German Images of ‘the West’ in the ‘long 19th century’

German Images of ‘the West’ in the ‘long 19th century’

Riccardo Bavaj, Andreas Gestrich, Martina Steber, Bernhard Struck, University of St Andrews (UK) & German Historical Institute London
German Historical Institute
United Kingdom
Vom - Bis
02.07.2009 - 04.07.2009
Riccardo Bavaj

German Images of ‘the West’ in the ‘long 19th century’

University of St Andrews and German Historical Institute London

Images of ‘the West’ have played a decisive role in modern German history. In the first half of the 20th century, the ‘German ideas of 1914’ were pitted against the ‘Western ideas of 1789’. ‘Western civilization’ was deemed to be utterly opposed to ‘German culture’. ‘Western democracy’ seemed irreconcilable with ‘German state’. In the second half of the 20th century, on the other hand, ‘the West’ often provided an ideal image which politicians and intellectuals in the Federal Republic sought to emulate. Frequently used as a shorthand in political discourse, ‘the West’ encapsulated the successful model of ‘consensus liberalism’ and ‘consensus capitalism’. ‘The West’ was considered to be the final goal of the secular process of modernization from which Germany had fatally been deviating since the beginning of the 19th century.
After 1945/49, while GDR citizens were meant to be oriented to the East, ever more people in the Federal Republic felt that the only lesson Germans could draw from the recent experience of totalitarianism was to get on the single track to ‘Western’ modernity. And indeed, some historians have recently argued that Germany, after successfully ‘westernized’ (Anselm Doering-Manteuffel) and reunified, did finally arrive in ‘the West’ (Heinrich August Winkler). What is striking about the ‘arrival in the West’-thesis is that it largely overlooks the chameleonic nature of ‘the West’. Instead of treating the concept as a dynamic signifier of shifting meanings, it constructs a timeless, ‘fast-frozen’ image of a homogenous entity called ‘the West’.
Mainly focussing on the 19th and early 20th century, the conference intends to historicise the concept. 1815 could provide a starting point. Following the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna, Europe’s ‘mental map’, traditionally characterized by a North-South divide, began to change. Most typically perhaps, G.F.W. Hegel’s Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, held between 1822 and 1831, constructed a ‘core of Europe’ consisting of France, Germany and England (Britain), while still clinging to the traditional North-South divide. Soon afterwards, in the wake of the 1830 revolution in France and the suppression of the November uprising in Poland, a West-East divide emerged in the intellectual and political discourse: France and Britain were located in Western Europe, whereas Tsarist Russia was labelled as an Eastern European power. As regards the two dominant German powers, Prussia and Habsburg were politically mainly oriented towards the East, while intellectual circles were often looking to the West, i.e. Britain and France. During the late 19th century, however, the United States came to the forefront as a model of economic and political modernity.

Specifically, the conference seeks to examine German images of ‘the West’ at various levels:

1) What was actually meant by ‘the West’. What was associated with it? Which political, economic and socio-cultural phenomena did the concept evoke in political discourse?
2) Which spatial dimensions were reflected in German images of ‘the West’? How was ‘the West’ defined geographically? Which implications did imagined boundaries have on the meaning of the concept (and vice versa)? Which role did regions and nations play in this context? And who was the West’s ‘Other’?
3) In what ways were images of ‘the West’ used politically? Which groups favoured and propagated particular images of the ‘West’? What interests did they pursue? More specifically, which role did German federalism play in this context? Did images constructed in the ‘Third Germany’ differ from those produced in Prussia or the Habsburg territories?
4) In what respects did transnational dimensions matter? In what ways were images of ‘the West’ influenced by intellectual and cultural transfers from countries like France, Britain and the US (e.g. A. de Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique), or from countries associated with ‘the East’? What kinds of cross-border networks (institutional or otherwise) played a role with respect to the circulation of ideas related to ‘the West’?
5) Which caesuras can be identified in the evolution of dominant images of ‘the West’? In which phases were concepts of the ‘West’ discussed most intensely? When did they gather political momentum? Did caesuras (and phases) follow political events, or did they rather square with rhythms of socio-economic, cultural or technological developments? Or did the discourse of ‘the West’ develop its own logic?

We are happy to accept papers which focus on one of these five perspectives, as well as papers which try to combine some of them. While our conference will devote one section to images of ‘the West’ in 20th-century Germany, the bulk of papers (probably divided into three sections) are intended to cover the ‘long 19th century’. This should enable us to place the more commonly known images of ‘the West’ in historical perspective. A publication is planned.

The deadline for proposals is 1st October 2008.

Submissions (1-2 pages) should be sent to Riccardo Bavaj via e-mail (



Riccardo Bavaj

University of St Andrews, School of History, KY16 9AR, UK

0044 1334 463307,
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