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,footnote1or as the product of some inbuilt weakness of the German ‘national character’, as Allied wartime propaganda was inclined to argue,footnote2 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.footnote3 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.footnote4 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’.

Ralf Dahrendorf, writing in 1960, cited the verdict of Thorstein Veblen, published as early as 1915, that Germany had experienced a capitalist industrial revolution while retaining a feudal social tradition and a dynastic state; the bourgeoisie had adopted the values of the aristocracy and the landowners continued to control the major institutions of the state—the army, the bureaucracy and the court. Dahrendorf might have added that such a view found support in the writings of other, less theoretically-minded contemporaries of Veblen. Winston Churchill described the German government in 1911 as ‘a military and bureaucratic oligarchy supported by a powerful Junker landlord class’, and Lord Northcliffe, writing in the same year, also saw a danger of war in ‘the precarious position of German industry and the determination of the Prussian Junkers to force on, if possible, some foreign complication in order to prevent the destruction of their privileges by internal reform’.footnote5 Dahrendorf used these ideas to argue that Germany was a case of partial or unsuccessful modernization (economic but not political). For his part, Barrington Moore, writing in 1966, used the term ‘conservative modernization’ to describe essentially the same thing—an alliance between a dominant old ruling class and a weak, subordinate bourgeoisie through which the economy was transformed while the social and political power structure was not.footnote6

Thus many recent historians have suggested, in Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s phrase, that a ‘central problem’ of the history of modern Germany was ‘the defence of inherited ruling positions by pre-industrial elites against the onslaught of new forces’.footnote7 Michael Stürmer has also written of ‘pre-industrial elites’ preventing the political consequences (‘democratization’) of the industrial revolution (‘economic rationalization’).footnote8 And Volker Berghahn has remarked that ‘if one considers the history of the Bismarckian Empire, one encounters at every step the formative influence of social forces whose first aim—from the founding of the Empire to the collapse of the monarchy in 1918—was to prevent an alteration of the political and social status quo, with every means at their disposal.’footnote9 Berghahn claims in the same passage that these ‘forces’ ‘resisted every change’.footnote10

Likewise, in a brief exposition of the main features of the Imperial German political system, Peter-Christian Witt has written of its domination by the pre-industrial elite’s ‘aim of maintaining the political and social status quo . . . at least insofar as the mass of the population, namely the industrial working class and the propertyless inhabitants of the countryside, were denied any participation in political decision-making and any social emancipation . . . and the liberal bourgeoisie, at least insofar as it took liberal ideas seriously, was only allowed to play the role of a cheer-leader.’footnote11

Immanuel Geiss has described ‘the second German Empire among other things as an attempt—unsuccessful on the whole—to ward off the political consequences of the industrial revolution which had been in the making for some 200 years’.footnote12 The Empire stood, as Dieter Groh has argued, ‘under the compromise formula of industrialization without political innovation’ and was dominated by the continuing power of ‘late-feudal, agrarian strata’.footnote13 Indeed, Siegfried Mielke actually entitled an introductory section of his book on the Hansa-Bund: ‘The Political System: Maintenance of the Domination of the Feudal Aristocracy’.footnote14