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Nachbarn am Rhein: Entfremdung und Annaherung der franzosischen und deutschen Gesellschaft seit 1880.

In this sequel to his earlier Social History of Western Europe(1) Hartmut Kaelble demonstrates once again the fascination and usefulness of comparative history in understanding national differences and similarities. His detailed comparison of the German and French societies in the 20th century falls into two parts. In the first part he analyzes both societies before 1914, whilst the second part deals with post-Second World War developments. One chapter in the middle of the book looks at the inter-war years. Five areas of investigation are marked out for comparison: the industrialization process, the family structure, the bourgeoisie, the labour movement and the welfare state. By contrasting the French and German cases with other West-European countries Kaelble argues that before 1914 no West European countries were further apart than France and Germany whilst after 1945 none became so similar.

Germany before 1914 was characterized by more rapid industrialization. The agricultural sector dominated the French economy in which the family company resisted the encroachments of managerial capitalism for much longer. A politically weak and socially divided German bourgeoisie was unable to remove the aristocracy from its position of privilege and power. The French aristocracy played an insignificant role in French society ever since the Second Republic. French liberalism and republicanism were stronger than their German equivalents. The labour movement, negatively integrated into the society of Imperial Germany, was characterized by organizational patriotism and its own separate milieu which finds no parallel in France. A strong interventionist German state, ruled by an authoritarian monarchy, implemented one of the earliest social welfare systems in Europe, whilst the French state was less interventionist, leaving social welfare programmes largely in the hands of non-state organizations. The German family was at the same time more paternalistic and less intimate than its French counterpart.

After 1945, the industrialization process and the economic growth rates of both societies corresponded closely. The trade unionization of the workforce in both countries reached similar levels. Worker participation in the factories became increasingly common. With the introduction of the securite sociale, the French state introduced a commitment to welfarism. The concept of the intimate nuclear family became the norm in both France and the Federal Republic. (The former GDR is excluded from the comparison for a lack of reliable statistics.) Women's employment increased significantly in West Germany, and the educational opportunities for women grew. Mass consumption and Americanization had a significant homogenizing impact on both societies after 1945. Living standards in the 1980s were not much different. Even in minor policy areas such as city planning both societies developed similar concepts.

Kaelble also draws the reader's attention to the remaining differences between France and Germany. Federal Germany is still distinct from highly centralized France in important ways. Germany remains more provincial, precisely because it lacks the one cultural, political and social center. At the same time, the German province with its multitude of regional capitals is far more exciting than the French province. France remains a Catholic country in which the issue of religion takes on a different significance from a country which remains divided religiously. Family size and population growth in France and Germany drifted apart again in the 1970s and 1980s. The significance of the New Social Movements finds no parallel in France. Labour conflicts in France remain more militant and labour relations are less consensual. A united trade union movement in Germany stands next to a divided one in France.

The importance of regional differences within both nations are not ignored by Kaelble. In many important respects the Southern states of Germany were always more similar to France than Prussia east of the Elbe. Also, the Northern and Eastern parts of France were more akin to Germany than Southern France. Indeed, broad national comparisons may well hide similarities and differences between regions and localities. After much of national history writing has moved from the nation state to the regions and localities, should not comparative history writing also consider regional and local comparisons more thoroughly?(2)

According to Kaelble, the growing similarity between France and Germany bred increasing curiosity on both sides of the Rhine to understand and learn from the former arch-enemy. Twinning arrangements between towns and exchange visits are only the outward indicators of the vibrant relationship between contemporary France and Germany, countries which are, no doubt, at the very center of efforts to come to some sort of political integration in Western Europe. Kaelble pleads that the similarities between the Western European nation states are such that the preconditions for integration are in place. Euro-history a la Kaelble may, however, be in danger of underestimating the resilience of the old-fashioned nation state in Western Europe. Significantly, the reader leans next to nothing about one of the most important and persistent differences between france and Germany in the 20th century: the attitudes towards the nations state. The underlying rationalist assumption of Kaelble's writing is that the closer two countries are, the more they will like each other. Differences produce antagonisms, similarities co-operation. However, the assumption fail to take account of irrational considerations, feelings, prejudices at work in every West European society which seem to balk at the idea of a European identity.

Kaelble's historical methods owe much to the empirical social sciences. Statistical comparisons provide interesting insights into the mechanics of both societies. Nevertheless one is sometimes left wondering about the shortcomings of this method in understanding the root causes of differences and similarities. When Kaelble, for example, presents us with data showing that French women were more often in employment than their German counterparts, he draws the conclusion that the role of women in French society was less geared towards fulfilling their roles as mothers and housewives. However, from another perspective the number of women in employment may have little to do with the degree of their emancipation and more to do with economic necessity in an economy still dominated by agriculture and small scale factory work. The burden put on French women by having to contribute to the family income whilst still being largely responsible for the housework and the rearing of children appears nowhere in the statistics.

Despite these methodological and conceptual quibbles the virtues of Kaelble's book far outweigh its shortcomings. For a start, it is well structured and written. Portentous sociological jargon is mercifully absent in these pages. His task of tracing the development of the French and german societies from difference to similarity in the 20th century he pursues logically, thoroughly and convincingly.

Stefan Berger University of Wales College of Cardiff


1. Hartmut Kaelble, A Social History of Western Europe, 1880-1980 (Oxford, New York 1990, first published in German in 1987).

2. John Breuilly, Labour and Liberalism in Nineteenth Century Europe. Essays in Comparative History (Manchester, 1992), pp. 20, 197-227 illustrates the usefulness of regional and local comparisons.
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Author:Berger, Stefan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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