Mario Keßler. Arthur Rosenberg: Ein Historiker im Zeitalter der Katastrophen (1889-1943). Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 2003. 335 S. EUR 39.90 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-412-04503-6.
Reviewed by Philipp Stelzel (History Department, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
Published on H-German (July, 2005)
In recent years, the German historical profession has received increased scholarly attention. Historians have mostly focused on the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, or on the early Federal Republic. More specifically, several biographies of important scholars, such as Franz Schnabel, Gerhard Ritter, Erich Marcks, or Hans Rothfels, have been published. Most of these historians represented the mainstream of German historiography, adhering to Prussian and Protestant values. The subject of Mario Kessler's biography, however, does not fit into this tradition.
Arthur Rosenberg was exceptional at least in two respects: academically, he switched from ancient to contemporary history--even though many German ancient historians, such as Theodor Mommsen, Alfred Heuss, and Christian Meier, often comment(ed) on current events, they still remain(ed) within their original field. Politically, Rosenberg turned from bourgeois nationalism to orthodox communism before eventually becoming a democratic Socialist. Present-day German historians might have become slightly more conservative after 1968 and again after 1989-90, but not even Immanuel Geiss's trajectory has been that extreme.
Rosenberg's background and early career did not necessarily suggest his later scholarly and political moves. KeÃ?ler describes him as a rather typical member of the assimilated Jewish middle class. Born in Berlin in 1889, Rosenberg excelled at the Gymnasium as well as at the university. He studied at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-UniversitÃ¤t Berlin with Otto Hirschfeld and Eduard Meyer. Soon, he established himself as an expert in Roman constitutional history. In 1914, Rosenberg proved to be a conformist representative of the German academe, believing in the "ideas of 1914," and signing nationalist petitions. He then was drafted into the army, working for the Kriegspresseamt (the army's public relations office). The fact that Rosenberg later in his life never discussed the duties he had to fulfill there speaks for itself.
In November, 1918, however, Rosenberg joined the USPD, and KeÃ?ler states that it was only the German Empire's defeat that led him to abandon his nationalist beliefs. Unfortunately, KeÃ?ler does not really substantiate this claim; maybe this neglect is due to the fact that Rosenberg did not leave a collection of personal papers. In any case, Rosenberg belonged to that wing of the USPD that decided to join the KPD in October 1920, and not surprisingly his political activities made him a pariah among his academic colleagues. Thus, it was not until 1931 that the Prussian minister for cultural affairs and education appointed Rosenberg ausserplanmÃ¤Ã?iger Professor against the faculty's will. Rosenberg was only allowed to teach ancient, but not contemporary history.
Along with Rosenberg's political reorientation came a methodological shift. In his Geschichte der rÃ¶mischen Republik, he employed categories of class in analysis of Roman society. KeÃ?ler persuasively argues that, as in the case of many proselytes, Rosenberg's analysis suffered from a rather crude understanding of Marxism. Soon thereafter, he concentrated his energies on politics and journalism. KeÃ?ler describes Rosenberg's journalistic work quite carefully as a "curious mixture of precise analysis and wishful thinking" (p. 81), and he quotes extensively from his articles. But he only occasionally points to the fact that Rosenberg, throughout his period as an orthodox communist, did his best to undermine the Weimar Republic intellectually. He reached the peak--or rather the nadir--of his communist propagandizing in 1924 when he equated the government of Marx-Stresemann with Ludendorff's vÃ¶lkisch Right, refusing to acknowledge any difference between democracy and dictatorship. It is interesting to contrast Rosenberg's utterances with those of Gerhard Ritter around the same time: two very able historians, situated at opposite ends of the political spectrum, who left the ivory tower and produced remarkably narrow-minded propaganda.
More valuable was Rosenberg's work in the UntersuchungsausschuÃ? fÃ¼r die Ursachen des deutschen Zusammenbruches im Ersten Weltkrieg. As a member of the Reichstag in the years 1924-28, he spent much of his time working on this council, which focused on the domestic reasons for the German defeat in World War I. Here Rosenberg developed for the first time his thesis of the two revolutions in World War I, which was to figure prominently in his later scholarly work: the first being the creation of the Hindenburg-Ludendorff military dictatorship of 1916, the second being the "bourgeois" revolution of October 1918.
KeÃ?ler provides a detailed, sometimes lengthy account of Rosenberg's place within the KPD. Until 1925, Rosenberg belonged to the so-called "Ultra-left," which stood in opposition to Ernst ThÃ¤lmann, but by the end of 1926 he had moved to the "Right" of the party, which he eventually left early in 1927. Kessler quotes extensively from Rosenberg's speeches and articles, but fails to show what made Rosenberg reconsider his earlier positions.
In 1928, after having been an ancient historian with monarchist leanings and a radical leftist journalist, Rosenberg entered the third phase of his life and turned completely to contemporary history. In the same year he published Die Entstehung der deutschen Republik, to a large extent an outcome of his earlier work on the parliamentary council. It covered the history of the German Empire, but focused primarily on World War I. Rosenberg pointed out some characteristics of the Empire, such as the "Bonapartist" rule of Bismarck, which younger West German historians adopted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. More important for a future generation of historians, however, was his Geschichte der Weimarer Republik, published in 1935, when Rosenberg was already living in British exile. In this study, he claimed that in 1918 the Social Democratic leadership missed the opportunity to push through more thorough democratic reforms in the military and the bureaucracy, and that the workers' and soldiers' councils had been dominated by moderate Socialists instead of Bolshevik leftists. In the early 1960s, Eberhard Kolb and Peter von Oertzen substantiated Rosenberg's thesis on a more empirical basis.
Like many other Ã©migrÃ© scholars, Rosenberg had constant difficulties making ends meet. After his emigration via Switzerland, he first held a three-year lectureship at the University of Liverpool, but was not given tenure. With the help of Hajo Holborn, Rosenberg was able to get a job at Brooklyn College. He taught there until his death from cancer in 1943, but he remained dependent on fellowships from refugee organizations. During his life and immediately after his death, his studies on the German Empire and the Weimar Republic received little scholarly attention. It was not until the early 1960s that his work, especially the Geschichte der Weimarer Republik, was rediscovered.
KeÃ?ler, an expert on the unorthodox left and of Ã©migrÃ© intellectuals, is clearly at his best when placing Rosenberg within Marxist historiography, and he meticulously traces all the major and minor shifts that Rosenberg performed in his writings. What deserves more attention is Rosenberg's political transformations, which KeÃ?ler only mentions in passing. Important turning points in Rosenberg's life thus remain less well explained. Finally, KeÃ?ler seems to overestimate Rosenberg's importance for today's scholarship on the Weimar Republic. Apart from his insightful and innovative analysis of the workers' and soldiers' council during the Revolution of 1918-19, his studies do not appear to have had very much influence. The more recent works KeÃ?ler cites, in order to prove Rosenberg's more favorable reception in Great Britain and the United States (as opposed to Germany), are hardly representative of today's scholarship in these countries. But these critical remarks should not detract from the fact that by illuminating the life and works of an outsider within the German historical profession KeÃ?ler provides a valuable contribution to the literature on this subject.
. See, for example, Winfried Schulze and Otto-Gerhard Oexle, eds., Deutsche Historiker im Nationalsozialismus (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1999); and Thomas EtzemÃ¼ller, Sozialgeschichte als politische Geschichte. Werner Conze und die Neuorientierung der westdeutschen Geschichtswissenschaft nach 1945 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2001).
. See Thomas Hertfelder, Franz Schnabel und die deutsche Geschichtswissenschaft: Geschichtsschreibung zwischen Historismus und Kulturkritik (1910-1945) (GÃ¶ttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998); Christoph Cornelissen, Gerhard Ritter. Geschichtswissenschaft und Politik im 20. Jahrhundert (DÃ¼sseldorf: Droste, 2001); Jens Nordalm, Historismus und moderne Welt. Erich Marcks (1861-1938) in der deutschen Geschichtswissenschaft (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2003); and Jan Eckel, Hans Rothfels. Eine intellektuelle Biographie im 20. Jahrhundert (GÃ¶ttingen: Wallstein, 2005).
. For Ritter's extreme nationalist writings and speeches in the early 1920s, see Cornelissen, Gerhard Ritter, pp. 100-105. This is not to suggest, however, that historians should remain within the ivory tower.
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Philipp Stelzel. Review of Keßler, Mario, Arthur Rosenberg: Ein Historiker im Zeitalter der Katastrophen (1889-1943).
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