Elections, Mass Politics, and Social Change in Modern Germany: New Perspectives.

Elections, Mass Politics, and Social Change in Modern Germany: New Perspectives. – book reviews

Robert G. Moeller

In his contribution to Elections, Mass Politics, and Social Change in Modern Germany, the political scientist Peter Steinbach observes that “it would be an exaggeration to claim that electoral research today stands at the center of current historical study,” (119) and there can be little doubt that the focus o many historians of modern German on social history, the “history of daily life” (Alltagsgeschichte), and cultural history has tended to shove to the side the arena of elections and politics. However, this volume unabashedly brings the political back and clearly indicates that the study of elections and politics i alive and well in Germany, Britain, and United States, the countries from which the contributors are drawn. The sixteen essays collected here were originally presented at a conference at the University of Toronto in April 1990. Sponsored by the German History Society, its organizers, James Retallack and Larry Jones, brought together a mix of social and political historians including both well-established senior scholars and more recent recruits.

The essays cover a chronological range that extends from Kaiserreich to Third Reich and a methodological spectrum which is no less broad. Brett Fairbairn asks, “What were elections about?” (17) and the contributors suggest a number o different responses and more than one way to find answers. In their introductio the editors conclude that “taken together, these essays reveal that historicall Germans have searched for political consensus and social stability in many different ways,” (12-13) and the volume suggests that historians seeking to explain consensus and stability have sought to illuminate their subject with no less variety.

Thus, Fairbairn and Jurgen Falter, analyzing voting shifts among political part blocs in the Kaiserreich and Weimar respectively, deploy statistical analysis and quantitative methods to wring social characteristics and political attitude from data on voting behavior. Larry Jones, examining the largely unsuccessful appeals of political liberalism to youth in Weimar, and Elizabeth Harvey, analyzing the participation of young women in associations outside the spectrum of party politics, emphasize that the electorate in the twenties must be disaggregated along the axes of gender and generation. Retallack, studying the political deployment of anti-socialist rhetoric in Saxony in the Kaiserreich, Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, focusing on the continued dominance of political liberals at the municipal level before 1918, and Richard Bodek, exploring the relationship between proletarian culture and Communist politics in Berlin in th twenties indicate how careful empirical work at the local and regional level ca illuminate and challenge generalizations about national trends. Roger Chickerin and Peter Fritzsche use social historical methods to study organizational forms and political rhetorics of Nazis and other right-wing associations in Weimar.

Three other essays take on major interpretive issues in the literature on Weima and National Socialism. Stuart Robson argues for a historicized understanding o the political rupture of 1918/19 and maintains that from the perspective of contemporaries, the November Revolution was but one moment in the long march toward “a reformed, parliamentary version of the Kaiserreich.” (341) In an essa intended to provoke, Richard Bessel concludes that the move toward parliamentar reform in Weimar had weighty unintended consequences, because “a functioning national electorate can exist only if voting remains to some extent an illusory activity.”(417) Once German voters believed that they could directly influence the form of the state, the connections between elected and electorate became altogether too real. In the Kaiserreich, voters “had lacked responsibility but wanted it; during the Republic, they had gained responsibility but were incapable of exercising it.” (410) Plagued by economic and social instability, Weimar voters were able to find “no political basis for anything but irresponsible demagogic politics.” (417) A cautionary tale for “new democracies in Russia and Eastern Europe, Bessel’s essay will also challenges those who maintain that Weimar’s problem was too little democracy, not too much. Jill Stephenson examines the question of whether National Socialism was “modern” by taking women’s experience as one measure of modernization. Labelling the Nazis “reluctant” and “partial modernizers” in the realm of economic policy, she concludes that “although modernization provides the necessary conditions for emancipation, as for democratization, it makes neither inevitable; the former remains conditional upon the achievement of the latter.” (243)

In addition to these essays which critically explore largely familiar themes an test the possibilities of a range of established methodologies, the essays by Celia Applegate, Kathleen Canning, and Eve Rosenhaft call for a thoroughgoing reappraisal of what is to count as politics. The editors promise that the contributors will “explore and explode historical paradigms,” (12) and it is in these three essays that most of the depth charges are to be found. In a fascinating analysis of the German idea of Heimat, Applegate argues that for ke late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century political theorists the citizen of the nation was made not in Berlin but “in the locality and at home.” She maintains that rather than embodying an implicitly conservative politics, one “legacy of German particularlism would be a respect for diversity, an appreciation of individuality, and a desire for self-governance.” (250) Canning’s analysis of class formation in the late nineteenth-century textile industry combines prodigious empirical research with feminist theory to illuminate how “gender played a powerful role in the ideological construction o ‘production,’ including divisions of labor, hierarchies of skill, and the development of the factory regime.” (193) A focus on female work culture allows Canning to describe the gendered alternative to the “alternative culture.” And Rosenhaft’s observation that we should understand gender both “as the qualities attributed to empirical individuals” and “as a system of organizing social perception in which sexual difference is pivotal” (159) is the prelude to a fascinating set of reflections on how “woman” became a metaphor for “modernity” and how analyzes of “mass society” described both the emergence of growing numbers of women into public spaces and the anxieties evoked by an “epochal change in the structures of participation and representation, in the cultural (or ideological) as well as the political sphere.” (163) She borrows from literary and film theory to suggest how both Weimar politics and Weimar cinema might be understood as melodramatic media, particularly characteristic of the emergence of mass culture and mass politics, and directed specifically at a female audience.

With Rosenhaft’s appeal for historians to turn to literary theory, the volume moves about as far as possible from Falter’s attempt to unlock the secrets of “political subculture” with the key of multivariate ecological regression analysis. Indeed, the range of methodological approaches included in this book is what makes it a particularly important contribution. The editors cite Steinbach’s exhortation that “the historian must continue to search for the bes mix of methodologies and interpretative models in order to avoid the limitation in any ‘purism’ of methods,” (5) and Elections, Mass Politics, and Social Chang in Modern Germany resolutely steers clear of such pitfalls. Rather, it insists that there can be many different responses to old questions and that other new questions must be asked if we are to have a complete understanding of what constitutes politics. Bound together by their insistence that we take elections and mass politics seriously, the contributors make it clear that depending on how we approach the project, the politics we bring back into the study of moder German history may well look quite different from the politics we left behind.

Robert G. Moeller University of California, Irvine

COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History

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