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New Left Review I/149, January-February 1985


Richard J. Evans

The Myth of Germany’s Missing Revolution

It is now over half a century since Hitler came to power in Germany, inaugurating twelve years of bloodshed and destruction without parallel in human history. Throughout this period the Nazi phenomenon has posed a major challenge to human understanding. Why should fascism, in such an extreme, racist and destructive form, have taken power in Germany and not elsewhere? Why should German parliamentary democracy have collapsed so totally and so easily in the economic crisis of 1929–33—a crisis which, after all, had a severe impact on other countries besides Germany? Those historians who have not seen the events of 1933 either as a complete accident, as German conservatives tended to do in the 1950s, [1] The locus classicus of this view is Gerhard Ritter, ‘The Historical Foundation of the Rise of National-Socialism’, in The Third Reich, International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies, London 1955. Other contemporaries were less certain, however, e.g. Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe: Reflections and Recollections, Harvard 1950.or as the product of some inbuilt weakness of the German ‘national character’, as Allied wartime propaganda was inclined to argue, [2] Rohan D’Olier Butler, The Roots of National Socialism, London 1941; see also A. J. P. Taylor, The Course of German History, London 1945. have looked to the peculiarities of Germany’s political and social structures for an answer. In recent years the argument that these structures remained uniquely backward and overwhelmingly hostile to parliamentary democracy has gained a wide currency. It is an argument with a long pedigree. Harold Laski, writing in 1943, argued that Germany had never experienced a bourgeois revolution, and that its traditional ruling class had never adapted to the twentieth century. [3] Harold J. Laski, Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, London 1943. Talcott Parsons, writing in 1942, referred to the persistence of feudalism, the power of the bureaucracy, the domination of organized interest groups over political parties and the bourgeois taste for titles as elements in a specifically German system of values. The crisis of these values in the Weimar Republic produced the desire to recover them through the institution of the Nazi dictatorship. [4] Talcott Parsons, ‘Democracy and Social Structure in Pre-Nazi Germany’, in T. Parsons, Essays in Sociological Theory, Glencoe 1954. The growing influence of sociology over historical scholarship since the 1960s has contributed to the spread of this conception and at the same time has reformulated it, to a greater or lesser degree, in terms of ‘modernization theory’.

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