The beginning of sociological thinking in Germany can be traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Until then, society had primarily been understood within the framework of contract theory (Thomas Hobbes, John Locke), that is, as something that has to be constructed. Around 1850, the idea arose to characterize “society” more broadly as the “social system constituted by human coexistence” (Nolte 2000, p. 33). This conceptual shift was provoked by social processes and problems similar to those which facilitated the emergence of sociology in England (initiated by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903)) and in France (initiated by Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and Auguste Comte (1798–1857)). These processes and problems were: the transition from the feudal age to bourgeois society, industrialization and the drastic intensification of the division of labor, the emergence of social classes within a capitalist economic system, and the so-called social question (soziale Frage) which resulted from the tensions between the social classes.Footnote 1 These developments showed that “society” could no longer be thought of as a freely chosen association of independent individuals, but had to be conceived of as a structured entity largely determined by economic dynamics and increasingly “shaped by the political borders” (Nolte 2000, p. 32).

The “social question” was the starting point for both the materialist social theory of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) and for the first steps toward a Gesellschaftswissenschaft (the science of society) in the German-speaking world. Around 1850, the first German representatives of such a “science of society” were Lorenz von Stein (1815–1890), who based his concept of society on the analysis of social movements in France, and Robert von Mohl (1799–1875), who wanted to differentiate strictly between the new Gesellschaftswissenschaft and the already existing Staatswissenschaft (the science of the state). So far, social processes had been the object of investigation primarily in the philosophy of history and the Staatswissenschaften . In contrast to these disciplines, von Stein and von Mohl claimed that “society” has to be regarded as an independent social sphere, which has to be strictly distinguished from the state. Furthermore, in contrast to politically active socialists and communists, von Stein and von Mohl wanted to solve the “social question” in a “scientific way” (Mikl-Horke 2001, pp. 40–43).Footnote 2 The new Gesellschaftswissenschaft was seen as a way to social reforms to avoid a social revolution.

The call for an independent Gesellschaftswissenschaft , however, met with little approval within the academic field and was resolutely rejected by the humanities and the Staatswissenschaften . This might explain why, some years later, German social scientists such as Ferdinand Tönnies (1855–1936), Georg Simmel (1958–1918), and Max Weber (1864–1920) avoided the notion “Gesellschaftswissenschaft .” Confronted with the powerful Staatswissenschaften and a widespread anti-sociological attitude, which mainly concerned the sociological concepts from France and England,Footnote 3 the early proponents of sociology had to struggle to make their voices heard.

Unlike von Stein or von Mohl, and faced with the rapid pace of social and cultural change, extremely concentrated in large cities, the early sociologists were no longer concerned with the emergence of “society” (Nolte 2000, p. 55), but with its cohesion. They saw a particular problem in the dissolution of traditional worldviews and cultural values. Hence, German society, so the interpretation, not only faced the “social question” but it also had to deal with a “cultural crisis” (Lichtblau 1996). Against this background, the beginning of World War I—which was interpreted as a struggle of German culture against Western civilization—was hailed as an opportunity to leave all the social cleavages, cultural tensions, all the value relativism, and political conflicts behind.

Sociology in the German Reich

The economic, political, social, and cultural developments of the German Reich, which had been founded in 1871, were conducive to the emergence, establishment, and institutionalization of sociology, because the now observable dynamics and consequences of condensed and rapid processes of social differentiation, transformation, and modernization lent themselves to a broader analytic perspective—a “sociological optic” so to speak.

The lack of political modernization of the Reich was conflicting with the accelerated economic and cultural modernization. Therefore, some social scientists perceive Germany as a “belated nation” (Plessner 1959 [1935]), or they describe the German development as a “special path” (Sonderweg) (Wehler 1977, p. 11).Footnote 4 The central characteristics of social transformation and modernization were intense industrialization and the rise of the German Reich to become the second most powerful industrial nation in the world, the expansion of the monetary economy, massive arms build-up, and an imperialist policy of expansion and for certain time also of colonialism. Society was characterized by an increasing population growth, an intensification of the division of labor, and social differentiation. Rapid urbanization was accompanied by housing and poverty problems. The labor movement grew rapidly, as did the women’s movement. Tendencies toward secularization questioned the once binding power of Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant religion. New technologies and inventions such as electricity, the automobile, and the zeppelin reinforced the impression that this epoch was one of big changes. New scientific disciplines such as genetics, religious studies, and psychoanalysis emerged. The foundation of clubs (Vereine) increased and new forms of sociability such as the Lebensreform (life reform) movement were formed, which attempted to satisfy the longing for community. This was a concrete reaction to urbanization. Urbanization again facilitated mass culture, which spread through cinemas, penny novels, and the gramophone. The accompanying commercialization of culture led to a proliferation of “objective culture” (Georg Simmel) and to the growth of the advertising industry. Generally, the logic of cultural production increasingly centered on entertainment. With the growth of the social class of salaried employees, a new audience of this mass culture emerged. At the same time, cultural and social criticism was on the rise too, as evidenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) philosophy, Gerhart Hauptmann’s (1862–1946) plays, Heinrich Mann’s (1871–1950) novels, and the emergence of satirical magazines. Between 1871 and 1918, many new avant-garde movements emerged in the arts, music, literature, and architecture, often contradictory to one another, such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Futurism, or atonal music.

All these developments deeply shattered old certainties and self-evident schemes of perception, thought, and action. The rapid pace of social change, extremely concentrated in large cities, led many people to experience a kind of emotional and perceptual overload (Ullrich 1997; Radkau 1998). On a general level, this “increase in nervous life” which Georg Simmel (1995 [1903], p. 116) described in his well-known 1903 essay “Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben” (“The Metropolis and Mental Life”), was perceived by bourgeois intellectuals and scientists less as a “social” than as a profound “cultural crisis” (Drehsen and Sparn 1996; Lichtblau 1996). Hence, in their eyes, German society not only had to deal with the “social” but also—and perhaps even more so—with the “cultural question” (Bruch et al. 1989, p. 11, 14).

At the turn of the century, the social conflicts that existed in modern European societies, the socio-cultural experiences of crisis and dissolution of cultural traditions, and the mental and spiritual tensions led to the desire to explain and cope with modern life, which was experienced as fragmented and threatening. The historical situation called for sociology, one could say, even if in the scientific field it was often regarded with hostility or dismissed as an auxiliary science. Nevertheless, from the 1890s onwards sociology began to institutionalize and to offer new and independent observations, explanations, and interpretations (cf. Kaesler 1984; Lichtblau 1996, 2018). Therefore, the establishment of sociology as a scientific discipline was the result of the increased differentiation in the academic field as well as the growing “need for the interpretation” of the rapid and far-reaching changes of the age (Rammstedt 1988, p. 283). These changes were not only understood as economic or political processes, but as genuinely social and cultural processes.

Hence, the widespread feeling of crisis at the fin de siècle stimulated classical sociological reflections and diagnoses of modernity (Frisby 1995; Lichtblau 1996).Footnote 5 These attempts to analyze and to solve the perceived crisis took place in Germany in an academic field characterized by historicism on the one hand and an insistent critique of positivism, empiricism, and utilitarianism on the other (Beiser 2015). The early German sociologists like Tönnies, Simmel, and Weber, who by the way were all strongly influenced by Nietzsche (cf. Lichtblau 1996; Baier 1981; Hennis 1987; Partyga 2016; Treiber 2016; only Tönnies later became a sharp critic of Nietzsche), did not share the strong faith in progress that can be found in the writings of Saint-Simon, Herbert Spencer, or Auguste Comte. Instead, in the works of Tönnies (although his sociology was more influenced by Spencer and Comte), Simmel, and Weber we find rather “pessimistic analyses of the fundamental structural problems of modern societies” (Dahme and Rammstedt 1984, p. 459), but also, specifically in the works of Tönnies, sometimes new “utopian” ideas (Cahnman 1968; Liebersohn 1988).

Sociological Pioneers in the German Reich: Tönnies, Simmel, Weber

Ferdinand Tönnies, one of the first classic thinkers of German sociology and an internationally renowned Hobbes researcher, reacted to the transformation processes and social tensions of the age in his major work Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Association, or generally translated as Community and Society), published in 1887 (Tönnies 2017 [1887] [1935]). With Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, Tönnies attempted to explain the social changes and struggles in the transition to modernity within an evolutionary framework. Like communitarians today he mourned the decline of community, which was in danger of disappearing in favor of capitalist market society. Although this book addressed urgent questions of the day, initially it went relatively unnoticed. This may be due to the fact that its skeptical tenor did not fit in with the economic boom that began in 1895 (Bickel 1991, p. 46). It was only a few decades later, especially in the 1920s, that Tönnies’ work became popular. This delayed reception, however, was often linked to an ideological misreading, which interpreted Tönnies’ concept of community as a romantic glorification of the community or even as a proto-fascist propagation of a Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). Tönnies’ intention, however, was a different one. For him, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft could serve as a basis for reform proposals to better the situation of the working class. He saw the concept of community in the light of a new society of the future, of a new “social order, one qualitatively different from modern society” (Liebersohn 1988, p. 35), a new social order in a kind of an ethical, German “socialism,” whereby Tönnies’ was not concerned with the abolition of capitalism, but with the restoring of community, “managing the production of goods,” preferably in the form of cooperatives and social democratic reforms (Tönnies 2012 [1919], pp. 215–219; Bond 2013, p. 254).

Georg Simmel devoted himself particularly to the then new phenomena and problems that accompanied the emergence of modern culture (Lichtblau 1996). Although he was also infected by contemporary cultural pessimism, he—more than his colleagues—nonetheless emphasized the ambivalent consequences of modernity. The new monetary culture for example (Simmel 1989 [1900]) provides a drastic example of the contradictory effects modern cultural dynamics can have on the individual: On the one hand, it promotes the conditions for the formation of individuality, more independent relationships, intensified subjective experience, and personal lifestyle; on the other hand, the monetary culture threatens individuality because of its levelling, reifying, and objectifying tendencies. Hence, according to Simmel (1989 [1900]), the formation of modernity results in a tension between the deindividualizing forces of modern monetary culture and the resistance of the subject to counteract these forces. Also, it induces an intensifying conflict between bourgeois culture and mass society. Both of these conflicts, Simmel claims, are linked to a still more fundamental cultural conflict of modern Vergesellschaftung (sociation), which Simmel (1987 [1911]) pronouncedly described as the “tragedy of culture.”

For Simmel (1987 [1911]) the “tragedy of culture” consists in the contradiction between “objective” and “subjective culture.” The sense of the term “objective culture” came from his teachers Moritz Lazarus (1824–1903) and Heyman Steinthal (1823–1899) (Köhnke 1996, pp. 337–355; Klautke 2016, pp. 34–36), the inventors of the Völkerpsychologie (folk psychology). With the progressing development of modern society, “objective culture” (e.g., technology, science, rights, and scholarship, but also art works) expanded dramatically so that individuals are less and less able to subjectively appropriate its elements and creatively exploit them as a means of self-realization or for the development of individuality.

Simmel investigated this specific antinomy of modern culture in his 1900 book Die Philosophie des Geldes (The Philosophy of Money, Simmel 1989 [1900]). The book is not only an analysis of money, or of monetary culture, but also an analysis of contemporary society. In the last chapters of the book, Simmel describes the radical transformation of modern life brought about by modern monetary culture. Characteristics of this transformation are the acceleration of social life, the increasing distancing between people, and a new rhythm of work and life.

Over the years, it became increasingly clear in Simmel’s writings that, according to his educated bourgeois background and the reception of Goethe and Nietzsche, he was looking for the solution of the cultural crisis in a “law of the individual,” according to which the individual is called on to become and to realize herself/himself (Köhnke 1996, pp. 489–514).

Similar to Simmel’s analysis of the relation between subjective and objective culture and to his search for a “law of the individual” (cf. Müller 2020, p. 410; Marty 2020), Max Weber’s major work Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (Weber 2016 [1904–1905] [1920]) (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) examined the extent to which the individual conduct of life is related to the so-called Spirit of Capitalism. Like Simmel, Weber was concerned with an analysis of the central ideas that gave rise to capitalism. The sociologist and economist Werner Sombart (1863–1941) as well as Weber’s friend and later housemate Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) worked on these topics almost simultaneously with Weber. Similar to Weber, they also saw a close connection between religious ideas and the emergence of capitalism.

According to Weber, the conditions that supported modern capitalism’s coming into being have to be explained not only by economic factors but also by a particular “spirit of capitalism.” Weber understood “spirit” as a certain mental condition, stance, and attitude. For him, the individual mental constitution that was decisive for the formation of capitalism resulted from the “Protestant ethic.” By “Protestant ethic,” Weber means a principle of strict and godly life conduct and working ethics inspired by the Protestant faith, especially by Calvinism and Puritan sects. According to Weber, the advent of high capitalism forced by the technological transformation of the nineteenth century was accompanied by the secularization of the “Protestant ethic”: the religious component increasingly receded, while the profane, worldly side, that is, modern vocational orientation and identification with one’s work, remained and became even stronger.

From Weber’s perspective, the “Protestant ethic” is only one, albeit important, element of a much broader cultural process of rationalization that occurred in Western societies and which was understood by Weber as the “fate of our time.” The process of rationalization, according to Weber, entails a general increase in the systematization, predictability, and effectiveness of all social areas, social relations, and actions. Weber described this process of rationalization as the “disenchantment of the world.” However, similar to Simmel, he also diagnosed new aesthetic and expressive cultural movements that strived for a “re-enchantment of the world” and that were directed against the process of rationalization.Footnote 6

Sociology Between Explaining and Understanding

One characteristic of sociology in Germany, as we will continue to see throughout this book, is that it is deeply influenced by philosophy. This was already the case with the founders of sociology. Tönnies’ work was deeply influenced by Hobbes and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). The central influence on Simmel and Weber was not only Wilhelm Windelband’s (1848–1915) and Heinrich Rickert’s (1863–1936) Neo-Kantianism,Footnote 7 but also Friedrich Nietzsche and Wilhelm Dilthey’s Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften (Introduction to the Human Sciences) published in 1883 (Kaesler 2014, p. 557). Weber and Simmel, who had positively received Spencer until 1892 (Köhnke 1996, pp. 413, 424), both shared Dilthey’s criticism of philosophical movements that were committed to positivism, organicism, and historical speculation, and that were dominant in English and French sociology. Dilthey emphasized the differences between the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften) and the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften). While the natural sciences strive for the discovery of causal relations that allow for an explanation of natural phenomena, the humanities and social sciences try to reconstruct meanings that allow for an understanding of cultural phenomena. In a way, Dilthey’s approach caught the spirit of the age since, in those days, a central concern was how to interpret and understand the dramatic and pervasive social changes (rather than to explain them) (Acham 2013, p. 164). In a certain sense, the beginning of sociology in Germany, with Simmel and Weber, was “anti-sociological,” because it was closely linked with Nietzsche’s and Dilthey’s criticisms of French and English sociology (Lichtblau 1996, pp. 77–177; 2001).

It was especially Max Weber who promoted the formation of sociology as an independent discipline by attempting to mediate between the two opposing approaches toward investigation, explaining, and understanding (Rossi 1987). Accordingly, he defined sociology as an undertaking that was to combine both understanding and explaining: “Sociology […] should mean: a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects” (Weber 1988b [1921], p. 542). Furthermore, it was Weber who strongly advocated a new understanding of science and scholarship in general (Kaesler 1984, p. 458). As Weber argues in his famous lecture “Science as a Vocation” (“Wissenschaft als Beruf”), research requires an austere fulfillment of duty and self-critical specialists (Fachmenschen as Weber would say) who have to refrain from any “academic prophecy” (Weber 1994 [1917] [1919], p. 23), that is, any claim to be a spiritual leader, prophet, or redeemer. A scholar should devote himself/herself to the cause. He or she should not indulge in sensationalism or self-idolization.

Basically, Weber’s focus on pure science and academic specialization can be interpreted as a reaction to a general feeling of uncertainty and crisis widespread among the educated German bourgeoisie (Bildungsbürgertum). Due to the rise of mass culture, this class feared for its superior social status as well as for the primacy of its traditional pattern of interpretation that revolved around culture and education (Kultur und Bildung) (Kaesler 1984, p. 459; Bollenbeck 1994, pp. 229–268). Trust in science as well as the traditional ideal of self-cultivation (Bildungsideal) vanished, thereby questioning the bourgeoisie’s self-understanding as culture-defining group. The functional change of science was accompanied by fears of a functional loss of education and self-cultivation (Bildung). One the one hand, this led to an appreciation of “culture,” as one can see from the establishment of “new” disciplines like “cultural philosophy,” “cultural sciences,” “cultural history,” and “cultural sociology” (Bollenbeck 1994, pp. 257–262); on the other hand, it led to a widespread perception of a prevailing cultural crisis (Lichtblau 1996). This perception of a crisis was caused partly by internal processes in the academic field, such as an increasing criticism of historicism (Kaesler 2014, p. 556), and partly by the expansion of higher education, a “growing numbers of students,” and an “increasing specialization” (Nipperdey 1990, p. 589) of the academic field. Many feared that science and scholarship, decoupled from education and self-cultivation (Bildung), would no longer be meaningful and prestigious (Nipperdey 1990, p. 591). In these debates around culture and education, Weber adopted a kind of “midpoint in the field of power” between the “Mandarin and modernist positions inside the university social sciences field” (Steinmetz 2009, p. 97).

The Werturteilsstreit

Weber ’s understanding of social sciences became clear and particularly prominent because of the so-called Werturteilsstreit , which can be literally translated as the “value judgement dispute.” Although the dispute was initially fought out in the field of economics, it also became central to sociology, which at that time consisted of many economists. In this way it became the first major controversy in German-speaking sociology. The controversy, that continues to this day (see Chaps. 4, 6, and Turner and Factor 1984), started in 1883 as a methodological dispute within German-speaking economics between Gustav Schmoller (1838–1917), representative of the German Historical School of Economics, and Carl Menger (1840–1921), representative of the Austrian School of Economics called Grenznutzenschule (marginalist school). At first it was a written dispute, which was then continued orally at meetings of the Verein für Socialpolitik (German Economic Association) in 1905, 1909, and 1911, as well as in 1914 (Albert 2010, p. 16). In 1913/1914, the dispute reached its peak. The Verein für Socialpolitik was founded in 1873 by members of the German Historical School of Economics. The aim of this association was to contribute to the socio-political improvement of the social situation of industrial workers as well as to provide a scientific analysis of the soziale Frage (social question). The association positioned itself between the Manchester School of Economics, which propagated the principle of free competition and laissez-faire economics, and revolutionary socialism or radical social policy.

The focus of the Werturteilsstreit was on the question of whether it is scientifically justified to express “evaluative opinions on practical questions, in particular in the field of economic and social policy” (Albert 2010, p. 15). The opponents were Schmoller, Eduard Spranger (1882–1963), and Rudolf Goldscheid (1870–1931), who supported the idea of scholarship openly taking sides, and Menger, Lujo Brentano (1844–1931), Werner Sombart, and Max Weber, who claimed that scholarship should abstain from value judgements. Yet, even though Weber supported the idea of value-neutral scholarship, he made some concessions to the other position. Thus, as the German Historical School of Economics had shown, as cultural beings (Kulturmenschen), individuals cannot help but take an evaluative stance toward the phenomena she or he studies. According to Weber, this implicates that the selection of research objects is always guided by a perspective that is influenced by values. But contrary to what the Historical School advocated, Weber argues that the actual research of the chosen phenomenon should, then, ideally be free of value judgements (Weber 1988a [1904]). Thus, Weber challenged the Kathedersozialisten (socialists of the chair), as some members of the Verein für Socialpolitik were called, with his call for Werturteilsfreiheit .

Social Science Infrastructure Around 1900 (Journals and Professional Organizations)

Sociology did not yet exist as an academic discipline at the universities in the German Reich. Those whom we now regard as early sociologists in Germany—including the aforementioned classical authors—studied and worked in disciplines like Staatswissenschaften , economics, law, or philosophy before they turned toward sociology. Their concern was initially not so much the training of future students but rather to establish sociology as an academic discipline and to secure a “‘niche’ within the highly institutionalized academic system of German universities” (Kaesler 1984, p. 251). However, student associations already existed, the largest being the Social Science Student Association in Berlin, at which Tönnies, Simmel, and Weber, among others, lectured (Köhnke 1988).

If one wanted to publish sociological ideas in an academic journal in Germany around 1900, this was possible mainly in journals of economics or the Staatswissenschaften (Holzhauser et al. 2019). However, genuinely sociological journals did not yet exist. An exception is the Monatsschrift für Soziologie , founded in 1909, of which only one volume appeared (Lichtblau 2018, p. 17). Overall, however, there was a broad field of possibilities for disseminating sociological content (Stölting 1986, pp. 145–194; Neef 2012, pp. 229–261). Since 1898 there had been the Zeitschrift für Sozialwissenschaft (Journal of Social Sciences), to which all disciplines dealing with the “social question” contributed (Stölting 1986, p. 156). Also, in 1902 the Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie und Soziologie (Quarterly for Scientific Philosophy and Sociology) was founded. Yet, according to the founders of this journal, sociology was a branch of philosophy, not an independent discipline. Founded by Robert von Mohl in 1844, the Zeitschrift für die gesamte Staatswissenschaft (Journal for the Entire Staatswissenschaft) developed a social science profile, especially under Albert Schäffle’s (1831–1903) editorship. Around 1900 there were, however, two journals that were of particular importance for the institutionalization of sociology in Germany (Lichtblau 2018, p. 18): the Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, Verwaltung und Rechtspflege des Deutschen Reiches (Yearbook for Legislation, Public Administration, and Judicature in the German Reich), published since 1873. This journal was also called “Schmollers Jahrbuch” (“Schmoller’s Yearbook”), since Schmoller’s editorship. Moreover, there was the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik (Archive for Social Science and Social Policy), first published in 1904 by Weber, Sombart, and Edgar Jaffé (1866–1921). It was in this journal that Weber published his already mentioned “Protestant Ethic” and the famous essay on “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science and Social Policy.”

Important collaborators and authors of the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik were also members of the Verein für Socialpolitik (Gorges 1980, 2018). As mentioned earlier, the Verein clearly aimed at socio-political improvements for the working classes. It did so by means of empirical research, through which it became the “center of survey research in Germany” (Oberschall 1997, p. 48).

When in 1878 the then Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck enacted the so called Sozialistengesetze (Law against the public danger of Social Democratic endeavors or Anti-Socialist Laws), which banned all socialist associations (with the exception of the Social Democratic parliamentary group in the Reichstag), the Verein für Socialpolitik shifted its goals. Instead of their earlier focus on the “social question,” they now started to investigate the so-called agrarian question, that is, the situation of peasants and medium-sized farmers. Whereas they previously conducted applied research aiming at policy advice, their intention was now to conduct “purely” scientific research (Gorges 1980, p. 158). However, as exemplarily shown by the Werturteilsstreit , there were numerous differences within the association and not all members agreed on the political or the methodological issues.

Still before the peak of the Werturteilsstreit in 1913/1914, the tensions between the scholars led to the founding of the German Sociological Association (GSA, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie) in 1909 (Honigsheim 1959).Footnote 8 The aim of the GSA was explicitly to not pursue “practical” socio-political goals, but to pursue a form of scholarship that is committed to Werturteilsfreiheit , not influenced by power structures or religion, and, thus, strictly avoids ideological conflicts as far as possible (Dörk 2018a, p. 817). The written invitation to the founding event of the German Sociological Association stated that the new organization not only wanted to raise awareness of sociological issues, but also to promote the establishment of sociological professorships and to create a central office for sociological research (Simmel 2008 [1908]; cf. Dörk 2018a). The invitation also included a long list of sociological problems the association wanted to attend to: methods, the division of labor, ethics, public opinion, sexuality, and “racial issues.” In addition to Tönnies, Simmel, and Max Weber, Paul Barth (1858–1922), Georg Jellinek (1851–1911), Karl Lamprecht (1856–1915), Theodor Lipps (1851–1914), Franz Oppenheimer (1864–1943), Werner Sombart, Ernst Troeltsch, Alfred Vierkandt (1867–1953), Alfred Weber (1868–1958), and others signed the invitation.

The official founding of the GSA took place on March 7, 1909, at the Hotel Esplanade in Berlin. The board consisted of Tönnies—who served as chairman of the meeting and later, until 1933, as president of the newly founded association—Georg Simmel, and Werner Sombart. Max Weber took care of the finances (Dörk 2018a, p. 816). In 1912, the GSA already had 334 members (Kaesler 2014, p. 654). The new organization’s aim was to foster research, but also to encourage regular exchange between its members. Larger regular meetings with lectures—the so-called Soziologentag (literally “Sociologists’ Day”)—were planned for this purpose.

In October 1910, the first German Soziologentag took place in Frankfurt am Main. The expectations were high. At the end of his speech the president, Tönnies (1911, p. 37), stated that his hope for sociology was nothing less than that humankind would recognize itself through sociology and that it would learn to control itself through self-knowledge. But precisely because of a “lack of self-control,” the first Soziologentag ended in a scandal that was again caused by a dispute about the question of value judgements (Lepsius 2011, pp. 15–16) and which intensified in 1913/1914 the above-mentioned Werturteilsstreit (cf. Albert 2010).

The “Ideas of 1914” and World War I

In October 1912, the second Soziologentag took place in Berlin. The central subject of the meeting was the nation—a pressing topic with respect to the highly charged political atmosphere of the time. The younger brother of Max, Alfred Weber, delivered the keynote address that discussed the sociological concept of culture. A central topic of his presentation was the distinction between culture and civilization (Loader 2012, pp. 73–80). As his lecture shows, these two terms formed a crucial conceptual opposition already on the eve of World War I. This dichotomy was, as Norbert Elias (1977 [1937] [1939], pp. 1–64) has shown, a widespread pattern of interpretation in Germany and was increasingly used to express a national contrast. Since World War I, this dichotomy has been called the “Ideas of 1914” (Nipperdey 1990, p. 594; Bollenbeck 1994, pp. 268–277). It signifies the construction of a “fundamental contradiction” “between the despised Western ‘civilization,’” the Enlightenment, consumption, and merchants on the one hand, and on the other the “German culture” considered as “superior,” the realm of heroes, the soul, and the spirit (Nolte 2000, p. 69).

World War I began in August 1914. With respect to domestic affairs, World War I seemed to offer a solution to the internal political and social conflicts. Many contemporaries considered the beginning of the war as a promise for national reconciliation and unity. However, not all sections of the German population were equally keen about the general mobilization. It was above all members of the bourgeoisie as well as the urban and intellectual classes who developed a strong enthusiasm for the war and idealized its beginning as the so-called “August Experience” (August-Erlebnis) (Flasch 2000).

Similar to many other intellectuals and scholars, in 1914 the majority of the German sociologists believed that the Germans now had to defend the German “culture” against the French, English, and American “civilization” that was denounced as materialistic. With few exceptions, also the sociologists saw the war as a cultural struggle (Joas and Knöbl 2012, pp. 133–144). Nothing remained from the previously praised Werturteilsfreiheit . To the contrary, instead of making the war, militancy, and mass hysteria the subjects of professional and sober sociological analysis, the German Sociological Association decided right at the beginning of the war to put its forces and resources at the service of war propaganda and to “inform foreign countries about the justified ‘rational will to win’ of the Germans” (Papcke 1985, p. 139). Hence, the same scholars who lamented the social levelling that accompanied the emergence of mass society “hailed the levelling and de-differentiation of society into a nation and Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community)” (Nolte 2000, p. 66).

In a speech in November 1914, shortly after the beginning of the war, Simmel (1999 [1914]) attempted to found his nationalism on his Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life). For him, new dimensions of experience, new communities, and even a new type of human being could emerge from the war. According to Simmel’s vitalistic point of view, the war could not only bring about a solution for the tragedy and crisis of culture and the alienating effects of individualism but also a revival of creative vitality.

In his “nationalist mood” (Nipperdey 1990, p. 814), Max Weber immediately volunteered for military service. In early August 1914, he wrote to his publisher Paul Siebeck that the war was “great and wonderful,” a “holy war of defense” (Weber cited by Kaube 2014, p. 350; Kaesler 2014, pp. 737–759). Although Weber’s initial enthusiasm for war declined very soon (Joas and Knöbl 2012, pp. 142–143), he did not really develop a scientific perspective on the war. Only Emil Lederer (1882–1939), a cultural sociologist and economist, provided a sober and objective sociological analysis of it. In 1915, he presented an important analysis of the ideological transformation from society to community in all countries involved in the war (Lederer 2014 [1915]).

In its statutes, the German Sociological Association had committed itself to Werturteilsfreiheit . Nevertheless, only shortly after the foundation of the GSA this ethos vanished. In the course of World War I, Werturteilsfreiheit was no longer existent or of any concern for the German Sociological Association.

Sociology in the Weimar Republic

The enthusiasm of sociologists about the war declined considerably during the course of the war (Joas and Knöbl 2012, pp. 142–143). Disillusioned and shocked, sociologists criticized the monarchy and Prussian power politics. Tönnies, Max Weber, and Troeltsch all turned into so-called “rational Republicans” (Vernunftrepublikaner) (Stölting 1986, p. 71), meaning that they became supporters of the new democratic Weimar Republic, not because they felt very sympathetic with this new form of government, but more due to rational reasons (cf. Mommsen 2004 [1959], pp. 305–355; Wierzock 2017). Alfred Weber became co-founder of the left-liberal DDP (German Democratic Party) (Demm 1990, pp. 256–294). Even Max Scheler (1874–1928), who had praised the “genius of war”—this was the title of his book published in 1915—almost hymn-like while the war was still ongoing, now changed his mind. According to the sociologists, the Monarchy had abdicated, and now it was time to make the most of the new social and political conditions.

With Germany’s defeat in the war, not only the war, but also the reign of Wilhelm II ended. In many German cities workers’ and soldiers’ councils were founded, allowing the hope for a radical democratic council republic (Räterepublik). The German Revolution of 1918–1919 took place. However, after bloody battles and numerous deaths, the conservative forces soon regained dominance.

On January 19, 1919, the first elections to the National Assembly took place. For the first time in Germany, women were permitted to exercise an active and passive suffrage. The new republic was faced with enormous tasks and problems (for the following see Ullrich 2009, p. 44): securing the supply of food, repatriation, and reintegration of the millions of soldiers, conversion to a peace economy, reparation payments to the victorious powers, and further burdens from the Treaty of Versailles. Many Germans perceived this settlement as a humiliation. In addition, there was a lack of identification with the Republic and parliamentarianism among the population. In the first phase of the Republic (1919–1923), dissatisfaction became apparent through several attempted coups and the increase in votes for radical parties. Only in the second phase (1923–1929) did the currency reform and the “Dawes” plan, which regulated reparations payments according to economic performance and which led to foreign investment and loans, bring about an economic upswing. Despite these positive trends, the Republic remained economically and politically crisis-prone. There were economic monopolies, an increase in short-term work and unemployment due to the rationalization of work processes, a crisis in agriculture, rural exodus, and the return of the former upper class to power (in 1925, the former monarchist and field marshal Paul von Hindenburg was elected president of Germany). The class of the employees became more and more important, so that it also became the subject of sociological research. This “new middle class” between the proletarian masses and the capitalist elite, however, was deeply unsettled. The combination of upward social mobility and the fear of losing one’s social status, as well as the associated uncertainty, led the middle classes to adopt nationalist attitudes (Peukert 1987, p. 161). As sociological analyses at the end of the Weimar Republic showed, there were strong affinities between the “new middle class” and the National Socialists (Geiger 1932).

The term “Golden Twenties” that is commonly used when speaking of the 1920s refers not only to the economic upswing in the mid-1920s, but also to the cultural productivity and creativity of that time. Avant-garde styles and art movements such as Dadaism, Bauhaus, and New Objectivity developed. The Weimar era was a veritable “field of experimentation” and a moment of “culmination of modernity” (Becker 2018). Numerous new technologies and inventions emerged: the expansion of the railway and shipping, the development of the telecommunications infrastructure, the first transmission of images, radio, the relativity theory, and penicillin (Becker 2018). Mass culture and entertainment culture continued to grow, especially in the metropolis of Berlin. Mass media such as film, photography, radio, records, and magazines became increasingly widespread.

In mass culture and economic rationalization, an increasing influence of the USA could be observed. Within sociology, this was reflected in the reception of sociology from the USA that began in the mid-1920s. Only the right-wing conservative forces did not share the enthusiasm for the USA. For them, the USA was the epitome of the hostile Western civilization that was undermining German culture.

Although the “mass culture” generally found acceptance across classes, this should not obscure the fact that Weimar society remained a deeply divided class society (Winkler 2005, p. 296). Not everyone was able to participate in the new entertainment culture. Social reality continued to be characterized by high unemployment, poor provision for war widows, impoverished families, and prostitution. In particular, unemployed youths tended to take radical political positions and to engage in paramilitary combat units.

Nationalist and right-wing conservative positions found intellectual breeding ground in the so-called “stab-in-the-back myth” (Dolchstoßlegende) as well as in the “Conservative Revolution” (Breuer 1995). The “stab-in-the-back myth” had been created by the Supreme Army Command. The myth said that Germany had not suffered a war defeat because of its military weakness, but because of social democratic and Jewish activities at home. The myth continued to circulate among large sections of the population until the end of the Weimar Republic. The “Conservative Revolution” was a nationalist current of thought that was anti-republican, anti-liberal, anti-democratic, belligerent, and culturally pessimistic, and aimed at a “new nationalism.”

In the third phase (1929–1933), the Republic changed, in particular because of the dynamics of the global economic crisis. Unemployment rose rapidly. In new elections in 1930, besides the KPD (Communist Party of Germany), the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP , or short Nazi Party) won additional votes. When in renewed elections at the end of 1932 it became apparent that the NSDAP was to receive fewer votes and the KPD more, Hindenburg, the president of the German Reich, decided to make Adolf Hitler chancellor in order to avert the danger from the left. This was followed by the Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) of 1933, bans of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the KPD, and the dissolution of all parties. The NSDAP became the state party and a period of state terror began. The Weimar Republic no longer existed.

Sociological Centers and Actors in the Weimar Republic

Simmel had died in 1918, close to the end of the war, Max Weber in 1920. Their respective sociologies continued to play a role but often more subcutaneously or in a one-dimensional way. For example: Although some of the sociologists referred to Simmel by developing a Simmel-oriented “formal sociology,” like Leopold von Wiese (1876–1967) with his Beziehungslehre (theory of relationships), this was more directed to an ahistorical formalism than toward Simmel’s historical theory of modernity. It was only many years after World War II that Simmel and Weber enjoyed a broader reception again. In the Weimar Republic, Tönnies was primarily active as president of the German Sociological Association, and his book Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft received a great deal of attention, especially among those who lamented the decline of Gemeinschaft.

During the Weimar Republic, sociology as an academic discipline began to institutionalize and professionalize itself.Footnote 9 This positive development was initially due to Carl Heinrich Becker (1876–1933), a State Secretary and later Minister of Education in the Prussian Ministry of Culture. He promoted the establishment of new chairs of sociology, because he hoped that sociology would be able to create a synthesis between the increasingly differentiated academic disciplines (Becker 1919). His view was fiercely contested (Stölting 1986, pp. 92–101; Loader 2012, p. 102), but finally he won. While there were only three professorships in 1919, further sociological professorships were established at many universities during the Weimar era. However, there was now much sociology, but not the synthesis that Becker had desired.

The first processes of an institutionalization of sociology began at newly founded universities: Franz Oppenheimer began teaching at the first chair of sociology in Frankfurt am Main, and in Cologne Leopold von Wiese was appointed to the chair of economic Staatswissenschaften (science of the state) and sociology and Max Scheler to the chair of philosophy and sociology.


In 1919, the first “Research Institute for Social Sciences” was founded in Cologne (cf. Knebelspieß and Moebius 2019). The foundation was an initiative of the mayor Konrad Adenauer (who became the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany after World War II) (von Alemann 1981, p. 349). The institute had three departments, a sociological, a socio-political, and a legal one. The sociological department was headed by von Wiese and Scheler. However, there was no cooperation between the two of them. Von Wiese devoted himself to the development of his Beziehungslehre , Scheler to the sociology of knowledge, phenomenology, and philosophical anthropology. The first sociological assistants were Paul Honigsheim, Anny Ohrnberger, and Maria Scheu (Gorges 1986, p. 101). In 1921, von Wiese founded the Kölner Vierteljahrshefte für Sozialwissenschaften (Cologne Quarterly of Social Sciences), which was renamed to Kölner Vierteljahrshefte für Soziologie (Cologne Quarterly of Sociology) in 1923. Nowadays, as the Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie (KZfSS, Cologne Journal of Sociology and Social Psychology), it is still one of the most renowned places for sociological articles in Germany (Moebius 2017). The founding of this first purely sociological journal in Germany was an important component of von Wiese’s efforts to institutionalize sociology in the academic field of the Weimar Republic. He hoped that the journal would unite sociology. However, a large part of the journal was dedicated to his Beziehungslehre .

During the interwar period, von Wiese increasingly became an important spokesman of and an “institution builder” (Kaesler 1984, p. 462) in sociology. He was a “gate-keeper,” not only because he was in charge of an institute with its own journal, but also because he had great influence on the German Sociological Association as secretary and organizer of the Soziologentage (Gorges 1986, p. 97). Although his Beziehungslehre was one of the central theoretical positions at the beginning of the 1920s, it did not have a lasting influence. In later generations it had almost no effect—apart from Howard P. Becker (1899–1960), who was temporarily a disciple of von Wiese. It was rather von Wiese’s organizational talent that made him an important sociologist in the interwar period.

Max Scheler was central to the emergence of the sociology of knowledge, which he built up parallel to Karl Mannheim (1893–1947). In 1928 Scheler founded Philosophical Anthropology at the same time as Helmuth Plessner (1892–1985). Both had developed this line of thought, which is still a component (and also a unique characteristic) of German-speaking sociology, in very different ways and in a “rival relationship” in Cologne (Fischer 2008, pp. 23–91). The “anthropologization” that could be observed in the interwar period (Rehberg 1981), and to which Scheler and Plessner contributed significantly, was also the result of an examination of the problem of relativism that they saw in historicism (Acham 1998, p. 544). In short, many hoped for an unshakeable basis and a firm foundation in uncertain times.


Another central place of the sociological field of the Weimar Republic was Heidelberg, where the Institute for Social Sciences and Staatswissenschaften was founded in 1924 (Blomert 1999). Heidelberg stood for a historical sociology of culture, represented in particular by Alfred Weber (Stölting 1986, p. 106; Loader 2012, pp. 110–143). Characteristic of Alfred Weber’s cultural sociology was an appreciation of the cultural as opposed to the process of civilization, that is, in relation to capitalism, urbanization, industrialization, and rationalization (Eckert 1970). Weber distinguished three spheres of historical process: the social process, the civilizational process, and the cultural movement (Kulturbewegung). The social process included the social structure, the economy, politics, and the population. The civilizational process designated the area of the means to control nature, that is, technology, inventions, science, and rational thinking. The cultural movement, on the other hand, included ideas, intellectual beliefs, religious convictions, art, and values. Weber saw the main problem of his time in the increasing discrepancy between the cultural and the social-civilizational sphere; cultural sociology he considered as the solution to the problem. Cultural sociology should, with the help of cultural history, record the spontaneous, purposeless, creative, and vital forces of man in a historical manner and bring them to bear again. As was already the case before the war, a normative charging of the concept of culture could still be observed during the Weimar era in Alfred Weber and other scholars of the educated middle classes of his generation, who wanted to enhance their own social status through the valorization of culture. For them, “culture” continued to serve as a tendentious term.

In 1924, Arnold Bergstraesser (1896–1964) became the assistant of Alfred Weber. In Heidelberg, Bergstraesser endeavored to promote international scholarly exchange, especially with France. He became one of the directors of the Academic Exchange Service (now “Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst” (DAAD), German Academic Exchange Service), which was newly founded there. It was probably also through the Exchange Service that Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) came to Heidelberg, where in 1926/1927 he obtained his doctorate with a thesis on capitalism in Sombart and Max Weber. Bergstraesser had been close to the “national revolution” since 1933 (Schmitt 1997, p. 173). But after hostilities by Nazi students and the withdrawal of the venia legendi, he emigrated to California in 1937. In 1941/1942 and in 1942/1943, he was imprisoned in the USA for several months because he was suspected of collaborating with the Nazis (Liebold 2012, pp. 96–100; Schmitt 1997, pp. 175–176). After World War II, Bergstraesser was one of the co-founders of political science in the Federal Republic of Germany after 1945.

The second director of the institute in Heidelberg was Emil Lederer (1882–1939). He was professor of social policy. He wrote, among other things, about social classes, the social-psychic habitus of the present, the sociology of revolutions, violence, art, public opinion, employees, and unemployment. Among Lederer’s assistants was Hans Speier (1905–1990). Other students and participants in Lederer’s seminars were among others Albert Salomon (1891–1966), Fritz Simon Croner (1896–1979), who helped to develop Swedish sociology from 1934 (Larsson and Magdalenič 2015, pp. 53–54), Carl Zuckmayer (1896–1977), Svend Riemer (1905–1977), who presented one of the first sociological analyses of National Socialism in 1932 (Riemer 1932; Kaesler and Steiner 1992, pp. 108–111), Hans H. Gerth (1908–1978), and Talcott Parsons (Blomert 1999, pp. 59, 93). Speier’s interests included the sociology of knowledge, the role of intellectuals, employees, and propaganda. In the early 1930s, Speier moved to Berlin with Lederer. He also followed Lederer into exile in the USA in 1933, where Lederer became the first dean of the University in Exile at the New School for Social Research.

Just a few short words about the University in Exile (Rutkoff and Scott 1986, 1988; Krohn 1987, pp. 70–104; Fleck 2015, pp. 65–74; Friedlander 2018): In 1933, one of the co-founders of the New School, Alvin Johnson, set up a graduate faculty there consisting of refugee European social scientists (cf. Friedlander 2018). Johnson appointed Emil Lederer as the first dean of this University in Exile. Together they sought out other social scientists. Under the editorship of Lederer and his former assistant Hans Speier, the faculty’s journal Social Research was published.Footnote 10 During these first years, besides Lederer and Speier, Frieda Wunderlich (1884–1965), Carl Mayer (1902–1974), a sociologist of religion who earned his doctorate in Heidelberg, and (since 1935) Albert Salomon were employed. A few years later, Gottfried Salomon (1892–1964), former assistant of Oppenheimer, joined them. The University in Exile offered them a safe haven, when the life-threatening repression of the Nazi regime forced more and more academics to flee Germany.

In 1924, Norbert Elias (1897–1990) came to Heidelberg and became a postdoctoral researcher preparing for his habilitation under Alfred Weber.Footnote 11 Elias soon belonged to the inner circle of the institute and later became the “unofficial assistant” (Elias 1990, p. 125) of Karl Mannheim, who had fled the White Terror from Hungary in 1919 together with Georg Lukács (1885–1971). Both, Lukács and Mannheim, were Simmel students. But while Lukács finally detached himself from his life-philosophical phase and became a Marxist, Mannheim developed the sociology of knowledge with numerous contributions and pertinent research. In 1925, he submitted his habilitation on conservatism to Alfred Weber, Carl Brinkmann (1885–1954), and Emil Lederer in Heidelberg, which was written from the perspective of the sociology of knowledge. He taught in Heidelberg from 1926 (Blomert 1999, p. 239). In 1929, the widely received and controversially discussed book Ideology and Utopia was published.

Siegfried Landshut (1897–1968) also studied in Heidelberg in the mid-1920s and then continued his work at the university of Hamburg. In 1929, he wrote an interesting critique of sociology (Landshut 1929/1969) in which he argued for a decidedly historical orientation. Together with the SPD-archivist Jacob Peter Mayer (1903–1992) and in collaboration with the archivist Friedrich Salomon (1890–1946), Landshut also published Marx’s early writings (almost simultaneously to the publication within the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA)), which had hitherto received little attention, and thus helped to create new interpretations of Marx’s work in the West (Nicolaysen 1997, pp. 132–157, 374–379).Footnote 12 After the Second World War, Landshut was a central figure in the development of political science in Germany.


In Berlin, the new higher education policy of the government, which promoted sociology, had a particularly positive effect. Besides Werner Sombart, at this time Alfred Vierkandt, Kurt Breysig (1866–1940), Richard Thurnwald (1869–1954), Karl Dunkmann (1868–1932), and Goetz Briefs (1889–1974) were in Berlin (see Stölting 1986, pp. 109–110). Alfred Vierkandt was particularly relevant for the institutionalization of sociology there. This, however, was not so much related to his concept of a formal sociology as to the publication of the famous Handwörterbuch der Soziologie (1931, Handbook of Sociology). With the Handbook, Vierkandt wanted to show that sociology was an independent science. The handbook was intended to be a kind of codification of the contemporary state of sociology in Germany. From the table of contents of this book, it can be seen that despite its successive differentiation, German-speaking sociology at that time still understood itself foremost as a cultural sociology. Thus, three of the four parts are dedicated to issues of cultural sociology.

Although there were occasional contacts with foreign sociologists, sociology in Germany remained largely isolated. One of the few exceptions was the ethno-sociologist Richard Thurnwald, who taught in Berlin. He contributed to the internationalization of sociology during the Weimar Republic. He was receptive, for example, to US-American sociology and cultural anthropology. Numerous foreign researchers participated in the Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Soziologie (Journal of Völkerpsychologie and Sociology), which he founded in 1925 and that he edited together with Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942). From 1936, however, he adapted to the NS regime and advocated German colonialism (Steinmetz 2009).

In Berlin, there also was Frieda Wunderlich. Since 1930 she was professor of sociology and social policy there at a public institute for vocational education studies, the Staatliches Berufspädagogisches Institut in Berlin (Wobbe 1997, pp. 173). As a Jew, social reformer, and women’s rights activist she had to flee Germany in 1933. Through Hans Speier she reached the University in Exile in 1933, where she became the first female dean in 1938/1939, succeeding Emil Lederer.


Sociology in Hamburg, represented by Andreas Walther (1879–1960), had a clear empirical orientation. Walther strove for the reception and discussion of Max Weber’s work, and he also advocated a close alliance between sociology, ethnology, and historical studies. However, his historical-sociological orientation changed when he studied in the USA. There he published an essay on sociology in Germany and became acquainted with empirical research techniques, which subsequently guided his work. Conversely, he was also one of the first to make US-American sociology known in Germany (Walther 1927) and was therefore an exception among the otherwise anti-American conservative sociologists. From 1933 onwards, he put his empirical sociology at the service of the National Socialist social-hygienic population policy (Waßner 1986, p. 407).


Hans Freyer (1887–1960) played an even more active role in the Nazi regime. In 1925, Freyer was appointed to the chair of sociology in Leipzig (Muller 1987, pp. 122–222). There he had a great impact on younger, especially national-revolutionary scholars (Schäfer 1990), so that nowadays sociology under Freyer is referred to as the circle of “Leipzig sociology” (Rehberg 1999). Besides Freyer, Arnold Gehlen (1904–1976), and Helmut Schelsky (1912–1984) were the most prominent representatives of sociology in Leipzig. After 1945, Schelsky was one of the most influential sociologists of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). All three allied themselves with National Socialism (Rehberg 1999, p. 73). Other students and collaborators of Freyer’s included Gunther Ipsen (1899–1984), Karl-Heinz Pfeffer (1906–1971), and Karl Valentin Müller (1896–1973), all of whom appeared as “convinced National Socialists” in their academic work and political practice (Schäfer 1990, p. 158). Freyer described “sociology as a science of reality,” which was the title of his main work, published in 1930 (Soziologie als Wirklichkeitswissenschaft). Initially, Freyer argued in a strictly historical way and in the manner of sociology of knowledge. Since every sociology is historically and culturally bound to a certain social reality (Freyer 1930, p. 67), national sociologies also differ. Therefore, one could not assume ahistorical or anthropological basic forms of the social as formal sociology does. If one followed this historical perspective, for Freyer, the present sociology had to be a different one from that during the period of the emergence of liberalism, bourgeoisie, and capitalism. The result is that every nation has—according to its history—its own sociology. However, it was then highly problematic that Freyer left this historical perspective for a more political one, concluding that the time had come for a “German” sociology to contribute to the process of the Germans “becoming a people” (Volkswerdung). In 1931, the book Revolution von rechts (Revolution from the Right) was published. In this book he affirmed his desire for the process of “becoming a people” (Muller 1987, pp. 186–266) and for the dissolution of society into a “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) (Stölting 2006, p. 27).

Frankfurt am Main

Sociology developed quite differently in Frankfurt, which was, alongside Cologne, of central importance for the institutionalization of sociology. Franz Oppenheimer received the first sociological professorship in 1919 (Caspari and Lichtblau 2014). He understood sociology as a historical universal science (historische Universalwissenschaft) in which economics, history, ethnology, law, art, and religious studies “merge” (Oppenheimer 1922, p. 134).Footnote 13 Oppenheimer’s assistants were Fritz Sternberg (1895–1963) and Gottfried Salomon. As of 1926, Salomon (later Salomon-Delatour) published the Jahrbuch für Soziologie (Yearbook for Sociology), with which he wanted to achieve an internationalization and an alternative to a one-sidedly “German” sociology (Henning 2006, p. 77).

In 1930, Karl Mannheim succeeded Oppenheimer in Frankfurt. When Mannheim left Heidelberg and went to Frankfurt, some of his students, such as Nina Rubinstein (1908–1996), Kurt H. Wolff (1912–2003), Norbert Elias, and Hans Gerth, followed him. Gottfried Salomon formally became Mannheim’s assistant, but the relationship between them was clouded (Henning 2006, p. 81). Others, such as Gisèle Freund (1908–2000), Jakob Katz (1904–1998), and Wilhelm Carlé (1887–?), became Mannheim’s students, so that a real “Mannheim circle” (Ilieva 2010) or “Mannheim research group” (Kettler et al. 2008, p. 1) was formed in Frankfurt.Footnote 14 Among them were also an unusually large number of female students (Honegger 1993, pp. 185–190; Kettler and Meja 1993; Kettler et al. 2008; Ilieva 2010, pp. 127–135). Besides Freund and Rubinstein there were also Margarete Freudenthal (1894–1984), Frieda Haussig (1903–1982), Käthe Truhel (1906–1992), Toni Oelsner (1907–1981), the sisters (born Seligmann) Evelyn Anderson (1909–1977) and Ilse Ziegellaub (since 1944: Seglow) (1900–1984), Natalie Halperin (1908–1974), and later, in exile in London, Viola Klein (1908–1973), who published in 1946 the feminist book The Feminine Character: History of an Ideology, and Charlotte Lütkens (1896–1967), who had previously studied in the classes of Alfred Weber, Emil Lederer, and Franz Oppenheimer. With Frieda Wunderlich, Klein and Lütkens were among the very few women from Germany, who after 1933 were still able to do sociology in the academic field.

In the mid-1930s Elias wrote Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation (1979 [1939]), which later became a world bestseller in the second half of the 1970s and which drew on central concepts of Alfred Weber, but turned them in a completely different direction. Gerth, also academically socialized in Heidelberg, had begun a dissertation under Mannheim with a thesis on the socio-historical position of the bourgeois intellectuals around 1800. He completed his doctorate in 1933 under the successor of Karl Mannheim, Heinz Marr (1876–1940) (Gerth 2000, pp. 134–135). Like Mannheim, Lederer, Speier, Elias, Wolff, Gisèle Freund, and many others of Mannheim’s circle in Frankfurt, Gerth also had to flee into exile after the NSDAP came to power in 1933. Gerth arrived at New York in 1937 and became later very well known for his translations of Max Weber essays, published with C. Wright Mills (1916–1962).

At the same time as in Heidelberg, an institute, the Institute for Social Research (IfS), was founded in Frankfurt in 1924 (see Jay 1981 [1973]; Wiggershaus 2001 [1988]; Albrecht et al. 1999; Demirović 1999). The first director was the Austrian Marxist Carl Grünberg (1861–1940). After Grünberg had suffered a stroke in 1928, Max Horkheimer took over as director in the early 1930s. Unlike the economist Grünberg, Horkheimer stood for the connection between Marxism, “bourgeois science,” and philosophy (Wiggershaus 2001 [1988], p. 53). In addition, with Erich Fromm (1900–1980), who had obtained his doctorate with Alfred Weber, the institute expanded its orientation toward psychoanalysis and social psychology. The Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (English: Journal of Social Research), which first appeared in 1932 and continued to be published in exile until 1941, became the institute’s medium of publication. Besides Horkheimer, in the interwar period, the central actors in the sphere of the IfS and the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung were Friedrich Pollock (1894–1970), Erich Fromm, Otto Kirchheimer (1905–1965), Franz L. Neumann (1900–1954), Henryk Grossmann (1881–1950), Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), Leo Löwenthal (1900–1993), Siegfried Kracauer (1889–1966), Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), and Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969). The institute was in competition with Karl Mannheim’s sociological seminar. According to Horkheimer, Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge had both an idealist and a relativist tendency (Barboza 2010, p. 163).

At the beginning of the 1930s, as the National Socialists’ seizure of power became increasingly apparent, branches of the IfS were established in Geneva, London, and Paris. This ensured the existence of the IfS. In the summer of 1934, a branch office was opened at Columbia University in New York, which subsequently became the main office of the IfS. In 1940 it moved to Pacific Palisades in California (Wheatland 2009). Horkheimer and Adorno began their work on the Dialectic of Enlightenment, while Otto Kirchheimer, Franz L. Neumann, and Herbert Marcuse spent several years producing secret reports on Nazi Germany for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to combat fascism (Neumann et al. 2013; Müller 2010).


René König (1906–1992), who studied in Berlin in the 1920s and who became one of Western Germany’s leading sociologists after World War II, remarked in retrospect that toward the end of the Weimar era there had been a new, promising wave in sociology, represented in particular by Karl Mannheim and Theodor Geiger (1891–1952). Part of this “new wave” was the increasing orientation toward US-American sociology, as could be observed with Thurnwald, Walther, Mannheim, and Geiger. In 1928, Geiger had been appointed professor of sociology at the Technical University of Braunschweig on the recommendation of Tönnies and Vierkandt (see Geißler and Meyer 2000, p. 279). In the interwar period, Geiger received broad and international attention because of several publications: the monograph Die Masse und ihre Aktion. Ein Beitrag zur Soziologie der Revolutionen (1926, The Mass and its Action. A Contribution to the Sociology of Revolutions), articles on community, society, revolution, and leadership, published in Vierkandt’s Handwörterbuch (1931), and the book Die soziale Schichtung des deutschen Volkes (1932, The Social Stratification of the German People). In this book, Geiger (1932, pp. 12, 25) used the terms “stratum,” “social situation” (soziale Lage), “habitus,” “lifestyle” (Lebensduktus), and “mentality” long before they became commonly used in sociology to analyze social structure. Among sociologists, Geiger was one of the most decisive critics of National Socialism. In Die soziale Schichtung des deutschen Volkes (1932), he threw a nuanced glance at the social structure of the Weimar Republic and discovered an increasing popular approval of the policies of the NSDAP. Toward the end of the book, he analyzed the interrelation between the middle classes’ fears of relegation and their longings for promotion on the one side and the NSDAP’s success in the 1930 elections to the Reichstag on the other (Geiger 1932, p. 111). Geiger advocated for an empirical orientation of sociology. He criticized the speculative, philosophical, and detached style of many colleagues. He recommended them instead to acquire knowledge of statistical methods from the USA (Meyer 2001, pp. 42–71). In September 1933, Geiger was dismissed. Despite certain attempts to adapt to the ruling regime (Geißler and Meyer 2000, p. 280), he was threatened and subjected to spying. He had impeded the planned professorship for “Organische Gesellschaftslehre und Politik” (Organic Sociology and Politics) for Adolf Hitler in Braunschweig and he had already publicly criticized the NSDAP for several years. He emigrated to Denmark, where he first received a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation in Copenhagen and finally became the first Danish professor of sociology at Aarhus University in 1938 (Kropp 2015).Footnote 15

In addition to the aforementioned centers and actors of sociology during the Weimar Republic, there were further places where sociology was practiced like Aachen, Göttingen, Halle, Jena, Kiel, or Münster. In comparison to those mentioned, however, they were not equally visible.Footnote 16

At the beginning of the 1930s, contemporaries such as Geiger evaluated the epoch of Weimar sociology positively: “Finally, sociology in Germany too has left behind the epoch of the struggle for its recognition as an independent academic discipline” (Geiger 1931, p. 568). However, it was not only in the academic field that things seemed to develop positively for sociology. Besides academic institutionalization, the popular education movement and non-university institutions were also of great importance for the recognition and dissemination of sociology (see Lepsius 2017a [1981], pp. 15–16; Fornefeld et al. 1986).

Institutionalization Through Sociological Journals in the Weimar Republic

The process of the institutionalization of sociology in the Weimar Republic was advanced by the founding of new journals (for the following see Stölting 1986, pp. 145–194; Neef 2012, pp. 229–261). The central medium for sociological publications in the Weimar period and the first sociological journal was the aforementioned Kölner Vierteljahrshefte für Soziologie (Cologne Quarterly of Sociology). Besides von Wiese, Max Scheler, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Alfred Vierkandt, also Rudolf Goldscheid, Hans Kelsen, Wilhelm Jerusalem, Robert Michels, Richard Thurnwald, Werner Sombart, Andreas Walther, Max Graf zu Solms, Paul Ludwig Landsberg, Friedrich Hertz, Franz Oppenheimer, Carl Brinkmann, Karl Dunkmann, Rudolf Heberle, Theodor Geiger, Othmar Spann, Max Rumpf, Robert E. Park, Pitirim A. Sorokin, Sebald Rudolf Steinmetz, Charles Bouglé, Helmuth Plessner, Howard P. Becker, Johann Plenge, and Karl Mannheim published there. Some women, such as Käthe Bauer-Mengelberg, Maria Steinhoff, Hanna Meuter, Gertrud Faßhauer, and Charlotte von Reichenau, were also among the authors who published in this journal. If one examines the topics of the first issues of the Vierteljahreshefte up to 1923 (Gorges 1986), they reveal a predominantly self-referential examination of the authors’ understanding of science, but no analysis of the immediate social problems of their time.

In 1925, Gottfried Salomon founded the Jahrbuch für Soziologie , of which only three volumes were published. It saw itself as a melting pot of different approaches. Among the authors of the Jahrbuch were, for example, Celestin Bouglé, Maurice Halbwachs, Robert H. Lowie, René Maunier, Robert Michels, Gaetano Mosca, Pitirim A. Sorokin, Yasama Takata, Tönnies, Vierkandt, but also von Wiese.

Similarly international was the Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Soziologie by Richard Thurnwald and Bronislaw Malinowski, also published since 1925 (as of 1932 it was called Sociologus ). Not only were William F. Ogburn (1886–1959), Edward Sapir (1884–1939), Pitirim Sorokin (1889–1968), and Steinmetz co-editors of the journal over the years, but from 1932 onwards and under the extended subtitle A Journal of Sociology and Social Psychology it was published bilingually.

The Soziologentage and the Sociology of Knowledge Dispute

The first Soziologentag (Sociologists’ Day) of the German Sociological Association after World War I took place in Jena in September 1922. Ferdinand Tönnies took over the office of president; Leopold von Wiese became secretary (Dörk 2018b). At first, the activities of the GSA were continued as if nothing had happened between 1914 and 1918. Even after the war, the GSA was unable to move toward self-criticism of its war propaganda speeches. Instead of trying to focus on current social problems, von Wiese called for a Ruhe des Schauens (“quietness of observation”) and urged for caution regarding too much Weltnähe (“worldliness”) (von Wiese quoted by Papcke 1986, p. 184). Symptomatic of this deliberately unworldly attitude were the Soziologentage (Kaesler 1981; Gorges 1986). The third Soziologentag , held in 1922, for example, was held under the motto “The Nature of the Revolution.” In light of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the failed proletarian revolution in Germany in 1918/1919, a realistic sociological analysis and discussion of “revolution” would have seemed obvious. However, the conference was less concerned with the essence of the revolution than with “the definition of sociology” (Kaesler 2008, p. 81). Antipodes of this controversy were in particular Leopold von Wiese, who regarded his Beziehungslehre as the essence of sociology, and the Austrian Marxist Max Adler (1873–1937), who criticized von Wiese’s keynote lecture as completely unsociological. There were also attacks against von Wiese at other meetings of the GSA.

One of the highlights in the history of the Soziologentage in the interwar period occurred at the sixth meeting in 1928, in Zurich, Switzerland. One of the main topics was “competition”; key note speakers were Leopold von Wiese and Karl Mannheim. The subject of Mannheim’s lecture was “Competition in the Intellectual Domain” (Die Konkurrenz auf dem Gebiete des Geistigen). The lecture was perceived by some as a “spiritual revolution” and “fireworks of stimulating insights” (Elias 1990, p. 145); by others, like Alfred Weber, it was seen as a rebellion within the GSA (König 1987, p. 356; Loader 2012, pp. 149–152).

Mannheim ’s lecture was the peak in the so-called “Sociology of Knowledge Dispute” of sociology in Germany and made him become the young and heatedly debated “shooting star” in sociology and outside of sociology (Kettler and Meja 1994, p. 284). “Representatives of all generations of German scholars” (Srubar 2010, p. 60), from Alfred Weber and Werner Sombart to Otto Neurath (1882–1945), Max Horkheimer, Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956), Max Adler, Ernst Grünwald (1912–1933), Alexander von Schelting (1894–1963), Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), Herbert Marcuse, and Karl August Wittvogel (1896–1988), all discussed Mannheim’s theses controversially (Meja and Stehr 1990). They accused him either of sociologism, relativism, sociological materialism, or “submarxism.” The sociology of knowledge was also regarded as a rival to Marxist approaches. Conservatives accused Mannheim of being a danger to German youth. The participants in these discussions, however, were not only critical, but also agreed with some aspects and confirmed Mannheim’s thesis of the importance of competition in the intellectual and academic field. Some also feared that the sociology of knowledge could play a central role in the academic field in the future (Srubar 2010, p. 61).

Mannheim had in no way intended to provoke such a dispute. With his theses of the existential connectedness (Seinsverbundenheit) of knowledge and the competition between intellectual styles, he rather thought to have paved the way to a better understanding between the positions. Like many others of his time, he too was in constant search of a synthesis. In particular, he attributed to the “free-floating intelligentsia,” as privileged agents, the ability to take a bird’s eye view and to create a relational synthesis between the partial perspectives. Thus, Mannheim too ended up exaggerating the role of the intellectuals and “accepted a view of the intellectual’s situation that was tacitly held by many of his more orthodox colleagues” (Ringer 1990, p. 292).

As can be seen from the brief overview of centers, persons, publications, and conferences, a wide range of different orientations existed in the period after World War I. In a retrospective account of sociology in Germany from 1918 to 1933, Mannheim traces this plurality back to the great dynamics of the modern society, which he considered “the most dynamic period in the history of German society” (Mannheim 2013 [1934], pp. 210–211). There was no uniform understanding of sociology, as was still desired in 1919. Sociology had managed to institutionalize itself successfully and to differentiate into various fields. There were different orientations in theory, ranging from Critical Theory (Horkheimer , Adorno, Kracauer, Benjamin) to Philosophical Anthropology (Scheler , Plessner), Phenomenological Sociology (Max Scheler and the Austrian Alfred Schütz (1899–1959)), Formal Sociology (von Wiese, Vierkandt), Marxist Sociology (Wittvogel , Georg Lukács ), and other positions. The field of special sociologies was even more differentiated and diverse. In addition to the dominant cultural sociology, several other fields of research emerged such as economic sociology, the sociology of labor, of companies, of technology, of population, of ethnicity, of law, of politics, of knowledge, of language, of literature, of music, of masses, and of intellectuals. Empirical social research also existed, but in comparison to the USA it was still only in the process of being established (Schad 1972). These different positions in sociology were not very apparent in the public perception of sociology. In the academic field, boundary work and delimitation were pursued. Depending on the perspective, sociology was either criticized as socialist and state disintegrating, as liberalist, or as a foreign import (Stölting 1984, pp. 56–58).

In 1934, Mannheim published the article “German Sociology.” In this article he tried to draw a contemporary image of sociology in Germany. For him, the peculiarities of German sociology resulted above all from the thought of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), the confrontations with Marx, and the interpretative tradition of Dilthey, Simmel, and Weber (Mannheim 2013 [1934], pp. 213–219). In particular, the interpretative approach in the tradition of the humanities and the related sociology of knowledge and historical sociology of culture were central characteristics of the German sociology. Mannheim also mentions the research on stratification by Theodor Geiger and Emil Lederer as a recent achievement (Mannheim 2013 [1934], pp. 223–224). But what sociology in Germany was still in need of was not a closed system of sociology—as he writes in critical opposition to von Wiese—but “an exact observation of social forces at work” (Mannheim 2013 [1934], p. 218).

Despite all the differences and despite the struggles between the controversial positions about what sociology should “actually” be (Stölting 1984, pp. 55–56)—struggles that were also publicly fought out at the Soziologentage of the German Sociological Association (Kaesler 1981)—it is still possible to find common ground between the positions. Dirk Kaesler, for example, identifies links in the “distinct and specific philosophical tradition” (Kaesler 1984, p. 311) of the approaches. By looking at the philosophical background, Kaesler (1984, p. 311) argues, the strong influence of the Geisteswissenschaften (humanities) on early German sociology as well as its emphasis on “understanding” as “the dominant methodological orientation” and its cultural criticism can be explained. However, it is noticeable that this cultural criticism did not address the actual social problems and therefore it remained largely ineffective for society. This started to change only toward the end of the Weimar Republic with a younger generation of sociologists, including Mannheim, Kracauer, and Geiger. This generation also had a philosophical background. However, this did not hinder a realistic analysis. At times—especially when it came to a Marxist orientation—the philosophical orientation even urged “sociology to be redefined and to turn to empirical and application-oriented work on the social structure of the present” (Lepsius 2017a [1981], p. 16). If sociology had not been abruptly interrupted by National Socialism in 1933, this new generation might have given sociology in Germany a “development push” (König 1987, p. 356). In any case, the “melodies of sociology” before 1933 were far from being “played through,” as Schelsky (1959, p. 37) claimed. Rather, sociology had only arrived at the overture when the piece was violently interrupted and the actors were either murdered or forced into exile.

Sociology During the Nazi Regime

In the interwar period, most of the sociologists did not anticipate the danger of fascism. National Socialism brought sociology as an institutionalized discipline to an end. Journals were discontinued, the German Sociological Association was closed down, and there was no diploma degree in sociology. The Nazis had no interest in sociology as an independent science. But even though sociology cannot be identified as a discipline in the years 1933 to 1945, there were, as in other academic disciplines, people who worked sociologically. It was in particular their empirical and methodological knowledge that was useful for the Nazis.

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor by Reich President Hindenburg. With this appointment, the national-conservative forces surrounding Hindenburg attempted to push back or even eliminate parties and movements that were in favor of the Republic (Herbert 2018, p. 30).Footnote 17 They thought they could “tame” Hitler or keep him small. Hitler’s election sparked enormous dynamics and mass enthusiasm, so that the other nationalist parties faded into the background. The NSDAP was supported by its own paramilitary organizations—the SA (Sturmabteilung, literally “Storm Division”) led by Hermann Göring and the SS (Schutzstaffel, literally “Protection Squad”). They eliminated opponents of the National Socialists, especially Communists, with brute force. A decisive event for the establishment of the National Socialist dictatorship was the Reichstag fire at the end of February 1933, which the government used to override central basic rights of the Constitution of the Weimar Republic. Up to 20,000 Communists were arrested or abused in “wild camps” by the SA over the course of the weeks that followed (Herbert 2018, p. 33). In the election on March 5, 1933, the NSDAP got 44% of the electoral votes, the 81 seats of the deputies of the KPD were cancelled. So the NSDAP was able to achieve a majority. Within a few weeks after the election, the Weimar Constitution was repealed. Over the following months, the remaining parties were dissolved, trade unions were eliminated, and social institutions such as universities were “brought into line” (gleichgeschaltet), if they had not already “brought themselves into line.” In addition to opportunism and fear of the brutality of the SA, however, the basic ideas of the “national revolution,” “the destruction of Marxism,” and the propagation of a Volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”) were particularly favorable to the spread of National Socialism. These ideas were met with a wide social acceptance. Within the educated bourgeoisie, the anti-bourgeois conduct of the Nazis was rejected, but the common hatred of Marxism, of the Jews, of the republic, and the culture of modernity, together with the common passion for nationalism, völkisch rejuvenation, and the hope for a privileged position in the propagated “people’s community” outweighed this rejection.

Despite the propagation of a uniform “people’s community,” there was no coherence in cultural policy. Rather, there was a “differentiation according to social strata” (Hermand 2010, p. 61), according to which each social class was culturally addressed. This formed a further building block for the loyalty of those who did not have to flee into exile for political, “racial,” or other reasons. That does not imply that everything was possible. The cultural activities had to correspond to certain norms. Thus, Marxist and avant-garde directions in cultural life were suppressed, as were modern abstract or non-objective art.

The image of women was strictly confined to her supposedly “natural” role as a mother and “racial breeder” (Rassenzüchterin) and “Mother’s Day” was given special emphasis. However, the ideology of women as mothers could not be sustained without contradictions, at least after the war began, when the lack of workers and the increase in arms production meant that an increasing number of women were needed in working and professional life.

Hitler could rely on the loyalty of economic leaders in his power building (Abendroth 1967). Later, some of them were able to make use of the networks they had built up under National Socialism after World War II and were influential as so-called “miracle makers” (Wundertäter) in the economic reconstruction of the Federal Republic of Germany (Grunenberg 2007). He could also count on the Reichswehr (the national army) and the administration as well as on the growing loyalty of large parts of the population. This resulted partly from the improvement in living conditions. The forced orientation of the economy, of the government spending, and of the finances toward accelerated armament allowed the national economy to strengthen and led to the creation of jobs. It should not be forgotten, however, that the expansion of power was also accompanied and fostered by the violence of the Nazi militias. The establishment of concentration camps and the SS played a central role in the violent suppression of opponents. The SS took over the police force and, as of the beginning of World War II in 1939, as Waffen-SS, it assumed a military function alongside the regular army (now called Wehrmacht). Already in 1935 it was certain that political resistance became more dangerous, but did not cease to renew from 1935, new resistance groups of the labor movement, bourgeois, and especially religious groups continued even after 1938 (cf. Herbert 2014, pp. 520–532).

In March 1936, German troops marched into the demilitarized Rhineland. That same year the Olympic Games were held in Berlin, where the regime propagandistically presented itself as a regular country. In the summer of 1936, Germany and Italy supported General Franco’s coup against the Republican government in Spain. The march into and the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria, which was approved by the Western powers, followed in 1938. Czechoslovakia was next.

With regard to the inner situation of Germany, the anti-Semitic politics toward the Jews peaked in a brutal manner on November 9, 1938. That day, in Germany and Austria, the SS and SA initiated large-scale pogroms against Jewish institutions such as cemeteries, synagogues, and shops. Hundreds of Jews were looted and murdered. A total of 30,000 Jews were taken into so-called “protective custody” and deported to concentration camps. The population largely observed these events passively. But the “raids, arsons, lootings, murders had happened in public, and no one in Germany could henceforth claim not to have known anything about the persecution of the Jews” (Herbert 2018, p. 58). The “November Pogroms” now clearly demonstrated that German policy toward the Jews had taken on a new, cruel dimension. The emigration numbers went up. But as Hitler announced at the beginning of 1939, the regime was now no longer merely concerned with deportation, but with the extermination of the Jews in Europe (Herbert 2018, p. 59).

At the end of August 1939, shortly before the beginning of the war against Poland, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, a non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, with the secret supplementary agreement concerning the destruction of Polish autonomy. On September 1, 1939, the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland. World War II began. A few months later Germany conquered Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and it defeated the French army in 1940. The “trauma of 1918,” the Treaty of Versailles, seemed to have been avenged; the population as a whole was enthusiastic, paying homage to its leader, and the cult of Hitler reached its “peak in society as a whole” (Herbert 2018, p. 64).

Great Britain and the Soviet Union were now the remaining enemies of the Germans. According to Hitler’s own account, the war in the East was supposed to be clearly different in its severity from that in the West. It was to be a war of annihilation. The battle against the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, which was already prepared in 1940 and was led despite the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, was fought with the utmost brutality (cf. Herbert 2014, pp. 435–445). Famines were systematically taken into account. The cruelest example was the blockade of Leningrad (today Saint Petersburg). From 1941 to 1944, the German military built a blockade ring around the city in order to systematically starve the population. A mass of deaths began to occur mostly due to starvation. In addition, the population was bombed by the German Luftwaffe (air force). More than a million people were killed. As a comparison, these are twice as many deaths as those that occurred in all air raids on Germany. The scale of the planned mass of deaths among the Soviet prisoners of war was also immense; the number of deaths already amounted to 600,000 at the end of October 1941 and over time increased to millions (Herbert 2018, pp. 81–82). The brutal “anti-Russian campaign” was ideologically highly charged. The idea of “living space in the East” was also a driving force. Communism was considered as a creation of the Jews. Right at the beginning of the invasion thousands of Jewish and communist men were murdered, and the extermination was then extended to women and children.

In addition to the atrocities mentioned, systematic “racial hygiene” (Rassenhygiene) was pursued as a social policy and a population policy measure toward the sick, the elderly, and the disabled. With regards to these social groups, the mass killings by using gas were already being tested, and became, from 1941 onwards, the daily routine for the systematic mass murder of the Jews (Herbert 2018, p. 75). Hundreds of thousands died in the ghettos and prisoner-of-war camps or died of hunger. Between June 1941 and March 1942, the Waffen-SS, police, and Wehrmacht shot more than 600,000 Jews in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union (Herbert 2018, p. 89). On January 20, 1942, in Berlin at Wannsee, the organization of the deportation actions and systematic mass murder was discussed. It was decided to deploy the Jews who were able to work for forced labor and to murder the rest in the concentration camps. About 6 million Jews were murdered during the war. The total number of deaths during World War II exceeded 50 million people. The Soviet Union had to mourn the highest number of deaths—over 26 million.

In December 1941, the USA entered the war. As a result, between 1942 and 1943 the war turned in favor of the Allies. The war ended with the Battle of Berlin in April 1945 and Hitler shot himself in his air-raid shelter (Führerbunker) near the Reich Chancellery on April 30.

“Inner Emigration,” Exile, and Sociologies in the Service of National Socialism

Already in 1933, many professors were dismissed or fled into exile abroad. Even after 1933, sociology continued to be taught at some universities and doctorates and habilitations were awarded (Lepsius 2017b [1979], p. 87; Rammstedt 1986, p. 14). In some places, such as Leipzig, there was no interruption of sociology, but rather continuity. Statistically speaking, the discontinuation was far more significant than the continuity (Holzhauser 2015). In particular, those positions such as völkische Soziologie (völkisch sociology), which were already in circulation in the 1920s and were oriented toward the Volksgemeinschaft, were continued. Sociology was not abandoned per se—except for its (supposedly) “Jewish” and Marxist variants, which were marked as “misguided”—but in principle was considered compatible with National Socialist ideologies and objectives. As already mentioned, Hitler himself almost accepted a sociological professorship which was offered to him at the University of Braunschweig (Dahrendorf 1965, p. 109; Rammstedt 1986, p. 12). Hence, in general, the Nazis did not at all fear that sociology would be ideologically disintegrating. However, the regime generally did not seek special proximity to sociology either, unless it matched its political goals (Turner 1992, p. 8). Applied social research was best suited to these goals.

After 1933, the personnel and profile of sociology in Germany changed.Footnote 18 Many sociologists were forced into exile due to “racially” and politically motivated persecution. Some sociologists went into a kind of “inner emigration,” as it was called at the time. Some sociologists sympathized with the Nazi regime or even worked for the objectives of the Nazi regime (Klingemann 1996). Three kinds of sociology that existed during the Nazi era can be differentiated (Kaesler 1984, pp. 528–529; Lepsius 2008, p. 37): “inner emigration,” exile, and sociologies in the service of National Socialism. The latter can be divided into several orientations (Schauer 2018, pp. 135–136) like, inter alia, völkische Soziologie (völkisch sociology), Gemeinschaftssoziologie (sociology of community), and social science contract research for the Nazi regime.

Inner emigration is the attitude of those persons who were either adversely critical of or distanced themselves from the Nazi regime, but who nevertheless remained in Germany. Examples of “inner emigrants” are Ferdinand Tönnies, Alfred Weber, Alfred von Martin (1882–1979), and Alfred Vierkandt. The systematic persecution and murder on racist and political grounds forced most sociologists into exile, a fact that weakened sociology in Germany (as well as in Austria) lastingly. Amongst the German exiled sociologists were: Theodor Geiger who fled to Scandinavia; Karl Mannheim and Norbert Elias, both of whom fled to Great Britain; and many others who fled to the most commonly chosen country of destination, the USA, including sociologists such as Emil Lederer, Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Friedrich Pollock, Siegfried Kracauer, Paul Honigsheim, Hans Speier, Alfred Schütz, Carl Meyer, Franz Borkenau (1900–1957), Franz Neumann, Erich Fromm, Franz Oppenheimer, Arnold Bergstraesser, Ernest Manheim (1900–2002), Hans Gerth. In the USA, the New School for Social Research in New York in particular offered an academic space where the exiles could work and survive.

While in the 1920s many US-Americans still considered it attractive to study in Germany, central ideas of sociology from Europe were now available in the USA and were in part further developed there. As the names testify, sociology had not already reached its intellectual end in 1933. Rather, it had developed a wide range of themes and topics in the interwar period, a variety of special sociologies had developed, which now also became victims of National Socialism.

Sociologists who advocated a sociology of Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community) or a “völkische sociology” were mainly Max Hildebert Boehm (1891–1968), Max Rumpf (1878–1953), and Hans Freyer, with whom Arnold Gehlen, Helmut Schelsky, Gunther Ipsen, and Karl Heinz Pfeffer studied in Leipzig—one of Freyer’s doctoral students, Gerhard Krüger, was the main initiator of the Nazi book burnings—Franz Wilhelm Jerusalem (1883–1970), the “racial scientist” Hans K. Günther (1891–1968), the NS pedagogue Ernst Krieck (1882–1947), and the Hamburg sociologist Andreas Walther. Leopold von Wiese too tried to serve the regime opportunistically. Although he was not a committed National Socialist, he “did not shy away from offering sociology, and especially his at the time influential Beziehungslehre , to the National Socialists” (Dyk and Schauer 2015, p. 47). However, von Wiese’s formal sociology was considered impractical by the National Socialists and therefore it was hardly noticed.

The German Sociological Association was “closed down” in 1934 (Schnitzler 2018, p. 849). Just before the closing, Hans Freyer had been elected as the new chairman, now called “Führer.” Only after World War II did the association become active again, with von Wiese as chairman. However, for the National Socialists, the mostly non-university institutions in which research was conducted with practical application of social science knowledge, such as population sociology, urban sociology, and agricultural sociology, were far more important than the theorists and the German Sociological Association (see the list of institutions in Klingemann 1986, pp. 263–279).

The initial position from which sociology in Germany after 1945 started to re-develop was a particularly difficult one. It was no longer possible to immediately build on the sociology of the Weimar Republic, not only because the staff had been murdered or fled into exile, but also because the social problems and challenges after 1945 were completely different from those before.