Nina Witoszek, Lars Tragardh, eds. Culture and Crisis: The Case of Germany and Sweden. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2002. v + 251 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57181-269-8.
Reviewed by Paul Betts (Department of History, University of Sussex)
Published on H-German (December, 2003)
In recent scholarship on twentieth-century Europe, the 1930s have moved more and more to the center of things. Whereas conventional overviews once pivoted almost exclusively on the first and second world wars, consigning the century's third decade to a kind of antechamber to World War II, newer interpretations view the decade as the century's real fulcrum. This is certainly the case in some of the most successful reassessments of the century, such as Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes, Mark Mazower's Dark Continent, or even Francois Furet's The Passing of an Illusion. A whole cottage industry of new monographs has grown up around the subject of late, most recently in Piers Brendon's Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s. On some level this is no great surprise, given that it was during the thirties that the fate of Europe very much hung in the balance, as economic meltdown, political crisis and fateful social engineering projects of all ideological stripes defined the era. Whatever else can be said about it, the decade was truly the "Age of Social Reconstruction," as Karl Mannheim put it in his sadly neglected 1935 classic, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction. The fallout from the 1930s--arguably the century's real "laboratory of modernity"--cast a pall over European and global history for decades to come.
Nina Witoszek and Lars Tragardh's edited collection, Culture and Crisis: The Case of Germany and Sweden (2002), is part of this new dispensation to redirect scholarly attention back to the 1930s. But theirs is a conscious departure from garden-variety retrospectives of the period. For one thing, the aim is to compare two political cultures that are invariably treated separately, namely Social Democratic Sweden and Hitler's Germany. Such an approach is in itself quite striking, if for no other reason than it effectively breaks from well-worn Mussolini-Hitler-Stalin "enemies of liberalism" renditions. Secondly, they seek to place these events into a broader cultural context, with a view toward showing how national understandings of and proposed political solutions to these crises were in the end quite culturally specific. At the center of inquiry is the question of why the Swedish version of national socialism differed so much from that practiced by its more famous southern neighbor. Not to say that there were no similarities. As outlined in Witoszek and Tragardh's introduction, these "two different trajectories of modernization" nonetheless shared several points of convergence. Among them were the glorification of national community, a willingness to experiment with radical solutions to the decade's urgent economic and political questions, a desired fusion of the "people, nation and political leadership," as well as a quasi-religious cult of the state. While several Swedish historians lately have made similar points, especially regarding the dark history of what some have called a folkhem variant of "Swedish fascism," Witoszek and Tragardh roundly reject such overheated revisionism and its "current critical deconstruction of the Swedish model" (p. 1) in order to put these histories into a broader, more balanced framework. Thirdly and perhaps most suggestively, the volume regards the 1930s as much more than just a crisis of liberalism; the decade, according to the editors, was also one that saw the full remaking of the Enlightenment legacy. That the editors wished to shape the discussion in this manner is evident from the book's organization, as Reinhart Koselleck and Robert Wokler open and close the presentation. In different ways, Koselleck and Wokler show the extent to which the secular concept of crisis (in large measure minted during the French Revolution) has informed the conceptual vocabulary of modernity ever since, all the while fueling the drive for radical social reconstruction as an appropriate response to such perceived crises.
A good deal of the volume, though, is concerned with explaining how and why Sweden and German were so divergent. On this score Erik Ringmar ably analyzes these differences in terms of their contrasting nineteenth-century experiences of state-building, industrialization and parliamentary institutions. In contrast to Germany, Sweden's slow state formation, industrial growth and parliamentary development, so Ringmar maintains, provided the country with a sturdy and lasting political edifice capable of weathering future political storms. In regard to the late-nineteenth century, for example, Ringmar writes that "in Sweden institutions continued to be seen as legitimate, while in Germany the legitimacy of the structure was rapidly undermined. These differences in perception are themselves best explained in institutional terms. Swedish institutions were ancient, the German were brand new; Swedish traditions were inclusive, the German were exclusive; Swedish culture was based on consensus, the German was based on absolutist rule" (p. 40). Nonetheless, Ringmar at times tends to fall back on outdated ideas in arguing that the appeal of German nationalism was a hangover from German romanticism. He continues in this vein in characterizing German nationalism as a "free-floating sentiment, ready to attach itself to any movement of protest or discontent that happened to come along" (p. 30), concluding a few pages later that "the nationalist movement [in Germany both before and after 1848] failed in obtaining its parliament and its constitution and for this reason it never acquired the practical experiences, and thus the reality checks, that it so badly needed" (p. 39). While his larger argument is that the Swedish parliament--unlike its German counterpart--successfully functioned as a vehicle of nation-building and political legitimacy, much of the essay is leavened by the old "special path" thesis about the pathological deficiencies of German liberalism.
Such Sonderweg formulations are evident elsewhere as well. In her contribution, for instance, Witoszek sets her sights on a comparison of Sweden and Germany's "moral community" in the 1920s and 1930s. In it she makes a number of good points, not least that "the common vocabulary of modernity--Heimat, Volk, Gemeinschaft, Bildung, freedom, socialism--was embedded in different pasts and charged with different meaning" (p. 52). Fair enough, but her thesis tends in places to lapse into well-worn cliches: "While the Germans were blundering backwards into the future, the Swedes strolled forward, looking back only so much, and certainly overlooking their imperial past. What in Sweden was the Middle Way, in Germany was the 'rotten middle' (faule Mitte). While in Germany one marched, in Sweden one reasoned. While the Germans dichotomized, opposed and contrasted, the Swedes fused, reconciled and appeased" (p. 52). Ungrounded claims such as these do little to advance the larger argument in any meaningful way. This kind of language is all the more unfortunate, given that it has been some twenty years since David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, in their now-classic Peculiarities of German History (1984), effectively debunked the mythic role of France, the United States and especially Britain as "ideal types" with which to measure the shortcomings of German liberalism. But in this volume, Sweden is often pressed into a similar rhetorical service as an enlightened counterfoil to German misdevelopments. Of course, no one would discount that national mythology played an important ideological role. As both Ringmar and Witoszek persuasively indicate, the Swedes developed a certain kind of "gray heroism" based on the tradition of venerating the upstanding peasant freeholder, one that departed dramatically from the German romance with the mystical peasantry. Nevertheless, more sustained attention to how Swedish political culture invented and disseminated this new national myth would have located the essay in a richer historical setting, and helped embed some of the larger claims about the Swedish penchant toward a benevolent "via moderna."
Even if tradition and mythology go some way in explaining these differences, the book does not offer much comparative material on reactions to the crises of the 1930s. Yvonne Hirdman neatly recounts the crises facing Sweden's Social Democrats from the thirties onward. Yet too little effort is made here or elsewhere to contrast these events with the furies hounding German political culture (occupation, civil war, political assassination, inflation, depression, etc.) in the interwar years, nor does the essay include much on how crucial they were in coloring German experiences and attitudes about political crisis management. More unfortunate still is the virtually unremarked issue of the First World War in shaping these divergent "cultures of crisis." Needless to say, the First World War and the Versailles Treaty remained festering wounds afflicting Germany's postwar body politic, as feelings of trauma and resentiment animated myriad dreams of national regeneration and radical political solutions across the political spectrum. While the old stockpile of pre-1914 national mythology certainly played its part in giving form to postwar revanchist fantasies, explaining these differences in terms of "German romanticism" or Sweden's natural immunity to extreme politics does not go very far. After all, comparable moments of political defeat in Swedish history--the loss of Finland in 1809 and Norway in 1905--ignited right-wing nationalism there too. From this perspective, Sweden's long history of relative military security and political peace may be more responsible for these differences than Sweden's supposed love of the Middle Way and "culture of consensus."
Arguably, the most suggestive piece is by the volume's co-editor, Lars Tragardh. Here he departs from the volume's emphasis on the 1930s and 1940s in order to take up another issue altogether, namely comparing 1930s and 1990s Sweden. His particular interest is in exploring how Sweden's 1930 political crisis differed from the bitter 1994 debate on entry into the European Union. Unavoidably his essay takes on an unexpected contemporary twist, especially in light of the recent assassination of Social Democratic Foreign Minister Anna Lindh and the country's rejection of the Euro a few days later. In his piece Tragardh persuasively traces the roots of Sweden's skepticism about the Euro, much of which has culminated in the widespread feeling that Sweden is "more progressive, democratic and egalitarian than other nations" (p. 77), and that joining the common currency thus promises no clear benefit. Already in the 1970s the specter of Europe was represented in Swedish debates as embodying the undesirable four Ks: konservatism, kapitalism, katolicism, kolonialism. What emerges quite clearly from the essay is that the critique of "Europe" was by no means the exclusive hunting grounds of the right; on the contrary, Euro-skepticism found surprising support among many Social Democrats, who held fast to a certain national identity closely linked to the welfare state and the virtues of what used to be known as the Swedish Model. As Tragardh shows, much of this anti-European sentiment is the result of the long-term success of interwar Social Democrats in marrying the ideals of nationalism and socialism (and in so doing paying homage to their leftist comrades in Vienna, the Austro-Marxists), an ideological union that helped keep them in the political saddle for decades. Not that this was always an easy path. Goran Rosenberg's sharp contribution, for example, reminds us that Sweden's postwar "culture of consensus" was often not that consensual, marked as it was by great internal strife and political horse-trading. Piero Colla, moreover, instructively recounts the long "repressed memories" of World War II by postwar Social Democrats, including Nazi collaboration, rampant anti-semitism and the infamous eugenics experiments, and why these dark elements of the Social Democratic past remained taboo until very recently. But in the end, Tragardh contends, it was the very strength of the Social Democratic ideal of "welfare state nationalism" born of the famed 1933 "crisis agreements" that kept the party in power for so long, and in turn has impeded the country's path toward full European integration.
While this book certainly has its sparkling moments, it would have benefited from more careful editing, particularly given the ambitious nature of the volume. Regrettably, the far-reaching essays by Koselleck and Wokler enjoy little presence in the rest of the discussion. Wokler's fetching sentence that Sweden and German "each encapsulate what might be termed Europe's legitimation crisis" (p. 202) is not only left undeveloped in his own essay, but is not directly addressed anywhere else either. The editors's provocative introductory comment that Scandinavia--not Germany--"should be studied as the prime location of the maladies and contradictions of the Enlightenment legacy" (p. 6) also warranted fuller treatment. Moreover, too few authors actually take up the comparative theme, and fewer still do so with any real depth. As a consequence, many of the essays seem too isolated and thematically limited. This is certainly the case with Benjamin Lapp's and Manfred Hemmingsen's essays on the Holocaust. Both are solid and competent overviews of the existing literature, but their pieces--given the advanced state of Holocaust studies these days--could have done much more in relating the theme of Holocaust as cultural crisis (both as event and memory) to some of the issues raised elsewhere in volume, most notably in Koselleck's opening essay. There is also insufficient discussion of an issue that is touched on in passing at various points, namely how Sweden's and Germany's interwar political cultures (to say nothing of their post-1945 successors) viewed and understood each other, be it at the level of policy-making, social thought and/or popular perception. The elites in both countries were clearly watching each other closely; additional material on the nature of this relationship and cultural circulation of ideas and policies would have broadened the scope of these "cultures of crisis." More up-to-date contributions from German specialists would no doubt have lent the book more balance, depth and conceptual reach. Indeed, those essays dealing with Germany are often surprisingly traditional (that is, relying on older, simplified views of German political culture as anti-liberal, anti-modern and prone to romanticism) and unfortunately do not take on board some of the exciting new work on what Peter Fritzsche has called the "Nazi Modern." As a result, the volume is an odd mix of very old (i.e., "special path" German illiberalism) and very new (the tumultuous pre-history of the EU) historiography. This is perhaps what makes the volume most interesting, in that it radiates in so many directions. For this reason, the book deserves credit in the end for trying to tackle the tricky issue of crisis as an historical theme, and in doing so offers a novel approach for rethinking the critical 1930s.
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Paul Betts. Review of Witoszek, Nina; Tragardh, Lars, eds., Culture and Crisis: The Case of Germany and Sweden.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.