Germany in the World: A Global History, 1500-2000 
by David Blackbourn.
Liveright, 774 pp., £40, July 2023, 978 1 63149 183 2
Show More
Show More

During​ the Second World War and the decades that followed, historians of modern Germany focused on one question: how did Nazism, with its negation of freedom and democracy, its aggressive commitment to war and conquest, its creation of a totalitarian state, and its visceral and genocidal antisemitism, take hold in Germany but not elsewhere in Europe? They sought an answer by delving deep into German history, as far back as Martin Luther, or even to the tribes analysed in Tacitus’ ethnography Germania. A version of this model was developed in the 1970s by the so-called Bielefeld School of leftish German historians, led by Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Jürgen Kocka, who saw the failure of the revolutions of 1848-49 as the turning point when, as A.J.P. Taylor quipped, German history failed to turn. While in other Western and Central European nations industrialisation and the defeat of the landed aristocracy were accompanied by the triumph of bourgeois liberalism, in Germany aristocracy and authoritarianism continued to dominate well into the 20th century. In this view the country took a ‘special path’ (Sonderweg) towards modernity, a path that culminated in the triumph of Hitler in 1933.

It’s easy enough in retrospect to identify the flaws in this interpretation. A glance at the history of other European countries shows that it doesn’t apply to many of them (consider the bourgeois dictatorship of Napoleon III), while it makes little sense to say that the populist Nazis held aristocratic values and beliefs. Nevertheless, in the 1970s and 1980s this idea of modern German history swept all before it. As late as 1987, a doctoral dissertation at Bielefeld University on the Nazi policy of killing off the mentally ill ascribed the murder of more than a hundred thousand psychiatric patients by gassing, starvation and lethal injection to their doctors’ ‘aristocratic’ values.

David Blackbourn took the lead in dismantling this paradigm. With Geoff Eley, he wrote The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in 19th-Century Germany (1984), which attacked the new orthodoxy on a number of fronts. Blackbourn’s main contribution was to demolish the argument that after failing to acquire power in 1848-49, the German bourgeoisie absorbed ‘aristocratic’ values that prioritised hierarchy and authority over the liberalism and openness supposedly prevalent in other parts of Europe, notably Britain and France. In fact there was plenty of evidence to show that wealthier members of the English middle class imitated aristocratic values by purchasing country estates, while Germany’s introduction of parliamentary assemblies and organised political parties in the middle decades of the 19th century fundamentally changed its political systems. In social mores, dress and culture, the German bourgeoisie clearly triumphed over the aristocracy. In the UK, Gladstone’s second administration (1880-85) was packed with aristocrats, and in France noble titles retained their prestige beyond the 19th century.

Over the last forty years, this critique has become widely accepted. In the meantime, Blackbourn moved on to, among other projects, Marpingen (1993), a microhistory of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Saarland village during the church-state conflict of the 1870s-80s known as the Kulturkampf; then The Long 19th Century (1997), a sweeping narrative of German history; and more recently The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany (2006). He has now extended his range even further, with an account of German history from 1500 to 2000 from a global perspective. Germany in the World explores the themes that have preoccupied Blackbourn during his distinguished career, and goes beyond them.

Why begin in 1500? In 1512 the Holy Roman Empire, founded by Charlemagne in 800, officially acquired the additional words ‘of the German Nation’. But the empire was only a loosely structured entity; it wasn’t until several centuries later that a German national state emerged. The title of the book’s first part, ‘Germans in a Changing World’, reflects the fact that it is more accurate to speak of ‘Germans’ than ‘Germany’ at a time when there was no sovereign nation-state. While European states were annexing huge tracts of the Americas, Germans – with no overseas empire of their own – were largely restricted to a life of service to others.

They enjoyed a particularly strong reputation as skilled craftsmen – clockmakers, printers, armourers – and travelled across Europe as journeymen. German merchants and financiers acquired huge power for themselves: the Welser family of Augsburg, bankers to the Habsburgs, ruled what is now Venezuela for several decades, becoming known for their cruelty and rapacity. (Venezuela was the Germans’ principal site of colonisation in the Americas; Charles V gave the Welser family the right to explore and rule a region where the legendary city of El Dorado was thought to lie.) Increasingly, Germans belonged to transnational networks linked by the transfer of money, goods and in some cases power. Jakob Fugger, another banker, was said to have been the richest man in Europe in the early 16th century. German armour was particularly prized by knights and princes all over Europe. On the battlefield, German mercenaries, the Landsknechte, were notoriously brutal; at a time when national allegiances were weak, they didn’t mind which side they fought on so long as they were paid. By the 18th century, ‘Hessians’ were an essential part of a number of European armies and played a central, not very glorious, part in the American War of Independence, on the British side. A third of Napoleon’s Grand Army in Russia in 1812 was German, and a quarter of a million Germans fought at the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig, forty thousand of them on the French side.

While German bankers and merchants were laying the foundations for capitalism and financing the rise of the modern state, German divines, led by Luther, were spreading the doctrines of the Reformation across Europe and all over the world. Persecuted Protestants found refuge in German states – the French Huguenots founded an entire city precinct in 18th-century Berlin – or fled discrimination to establish pioneering communities in the Americas. The Moravian Brethren, who settled in Saxony after the execution of their leader Jan Hus, had become energetic missionaries by the 19th century, venturing as far afield as the Himalayas, where they engaged in ethnographic research in Ladakh and Tibet.

German scientists were equally well travelled: not only Alexander von Humboldt, who pioneered ecological research in the Americas, but also Adolf Bastian, whose medical training and background – he was from a family of wealthy Bremen merchants – allowed him to spend eight years travelling the world as a ship’s physician, visiting West Africa, Polynesia, Central America and Burma. He published thirty compendious volumes on his travels and with the assistance of many acquaintances, from ship’s captains to traders, assembled a huge collection of ethnographic objects with which he founded Berlin’s Ethnological Museum in 1886. The jumble of thoughts that characterised his books was replicated in the chaotic eclecticism of the museum. A bitter opponent of Darwin, Bastian was described by Darwin’s leading follower in Germany, Ernst Haeckel, as a Geheimer Oberkonfusionsrat, a ‘privy senior confusion counsellor’. Yet even Bastian’s critics admitted that his books were endlessly informative about little-known parts of the world. Other celebrated scientific travellers included men such as the unfortunate Ludwig Leichhardt, who vanished while leading an expedition across the Great Sandy Desert in Australia in 1848.

By this time, German science was admired and imitated everywhere. As late as the 1960s, chemistry undergraduates in Oxford were made to learn German to read the latest research. The German model of higher education was widely copied, especially in the US. The Germans took the lead in the so-called ‘second industrial revolution’ of the late 19th century, based on the electrical and chemical industries. Particularly important was the research-based doctorate, which arrived late in the UK (which is why in English the title ‘doctor’ tends to apply only to physicians, unlike in other European languages). After the end of the First World War, the British government forced universities to introduce doctorates in order to dissuade ambitious young British researchers from going to Germany to gain their PhDs.

Of equal importance was the global influence of German culture, above all music. German conservatories offered a rigorous training that couldn’t be found elsewhere, backed by the hegemony of German composers. There was even a novel set among foreign music students in Leipzig: Maurice Guest (1908) by Henry Handel Richardson (the pseudonym of the Australian writer Ethel Richardson). The Weimar Republic was a ‘great crossroads of modernism’, where cultural innovators from many countries mingled, experimented and lived in defiance of convention. All this was destroyed when the Nazis came to power in 1933, in an orgy of murderous violence against their opponents. The most immediate result was the mass exodus of scientists to other countries, a blow from which German science has never recovered. Individuals such as Arnold Schoenberg, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, along with cultural institutions like the Frankfurt School and the Bauhaus, benefited the countries to which they fled, leaving Germany a cultural desert.

For Blackbourn​ , the origins of Nazism can be located not in the long run of German history, but in a congeries of ideas from elsewhere: global influences worked both ways. These included Italian Fascism, British and American eugenics and Social Darwinism, the racial theories of Arthur de Gobineau and the secular nationalism of Kemal Atatürk and the Young Turks. The synthesis of these influences, however, was purely German and not to be found elsewhere – though other fascist governments launched genocidal campaigns, from the Italians in Ethiopia to the dictatorships of Ion Antonescu and Ante Pavelić in the Balkans.

The Nazis saw the Second World War as a racial war, aimed above all at the racial reordering of Eastern Europe. The General Plan for the East, official policy from 1942, envisaged the mass extermination of up to 45 million ‘Slavs’ within a generation, and their replacement by German settlers. For the Nazis, the Jews, whoever they were and whatever they did, were the instinctive ‘world enemy’. One of the most telling parts of the Wannsee Protocol, the minutes of a meeting of Nazi administrators held early in 1942 to co-ordinate the Holocaust, was the list of countries whose Jewish inhabitants were to be killed, including Ireland and Britain, Spain, Portugal and Switzerland – all countries not yet under German control. In the long run there were to be no exceptions.

Hitler’s armies, Blackbourn stresses, did not act alone. The collaboration of Germany’s allies was crucial, whether it was the million or so Romanians, Italians and others who added their troops and equipment to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, or the antisemites from Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere who participated actively in the Holocaust as auxiliaries of one kind or another. As labour shortages gripped the wartime German economy, more than seven million foreigners were drafted in to fill vacancies in agriculture and the munitions industries. Practically the entire Italian army was co-opted as forced labour in Germany after Mussolini was overthrown and Hitler’s troops took over in the peninsula. By 1944 foreign workers constituted a quarter of Germany’s labour force.

Blackbourn is rightly sceptical of the argument that the roots of Nazi racism and empire-building in Eastern Europe lie in the experience of Germany’s short-lived overseas empire before 1914. There was very little continuity of personnel from the German colonies to the Third Reich; Franz Ritter von Epp, one of the few Nazis who had taken part in the genocide of the Herero and Nama in South-West Africa, had no influence on Nazi racial policy. Nor did Hitler have much interest in Germany’s overseas empire, which the Nazis considered of little importance. The German equivalent of colonialism was mostly applied to territories such as Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia. Britain ruled India and large parts of Africa through indigenous elites, but racism made this impossible in Hitler’s Eastern European empire. When Nazism collapsed, it left millions of non-Germans, forced labourers, prisoners and other ‘displaced persons’ adrift among the ruins, as well as around eleven million ethnic German refugees and expellees from nations such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. The rapid integration of the refugees and expellees into postwar German society was surely one of the most remarkable features of the German recovery.

At the same time, former Nazis were subjected to a variety of sanctions. Thousands of the most serious offenders were put on trial, in countries such as Poland as well as in Germany. Many were executed or sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment. But the great majority escaped justice and, in West Germany, found their way back into society and even political life as the Allied powers eased sanctions, fearing that the communists who ruled in the former Soviet zone of occupation – from 1949 the GDR – would successfully win their allegiance. (In East Germany’s sham multi-party system there was even a political party for ex-Nazis, the National Democratic Party, conceived as a ‘transmission belt’ of communist ideas to diehard German nationalists so that they wouldn’t be tempted to support the far right again.)

As the ‘economic miracle’ took hold in West Germany, the economy began to experience labour shortages again. They had been much in evidence before the First World War, when rapid industrialisation, coupled with growing prosperity, had pulled in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, especially from Poland and Italy (the Hamburg political police even employed a Polish-speaking spy to find out what the Poles employed on the waterfront were thinking). In the 1960s and 1970s, Italians again moved to West Germany to work, but the Eastern Bloc countries were cut off, and it was above all Turkey that plugged the gap with huge numbers of ‘guest workers’ (Gastarbeiter). Confounding the assumption that they wouldn’t stay for long, many of them became integrated into German society, staying without many rights. Until the law changed in 2000, Gastarbeiter were denied full equality because citizenship was based on descent rather than residency.

Mass emigration, mainly through Berlin, where it was possible to cross from the Soviet sector into the Western ones, drained the GDR of precious human resources until the regime sealed off the exit route with the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. The fall of the Wall in November 1989 was the product not so much of German forces as international ones, principally the relative economic decline of the Soviet Union and its satellite nations. Mikhail Gorbachev was far more popular in Germany than he was in Russia. Once more, events in Germany had turned out to be closely linked to what was happening elsewhere: Reagan’s appeal (‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’) had a major impact.

Since German reunification – better described as the West German takeover of the East – the country has entered a new era of multiculturalism, from the composition of the national football team to the popularity of doner kebabs and currywurst. German classical orchestras have been conducted by foreign maestros (most famously, Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic), while pop music in Germany is as dominated by America and Britain as ever (even punk rock found a controversial place in East German popular culture before the fall of the Wall). In the other direction there has been the global impact of Holocaust memory, with museums and memorials springing up in countries where the extermination of European Jews had little direct influence. The mature and self-critical way in which Germany – in contrast to, say, Japan or Italy – has dealt with the commemoration of the crimes committed in its name has led to exhortations to ‘learn from the Germans’. All this has enhanced the reputation of early 21st-century Germany, particularly after its welcoming in the mid-2010s of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, though the continued rise of the far-right AfD puts a question mark next to such optimism, along with the knee-jerk defence of the Israeli government’s current actions in Gaza.

Blackbourn’s narrative buries beyond doubt the idea that German history proceeded in isolation, treading a ‘special path’ culminating in the Third Reich and the Holocaust. In this sense Germany in the World is the final step in the process of re-evaluation that Blackbourn began in the 1980s. But the book leaves out too much for it really to be a new narrative of German history, and in some respects its relentless focus on Germany’s intimate imbrication with world history gives it an almost monographic character. More seriously, perhaps, such a thorough exploration of the global dimension of German history risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater, for if Germany and the rest of the world were so thoroughly intertwined, how do we explain the Holocaust originating in Germany and being driven forward by its Nazi rulers? Blackbourn more or less passes over this question, and while answering it isn’t his purpose here, his book, for all its brilliance, makes it more difficult than ever to answer.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 46 No. 6 · 21 March 2024

Richard J. Evans takes the popularity of doner kebabs and currywurst in Germany to be a sign of a ‘new era of multiculturalism’ that began with reunification (LRB, 7 March). Currywurst was in fact created in 1949 by Herta Heuwer in her kiosk in the Kantstrasse in Berlin. When she tried to register the sauce, called Chillup, her claim was disputed by a cook in Hamburg, who insisted that she had concocted it in 1947 from curry powder given to her by an American soldier.

Martin Kitchen
Vancouver, British Columbia

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences