Mehrfachbesprechung: Helmut Walser Smith: The Continuities of German History, in: sehepunkte 9 (2009), Nr. 1 [15.01.2009]

Von Helmut Walser Smith

Dear Colleagues,

I would like to sincerely thank all the authors of the reflections on my book that I read in sehepunkte this morning, and especially to Dieter Langewiesche and Nils Freytag, who - I hope I understand this right - initiated the forum. It is a great honor to have a book taken seriously, a still greater one when it comes to the reception of a book in country which is not my own, but to which I have a close and special relationship, personal and professional. Finally, especially as the book is a book of essays intended to further discussion, I am very pleased concerning the wide range of reflection it has brought forth, critical and otherwise. For all these reasons, again, my sincere thanks. Unfortunately, one is often in the situation of reading the best criticism after a book is finished. Reading your criticisms there are certainly places where I would have liked to have gone back and rendered certain points more precise, explicit, in some cases more differentiated, in some cases a shade more cautiously. I do not want to take too much of your time, but if you will allow me to mention a few.

1. To Michael Brenner's gentle but important criticism concerning my point that early modern Europe, after the expulsions, constituted years of relative quiet for Jews. You are certainly right to point out that because of the national expulsions there were few Jews in western Europe, and that - whatever the research of Shaul Stampfer says about the numbers massacred by Chmielnicki it remained a catastrophic event that overshadowed Jewish life in eastern Europe. Perhaps it would have been more circumspect to limit the claim to Central Europe.

2. Andreas Fahrmeier's interesting reflections on the vanishing point are exciting starting points for further reflection, or for thinking differently about the space of such vanishing points, whether one should begin with the classics of contemporary history or whether not Germany but Europe should be the canvass. I am quiet pleased if the book contributes to further reflection in this direction. I would note here that I had originally intended the vanishing point to be a descriptive metaphor, describing a certain pull, and not necessarily a normative metaphor. That almost all readers and reviewers have taken it to be also normative suggests that the problem lies in my own narrative. As a historian, and as an evaluator of other historical work, I try not to take this normative view. But I can see where the book pulls in a different direction. It is of course also the case that 1941 is a vanishing point for my own questions, and in writing this book I became very conscious of my own deficiencies as a European, as opposed to a German, historian.

I also found your points about early modern regional maps illuminating. As the collecting of 16th and 17th century maps is my one expensive hobby, I am painfully aware that there is also an important regional mapping tradition. I say painfully because regional maps are usually the only ones I can afford. I am working through this material again for another book, and I will keep your caveat in mind. But as you also know, the humanists at the beginning of the sixteenth century mapped cultural nations for the first time, and this I take to be a remarkable invention, the first imagination of the nation in two dimensional space. Regions were also first imagined in this period, and you are right to note that both kinds of spatial imagination developed simultaneously.

3. Georg Schmidt. I should say at the start that I have been reading your many works on the early modern "state - nation" recently, and with great profit, even if in the end the direction I go is a different one. This will be more obvious in the book I am now working on than it perhaps was in Continuities. And I would willingly admit that in Continuities there should have been a more explicit Auseinandersetzung with the German research concerning the early modern nation. After all, we do indeed have differences of opinion. Perhaps the most important concerns the word "identity," which you seem to take as a human constant that is crystallized by a process of inclusion and exclusion. Based on English - language work in the early modern period (Dror Wahrmann, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth - Century England; Jerrold Seigel, The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century; and Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity)as well as the research of the late H.D. Kittsteiner, I have come to see "personal identity" as referring to a selfhood characterized by psychological depth, or interiority, which in turn has its center in a concept of unique, expressive, self. We can debate this matter long into the night, but I think that the personal experience of suffering, in war for example, suggest something of the fundamental difference that is at stake in the concept of a modern, interiorized identity as opposed to an identity that is relational.

Consider in this regard the ego documents of the Thirty Years War as described by Benigna von Krusenstjern, or even those considered by Ute Planert in her book on the Revolutionary wars in south Germany. In both cases, we see civilians describing the experience of suffering in war as if the world outside dominates over the inner self, which is nearly extinguished in these documents (this, in my terminology, is the exterior versus the interior). When in Continuities I use the word identity, I mean it in the modern, interiorized sense. A great deal follows from this - especially for the history of the relation of the self to nation. The subsequent question of national identity - when and how and among whom it crystallizes as an enduring form, a historical subject in the Hegelian sense of the term (not 'ein Ball des falschen Glücks,' as Gryphius put it) - is not merely a question of the nation, or even of the nation and the state, but also, as crucially, it is a question that concerns the history of the self. Put pointedly: Without an interiorized self, there cannot be an interiorized nation, and therefore no national identity in the strict sense of the term. It is still another matter to conceive of identity in terms that involve the nation state, and here we are perhaps well advised to consider your colleague Lutz Niethammer's reminder that 'collective identity' is a twentieth century term, which we have from Carl Schmitt, who in his Political Theology (1922) used it to denote "the identity of the government and the governed." Such a formulation makes no sense in the Holy Roman Empire.

On the Thirty Years War. True enough, it was also a political war, as you describe it. Whether in memory it worked this way is another question - and, I would point out, it was the question of that chapter. I am willing to see this in a different light. But the thesis that the peace, not the Greueltaten of war, was at the center of memory, still seems to me to get at the center of things, even for the unknown pastor you allude to but do not cite. Yes, the appeal to peace always harbors am implied sense for the horrors of war. But can you name me a major work between Pufendorf/Grimmelshausen and the Seven Years War, which takes as its topic the war as such? I would be very curious. And even then, the contrast to the long aftermath of WWII, where we speak not of individual works but of a societal obsession, seems telling.

I see we have a number of agreements and difference with respect to the history of Jews in Germany. Among the agreements I would list the role of the state in protecting Jews against mass violence and the continuity of expulsions throughout the early modern period. The main difference comes with the turn of century, circa 1800. I cannot reduce the anti - Jewish expressions, to say nothing of the riots, to "rhetorische Entgleisungen," and I think the question of Jews in modern Germany starts, but does not end, with the assertion, namely yours, that "die rhetorische Ausschluss aus der deutschen Nation basierte stets auf der Vorstellung dass sie (die Juden, hws) sich nicht integrieren wollten." Such an assertion begs the question of what is meant by integration. Ruehs, Fries, Arndt, and Fichte did not merely see Jews as a religious denomination, but as a people apart, and this meant that their understanding of "Jewish integration" was substantially different than for Christian denominations. Interesting in this regard is Fichte's "Republic of the Germans." Enlightened and progressive, Fichte hoped everyone would eventually assimilate into a national church, but it is the Jews and the Poles who are faced with the question: complete assimilation or exit.

4. Dieter Langewiesche. I am grateful for the engagement that Dieter Langewiesche has brought to my book, and after a letter exchange following his review in the FAZ, he kindly showed me the text of the review that now appears in sehepunkte. I will not address all the trenchant points he makes, but instead consider two, which I think get to the heart of general issues. I am also pleased to see Gerschenkron addressed. I consider Gerschenkron only in a footnote, but he is here rightly and astutely (also by Siegfried Weichlein) seen as centrally structuring the claims of my argument. The first point I would address is in response to the following: "Wer das 19. Jahrhundert und seine Vorläufer als eine Geschichte zunehmender Inhumanität, die in den "cataclysm" (38) der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts geführt habe, neu sehen lehren will, sollte sich zur Selbstvergewisserung und zur Information seiner Leser verpflichtet fühlen offenzulegen, wogegen er schreibt: gegen alle, die in der europäischen Geschichte einen 'Fortschritt' im Sinne von Selbstentfaltung des Menschen angelegt sehen oder gesehen haben."

Permit me to say something about the intention of the author, which, I will grant, is never authoritative when it comes to discussing the effect of a text. I did not see myself as making an argument against a conception of the nineteenth century as a century of progress. The starting point is - from the standpoint of intentions - completely different, and involves the critique of the criticism of the Sonderweg. Among German historians in the US, this is well known because that criticism was very public. The title of the book, The Continuities of German History, is meant to shadow The Peculiarities of German History, and if there is a secret Auseinandersetzung, it is with this book. I did however take the polemical chapter out of my book, and published it instead as "Jenseits der Sonderweg - Debatte" in Das Deutsche Kaiserreich in der Kontroverse, ed. By Sven O. Müller and Cornelius Torp (Goettingen, 2008). The argument is that Peculiarities contributed to a situation in which it is difficult to draw lines of continuity from the 20th to the nineteenth century, as previous generations of historians had so self - evidently done. From the standpoint of my intention, this is the specific "wogegen ich schreibe." More generally, and perhaps more importantly, it is against a way of writing German history that makes the catastrophes of the twentieth century seem sui generis to that century. In Continuities, I was not writing a general history of Germany, but a history of nationalism, religious violence, and racism, and making an argument for their causal force with respect to the Holocaust. This is a specific claim, not a general claim, and the real issue is whether it is worked out in a way that is convincing. You may of course think that it is not. I would however say that conceiving of the nineteenth century as mainly centered on its progressive elements leaves us with an earlier twentieth century for which the reverse is true - and this means, again, that the links between centuries are analytically broken.

The second point is that I do not sufficiently consider how the Jews reacted. You write:
Dieser Weg (eine buergerliche Erfolgsgeschichte - hws), an dem deutsche Juden das 19. Jahrhundert und ihren Ort in ihm bewertet haben, taucht in Walser Smiths Verlustgeschichte nicht auf; nicht einmal am Rande. Damit versäumt er es, die Plausibilität eines Kernelementes seines Geschichtsbildes zu prüfen.

And further that:
Indem Walser Smith das Selbstbild deutscher Juden im 19. Jahrhundert beiseite läßt und ausschließlich negative Fremdbilder betrachtet, gewinnt seine Kontinuitätskonstruktion eine scharfe Kontur, degradiert die Juden jedoch zu einem bloßen Objekt der nichtjüdischen Mehrheitsgesellschaft.

You are certainly right that I might have considered the Jewish reaction to events more broadly, and to do this would have given the book more nuance and depth. I cannot fully agree with the "nicht einmal am Rande." I disuss Jewish reaction with respect to the Memorbuecher, but also with respect to Moritz Lazarus and Heinrich Graetz, and how they wrote about this particular Leidensgeschichte (pp. 110 - 114). There are Jewish voices in the chapter on anti - Semitic violence - Rahel Levin Varnhagen (who did not see the Hep Hep rebellion in such rose - colored terms), and Isaac Babel on the killings of Eastern Europe. More decisively still, in the chapter on eliminationist racism, I (following Uffa Jensen) point out that the whole first round of the critique of Treitschke's "Our Prospects" was from the pens of Jews, not Christians, and that this reaction varied, including the interesting response of Hermann Cohen, the neo - Kantian philosopher. You will no doubt reply that these are all negative responses, and that there was in the Jewish community in the nineteenth century an important tradition of Fortschrittsoptimismus. I agree with two caveats. I have spent whole months of my life reading through Im deutschen Reich and the Mitteilungen aus dem Verein zur Abwehr des Anti-Semitismus, as well as a host of smaller orthodox journals, and believe that the more accurate description of Jewish reaction in the late nineteenth century is not Fortschrittsoptimismus but cautious ambivalence, confident in German institutions, but often with an underlying sense that it could all come crashing down. Auerbach is a wonderful exemplar of this attitude. What one also comes to understand from reading Jewish memoirs, endless CV reports, not to mention a great deal of Jewish intellectual history (from Zunz to Heine to Lazarus to Cohen), is that most German Jews understood that their situation was far more precarious in the east, perhaps in France as well. But to substitute a Fortschrittsoptimismus for what is in fact a much more mixed reaction is, to my mind, a slanted reading of German - Jewish history in the nineteenth century. Then there is the final question of whether it is true that Jewish voices represent a control. I'm not so sure. Anti - Semitism - whether one likes it or not - was, in its origin though not in its impact - largely a matter of the non - Jewish majority society.

5. Joachim Schmiedel. Thank you for your reflections. Towards the end you raise the important and critical question of whether my book can explain why it is in Germany, and not in Eastern Europe (where anti - Semitism had already become more murderous), that the Holocaust began. You add that for genocide, the state is necessary. I rather agree with you. If I were to write the book again, I think I would add a chapter on the state. The state, as Siegfried Weichlein points out, is crucial to my explanation of how anti - Semitism became murderous, especially in Eastern Europe. The state is also important to my explanation for why Central Europe was relatively quiet with respect to Jewish violence in the early modern period (Here I follow Jonathan Israel rather than Yerushalmi) and why it remained mere play, not murder, throughout the nineteenth century. But it is perhaps true that to explain "Why Germany?" a longer, more sustained discussion of the state would be required.

5. Siegfried Weichlein. In your nuanced contribution, you correctly distill Hans Kohn as a secret hero of the book, even if I agree in general with your critical evaluation of his west/east dichotomy. But to Kohn, as you know, there was so much more, and no one, in my opinion, understood the intellectual history of nation - thinking as profoundly as he did. True also is that the focus on anti - Semitism creates an eastern orientation, and that this becomes a bit circular. But as Michael Brenner points out, the Jews had long been expelled from many of the great kingdoms of western Europe so that the issue of Christian - Jewish relations did not press itself there to the same degree as in Central and Eastern Europe. But this brings us back to what I would say are fundamental issues in the creation of modern histories: the place of the state in the creation of nations, and the place of Jews in local Christian societies as they reshaped themselves as national communities. Why, in the end, "der Tod ein Meister aus Deutschland" war - this we must continue to discuss.

I thank all of you sincerely for your reflections and hope productive discussions ensue. Thank you also to Nils Freytag, whose kind remarks and generous introduction of the book places it in the intellectual context I was hoping for.

Kind regards,

Anmerkung der Redaktion:
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