical Review, February 1983, Volume 88 page 71
  22. Ernst Schubert, Königsabsetzungen im Mittelalter, Göttingen 2005, p.18
  23. as attempted by Timothy Reuter, in: Anne Duggan, Kings and Kingship in Medieval Europe, London 1993, p.179-211


Template:No footnotes

  • Blackbourn, David & Eley, Geoff. 1984. The Peculiarities of German History: bourgeois society and politics in nineteenth-century Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Revised and expanded translation of the authors' Mythen deutscher Geschichtsschreibung: Die gescheiterte bürgerliche Revolution von 1848, 1980. (This in turn was actually a translation of two articles the authors wrote in English; see untitled book review by Allan Mitchell in The American Historical Review, 1982 Oct., 87(4):1114-1116.)
  • Browning, Christopher. 1992. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York : HarperCollins.
  • Goldhagen, Daniel J. 1996. Hitler's willing executioners. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Grebing, Helga. 1986. Der "deutsche Sonderweg in Europa 1806-1945: Eine Kritik. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer.
  • Groh, Dieter. 1983. Le Sonderweg de l'histoire allemande: Mythe ou rèalitè. Annales, Economies, Societè, Civilisations, 38:1166-1187.
  • Hamerow, Theodore S. 1983. Guilt, Redemption and Writing German History. The American Historical Review, February 1983, 88:53-72.
  • Heilbronner, Oded. 2000. From Antisemitic Peripheries to Antisemitic Centres: The Place of Antisemitism in Modern German History. Journal of Contemporary History, 35(4):559-576.
  • Jarusch, Konrad. 1983. Illiberalism and Beyond: German History in Search of a Paradigm. Journal of Modern History, 55:647-686.
  • Kershaw, Ian. 2000. The Nazi Dictatorship Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. London: Arnold Press.
  • Kocka, Jürgen. 1988. German History before Hitler: The Debate about the German Sonderweg. Journal of Contemporary History, 23:3-16.
  • Moeller, Robert. 1983. The Kaiserreich Recast?: Continuity and Change in Modern German Historiography. Journal of Social History, 1983–1984, Volume 17:655-684.
  • Mommsen, Wolfgang. 1980. Review of Mythen deutscher Geschichtsschreibung. Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, 4:19-26.
  • Pulhe, Hans-Jürgen. 1981. Deutscher Sonderweg Kontroverse um eine vermeintliche Legande. Journal für Geschichte, 4:44-45.
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. 1985. The German Empire, 1871-1918. Kim Traynor, translator. Leamington Spa: Berg.
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. 1981. "Deutscher Sonderweg" oder allgemeine Probleme des westlichen Kapitalismus. Merkur, 5:478-487.

External links Edit

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