Hans-Ulrich Wehler (born
September 11, 1931) is a left-wing
German historian known for his
"critical" studies of 19th century Germany. He was born in
Freudenberg and was educated at the universities of Cologne and Bonn and at Ohio University between 1952â€“1958.
He married Renate Pfitsch
in 1958, by whom he has two children. Wehler taught at the
Cologne (1968-70), at the Free University
of Berlin (1970-71) and at Bielefeld University (1971-96).
Champion of the Sonderweg theory
Wehler is one of the most famous members of the so-called Bielefeld
School, a group of historians who used the methods of the social sciences
to analyze history
. Wehler's speciality is the Second Reich.
He was one of the more famous proponents of
thesis that argues Germany in the 19th century had only a partial
modernization. Wehler has argued that Germany was the only
nation to be created in Western Europe through a military
"revolution from above", which happened to occur at the same time
that the agricultural revolution was fading while the Industrial Revolution was beginning in
As a result,
the economic sphere was modernized and the social sphere partially
modernized. Politically, in Wehler's opinion the unified
Germany retained values that were aristocratic and feudal,
anti-democratic and pre-modern. In Wehler's view, it
was the efforts of the reactionary German Ă©lite to retain power
that led to the outbreak of the First World
War in 1914, the failure of the Weimar Republic and the coming of the Third
Wehler has asserted that the effects of the
traditional power elite to maintain power up to 1945 "and in many
respects even beyond that" took the form of:
"a penchant for authoritarian politics; a hostility
toward democracy in the educational and party system; the influence
of preindustrial leadership groups, values and ideas; the tenacity
of the German state ideology; the myth of the bureaucracy; the
superimposition of caste tendencies and class distinctions; and the
manipulation of political antisemitism".
Wehler has in particular been critical of what calls Otto von Bismarck
's strategy of â€śnegative
integrationâ€ť in which Bismarck sought to create a sense of
(Germanism) and consolidate his power by
subjecting various minority groups such as Roman Catholics,
Alsatians, Poles, and Social Democrats to discriminatory laws.
Wehler is one of the foremost advocates of the â€śBerlin War Partyâ€ť
historical school, which assigns the sole and exclusive
responsibility for World War I
argued that the aggressive foreign policies of the German Empire, especially under Kaiser Wilhelm II, were largely part of an
effort on the part of the government to distract the German people
from the lack of democracy in their
This ("primacy of domestic politics") argument to
explain foreign policy, for which Wehler owes much to the work of
, puts him against the
traditional ("primacy of foreign politics") thesis championed by
historians such as Gerhard Ritter
, Andreas Hillgruber
, and Ludwig Dehio.
Wehler is an advocate of the concept of social imperialism
, which he has defined
as "the diversions outwards of internal tensions and forces of
change in order to preserve the social and political status quo",
and as a "defensive ideology" to counter the "disruptive effects of
industrialization on the social and economic structure of Germany"
In Wehler's opinion, social imperialism was a device that allowed
the German government to distract public attention from domestic
problems and preserve the existing social and political order
Wehler argued the dominant elites used social imperialism as the
glue to hold together a fractured society and to maintain popular
support for the social status quo
Wehler argued German
colonial policy in the 1880s was the first example of social
imperialism in action, and was followed up by the "Tirpitz plan"
for expanding the German Navy starting in 1897 In this point of
view, groups such as the Colonial Society and the Navy League
are seen as instruments
for the government to mobilize public support The demands for
annexing most of Europe
in World War I
seen by Wehler as the pinnacle of social imperialism
In the 1970s, Wehler was involved in a somewhat discordant and
acrimonious debate with Hildebrand and Hillgruber over the merits
of the two approaches to diplomatic
. Hillgruber and Hildebrand argued for the traditional
Primat der Aussenpolitik
approach with empirical research
on the foreign-policy making elite while Wehler argued for the
Primat der Innenpolitik
approach by treating diplomatic
history as a sub-branch of social
with the focus on theoretical research. The two major
intellectual influences Wehler cites are Karl
and Max Weber
Philosophy of History
Wehler has often criticized traditional German historiography
with its emphasis on political
events, the role of the individual in history and history as an art
as unacceptably conservative and incapable of properly explaining
the past. In a 1980 article, Wehler mocked those who sought to
explain Nazi Germany
as due to some
defect in Adolf Hitler
's personality by
"Does our understanding of National Socialist policies
really depend on whether Hitler had only one testicle?...Perhaps
the FĂĽhrer had three, which made things difficult for
him-who knows?...Even if Hitler could be regarded irrefutably as a
sado-masochist, which scientific interest does that further?...Does
the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" thus become more easily
understandable or the "twisted road to Auschwitz" become the
one-way street of a psychopath in power?".
Wehler sees history as a social
and contends that social developments are frequently
more important than politics. In his view, history is a "critical
social science" that must examine both the "temporal structures" of
a society and encourage a "freer critical awareness of society".
advocated an approach he calls Historische
Sozialwissenschaft (Historical Social Science), which favors
integrating elements of history, sociology, economics and
anthropology to study in a holistic
fashion long-term social changes in a society In Wehler's view,
Germany between 1871â€“1945 was dominated by a social
structure which retarded modernization in some areas while allowing
it in others.
For Wehler, Germany's defeat in 1945 finally
smashed the "pre-modern" social structure and let Germany become a
normal 'Western' country.
The Historikerstreit and other controversies
Wehler is a leading critic of what he sees as efforts on the part
of conservative historians to whitewash the German past. He played
an important part in the Historikerstreit
of the 1980s. The debate began after the publishing of an article
by the philosopher Ernst Nolte
German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine
on June 6 of 1986. In his article, Nolte claims
that there was a connection by cause between the Gulag
and the Nazi extermination camps
, the previous
supposedly having effected the latter, which he called an
("overshooting reaction"). This
infuriated many (and mainly left wing
intellectuals, among them Wehler and the philosopher JĂĽrgen Habermas
. They strongly rejected
Nolte's thesis and presented a case for seeing the crimes of
as uniquely evil
(something which in the view of Nolte's defenders, Nolte never
disputed in the first place). Wehler was ferocious in his criticism
of Nolte and wrote several articles and books that by Wehlerâ€™s own
admission were polemical attacks on Nolte. In his 1988 book about
entitled Entsorgung der deutschen
Vergangenheit?: ein polemischer Essay zum "Historikerstreit"
(Exoneration of the German Past?: A Polemical Essay about the
), in which Wehler criticized every aspect
of Nolte's views, and in which Wehler called the
a "political struggle" for the historical
understanding of the German past between "a cartel devoted to
repressing and excusing" the memory of the Nazi years, of which
Nolte was the chief member, against "the representatives of a
liberal-democratic politics, of an enlightened, self-critical
position, of a rationality which is critical of ideology". Besides
for Nolte, Wehler also attacked the work of Michael StĂĽrmer
as â€śa strident
declaration of war against a key element of the consensus upon
which the socio-political life of this second republic has rested
heretofore" During the Historikerstreit
, Wehler was one of
the few historians who endorsed JĂĽrgen Habermas
method of attacking
by creating a
sentence about â€śtested senior officials in Nazi Party in the Eastâ€ť
out of a long sentence in which Hillgruber had said no such thing
under the grounds that right-wing historians like Hillgruber
deserved any and all forms of abuse. The British historian Richard J. Evans
, who was normally a fierce critic of
Hillgruber felt that Habermas and Wehler went too far in attacking
Hillgruber with the line about "tested senior officials".
In another essay during the Historikerstreit
, Wehler wrote
of Nolte and Hillgruber's that:
"Hitler supposedly believed in the reality of this
danger [of Communism threatening Germany].
Moreover, his dread of being overwhelmed by the
"Asiatic" Bolsheviks was allegedly the prime motivating force
behind his policies and personality.
Nolte restated his axiom-one which perhaps reflects the
naivetĂ© of an historian who has devoted his life's work to the
power of ideologies-in a blunter, more pointed form than ever
before in the fall of 1987: "To view Hitler as a German politician
rather the anti-Lenin", he reproved hundreds of knowledgeable
historians, "strikes me as a proof of a regrettable myopia and
Starting from his premise, and falling under the sway
of the very fears and phobias he himself has played up, Nolte once
again defiantly insisted: "If Hitler was a person fundamentally
driven by fears-by among others a fear of the "rat cage"-and if
this renders "his motivations more understandable", then the war
against the Soviet Union was not only "the greatest war ever of
destruction and enslavement", but also "in spite of this,
objectively speaking [!], a preemptive war.
While Nolte may like to describe his motive as the purely
scientific interest of (as he likes to put it) a solitary thinker
in search of a supposedly more complex, more accurate understanding
of the years between 1917 and 1945, a number of political
implications are clearly present.
The basic tendency of Nolte's reinterpretation is to unburden
German history by relativizing the Holocaust.
Nolte claims the Nazi mass murder was modeled on and instigated by
the excesses of the Russian Revolution, the Stalinist regime and
the Gulag; that it countered this "Asiatic" danger by imitating and
This new localization of "absolute evil" in Nolte's political
theology leads away from Hitler, National Socialism and German
It shifts the real origins of fascist barbarism onto the Marxist
postulate-and the Bolshevik practice-of extermination.
Once again the classic mechanism of locating the source of evil
outside one's own history is at work.
The German war of destruction certainly remains inhuman.
But because its roots supposedly lie in the Marxist theory and
Bolshevik class warfare, the German perpetrator is now seen to be
reacting in defensive, understandable panic to the "original"
inhumanity of the East.
From there, it is only one more step to the astounding conclusion
that Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the war
of conquest and extermination that followed were "objectively
speaking"-one can hardly believe one's eyes-"a preemptive
An even closer connection between academic and political interests
is apparent in Andreas Hillgruber's Zweierlei Untergang,
where the plight of the German Army on the Eastern Front and the
civilian population of eastern Germany is treated without any
countervailing consideration for the fate of the Jewish and Slavic
"subhumans", the members of the German opposition, and incarcerated
groups, or indeed for the Europeans subject to German occupation,
and the German people themselves, all caught up in a senselessly
prolonged "total war".
Such a position unavoidably carries immensely oppressive political
His laments over the destruction of the "European center",
Germany's intermediary position between East and West, and her loss
of great power status is shot through with countless political
His guiding position (later admitted openly), according to which
the loss of the eastern provinces and the expulsion of the German
population westward represented "probably the most burdensome
consequence of the war", is in itself a matter for political
Such political implications can only lead us down the wrong
path-not to mention a scientific dead-end.
In all likelihood it was Hillgruber's aversion to methodological
and theoretical reflection that was largely responsible for this
Be that as it may, the political effect of Zweierlei
Untergang has been downright fatal.
It has led to the return of an unreflecting nationalism, in which
sympathetic identification with the German Army on the Eastern
Front and with the German civilian population has become
Such a worldview has led an otherwise extremely knowledgeable
historian to extrude and exclude the victims of National Socialism
from his narrative, an omission that would once have been
unimaginable but that we now see in black and white.
The consequences of a naive attempt to identify with the subjects
of historical writing could hardly be demonstrated more
In Entsorgung der deutschen Vergangenheit?
, Wehler writing
not only of the work of Nolte, but also of the work and
intentionist theories about the Holocaust of Klaus Hildebrand
, Andreas Hillgruber
, Joachim Fest
and Michael StĂĽrmer
"This survey is directed-among other matters-against
the apologetic effect of the tendency of interpretations that once
more blame Hitler alone for the 'Holocaust'-thereby exonerating the
older power elites and the Army, the executive bureaucracy, and the
judiciary ...and the silent majority who knew".
The American historian John Lukacs
writing of Entsorgung der deutschen Vergangenheit?
1997 book The Hitler of History
noted that he was
impressed by many of Wehler's points, but felt that he made them
with an unnecessarily aggressive and polemical style.
Speaking of the political importance of the
, Wehler described the debate as "The
is, in sum, more than a strictly
scholarly controversy within scholarly limits". In a 1989 essay,
the American historian Jerry Muller criticized Wehler as a "leading
Left-Liberal historian" who used the Historikerstreit
unjustly smear neo-conservatives with the Nazi tag Muller went on
to write of the "interesting peculiarity of the political culture
of German Left-liberal intellectuals" such as Wehler, in that
Wehler referred to repression in the Stalin-era Soviet Union as
"the excesses of the Russian Civil War", and argued that there was
no comparison between Soviet and German history. Instead Wehler
suggested that the only valid comparisons were between German
history and those of other Western nations. Muller criticized
Wehler for his lack of interest in Soviet history, and
unwillingness to engage in a comparative history between Eastern
and Western nations, instead of just Western nations.
Along somewhat similar lines to the stance he took during the
, in September 1990
Wehler strongly condemned a newspaper opinion piece by Harold James
national legends and myths were needed to sustain national
Wehler's work has faced criticism. From the right, Otto Pflanze
claimed that Wehler's use of such terms as "Bonapartism", "social
imperialism" "negative integration" and Sammlungspolitik
("the politics of rallying together") has gone beyond mere
heuristic devices and instead become a form of historical fiction.
The German conservative historian Thomas Nipperdey has argued that
Wehler presented German elites as more united then they were,
focused too much on forces from above and not enough on forces from
below in 19th century German society, and presented a too stark
contrast between the forces of order and stabilization vs. the
forces of democracy with no explanation for the relative stability
of the Empire. In Nipperdey's opinion, Wehler's work fails
to explain how the Weimar Republic occurred since according to Wehler prior to 1918
the forces of authoritarianism were so strong and the forces of
democracy so weak.
In a 1975 book review of Wehler's Das
, Nipperdey concluded that a proper
history of the Imperial period could only be written by placing
German history in a comparative European and trans-Atlantic
perspective, which might allow for "our fixation on the struggle
with our great-grandfathers" to end.
From the left, Wehler has been criticized by two British Marxist
historians, David Blackbourn
who in their 1980 book
Mythen deutscher Geschichtsschreibung
English in 1984 as The Peculiarities of German History
rejected the entire concept of the Sonderweg
as a flawed
construct supported by a "a curious mixture of idealistic analysis
and vulgar materialism" that led to an "exaggerated linear
continuity between the nineteenth century and the 1930s". In the
view of Blackbourn and Eley, there was no Sonderweg
it is ahistorical to judge why Germany did not become Britain for
the simple reason that Germany is Germany and Britain is Britain.
Moreover, Eley and Blackbourn argued that after 1890 there was a
tendency towards greater democratization in German society with the
growth of civil society as reflected in the growth of trade unions
and a more or less free press.
In addition, Eley contends that there are three flaws to Wehler's
theory of social imperialism
first is that Wehler credits leaders such as Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz
and Prince Bernhard von BĂĽlow
with a greater
degree of vision then what they in fact possessed The second is
that many of the pressure groups on the right who advocated an
imperialist policy for Germany were not the creations of the
government, and in fact often demanded an far more aggressive
policies then what the government was willing to undertake The
third was that many of these imperialist lobbying groups demanded
an policy of political and social reform at home, in addition to
imperialism abroad Eley argued that what is required in thinking
about social imperialism is a broader picture with an interaction
from above and below, and a wider view of the relationship between
imperialism abroad and domestic politics
During the "Goldhagen Controversy" of 1996, Wehler was a leading
critic of Daniel Goldhagen
especially in regards to the latter's claims in his book
about alleged culture of murderous German
"eliminationist anti-Semitism", through Wehler was more sympathetic
towards Goldhagen's claims about the motives of Holocaust
perpetrators. The Canadian historian Fred Kautz called Wehler an
anti-Semitic for his attacks on Goldhagen Kautz wrote that "He
[Wehler] doesnt' dare say it openly that he thinks Goldhagen is
incapable of writing about the Holocaust because he is a Jew...It's
flabbergasting what perverse ideas are dreamt up in the studies of
German professors, wehre according to an ancient legend, one seeks
the truth unperturbed, "sine ira et studio" ("with diligence and
without anger"): the victims of history should not be allowed to
write their own history!"
In 2000, Wehler became the eighth German historian to be inducted
as an honorary member of the American Historical
. Wehler accepted this honor with some reluctance as
previous German historians so honored have included Leopold von Ranke
, Gerhard Ritter
and Friedrich Meinecke
, none of whom Wehler
considers to be proper historians.
In a 2006 interview, Wehler supported imprisonment of David Irving
for Holocaust Denial
in Austria under the
grounds that â€śThe denial of such an unimaginable murder of
millions, one third of whom were children under the age of 14,
cannot simply be accepted as something protected by the freedom of
speechâ€ť. In recent years, Wehler has been a leading
critic of Turkey's possible
accession to the European
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