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Urban Liberalism in Imperial Germany: Frankfurt am Main, 1866-1914. (Reviews: modern Europe).

Urban Liberalism in Imperial Germany: Frankfurt am Main, 1866-1914, by Jan Palmowski. Oxford Historical Monographs. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999. xiv, 391 pp. $85.00 U.S. (cloth).

The notion that Germany took a special path into modernity has been challenged from various angles over the last two decades. The extensive research about the German bourgeoisie conducted under the guidance of Hans-Ulrich Wehler in Bielefeld and Lothar Gall in Frankfurt am Main has changed our understanding of the German Empire dramatically. Previous research has focused only on the federal level, describing Wilhelmine Germany as an authoritarian state in which liberal and social-democratic parties had no access to power. This study undermines this purely authoritarian interpretation by focusing on local governments, where liberals had direct access to power. Palmowski's book is an in-depth analysis of liberals in power in one city -- Frankfurt am Main -- during the German Empire. Furthermore, it investigates what the liberals did once they were in power in the areas of education and social policy.

Palmowski's book focuses mainly on one notion of the special path construct -- the notion of the "unpolitical German." In previous studies, Frankfurt was seen as an example of an "unpolitical" municipal government until 1900. Palmowski's very well-written study found little evidence for such a view. Instead, he sees a fundamental political change in the late 1860s and early 1870s, which led to a politicization of municipal life. In Palmowski's view, it is impossible to prove the existence of an "unpolitical German" in charge of the local government. The notion that politics had no place inside the city council is, as Palmowski shows, only rhetoric.

This book is innovative in two ways. Traditional historiography subscribes the growth of municipal socialism largely to the rise of the municipal bureaucracy from the 1890s onwards. Palmowski contradicts this assumption by arguing that the same bureaucrats who were leaders in establishing municipal socialism were also deeply involved in the liberal movement. Yet this is the point where the limits of his approach became obvious. His argumentation -- as innovative as it is -- shows at the same time the pitfalls of looking only at party politics, while excluding approaches of social history. Using, for instance, the concept of social-moral milieus, the author could have shown how deep these bureaucrats were integrated into the liberal milieu. Abandoning theoretical approaches such as that of social and cultural history, Palmowski's study about liberalism remains a pure, old-fashioned political study. Furthermore, this book has to be seen in the context of the other studies about Frankfurt's liberalism. Only five years ago, Ralf Roth published an excellent, in-depth study Stadt und Burgertum in Frankfurt am Main (Munich, 1996). This book offers a conclusive investigation of Frankfurt's bourgeoisie and its liberal milieu. Using the methods of modern social history, Roth provides a comprehensive study of the social background of the liberal movement in Frankfurt. He uncovers the network of clubs and societies of the Frankfurt bourgeoisie, but does not explore political and ideological differences between various liberal groups in greater detail. Despite this last shortcoming, Roth's book is more comprehensive than Palmowski's.

Nevertheless, Palmowski offers his most innovative approach in his chapter about municipal spending. He argues convincingly that municipal socialism was not the principal determinant of liberal political success. Instead, he highlights the importance of municipal finance. The vast majority of municipal spending was directed to areas from which the middle-class electorate drew disproportionate benefit. Until the turn of the century, municipal spending for the benefit of the lower, disenfranchised classes was relatively low. Palmowski concludes, contrary to the assumption of other studies, that municipal socialism was politics for the middle classes, and not so much for the working classes.

However, a further shortcoming of this study is that it lacks comparisons to other German independent cities. Thus, Palmowski's work does not allow for broader generalizations. A comprehensive comparison with independent cities such as Hamburg, Leipzig, and Breslau would have offered such an opportunity. While he uses some information on Breslau and quotes new research about Saxony, Palmowski fails to integrate these new studies into his own. Such a comparative study would provide a very different, and more complete, picture of Imperial Germany.

In the end, Palmowski's study demonstrates, at least in the case of Frankfurt am Main, that Imperial Germany was not an inherently illiberal society. His study of liberal politics at the level of local government shows how dynamic and pragmatic German liberals could be. Yet, having failed to integrate social history and include a social-historical analysis of Imperial Germany's independent cities, Palmowski's book remains an incomplete success at best.
Thomas Adam
University of Toronto
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Author:Adam, Thomas
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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