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Burgertum in Deutschland.

Burgertum in Deutschland. By Lothar Gall (Berlin, Germany: Wolf Jobst Siedler Verlag, 1989. 635 pp.).

Lothar Gall is one of German liberalism's primary historians. From his first book on Benjamin Constant and liberalism in the Vormarz (1963), through his classic study of governing liberalism in Baden in the 1850s and 1860s, to the current work, a selective family history of the Mannheim Bassermanns between the seventeenth century and the Third Reich, he has marked out a particular kind of argument about liberalism in its relationship with the evolving social and political history of the nineteenth-century German bourgeoisie. (Even the more recent work for which Gall is best known in the English-speaking world, his biography of Bismarck [1980, English 1986], is an oblique commentary on the failings of liberalism in the period.) That argument was most clearly made in several generalizing articles of the 1970s, in which Gall linked the vitality and coherence of the German liberal outlook to the transitory circumstances of a partially transformed "pre-industrial society"--those parts of Germany energized by the economic opportunities and advanced ideas of the "dual revolution", but as yet relatively unpolarized by the consequences of large-scale industrialization and class differentiation--thereby producing the apparent paradox of a "modernizing" creed in a "traditional" context. Basically, Gall argues that the liberal ideal of a burgerliche Gesellschaft--in the double German sense of a society of citizens organized around self-consciously "bourgeois" values--required particular kinds of "pre-industrial" communities in which to flourish, so that the old sociological idea of liberalism as the political expression of a rising bourgeoisie becomes mischievously turned on its head. Beginning as a movement for the general emancipation of society, committed to an ideal of % classless society of citizens of 'the middling sort' ... in which the middle-class citizenry ultimately represents society as such and becomes the 'general estate'," Gall's argument runs, liberalism then fell prey after industrialization to the strains of social differentiation, became dominated by the class-specific interests of a fragmented bourgeoisie, and lost its ability to harmonize a socially mixed support.

In his current writings, signalled best by a programmatic essay in the Historische Zeitschrift in 1987, Gall has shifted focus explicitly from liberalism to the bourgeoisie. This is consonant with a more general trend of the 1980s, sparked by the Sonderweg controversy over German exceptionalism, in which considerable numbers of German historians, led by among others Jurgen Kocka, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and the late Werner Conze, have turned their attention to the nineteenth-century social and cultural history of the bourgeoisie. Such work has greatly enriched our understanding--of the specific socio-cultural formation of the Bildungsburgertum, of the law, of professionalization, of the universities, of middle-class associational culture, of bourgeois values and mores, and even (though here German work remains in its early stages) of gender. At the same time, this discovery of bourgeois vitality has focused so far on the period before unification, while leaving the prevailing views of the Kaiserreich, which stress the weaknesses of liberalism and malformations of the bourgeoisie, broadly intact.

Here Gall's new book is very much of a piece. Tracing the Bassermann family's progress during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from the classic preindustrial commercial occupations of milling, baking, and innkeeping to prosperous mercantile enterprise in a variety of regional commodities, Gall shows how the family built an imposing position for itself by the start of the nineteenth century as a leading voice of the Mannheim notability and a major exemplar of the south-west German bourgeoisie. Through hard work, disciplined acquisitiveness, skillful marriages, and a culture of enlightened sobriety, the Bassermanns became powers of the economy, organizers of the public sphere, patrons of the arts, and arbiters of taste. Brought to a notable climacteric in the career of Friedrich Daniel Bassermann (1811-55), the second-generation beneficiary of the family's unequivocal passage from the old-style burgher status into the new class identity of the bourgeoisie, who entered the leading circles of Baden liberal politics in the 1840s and joined the national political stage in 1848-49 before committing suicide amidst the post-revolutionary disappointments, the family's regional standing received further ratification in the later dominance in the National Liberal Party of Ernst Bassermann (1854-1917). Moreover, this economic and political power was always accompanied by the related accumulation of cultural capital, via the family's connections to the academic world, its support for the theater and the arts, its role in the city's cultural associations, and so on. In this respect, the counterpart to Ernst was the renowned actor Albert Basserman (1867-1952), whose achievements traversed the main elements of the German theatrical repertoire between the 1890s and the advent of the Third Reich, which he experienced from emigration.

Gall does a fine job of presenting important facets of German social, political, and cultural history through the generational chapters of this eloquently expounded family chronicle. There are some major imbalances in the book as a whole, perhaps, and the main imaginative weight of the exposition is definitely concentrated in the period the author knows and likes the best, between Aufklarung and unification (230 pages, as opposed to 125 for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and 126 for the entire period from unification to the present). The richness of the account of the crystallizing of the nineteenth-century bourgeois milieu, which in the rounded concreteness of its social history deserves to be recognized as one of the best introductions to its subject, is dissipated for the later moments of the Kaiserreich and the early twentieth century. Gall provides no comparable access to the epoch of the bourgeoisie's crisis whether through the slow erosion of its cultural monopoly and political dominance during the social and poltical mobilizations of the Wilhelmine era, or in the more violent political polarizations of the Weimar years. The relationship of the family lives to the larger history of the times becomes more and more metaphorical and emblematic as we draw closer and closer to the dark denouement of the Third Reich. On the other hand, while Gall falls short of the more exacting standards of recent women's history (as, for instance, in Leonore Davidoff's and Catherine Hall's work on the early nineteenth-century English middle class), he has made a notable effort to consider the domestic arena of the family's life. As a biographically constructed treatment of the nineteenth-century German bourgeoisie, the book is much the superior of (for instance) Fritz Stern's much-feted biography of Gerson Bleichroder.

Of course, not the least of the book's virtues is its artistry, general accessibility, and fine literary style. German historians have sometimes lamented their profession's inability to write for a general public by comparison with the English-speaking world (with dubious validity, in my view), and Gall's achievement is powerful counter-evidence against this claim. Yet using biography and a family chronicle to make a general historical argument has its serious drawbacks too. Narrativising the rise and fall of the bourgeoisie via the fortunes of a particular family is seductively resonant, partly because of the well-tried effectiveness of this strategy as a general literary device, partly because the epic of family crisis and decline (through the hubris of class power, the logics of economic and political opportunism, and the implosion of post-Nietzschien aesthetics, invariably thematized as moral decadence and sexual corruption) has been a frequent fictional strategy, through novels and film, for presenting the German bourgeoisie's relationship to the origins and rise of Nazism. Gall does not reproduce this particular scenario--in the final chapter on Albert Bassermann aesthetics becomes a source of resistance and value--but his chosen narrative is nonetheless artful for that. The particular rhythm of his story embodies a set of rather specific understandings--concerning the nature of the bourgeoisie as a socio-cultrural formation and the meanings of bourgeois virtue--which derive from Gall's preferred context of the middle nineteenth century. But there are other ways of telling the story, which pay more attention to the distinctive forms of bourgeois societal power and self-presentation in the different phases of the twentieth century, and are less beholden to the foundational imagery mobilized so eloquently by Gall. There are powerful continuities between Kaisserreich and Federal Republic--the German bourgeoisie as such never "fell"--which the form of Gall's account works to efface. But providing we remember the necessary artifice, this book can be read with great enjoyment and profit.

Geoff Eley University of Michigan
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Author:Eley, Geoff
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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