Paths of Continuity. Central European Historiography from the 1930s through the 1950s

Lehmann, Hartmut; Van Horn Melton, James
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406 S.
$64.95 (Cloth)
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Gordon R. Mork

This volume in the series published by the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. will be welcomed by scholars in the field, though it is unlikely to appeal to a broader readership. It is based directly on the papers and comments of twenty-two American and European scholars delivered at a conference at Emory University in the spring of 1990. As such it is a parallel volume to An Interrupted Past: German-Speaking Refugee Historians in the United States after 1933 (Cambridge 1991), edited by Lehmann and James J. Sheehan, which had been based on a similar conference in 1988. The scholarship of these volumes is of a very high quality, meticulously documented, and argued with great sophistication. Though some of it would be relatively unintelligible to the uninitiated, the readers of H-German are doubtless in a fine position to benefit from it.

In structure, the book presents essays on ten historians who remained in Germany after 1933 and Austria after 1938, survived the war, and resumed their careers in West Germany or Austria after 1945. Each of these essays prompts a more or less critical "Comment" by another scholar to add breadth and balance to the treatment. The names of subjects of these essays (Meinecke, Ritter, Rothfels, Schnabel, von Srbik, Freyer, Aubin, Brunner, Conze, and Schieder), and the presenters (Schulze, Iggers, Breisach, Schwabe, Brady, von Klemperer, Unfug, Gall, Lehmann, Fellner, Boyer, Muller, Chickering, Raeff, Edgar Melton, James Melton, Rowan, Veit-Brause, Reill, Ruesen, and Maier), indicates the breadth and depth of the discourse.

The book presents a picture of remarkable continuity in the historical profession in Germany from the pre-Nazi to the immediate post-Nazi period. The Nazis did not purge the professoriate after the Machtergreifung, nor did the West Germans and the Austrians systematically purge it after the war.

The examples cited here provide ample evidence for the generalization that the professorial establishment in history was deeply conservative prior to 1933, that it did not challenge the Nazis openly during the "twelve-year Reich," and that it argued with some success that its basic conservatism had insulated it from complicity in Nazi crimes in the postwar world.

Yet, within this generalization, there were many significant variations. One was generational. Men (there were no women among these professors) of the nineteenth century, like Friedrich Meinecke (b. 1862), retained much of their integrity by going into retirement during the Nazi period. The youngest generation, like Werner Conze (b. 1910) and Theodore Schieder (b. 1908), were sheltered in at the lower levels of the academic hierarchy (or in military service), to emerge more or less untainted after 1945. Those who were at the height of their careers, and therefore at the height of their visibility and vulnerability during the Nazi years, are in certain respects the most interesting. This group included Franz Schnabel (b. 1887) and Hans Rothfels (b. 1891) who lost their positions, and Otto Brunner (b. 1898) who thrived under the Nazis but lost his position for six years after 1945. While one must express the gratitude of the profession for the excellence of the discussions of the ten historians, one could also raise some questions about the selection.

Rothfels, who went into exile, may be somewhat out of place in this group, while it is regrettable that Fritz Fischer was not included.

A reviewer must be careful, however, to avoid giving the impression that these essays are merely exercises in biography. Indeed, they are profoundly historigraphical, and the personal details are added only to inform the analysis. Each of the presenters has immersed himself or herself in the corpus of their historian's works, and has put it into the academic context of the intellectual and geistesgeschichtliche developments of the time period. So familiar are they with the work of the authors they are analyzing, that occasionally their insights are meaningful only to readers who have a similar intimacy with those works.

For example, Roger Chickering's comment that "Meinecke's great book, Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat, did to the Burckhardtian element in Lamprecht's Kulturgeschichte what Below's assumption of the editorship of the Vierteljarschrift fur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte did to its Roscherian element" (233-4) as part of his response to Jerry Muller's essay on Hans Freyer, may even send some members of H-German retiring to their libraries to refresh their understandings of the issues involved.

One of most important insights presented in the volume, and discussed by several of the presenters, is the link between the "new" social history and the Volksgeschichte of the pre-Nazi and even the Nazi period. Usually, and quite correctly, social history is linked to the French Annales school. The authors of this volume, however, show that German historians were simultaneously developing a methodology which dealt quite creatively with the lives of the common people in German-speaking Europe with comparable methodologies. To be sure, this Volksgeschichte was often tainted by volkisch and antisemitic ideologies during the 1920s and 1930s, which understandably led to its demise after World War II. When resurrected, in large part due to the efforts of Werner Conze, it was cleansed of its ideology and rechristened "structural" history. This insight is important to our emerging understanding of the historiographical developments of the second half of the twentieth century.

The German Historical Institute is to be commended for its support of conferences like the one upon which this volume is based, and for the publication of the work which emerges from them. In these days of diminishing resources for high quality research in the humanities, it is encouraging to see that there is still a place for highly demanding and rigorous historical and historiographical scholarship.

Gordon R. Mork, Purdue University


Von Van Horn Melton, James 30.06.2004

I am grateful to the Editor for offering me the opportunity to respond to Rita Krueger's review of H.M. Scott, ed., The European Nobilities in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries [HABSBURG, March 20], and Gordon Mork's review of Hartmut Lehmann and James Van Horn Melton, eds., Paths of Continuity: Central European Historiography from the 1930s through the 1950s [cross-posted from H-GERMAN, March 16]. Having contributed to both works, I was of course pleased with their favorable reception. I have little to add to Rita Krueger's thoughtful review except to say that I look forward to reading her own dissertation on the Bohemian nobility. In the case of Gordon Mork's review, I would like to expand on one of the more controversial themes explored in the volume.

Professor Mork rightly underscores a central theme of the Lehmann/Melton volume, namely the continuity between pre- and post-1945 historical scholarship in Germany and Austria. My own interest in this question arose out of my work on Otto Brunner, a scholar compromised by his Nazi involvements but undeniably important for the development of social history in Germany and Austria. Scholars since Hans-Ulrich Wehler had assumed that the writing of social history was an inherently "progressive" undertaking, one that had been stymied by reactionary scholars in the Kaiserreich, driven into exile by the Nazis, but would ultimately prevail in the historical social science of the Bielefeld school. Yet as several of the essays in the Lehmann/Melton volume demonstrate, the development of social history in Germany and Austria can also be traced back to the "folk history" (Volksgeschichte) of the Weimar and Nazi periods (on Volksgeschichte see also the recent study by Willi Oberkrome, Volksgeschichte. Methodische Innovation und volkische Ideologisierung in der deutschen Geschichtswissenschaft 1918- 1945 [Gottingen, 1993]). Often racialist and chauvinistic in tone, Volksgeschichte was "denazified" after 1945 and rechristened as "structural history" in the work of Werner Conze and Otto Brunner. Strukturgeschichte then proved to be an important impetus behind the development of German and Austrian social history during the 1950s and 1960s.

Here I want to emphasize that my goal in organizing the Emory conference (from which the volume originated) was not to rehabilitate Nazi historical scholarship, but rather to challenge the notion that social history was somehow an intrinsically progressive and virtuous exercise. That idea informed much the work of the so-called Bielefeld school, as well as Anglo-American social history ca. 1968 to the present. In its crudest, most self-righteous form, this attitude holds that only those who write about "the people" (i.e. peasants, workers, and other marginalized and oppressed people of all races and sexes) are engaged in significant work. Everyone else -- e.g. diplomatic and military historians, historians of political thought, writers of traditional political and institutional history -- is engaged in work that is at best irrelevant and at worst elitist. I confess that I always hated this attitude, not only for its unbearable smugness but also for its naive populism and romanticism. Even at its best -- say, in the brilliant scholarship of the late E.P. Thompson -- this social history was and is marred by an anti-modernist master narrative in which everything always seems to get worse as history approaches the present. Here the present is invidiously contrasted with the sense of "wholeness" and community that putatively pervaded peasant or artisanal societies of the past. Subaltern groups habitually "resist," upholding their "autonomy" and identity.

In the course of my own research on German historical scholarship of the interwar period, I was struck by the extent to which a similar kind of populist, anti-modernist discourse also informed the Volksgeschichte of the Nazi period. Volksgeschichte called on historians to study the Volk, not just the state; demographic and ethnographic methods were employed to reconstruct peasant communities of the past; German ethnic enclaves in the east were portrayed as having preserved their autonomy and ethnic identity; German peasant communities were shown resisting the twin evils of capitalism and urbanization. The point of course is not to suggest that the new social history was somehow fascist, but rather that it incorporated elements of an anti-modernist discourse also found in the Volksgeschichte of the Nazi period. It is also worth noting -- and I am hardly the first to make this point -- that this romanticizing discourse now reigns supreme in post-colonial studies (cf. the work of Homi Bhabha, now the flavor-of-the-month in post-colonial theory).

All of this is simply to say that much of the social history (and social theory for that matter) produced in our time continues to find its inspiration in a critique of the present that celebrates the past. Viewed in this light, the new social history was less a progressive wave of the future than it was a romantic lament for the "world we have lost" -- or perhaps more accurately, a world that never existed.

James Van Horn Melton
Emory University

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