German special route

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The thesis of the German Sonderweg , also known as the Sonderweg thesis , states that the development of democratic structures in Germany differs significantly from the European norm, which is represented by France and Great Britain , among others . This special development can be derived from the history of Germany . In the history of science it is debatable whether this is really a special way or just an own way. The thesis of the Sonderweg presupposes that there is a norm for the historical development towards liberal democracy .


Hans-Ulrich Wehler , who has dealt extensively with the investigation of a German special path within the framework of the methodology of historical social science , describes the development of the Prussian- dominated German Empire up to the end of the Weimar Republic as a “peculiar tension between tradition and modernity”. He takes up a figure of thought from the empire, according to which Germany was superior to Western societies due to a specific special path and reversed this image into its radical opposite: the German special path is in truth an expression of a structural modernization deficit and ultimately led to National Socialism .

The term “Deutscher Sonderweg” is also associated with the idea that leadership classes in Germany, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, pursued a wrong, inflexible and sometimes anachronistic policy. This policy is characterized above all by an anti-parliamentary and anti-democratic stance as well as the fundamental refusal and rejection of liberal and social upheavals emanating from the people ( socialist laws), which leads to an ultimately faulty self-image of the Germans , which is primarily defined by cultural aspects and an excessive national feeling have led. This was due to the aforementioned categorical rejection of liberal and parliamentary movements by the Prussian leadership, which wanted to expand its sphere of power within the German area and insist on maintaining the monarchy . It was above all the politics of Prussia that shaped the development of Germany as a whole from 1814/15.

The beginning of the special path can be traced back on the one hand to the special position of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation ( particularism in contrast to the centralized kingdoms of England and France ) of the Middle Ages and on the other hand to the enlightened absolutism of Prussia and Austria , which in part anticipated reforms that in France were only achieved through the French Revolution . Possibly this encouraged the bourgeoisie in Germany to believe in authority .

Another important phase in the development of the German Sonderweg was the Weimar Classicism , which was looking for an alternative to the violent bourgeois revolution as in France. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (minister in Weimar from 1779 to 1786) and Friedrich Schiller , who first glorified the “ original genius ” in their youth ( Sturm und Drang ) , looked for an alternative as they grew older in view of the excesses of the French Revolution. This consisted in an elevation of the general moral sentiment in the nobility and bourgeoisie, promoted by aesthetic education (cf. Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man of 1795). As in other European countries, an educated bourgeoisie developed in Germany, offering opportunities for advancement for citizens and a retreat for aristocrats.

Presentation of the special value of Germany: culture versus civilization

The differences between a specifically German development and that of its western neighbors, on the other hand, were also accepted as a sign of a special value for the Germans and were therefore viewed as strongly positive.

Since Germaine de Staëls De l'Allemagne (1813), many Germans have compensated for their feelings of inferiority vis-à-vis the western nation- states by attributing themselves to themselves as the “land of poets and thinkers ” with reference to Goethe and Immanuel Kant . Kant had differentiated the concept of culture as a moral way of life from that of civilization oriented towards material well-being. It was culture regarded as the more spiritual, emotionally deeper way of living together and the superficial devalued civilization compared. This notion was particularly pointed out by Thomas Mann in his considerations of an apolitical during the First World War .

This idea is also directed as a defense against the understanding of civilization used as a battle term. Because in the German language there are many positive connotations associated with culture, which in French and English are associated with civilization / civilization , in particular the idea of ​​the highest level of the development of a society (this is often civilization - for example in Samuel P. Huntington's clash of civilizations - to translate with culture ).

While the (French) concept of "civilization" is based on the universal validity of human rights - formulated in the declaration of human and civil rights - the German concept of culture emphasized the particularity of different cultural expressions of life in the coexistence of units with equal rights to exist (also: principle of federalism ) . This view reflects the German situation of extreme fragmentation into non-uniform regions ( small states ), in contrast to the political centralism in France.

The logic of the special path in the self-understanding of German self-assurance was expressed in the " Ideas of 1914 ", the "attempt to unreservedly justify German war policy". The German aristocratic elite saw themselves here ideologically “sandwiched” between the modern capitalist class societies of France and England and the tsarist autocracy of Russia. They therefore summoned "a all classes einschmelzende, conflict-free, harmonious national community ', which - conducted by the competent educated middle bureaucracy and protected from the strong Prussian-German military monarchy -. Will rise up in the crucible of war like a phoenix" ( quoted by Wehler , 2003, pp. 17f. ). The German nobility tried to maintain a residual influence after the inevitable loss of actual power by upgrading their social retreat areas (universities, administration and military), which at least enabled the habitual lifestyle to be continued. The idea of ​​the “anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, conflict-free 'national community of national socialism ', which should overcome the antagonisms of class society” reappears later in a radicalized form in the ideology of National Socialism .

After the collapse of the National Socialist regime , the idea of ​​the separate path was increasingly negatively understood. While reference was made to a superior otherness until 1945, possible German modernization deficits now moved into the focus of the presentations.


In connection with a “German special path”, the following theses were introduced into the debate:

  • The industrialization . Due to an aging, conservative economic policy, which was based on guilds and inhibited the development of industrialization in Germany, a real industrial revolution did not take place until 30 to 40 years later than in Great Britain.
  • Anti-democracy and citizens' movement hostility of the German elites and the leadership. The French Revolution was the beginning of a democratization process in Europe. The attempt of the national and liberal movement in Germany to set up a parliamentary system with the March Revolution of 1848 failed. Instead, with the founding of the empire in 1871, a monarchical German state emerged , which in this form also disrupted the European balance of power , the maintenance of which had been one of the fundamental goals of the Congress of Vienna . Unity and freedom were not realized together as in other states, the bourgeoisie came to terms with the authoritarian state in the empire . The universal suffrage was restricted until 1918 by the unique Prussian three -class suffrage , which delayed the parliamentarization of the political system, which is why the parties later lacked the ability to act in support of the state ( Heinrich August Winkler speaks of "non-simultaneous democratization").
  • The Weimar Republic . The November Revolution of 1918/19 remained incomplete because the leaders of the SPD , fearing a left-wing dictatorship, entered into cooperation with the old elites and therefore democracy was not rooted in the civil service and the military. Therefore, large industrialists like Fritz Thyssen or the influential media industrialist Alfred Hugenberg were able to pave the way for National Socialism during the crisis .
  • The Third Reich is seen as the extreme of Germany's off-roading. Its collapse led to the division of Germany and thus to the loss of the German great power status. Through external intervention by the allied victorious powers, Germany was restructured and artificially integrated into a free democratic system , not from its own development . Nevertheless, historians like Winkler value the further development of the Federal Republic as part of the liberal-democratic “West” and the confrontation with its own past as overcoming the special path in the thinking of the people, which ended in peaceful reunification .

Criticism of this concept

In the more recent scientific discussion, the thesis of the “German Sonderweg” is mostly relativized or completely denied. Criticisms include:

  • The developments in German history that are referred to as “Sonderweg” are without a doubt German peculiarities. However, there was no “normal” or “normal” development in other countries. In Great Britain , too, there was no linear development towards liberal democracy. Other countries such as Spain , Italy , Austria or Hungary mostly did not experience any liberal and democratic developments in the last two centuries, but wars, revolutions and political instability, conservative-authoritarian forces and the old aristocratic elites often retained great power. In continental Europe, one can only speak of an “ideal”, because it is free of conflict and continuous modernization and democratization , in the case of the Benelux countries and the Scandinavian countries, to some extent in the case of France . Because these countries form the heart of western, "occidental" Europe and the nucleus of today's European Union and Germany has been politically "west" since the founding of the Federal Republic (1949), Heinrich-August Winkler speaks about German history in the 20th century Century also of a “long way to the West” - without, however, being clear about what actually constitutes this “West”.
  • Even those who (like Helmuth Plessner ) think that Germany is a belated nation must state what the alleged reference point is, says Michael Kotulla.
  • France, Italy and Prussia were at a similar level of development around 1869/1870. The Paris Commune has shown that the formation of an internal nation was still unstable in France. The development of the German constitution was not very different from a European comparison, with the exception of federalism.
  • Germany was saturated in 1871, as Bismarck had put it. He posed no more danger to the neighbors than from other large nation states.
  • The German bourgeoisie was not as weak as postulated in the 19th century. Rather, it became part of society as a whole and at most lost its profile, but not its influence. Even without a formal bourgeois revolution (and thus rebellion against the old order of the nobility), the bourgeoisie had been the leading class since 1871.
  • The “German Sonderweg” is a draft interpretation that evaluates the historical development one-sidedly from today's point of view and applies normative statements (“good” = liberal, “bad” = more autocratic form of government) to history and overlooks the fact that history is not targeted or inevitably has to develop. In this context it is pointed out, for example, that the Weimar Republic also had a democratic development potential and its failure was only one possibility, not the only one from the outset.
  • The theory of the "German Sonderweg" is closely linked to the problem of continuity of right-wing political currents in Germany:

"[...] that an indisputable political line can be traced from the militant-völkisch and radical-nationalist movements [...] since the late 19th century up to National Socialism, but that on the other hand, an overarching continuity from traditional conservatism [...] to Hitler and his ideology does not exist. "

- Hans-Christof Kraus : Old conservatism and modern political rights.

The major shortcoming of the Sonderweg thesis is above all a lack of trans-European studies, including Japan and the USA, on radical nationalism-chauvinism and militarism. Only on the basis of this could a well-founded final judgment be made, whereby a trend is already clearly recognizable today. In addition, the Sonderweg thesis is closely related to the “singularity thesis”.

See also

Individual evidence

  1. Cornelius Torp, Sven Oliver Müller: The image of the German Empire in transition. In: C. Torp, SO Müller (ed.): The German Empire in the Controversy. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2008, p. 9.
  2. Michael Grüttner : The Third Reich. 1933-1939. (= Handbook of German History . Volume 19). Stuttgart 2014, ISBN 978-3-608-60019-3 , p. 39.
  3. ^ Michael Kotulla: German constitutional history. From the Old Reich to Weimar (1495–1934) . Springer, Berlin 2008, p. 526.
  4. Martin Kirsch: Monarch and Parliament in the 19th Century. Monarchical constitutionalism as a European type of constitution - France in comparison . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1999, pp. 395-397.
  5. Martin Kirsch: Monarch and Parliament in the 19th Century. Monarchical constitutionalism as a European type of constitution - France in comparison . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1999, p. 400/401.
  6. ^ Michael Kotulla: German constitutional history. From the Old Reich to Weimar (1495–1934) . Springer, Berlin 2008, p. 527.
  7. Thomas Nipperdey et al. (Ed.): World civil war of ideologies. Answers to Ernst Nolte . Berlin 1993, p. 116.
  8. cf. Wolfgang Wippermann 1993, pp. 207-215.


  • Margaret Lavinia Anderson: A Democracy Deficit? The German Empire in a comparative perspective . In: Tim B. Müller, Hedwig Richter (ed.): History and society . Journal of Historical Social Science. No. 3/2018 . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018, ISSN  0340-613X , p. 367-398 ( abstract ).
  • David Blackbourn , Geoff Eley: Myths of German historiography. The failed bourgeois revolution of 1848. (= Ullstein 35068 Ullstein materials ), ( Social History Library ). Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main a. a. 1980, ISBN 3-548-35068-2 .
  • Karl Dietrich Bracher (Ed.): German Sonderweg - Myth or Reality? (= Colloquia of the Institute for Contemporary History ). Oldenbourg, Munich 1982, ISBN 3-486-51421-0 .
  • Bernd Faulenbach : The ideology of the German way. German history in the historiography between the German Empire and National Socialism. Munich 1980, ISBN 3-406-07587-8 .
  • Helga Grebing : The "German Sonderweg" in Europe 1806-1945. A criticism. (= Kohlhammer-Urban pocket books. 381). Kohlhammer, Stuttgart a. a. 1986, ISBN 3-17-009413-0 .
  • Alfred Heuss : Contingency in History. In: New Issues for Philosophy. 24/25, 1985, ISSN  0085-3917 , pp. 14–43, (Printed in: Alfred Heuss: Gesammelte Schriften in three volumes . Volume 3: 1. History and theory of science, international law. 2. University and school reform . Steiner , Stuttgart 1995, ISBN 3-515-06716-7 , pp. 2128-2157).
  • Dirk Hoeges : German special routes or nothing new in the West? Baudelaire in Germany. George - Rilke and the blockade of modernity in literature and history. In: Romance Journal for the History of Literature / Cahiers d'Histoire des Littératures Romanes. 32, 3/4, 2008, ISSN  0343-379X , pp. 299-341.
  • Hans-Christof Kraus : Old conservatism and modern political rights. In: Thomas Nipperdey u. a. (Ed.): World civil war of ideologies. Answers to Ernst Nolte. Festschrift for the 70th birthday . Propylaea, Berlin a. a. 1993, ISBN 3-549-05326-6 , pp. 99-121.
  • Thomas Nipperdey : 1933 and the continuity of German history. In: Historical magazine . 227, 1978, pp. 86–111, (reprinted in: Thomas Nipperdey: Reflections on German History. Essays . Beck, Munich 1986, ISBN 3-406-31545-3 , pp. 186–205).
  • Helmuth Plessner : The fate of the German spirit at the end of its bourgeois epoch . Niehans, Zurich a. a. 1935, (With a changed title as the 2nd, expanded edition: The belated nation. On the political seducibility of the bourgeois spirit . Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1959).
  • Fritz K. Ringer : The decline of the German mandarins: the German academic community 1890-1933 . Harvard University Press, Cambridge / Mass. 1969. (Ger. The learned: the decline of the German mandarin 1890–1933 . Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1983, ISBN 3-12-912030-0 ).
  • Cornelius Torp, Sven Oliver Müller (Ed.): The German Empire in the Controversy. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 2008, ISBN 978-3-525-36752-0 .
  • Hans-Ulrich Wehler : German history of society . Volume 3: From the “German Double Revolution” to the beginning of the First World War. 1849-1914. Beck, Munich 1995, ISBN 3-406-32263-8 .
  • Hans-Ulrich Wehler: German history of society. Volume 4: From the beginning of the First World War to the founding of the two German states. 1914-1949. Beck Munich 2003, ISBN 3-406-32264-6 .
  • Hans-Ulrich Wehler: German history. Volume 9: The German Empire 1871–1918. (= Small Vandenhoeck series. 1380). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1973, ISBN 3-525-33542-3 .
  • Heinrich August Winkler : The long way to the west . 6th, revised edition. Beck, Munich 2005, ISBN 3-406-49527-3 .
  • Wolfgang Wippermann : From the erratic block to the shambles. In: Thomas Nipperdey u. a. (Ed.): World civil war of ideologies. Answers to Ernst Nolte. Festschrift for the 70th birthday. Propylaea, Berlin a. a. 1993, ISBN 3-549-05326-6 , pp. 207-215.