Thomas Weber. Our Friend "The Enemy": Elite Education in Britain and Germany before World War I. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. 360 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-0014-6.
Reviewed by Oliver Walton (Kingston University)
Published on H-German (March, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Debunking the Anglo-German Antagonism, and a Few Other Things Besides
No one would doubt that the universities at Oxford and Heidelberg were important institutions, and that a competent historical account of them might therefore have some important things to say. Thomas Weber's book does this and more, for his careful comparison of these two august bodies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the basis for a thoroughgoing reassessment of much of British and German historiography, taking on the Sonderweg, the origins of Nazism, Whiggish interpretations of British history, and British particularism, too. Despite the title, the book is not really about education at all. Rather, Weber seeks to use his detailed study of elite formation to reappraise culture in Britain and Germany before 1914 and shed light on culture in the period after the Great War. The significance of his work lies in the sociological profiles and career trajectories of the student bodies: their fathers were the men who ran their countries; and they themselves went on to play leading roles in public life as they matured. Weber's approach is an impressive demonstration of how to do comparative history. He does not simply compare the evidence for Oxford and Heidelberg, but also the relevant historiographies. Thus, he makes a real attempt to look at each of his case studies through the lenses of the other. This strategy not only tests claims of particularism, but also allows him to investigate gaps and assumptions in the coverage of each country's historiography.
The book sets out by placing Oxford and Heidelberg in their respective national contexts. Some of this material is basic explanation of the differences: Oxford was focused upon teaching and the creation of future leaders, while Heidelberg's reputation was founded upon its research. In Weber's opinion, these academic differences were not the foundation for further profound differences. Both universities had quite close connections with the church and the state, having in each case some independence and some interference. Both universities witnessed an expansion of non-aristocratic student entry, but Weber challenges the prevailing interpretation that in Britain, the middle class was embraced by the aristocracy, whereas in Germany, it capitulated to the aristocracy. Weber observes that while student life in Heidelberg and Oxford was characterized by different cultures of drink and sport, and a very much greater degree of student autonomy at Heidelberg, in both cases the focus of student life fell on the exercise of social privilege rather than on study.
Weber builds his argument patiently, looking first at transnational connections and nationalism. His central point here is that patriotism was by no means incompatible with cosmopolitanism and a sense of shared Anglo-German culture or even destiny. In placing such sentiments in the central ground, he makes clear that such hypernationalists as Heinrich von Treitschke, who have featured prominently in much historiography, were seen as rather eccentric figures; they may have shouted loudest, but were not widely heeded by students.
In similar fashion, militarism was strong in both student bodies, perhaps more so in Oxford, where the enormously popular Officer Training Corps built upon the values inculcated in public schools. Moreover, Weber reaches a new interpretation of the relationship between sport and militarism. The ostensibly martial sport of fencing was the most prominent at Heidelberg, but was not universally practiced: not all fraternities fenced, and many students were not members of a fraternity. Furthermore, most fencing took the form, not so much of duels in defense of honor, but arranged team contests. This context was essentially similar to the competitive structures in which Oxford students played rugby and rowed. These sports, though not using weapons, were formalized physical confrontations imbued with a militaristic masculinity.
Weber goes on to look at student sexuality. He has several aims here: first, to show that in Oxford and Heidelberg there is scant evidence of any gender crisis pushing masculinity in search of violent expression and contributing to war. Secondly, Weber refutes much of the interpretation advanced by George Mosse: that nationalism was used to regulate sexual behavior in Germany. Along the way Weber offers numerous perceptive insights. Not least of these is that while the very different images of romantic heterosexual Heidelberg and homosocial, homoerotic Oxford served to limit and frame emotional expression for students, the realities in each university were surprisingly similar: male students had relatively few sexual relationships with women of equal rank, so that most took place with working-class girls; both cities supported large numbers of prostitutes; and homosexual activity was not tolerated in either. Nevertheless, this is Weber's least satisfying chapter. He engages with numerous disparate strands of argument, and frustratingly is not able to present here the kind of firm evidence for his revisionist stance that characterizes the rest of his book.
Both universities saw more women entering student ranks, but Weber points out that the historical realities in Oxford and Heidelberg support neither the myth of British Whiggish exceptionalism, nor that of Germanic conservatism. Women students studied at Oxford from 1878, but were only admitted as part of the university in 1910, and were still not allowed to gain degrees until after the First World War. Heidelberg resisted women's entry until the 1890s, but by 1900 they were allowed to matriculate for degrees. Significantly, this step was pushed through by the state, usually seen as a socially backward institution. In both cases, by 1914 women enjoyed increasing access to the central institutions of elite formation, and little sign was apparent that the trajectory might be reversed.
Weber also challenges the received opinion of the position of Jews and foreigners at Oxford and Heidelberg. He argues that the extent to which Jews and foreigners were excluded in Germany and included in Britain have been overstated. Antisemitism in Heidelberg was loudly expressed, but not necessarily broadly espoused, while in Oxford, Weber detects a pervasive antisemitic sentiment that influenced both student life and university staff. Greater numbers of Jews held university posts in Germany than in Britain, and Heidelberg employed more Jewish professors than most other German universities. Oxford had, before 1914, only one full professor and one fellow who were Jews. Student numbers followed a similar pattern: Heidelberg had almost ten times more Jewish students than Oxford in 1910. Weber also finds that a greater proportion of Jews had reached the higher ranks in the civil service, army, and politics in Germany than in Britain.
Weber may at times overstate the similarities between the cultures at Oxford and Heidelberg, but the evidence and argument he presents are persuasive: the two shared a good deal more common ground than has often been portrayed. One important facet of this conclusion is that German culture was a good deal less conservative or xenophobic, and British culture a good deal less liberal, than most interpretations allow. In fact, one senses that Weber's real target with this book might lie not with his examination of elite formation or universities, but with his critique of the established historiography that his results permit.
One of his recurrent themes is that all too often, history has been remembered and recounted in the light of subsequent events of the twentieth century. He contends, for instance, that only in the second half of the twentieth century did the homosexual culture of Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater at Oxford become an influential symbol of liberal permissiveness. Accounts of antagonism, nationalism, and militarism have been influenced by the need to explain the descent to the First World War, interwar radicalism, and the Second World War. The voices of cosmopolitanism and even fraternity between Britain and Germany have been silenced by posterity. Interpretations of women's changing social status and that of Jews and foreigners have been shaped by a desire to account for the different trajectories of social and racial policies pursued in Britain and Germany in the interwar period.
Weber's portrayal of elite cultural formation, which identifies strands of conservatism and xenophobia alongside progressive policy and cosmopolitanism in both countries, involves the inherent suggestion that British and German cultures were not so very different from each other in the period before 1914. The implication of this implication for understanding the history of the interwar period, with the instability and radical politics of Germany and the failure of political extremism in Britain, places the emphasis firmly on the episode that took place between these two time periods: the First World War itself, or perhaps more specifically, the different experiences of winning and losing the first truly total war.
Weber's account does overlook one significant development, however. Even if he is right to identify a strong strand of Anglophilia in much of German elite society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Anglophobia did seem to carry more political weight over time. To cite one other recent scholarly offering, Matthew Seligman has found that British military and naval attachés observed a marked increase in anti-British sentiment throughout German society from about 1910. Weber's account has little to say about either the origins or the extent of this deterioration of relations. While this may be a significant point, it should perhaps no more than moderate the general thrust of Weber's argument.
Weber's careful comparison offers an intriguing and revisionist account of Oxford and Heidelberg at a time of swirling intellectual and political discourses. It confounds many expectations of more liberal Oxford and conservative Heidelberg, but reform proceeded in both cases despite loud resistance. Many of the differences in nationalism, militarism, sexuality, and the status of women, Jews, and foreigners may have been more of form than substance. Such arguments as these, presented here with clear and careful explanation and solid evidence, are worthy of note. Historians may disagree with some of the interpretation. The import of Weber's book, however, is to make a provocative, compelling case that the German path of political extremism, nationalist bellicosity, conservative gender politics, and xenophobia did not begin before 1918.
. Matthew Seligman, Spies in Uniform: British Military and Naval Intelligence on the Eve of the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Oliver Walton. Review of Weber, Thomas, Our Friend "The Enemy": Elite Education in Britain and Germany before World War I.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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