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Heinrich August Winkler: Geschichte des Westens. Von den Anfängen in der Antike bis zum 20. Jahrhundert, München: C.H.Beck 2009, 1343 S., ISBN 978-3-406-59235-5, EUR 38,00
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Rezension von:
Helmut Walser Smith
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN
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Andreas Fahrmeir
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Helmut Walser Smith: Rezension von: Heinrich August Winkler: Geschichte des Westens. Von den Anfängen in der Antike bis zum 20. Jahrhundert, München: C.H.Beck 2009, in: sehepunkte 10 (2010), Nr. 6 [15.06.2010], URL:

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Heinrich August Winkler: Geschichte des Westens. Von den Anfängen in der Antike bis zum 20. Jahrhundert

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Wondering how I teach a class on the history of the west, as I do, a young Berlin intellectual suggested to me that I would have to have to give one lecture on orientalism, another on sexism, another on racism, and so on. It will hardly be news that this is not Heinrich August Winkler's approach. In his magisterial book, Geschichte des Westens: Von den Anfängen bis zum 20. Jahrhundert, Winkler introduces his readers to the struggle of the west for human rights, basic freedoms, and a constitutional, democratic order. His is not a total history, or even a history that presents the most recent advances in scholarship. Instead, it is an engaged history of the struggle for democracy and freedom in which the west represents enlightened ideals and its history is about the struggle, often unsuccessful, to put these ideals into practice. Unlike the Berlin intellectual cited above, Winkler unequivocally embraces this history as his history, suggesting, by implication, that the history of the west is the history into which Germans should think themselves.

One can only marvel at this work, even if Winkler leaves us a great deal to disagree with. It is written with Winkler's customary ease of style, and it is full of shrewd insights. Winkler walks us through the history of the west with the classical political theorists - Locke, Hegel, Tocqueville, Marx, Rochau, Weber, and Schmitt, among others - as our guides, allowing us to see great events, and transformations, from the peaks of high political theory. For Winkler, the struggle to establish human rights, the separation of powers, and a pluralist civil society is what centrally defines the west. To be sure, he also makes other claims for what makes the west: notably Christianity, but after the Reformation, Christianity makes at best cameo appearances in Winkler's narrative - as for example, when he shows us the Puritan origins of American Sendungsbewusstsein. Otherwise, Christianity, as far as I can tell, is more of a block than a spur to the democratic history of the west. This is especially true of Catholicism, which hardly appears until the Syllabus of Errors, and one could not, at least from this book, easily explain how in Europe the words Christian and democracy ever conjoined. Indeed, Winkler offers us a resolutely secular history, seeing already in the investiture conflict the beginning of the separation of power, the profane from sacred, forming the template for subsequent struggles. In this analysis, he follows Eugen Rosenstock-Huessey's Die Europäischen Revolutionen, which, along with Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, are major inspirations of the work.

Winkler is, in fact, at his best in the analysis of the great revolutions, offering especially detailed, sympathetic, and informed portrayals of the American Revolution, at once defensive and a major breakthrough for the cause of rights; the French Revolution, which, contra Furet, Winkler does not see as on a path to 1794 already in 1789; the Revolutions of 1830, which are here brilliantly depicted in their transnational dimension; and the Revolutions of 1848, the first and last truly European Revolution. His treatment of the political history of the Revolutions of 1848 is truly masterful, constituting almost a book within the book. It is also a turning point of the work, as subsequent revolutions, as Engels already understood, would no longer involve spontaneous democratic uprising but only occurred in the contexts of states losing major wars. Accordingly, if ideas of freedom and acts of revolution are the principle engines driving the history of the west until 1848, the subsequent period is more powerfully propelled by war, diplomacy, and the great question of the origins of the World War I. Except for brief forays into modernist culture, the second part of the work is likewise an almost exclusively political history, told within national narratives: with very fine, if conventional, depictions of French, British, American, Russian, and German politics. It is possible that I overlooked a sentence, but I did not find an explicit argument for a German Sonderweg, though there is a heavy emphasis on the political power of the landed aristocracy, the ossification of German constitutional structures (despite universal manhood suffrage for federal elections), and the refusal of the German bourgeoisie to actually take on political power. All of this put German political culture, in Winkler's view, significant steps behind England, France, the Scandinavian states, and especially the Unite States of America. Winkler also amasses an argument, put forward with verve, that German military elites had too much influence on crucial decisions on the eve of World War I, that this caste feared the rise of the Socialists, and that Germany pushed for a preventive war when in fact no major power threatened it. "Germany began it," (Deutschland habe ihn begonnen, 1186), Winkler writes, in an unguarded and telling formulation.

No two historians or even perhaps generations of historians will ever agree on what constitutes the west per se. But for me there are two areas that Winkler leaves out, or treats insufficiently, which deserve mention. One concerns the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery. As Winkler sees the Enlightenment as the main source of progressive ideas of human rights, he overlooks the profound contribution that religion made to one of the great transformations of western civilization. In the 1750s, it was not the philosophes but the Quakers who took a principled stand against the Slave Trade, and it was the persistent engagement of humanitarians, admittedly in a period of imperial crisis in Britain after the American War of Independence, that made antislavery a genuine force in Atlantic politics. In my opinion, any serious account of the history of the west in the nineteenth century has to render as central the whole complex of questions surrounding slavery, in its transatlantic dimension. The transatlantic is important here. Since Winkler inexplicably defines Latin and South America as being outside of the west, he does not see the abolition of slavery as the fundamental trans-national, inter-continental, event that is now standard in scholarly accounts. Moreover, Winkler's resolutely political history, which eschews a narration of ordinary life, also does not make a part of the west the experience, as such, of the slaves. Put polemically, Winkler's west is mainly white. The second area concerns imperialism. Here Winkler does give sustained attention to the problem, if mainly from the standpoint of European and North American politics. He includes a number of trenchant descriptions of the brutality of imperialist politics, notably with regard to the Belgian Congo and German Southwest Africa. But Winkler does not offer sustained reflection on the vast reordering of the world when the west was at the zenith of its power, and the greater part of the globe was under western (including Russian, which Winkler does not count as west) rule. The result is a history of the west as if the west were largely alone in the world. While this is untenable for most of modern history, it is especially problematic for the age of accelerated globalization before the outbreak of Word War I. Related to this is the lack of attention paid to the social and economic history of the great divergence. Here too the west stands too much alone.

No doubt the Berlin intellectual I cited at the outset would have still more to say. And I doubt that Winkler's west would convince her. Yet Winkler's book also commands a great deal of respect: for it is nothing short of an epic attempt to construct a western history centered on rationality, reflection, and the creation of human rights, among which is the right to self-determination.

Helmut Walser Smith