Crossing the North Sea — is there a British Approach to German History?



I open with Richard Evans’s suggestion in Cosmopolitan Islanders that German history in Britain begins with the conjunction of two post-1945 experiences. One of these embraced the Central European Jewish emigration of the 1930s, whose youngest members contained a small but significant cluster of future historians. The other involved the generation of young men born in Britain itself a little earlier, for whom World War II became the decisive life-experience, sometimes via an anti-fascist politics, sometimes by an intense encounter with continental Europe, sometimes by working in British intelligence (often all three).1 These two categories were quite distinct, overlapping perhaps in one especially distinguished instance, Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012).2 In what follows I will venture some general thoughts on the formation and trajectory of German history as a later twentieth-century field of academic knowledge, focusing on several broad generational patterns. I will end in the 1970s and 1980s, when my own generation enters the story.


Social History European History Weimar Republic Contemporary History German History 
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  1. 1.
    Richard J. Evans, Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). The story Evans tells is more complicated than this, beginning during the nineteenth century but notably accelerating during World War I and its aftermath, when two generational experiences in particular laid down much of the foundation for scholarly historiography focused in some degree on Germany–on the one hand, the Paris Peace Conference; on the other hand, the effects of serious academic training in ‘German historical methods’ at the universities of the German-speaking world. See ibid., 111, 116–19, 124–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. See Eva Reichmann, Hostages of Civilization (London: Gollancz, 1950)Google Scholar
  3. Agatha Ramm, Germany 1789–1919: A Political History (London: Methuen, 1967).Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    See Edgar Feuchtwanger, Imperial Germany 1850–1918 (London: Routledge, 2001)Google Scholar
  5. See Edgar Feuchtwanger,Als Hitler unser Nachbar war. Erinnerungen an meine Kindheit im Nationalsozialismus (Berlin: Siedler, 2014);Google Scholar
  6. E.P. Hennock, The Origin of the Welfare State in England and Germany, 1850–1914: Social Policies Compared (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)Google Scholar
  7. E.P. Hennock, British Social Reform and German Precedents: The Case of Social Insurance, 1880–1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)Google Scholar
  8. David Renton, Sidney Pollard, A Life in History (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2004), 45–52. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Elton proved a key advocate in my own appointment at Emmanuel College, Cambridge (1975–79) and maintained thereafter a lively interest in the critique of the Sonderweg thesis. I always found him a keen observer of what was happening in nineteenth- and twentieth-century, no less than sixteenth-century, German historiography.Google Scholar
  9. 5.
    A.J.P. Taylor, The Course of German History: A Survey of the Development of Germany since 1815 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1945)Google Scholar
  10. A.J.P. Taylor, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955)Google Scholar
  11. A.J.P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1961). Taylor’s earliest work was Germany’s First Bid for Colonies 1884–1885:A Move in Bismarck’s European Policy (London: Macmillan, 1938), his most substantial, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848–1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954).Google Scholar
  12. 7.
    James Joll’s works included: The Second International, 1889–1914 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1955)Google Scholar
  13. James Joll’s works included: Intellectuals in Politics: Three Biographical Essays (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960)Google Scholar
  14. James Joll’s works included: The Anarchists (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1964)Google Scholar
  15. James Joll’s works included: Europe since 1870: An International History (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973)Google Scholar
  16. James Joll’s works included: The Origins of the First World War (London: Longman, 1984).Google Scholar
  17. 8.
    According to Evans, quoting Carsten (as the responsible official), Taylor’s essay was rejected by the PWE as it was ‘too full of mistakes’. See Evans, Cosmopolitan Islanders, 133. Carsten’s actual words were slightly different: ‘the contribution of A.J.P. Taylor on earlier German history, which he wrote as an outsider, was so one-sided and partisan that it was rejected on my initiative’. See Francis L. Carsten, ‘From Revolutionary Socialism to German History,’ in Peter Alter (ed.), Out of the Third Reich: Refugee Historians in Post-War Britain (London: I.B. Tauris, 1998), 31.Google Scholar
  18. 9.
    For Taylor’s debt to the interwar scholarship of Eckart Kehr, see A.J.P. Taylor, A Personal History (London: Coronet Books, 1984), 224.Google Scholar
  19. For Kehr, see his Battleship Building and Party Politics in Germany, 1894–1901 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,Midway Reprint, 1973; orig. German 1930),Google Scholar
  20. For Kehr, Economic Interest, Militarism, and Foreign Policy: Essays on German History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).Google Scholar
  21. 10.
    See A.J.P. Taylor’s English History 1914–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 600.Google Scholar
  22. 11.
    Some flavour of this may be gleaned from Noel Annan, Our Age: English Intellectuals between the World Wars (London: Harper Collins, 1991).Annan (1916–2000) had served as a senior officer in the British Control Commission in occupied Germany.Google Scholar
  23. See Annan, Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany (London: HarperCollins, 1995).Google Scholar
  24. 13.
    Geoffrey Barraclough (ed.), Medieval Germany: Essays by German Historians (Oxford: Blackwell, 1938);Google Scholar
  25. Geoffrey Barraclough (ed.), The Origins of Modern Germany (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946);Google Scholar
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  27. Geoffrey Barraclough (ed.), The Medieval Empire: Idea and Reality (London: Historical Association, 1950);Google Scholar
  28. Geoffrey Barraclough (ed.), European Unity in Thought and Action (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963);Google Scholar
  29. Geoffrey Barraclough (ed.), The Medieval Papacy (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968). Barraclough’s 1972 articles, hugely influential in their time, appeared in the New York Review of Books as ‘Mandarins and Nazis’ (October 19), ‘The Liberals and German History’ (November 2), and‘A New View of German History’ (November 16).Google Scholar
  30. 17.
    I have written extensively about this subject elsewhere: Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), esp. 61–114.Google Scholar
  31. 18.
    Richard J. Evans (ed.), Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (London: Croom Helm, 1978);Google Scholar
  32. Peter J. Stachura (ed.), The Shaping of the Nazi State (London: Croom Helm, 1978).Google Scholar
  33. 20.
    Ibid. Evans borrowed this image from Hans-Günter Zmarzlik, ‘Das Kaiserreich in neuer Sicht?’ Historische Zeitschrift, 222 (1976), 10–26.Google Scholar
  34. 24.
    Jeremy Noakes, The Nazi Party in Lower Saxony, 1921–1933 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971);Google Scholar
  35. also Geoffrey Pridham, Hitler’s Rise to Power: The Nazi Movement in Bavaria, 1923–1933 (London: Hart-Davis, McGibbon, 1973).Google Scholar
  36. 25.
    The best general introduction is via Alf Lüdtke (ed.), The History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995),Google Scholar
  37. and my own commentary in Geoff Eley, ‘Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte: Experience, Culture, and the Politics of the Everyday. A New Direction for German Social History?’ Journal of Modern History, 61: 2 (1989), 297–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 26.
    The question in parenthesis was voiced parodically by David Blackbourn in ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Reappraising German History in the Nineteenth Century,’ in David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 27.
    That question was first posed by Arthur Rosenberg in Imperial Germany: The Birth of the German Republic, 1871–1918 (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 18.Google Scholar
  40. 28.
    See Geoff Eley, ‘Liberalism, Europe, and the Bourgeoisie, 1860–1914,’ in David Blackbourn and Richard J. Evans (eds.), The German Bourgeoisie: Essays on the Social History of the German Middle Class from the Late Eighteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1991), 293–317.Google Scholar
  41. 29.
    See here especially Richard J. Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany, 1894–1933 (Beverley Hills: Sage, 1976),Google Scholar
  42. Richard J. Evans and Sozialdemokratie und Frauenemanzipation im deutschen Kaiserreich (Berlin: Dietz, 1979).Google Scholar
  43. For my own argument, see Geoff Eley, ‘“An Embarrassment to the Family, to the Public, and to the State”: Liberalism and the Rights of Women, 1860–1914,’ in Dominik Geppert and Robert Gerwarth (eds.), Wilhelmine Germany and Edwardian Britain: Essays on Cultural Affinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 143–71.Google Scholar
  44. 30.
    See Geoff Eley, ‘Capitalism and the Wilhelmine State: Industrial Growth and Political Backwardness, 1890–1918,’ in Geoff Eley, From Unification to Nazism: Reinterpreting the German Past (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986), 42–58;Google Scholar
  45. See Geoff Eley, ‘The British Model and the German Road,’ 98–117; David F. Crew, Town in the Ruhr: A Social History of Bochum, 1860–1914 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 119–27, 145–57, 31–43;Google Scholar
  46. Dennis Sweeney, Work, Race, and the Emergence of Radical Right Corporatism in Imperial Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), esp. 21–48;Google Scholar
  47. 31.
    The indebtedness was to Edward Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English,’ in E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London: Merlin Press, 1978), 35–91, orig.Google Scholar
  48. pub. in Ralph Miliband and John Saville (eds.), The Socialist Register 1965 (London: Merlin, 1965), 311–62.Google Scholar
  49. 32.
    Richard J. Evans, ‘Response to Baldwin,’ Contemporary European History, 20: 3 (2011), 374–5.Google Scholar
  50. Evans’s‘Response’ here was to a somewhat puerile and ill-tempered polemic delivered against his Cosmopolitan Islanders by Peter Baldwin, ‘Smug Britannia: The Dominance of (the) English in Current History Writing and its Pathologies,’ Contemporary European History, 20:3 (2011), 351–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. 38.
    Victoria Harris, Selling Sex in the Reich: Prostitutes in German Society, 1914–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 41.
    See Geoff Eley, ‘Nazism, Politics, and the Image of the Past: Thoughts on the West German Historikerstreit, 1986–87,’ Past and Present, 121 (1988), 195–202;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Foreword,’ in Adelhein von Saldern, The Challenge of Modernity: German Social and Cultural Studies, 1890–1960 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), ix–xx.Google Scholar
  54. 43.
    Evans, Rituals of Retribution, ix. The referent in this paean to the microstudy is the Italian genre of microhistory. See Carlo Ginzburg, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989);Google Scholar
  55. Guido Ruggiero (ed.), Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  56. See also Carlo Ginzburg, ‘Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method,’ History Workshop Journal, 9 (spring 1980), 5–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. 46.
    Chris Waters, ‘Is There Still a Place for Social History?,’ in Robert Gildea and Anne Simonin (eds.), Writing Contemporary History (London: Hodder Education, 2008), 11. In my own development of this argument, I argued that during the 1990s the earlier boundaries between different sectors and genres of history had become permeable and blurred, “allowing new hybridities to form.” See Eley, Crooked Line, 201.Google Scholar
  58. 48.
    Mary Fulbrook, Historical Theory (London: Routledge, 2002), 29.Google Scholar
  59. 60.
    See Timothy Garton Ash, ‘The Chequers Affair,’ New York Review of Books, September 27, 1990.Google Scholar

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© Geoff Eley 2015

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