Was the empire just a dark and militaristic chapter in German history? Or did it also have bright sides that remained undiscovered for a long time because German historians had fixed themselves on authoritarianism and the lines of continuity up to National Socialism since the formerly groundbreaking monograph by Hans-Ulrich Wehler? Even if the thesis of the German special route has been scientifically outdated for more than twenty years, the historian Hedwig Richter, who teaches at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, has with her book “Demokratie. A German Affair "triggered a fierce controversy in historical studies because it embeds the development of the empire in a positive narrative, at least from 1900 onwards: the Reichstag had become more influential,the women's movement developed and social democracy laid the foundations for later democratic development with the politicization of the masses.

Rudiger Soldt

Political correspondent in Baden-Württemberg.

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Richter's joy in the controversy, which is often conducted via Twitter, resulted in a joint article with Bernd Ulrich at the time, in which both claimed that the Sonderweg thesis had led to a pronounced fear of German politicians of their own people.

Therefore, “any noticeable climate policy”, a “sustainable migration policy” and other unreasonable demands, such as a hard lockdown, simply cannot be implemented in Germany.

Every modern people's party in Europe makes its politics today dependent on moods and opinion polls.

The pickelhaube as a metaphor for the empire

At the invitation of the Federal President Theodor Heuss House Foundation, Hedwig Richter and one of her antipodes, the Marburg historian Eckart Conze, met in a public event in the Stuttgart State Gallery. Thomas Hertfelder, moderator and managing director of the foundation, did not embark on such historical and political deviations, but stayed strictly in the period from 1870 to 1918 and confronted Richter and Conze with a striking question: “Let's start with the spiked hood, does the Kaiserreich represent the Prussian -German militarism? "

Both scientists could say a lot about this. Richter argued rather defensively - perhaps because her books had been panned unusually sharply by influential colleagues such as Andreas Wirsching and some journalists. "Nobody says that the empire was a peaceful democratic nation-state," said Richter, and then spread her arguments for the bright side of the epoch: Militarism and colonialism were international problems. And although the government was not dependent on the Reichstag, it played an important role as a place of discussion. Real wages have risen, lively discourses have developed at party meetings, mass movements have been articulated for the first time, and a civil society has emerged.A problem with Richter's interpretation of the empire could be this too modern term. Because a civil society in a functioning parliamentary democracy cannot be compared with an emerging civil society in an authoritarian state.

Eckart Conze spoke out against trivializing the empire, repeatedly contradicted Richter on essential points and drew attention to the "dark sides": The spiked hood could well stand as a metaphor for the empire, which was constitutionally an authoritarian nation-state. The lack of parliamentarization remained a drawback until the final phase of the First World War. Although there has been a politicization of society outside of parliament, if one emphasizes that, then one should not remain silent about the nationalist mass organizations - such as the Pan-German Association, the German Fleet Association or the German Wehrverein.

Conze also identified two essential differences to other constitutional monarchies of the time: The tradition of civic nationalism of 1848 had been reshaped by an ethnic nationalism of the empire, which clearly distinguishes Germany from other nation states. The “genocidal intention to exterminate” in the suppression of the Herero and Nama uprisings is also characteristic of Germany. “We cannot say that the empire ended in 1918, no, the empire continued to have an effect. It is not a harbinger of National Socialism, but you have to see the dynamism of the development, ”said Conze. At the end of the discussion it was not surprising that Richter interpreted the nationalism of the empire as more inclusive and Conze as exclusive.