The Magazine

The German Question

Where did they come from, where are they going?

Dec 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 15 • By THOMAS A. KOHUT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Third Reich hovers over German history.   

Proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles, 1871

De Agostini


Despite the careful, intelligent research conducted by countless scholars in numerous disciplines, those 12 years remain in some essential way incomprehensible. How, we ask—without ever being able to provide a truly satisfying answer—could more or less ordinary human beings have done what they did to other human beings in an attempt to create a racial utopia?  

Because its unprecedented horror continues to escape our understanding, the Third Reich has colored how historians have looked at the entire history of modern Germany. The centuries before 1933 are seen—on some, often hidden, level—as paving the way to the Third Reich. The events of the decades since 1945 are seen, usually more explicitly, as somehow in reaction to the Third Reich. Indeed, after the mid-1960s, Germans themselves increasingly sought to come to terms with this horrific chapter in the history of their country and, in a great many cases, the history of their own families.  

People living before 1933, however, did not live their lives in the expectation that the history they were experiencing and creating was heading toward the Holocaust—not even those who were National Socialists. Writing the history of Germany before 1933 as if its inevitable goal were the Third Reich distorts the history of modern Germany and reduces the richness and variety of the German past; there were many aspects—important and influential aspects—of the history of Germany that did not lead to Nazism, world war, and genocide. What is more, to view the history of modern Germany as leading inevitably to the Third Reich distorts our understanding of the Third Reich itself.

Nevertheless, even though German-speaking people did not realize that Germany’s history was heading toward the Holocaust, they too had a sense of history—expectations about the future based on past experience, present circumstance, their assumptions, hopes, and ideals.  

For many 19th-century Germans, those expectations focused on the creation of a German nation-state, a polity that would include most, perhaps all, of those people who were ethnically and culturally German. That is to say, Germans themselves viewed their own history (that which was already past and what was yet to come) as moving in one coherent and consistent direction toward a future goal. The teleology of the people of the past, then, has encouraged historians to write the history of Germany teleologically—as leading inevitably to the nation-state, the Germany unified under Prussian auspices in 1871, and then to Nazi Germany.

William Hagen consciously seeks to avoid making the Third Reich, or even the nation-state, the end of German history. He rejects deterministic master narratives, although he identifies those that have defined German history and he explains their origins in (and consequences for) the history of modern Germany, as Germans themselves sought to make sense of the worlds in which they lived. But, as Hagen makes clear, Germans identified with different historical narratives at different times, and even at the same time. There was not one German history and one Germany, but multiple German histories and Germanys, all actual and possible. There were competing conceptions of what it meant to be “German.”  

Hagen presents “a picture .  .  . not of a single Germany evolving through time, but a succession of polycentric national existences constituted both by commonalities and contentions.” And these national existences did not develop autonomously but “in continuous dialogue .  .  . with Europe, and eventually with America as well.” 

Hagen presents four epochs—“four lives of the nation,” or what he calls four “German-speaking life worlds.” The first of these began around 1500 and came to an end with the French Revolution. This epoch can be defined as “the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation,” a political and administrative unit—not an ethnic collective—that represented and served the interests of transnational social, political, and cultural elites. With the advent of the Enlightenment and the emergence of centralized, national monarchies, this transnational administrative and political unit increasingly lost authority and significance, and three or four coexisting and competing “life worlds” emerged that, in the succeeding epoch, would become 19th-century conservatism, the 19th-century power state, 19th-century liberalism, and 19th-century Romanticism and historicism.