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The German Bourgeoisie: Essays on the Social History of the German Middle Class from the Late Eighteenth to the Early Twentieth Century.

Until quite recently, the German bourgeoisie was often described in terms of its supposed failures and deficiencies. This portrayal was a major feature of the Sonderweg paradigm, which interpreted the course of modern German history up to 1945 as a deviation from the normal path of Western development. In this interpretation, the German bourgeoisie failed to play the role historically assigned to it. Instead of promoting liberal-bourgeois values, it allowed itself to become feudalized; instead of showing a healthy distrust of state authority, it looked to the state for approval and support; instead of taking an active role in politics, it was apolitical and abandoned its leadership role to the bureaucracy and pre-modern elites. For more than a decade critics have been attacking the Sonderweg paradigm. Besides challenging its normative assumptions and contending that cooperation with pre-industrial elites served the political goals of the industrial bourgeoisie very well, they have argued that however marginal a role the late- nineteenth-century bourgeoisie might have played in politics, it did impose its stamp on German civil society - a process that David Blackbourn has called a "silent bourgeois revolution." The present collection of eleven essays pursues this critique of the Sonderweg.

Readers familiar with David Blackbourn's influential essay in The Peculiarities of German History (1984) may be somewhat surprised at how few of the contributions to this volume investigate those areas of social life which he singled out as the key arenas of the "silent bourgeois revolution," namely the law, voluntary associations, and a new kind of public sphere. Chief among the essays that do investigate these areas is Celia Applegate's study of the Heimat movement in the Palatinate before 1914, which shows that bourgeois Heimat activists did not derive their values and identity from imitating the aristocracy or from fear of the lower classes, but from a localism that was "a genuine product of middle-class culture" (p. 245). Paul Weindling, too, presents evidence of a "silent bourgeois revolution" by arguing that German doctors used their medical authority "to reinforce a wide range of characteristic bourgeois assumptions and beliefs, from patriotism and nationalism to orderliness and self-control" (p. 218).

Unlike Applegate and Weindling, most essays challenge the Sonderweg paradigm not so much by examining hitherto neglected areas of civil society, but by re-examining precisely those aspects of bourgeois life that have long been used to support two of its key propositions: (1) that the German bourgeoisie became feudalized and (2) that it was especially statist. (The constraints of space do not permit me to discuss three contributions that fall outside of this focus: Richard Evans' case study of a nineteenth- century Hamburg merchant family, which highlights the importance of the bourgeois family in business and politics; Geoff Eley's essay arguing that the divergence of German and British liberalism was primarily due to the difference in political contexts rather than any "essential" difference; and Thomas Childers' analysis of middle-class electoral support for the Nazis.) The feudalization thesis, it must be pointed out, comes in at least two versions: (1) the claim that the upper bourgeoisie was becoming socially absorbed into the aristocracy; (2) the claim that the bourgeoisie aped aristocratic manners and adopted aristocratic values. The first claim is successfully challenged by Dolores Augustine's study of social interaction and patterns of residence among Wilhelmine Germany's five hundred wealthiest businessmen, which shows that "the business elite had broken away from the middle class, but without renouncing its identity or fusing with the nobility" (p. 75). The second claim is tackled in Dick Geary's survey of industrial labor relations after 1871, which demonstrates that the German employer strategies, such as company welfare schemes, which had hitherto been interpreted as "feudal" or "pre-modern" were in fact perfectly rational responses to distinctly modern problems such as a highly volatile labor market and the threat of a powerful socialist movement.

Like Geary, most essays challenge the feudalization or statism theses not so much on "what happened" but on the meaning of what happened. Thus various chapters confirm patterns of behavior that are familiar from the Sonderweg interpretation: we learn that the legal profession remained heavily regulated by the state (Michael John); that Prussian businessmen eagerly sought state-conferred titles (Karin Kaudelka-Hanisch); that a large part of the educated bourgeoisie adopted the aristocratic custom of duelling (Ute Frevert); that the business elite frequently modelled their houses on aristocratic residences and that its conspicuous consumption was a conscious attempt to "outdo" the aristocracy (Augustine). In the Sonderweg paradigm the meaning of this kind of bourgeois behavior was never in doubt. Since everyone knew that a "real" bourgeoisie was fiercely independent and critical of state and aristocracy, all these features were by definition "un-bourgeois" and indicative of a serious "deficiency" on the part of the German bourgeoisie. The present collection rejects this normative perspective and thereby opens the way for a genuinely historical understanding of the German bourgeoisie. Thus John and Kaudelka-Hanisch argue that lawyers and Prussian businessmen looked to the state for regulation or recognition not because they lacked bourgeois self-confidence or harbored an irrational respect for the state, but because it served their interests: for close association with the state bolstered their claim to be working for the common good. Likewise, Frevert and Augustine argue that bourgeois who fought duels or patterned their homes after aristocratic models were not assimilating aristocratic values or renouncing their bourgeois identity, but borrowing aristocratic forms to which they attached their own (bourgeois) meanings and purposes. In sum, it is one of the great accomplishments of this collection to have shown that those features of bourgeois life that the Sonderweg had dismissed as "un- bourgeois" can and must be understood as an authentic part of bourgeois culture.

While Blackbourn's comprehensive introductory survey presents a very balanced picture, one can wonder whether in a few of the essays the desire to stress the authenticity of these facets of bourgeois culture may have hindered a more nuanced assessment of the tensions within bourgeois culture and of aristocratic influences upon it. Frevert, for instance, argues that it is wrong to interpret bourgeois duelling as evidence of feudalization because the educated bourgeoisie used the duel for its own purposes, to assert its superior status and to express the "bourgeois cult of individuality" (p. 282). The point is well taken. Frevert and other contributors are surely right to insist that duelling and other supposedly "unbourgeois" features of bourgeois life were part and parcel of bourgeois culture. But since there were various ways of asserting superior status and protecting individual honor, the fact that some bourgeois chose to achieve these purposes by duelling raises the question of why certain sections of the bourgeoisie chose to borrow aristocratic customs, while others did not. And: what does their doing so tell us about their conception of bourgeois culture? To answer these questions, one should, it seems to me, be open to the possibility that bourgeois duelling, or any other adoption of aristocratic customs, was not just a borrowing of forms but may have entailed some transfer of meanings as well. More generally, one might say that what we need is a map of bourgeois culture that incorporates both bourgeois assimilation and bourgeois rejection of aristocratic culture, both bourgeois admiration and bourgeois suspicion of the state - in short, a social history of the bourgeoisie that makes sense of the tensions between different visions of bourgeois culture. While its precise outlines will no doubt occupy historians for years to come, these essays make a vital contribution towards developing such a differentiated map of bourgeois culture. Anyone interested in the social history of the German bourgeoisie would do well to begin by consulting this excellent collection.
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Author:Wetzell, Richard
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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