David Wetzel, ed. From the Berlin Museum to the Berlin Wall: Essays on the Cultural and Political History of Modern Germany. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996. x + 212 pp. $57.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-275-95445-1.
Reviewed by Peter Fritzsche (Department of History, University of Illinois)
Published on H-German (September, 1997)
It is unfortunate that culture wars have left us so apologetic about the history we write. In his preface to a volume of essays assembled in honor of Gordon Craig, David Wetzel confesses, "They are mostly about traditional history" (p. ix). "None of them," he adds, "are on the cutting edge." He goes on to identify a "bewildered readership" which has watched new approaches to history race by, then determines that the questions "Where are the women? Where are the minorities?" are posed by responsible critics (p. x). This is an unhappy reading of the historiographical map. The division between "traditional" and "cutting edge" history is presumptuous and the choice between the two unsatisfying to those who actually take pleasure in writing and reading history. The idea of a "bewildered readership" seems out-of-place too, since interest in the field has grown in the last twenty years, particularly for the kind of history that forges links with readers, who are pleasantly surprised to discover vernacular versions with a plurality of voices and different accounts of power. The diverse uses of history will not conform to particular formulas, and the depiction of historians chanting "the women," "the minorities" is as silly as the hostility to theory about gender and marginality in the first place. Both along the alleged "cutting edge" and among so-called "traditionalists" there is too much policing and too much self-policing.
The problem with this collection is not that it is traditional, but rather that it is timid. I find it strange that the occasion to honor Gordon Craig, perhaps the most well-known "public intellectual" engaged in German history thanks to his contributions to The New York Review of Books, did not prompt an exploration into Craig's early impressions of Germany, which he visited in the mid-1930s; his role as teacher and mentor at Stanford; and the shifting focus of his own work. In his lifetime, the concerns of German historians have changed dramatically: international diplomacy in the years before World War I, for example, was a major preoccupation from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s, but is no longer; Bismarck appears less important because his office no longer lies so centrally on the fault lines of German society; Nazism has made more obviously pertinent racial and gendered identities; and the history of ideas has revived with interest in the cultural formations of power relations. Any investigations into the transformations of German historiography, however, are stopped in their tracks by the static distinction between "traditional" and "cutting edge." And sadly, this volume does not even include a bibliography of Craig's books and articles.
Despite the lack of a spirited opening or introductory remarks about Gordon Craig, this collection contains a few excellent essays. Henry Ashby Turner's counterfactual analysis of the twentieth century after the death of Adolf Hitler in a Berlin automobile accident (which Hitler in fact survived in the summer of 1930) is perhaps the best. This is a fun game to play--the differences that I or other readers might have with this or that assertion demonstrate just how fun it is--yet Turner's account remains consistently careful and always insightful. Had Hitler died just before the September 1930 elections, Turner suggests, the Nazis would have done reasonably well at the polls before disintegrating, republican forces would still have been fatally weakened, and Weimar would probably have evolved into a military dictatorship. While German dictators would have thrown political opponents in jail, experimented with some anti-Semitic measures, and likely overturned the Versailles settlement in a war with Poland, they would not have sought Hitler's racial utopia. As a result, Auschwitz and Hiroshima would not be the metonyms they are today. Without World War II, just to give a few highlights of Turner's rich argument, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States would have assumed superpower status; racial and Social Darwinist assumptions would have remained frighteningly credible in a much more parochial United States and throughout a much more slowly receding colonial world; and Germany would have remained the world's scientific leader: "the first humans in space and on the moon would very likely have been Germans" (p. 125). Turner makes large claims for the role of Hitler, understating the degree to which Weimar Germans shared Nazi assumptions before 1930 and Europeans in general showed affinities with fascist politics, but most of his argument rests on the absence of the social convulsions that came with World War II. Turner's essay is not so much "triumphantly old-fashioned" (p. 6) as well-aimed to contribute to very pertinent discussions about continuity in German history.
Diethelm Prowe's essay on Kennedy, Brandt, and the Berlin crisis is a brilliant analysis of rhetoric and performance in Cold War diplomacy. The weird wide world of Dr. Strangelove included high oratory and huge rallies--not just strategic calculations and spy exchanges--and Kennedy's June 1963 visit to Berlin wonderfully illustrates the voluntary mobilization of millions of citizens amidst superpower rivalries. The material is so rich that it is a pity that Prowe does not make wider connections to popular culture, but he evokes well the political culture of West Berlin, "which included both the intense ideological politics of the front city demonstrations and the sense that Berlin was a bridge to the East" (p. 185). James Sheehan explores an earlier transformation of Berlin: the city as cultural stage to choreograph civic and spiritual renewal after 1815. His analysis of proposals to build the Altes Museum wonderfully traces Schinkel's neo-Classical commitment to securing a role for the arts in the construction of the middle-class self against turbulent Romantic reminders that all human creations are doomed and against the prosaic Biedermeier cultivation of art as mere refinement. In a crucial shift of nineteenth-century perception that Sheehan might have analyzed more closely, the Altes Museum soon came to be seen as part of a separate Museum-Insel rather than of a civic complex that included the palace, the cathedral, and, across the Spree River, the armory. Peter Gay follows up on the role of culture in the middle-class, but awkwardly casts Alfred Lichtwark, the director of Hamburg's Kunsthalle, as the central character in an essay which is really much more suggestive about how Germans decorated their homes, visited museums, and otherwise upheld cultural standards. Unfortunately, Gay's essay is merely suggestive and the various parts on "Liebermann, Lichtwark, and Others" do not cohere.
Fritz Stern's essay on Walther Rathenau and Theodore S. Hamerow's on Cardinal Faulhaber are illuminating portraits of very different men. Rathenau is a bundle of contradictions--Jew, Prussian, cosmopolitan, aesthete--whose life and death draw attention to what Michael Andre Bernstein calls "sideshadowing," the inassimilable contingencies that mark the various itineraries of Germany's twentieth-century history. Faulhaber, by contrast, proves to be simple, parochial, and hardly an obstacle in the way of the Third Reich, as Hamerow makes clear.
The remaining essays in the book are weak because they are undeveloped. They make claims about their importance, but do not substantiate them. David Wetzel, for example, begins his essay with melodramatic language about the breach of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Questions of power, adventure, and militarism are posed, but not answered. We are told that it is instructive to reflect on the war of 1870, but not why. His essay on Bismarck and South Germany drifts off into a narrative that the reader has no stated reason to follow. Why there should be a "comprehensive comparison" between Bismarck and Gladstone, as the late Francis L. Loewenheim's essay notes by indicating the lack of such a comparison, is not clear either (p. 61). The pronouncement that the subject of the place of Bismarck and Gladstone in modern history is "likely to occupy us for many years to come" may be true (though I wouldn't bet on it), but in any case it is not justified by the author (p. 82). Stranger is Ernest R. May's look at Ludwig Beck's opposition to Hitler. May obscures a plausible analysis of military resistance to Hitler, which stresses the long-term goals the generals shared with the Fuehrer and points to merely jurisdictional differences between the two parties, behind his primary interest, which is to judge the rigor with which underlings confront superiors. Using Albert Hirschman's model of loyalty, voice, and exit, May reprimands Beck for "dereliction of duty" (p. 144), an abrupt conclusion that terminates the essay without a broader discussion of what Beck's actions suggest about the German Resistance and which leaves the reader wondering what exactly to do with the suggestion that Hitler was wronged by Beck.
I do not believe that "cutting-edge" historians dismiss the role of personality in history. They certainly are not reluctant to talk about contingency and surprise in history. (Indeed, the public's fascination with the Kennedy assassination or Churchill's wartime role may well be a charming version of the unpredictability that postmodernists like to stress). The problem with the organization of this collection is that it makes claims for the central role of great men under the guise of "traditional" history without justifying or exploring those claims.
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Peter Fritzsche. Review of Wetzel, David, ed., From the Berlin Museum to the Berlin Wall: Essays on the Cultural and Political History of Modern Germany.
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