Do we need a new economic history of Germany?

Summer 2007


Introduction Initial Contributions Discussion



Economic problems have never been far from the surface in most narratives of modern German history. The "founders' boom" and "great depression" of the 1870s, the hyperinflation of the 1920s, the wretched unemployment of the early 1930s, the "economic miracle" of the 1950s -- these are but a few of the economic milestones that Germanists have long used as explanatory backdrops. Even so, few experts on Germany identify themselves as "economic historians"; economic processes are usually taken as a background to social, political, demographic, and cultural transformations of greater immediate interest to the profession. As Michael Geyer observed in his 2006 luncheon address to the GSA: "That Germany's prosperity depended, throughout the modern era, on the export of its goods is still not fully incorporated even into postwar histories."

Recent scholarship would seem to point toward a deeper engagement with economic problems, however. Aside from the boom in business histories, there is now a large array of studies concerning the "Aryanization" of banks or the employment of slave labor by German (or international) corporations. An emphasis on material motives during the Third Reich, whether on the level of individual corruption or as an expression of National Socialist community "values," has begun to complement an earlier emphasis on ideology as a motive force behind Nazi crimes. Scholars of postwar Germany have engaged in a heated debate over the "Americanization" or "Westernization" of West German society and industry, with detailed research into the cultural transfer of American management practices. Meanwhile, history writing on the GDR is often explicitly concerned with evaluating the regime's economic performance.

For all the significance and high quality of this body of research, economic literacy can and does affect the ability of historians to engage in these debates. Put simply, a great many historians are uncomfortable using basic economic concepts. Any discussion of balance of payments surpluses, or the relationship between inflation and unemployment, or even the effects of rising versus stagnating productivity, requires extensive background information in order to render such topics meaningful to readers. All too often economic historians have responded by abandoning their audiences, retreating to narrow circles of conversation where they can speak in shorthand. In other cases, mainstream historians have simplified or eliminated the economic content implicit in such concepts such as "consumer culture" or "material culture."

With these observations and concerns in mind, the editors of H-German have turned to a diverse group of German historians with the following questions.

1) Is there a red thread tying together the various new directions of research into economic problems and material motives in German history? To what extent does economic history have the potential to create a new, alternative form of "master narrative" across the centuries, even extending back into the early modern period? What are the limits of economic issues as an explanatory vehicle?

2) How might other recent innovations in history writing, such as "transnational" perspectives, help to expand the research agenda (and readability) of German economic history? How, in turn, might a deeper engagement with economic processes help to broaden the work of historians engaged in transnational history, or cultural history, or for that matter various research directions in early modern Germany?

3) What can be done to improve historians' training in economic fundamentals? Is there a theoretical body of literature that graduate students might be encouraged to read alongside Edward Said, Michel Foucault, and Benedict Anderson? Is it possible to study economic problems seriously without extensive mathematical foundations in statistics and econometrics?

4) Is the new economic history of Germany implicitly or explicitly non-Marxist? How has this influenced the choice of topics in recent writing on economic history? (The editors detect, for example, less interest in writing on workers and trade unionism.) How else might one distinguish a "new" economic history of Germany from earlier variants?

We welcome any comments, criticism, or suggestions you may have and look forward to a productive exchange.

William Glenn Gray
and the team of H-German Editors


Initial Contributions

Discussion (ongoing as of August 22, 2007)

Monday, 9 July 2007
  H-German Editors FORUM, continued: Do we need a new economic history of Germany? view
Thursday, 12 July 2007
  Jonathan Zatlin FORUM: Do we need a new economic history of Germany? view
  Donna Harsch FORUM: Do we need a new economic history of Germany? view
Friday, 10 August 2007
  Susan Boettcher FORUM: Boettcher response view
Monday, 13 August 2007
  Charles S. Maier FORUM: Maier response view
  Scott M. Eddie FORUM: Eddie response view
Wednesday, 15 August 2007
  Mark Spoerer FORUM: Spoerer response view
  Andrew Zimmerman FORUM: Zimmerman response view

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