Reshaping the German Right Analysis

Geoff Eley

Reshaping the German Right

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Academic historians, like other scholars, spend much of their time and effort writing for one another. A great deal of their work is basically competent, but generally perfunctory and unexciting. They demonstrate their mastery of their craft, but their work is little noted nor long remembered. They receive their recognition from their peers, including tenure and promotions, and after a while their expensive university press books are remaindered out at cut-rate prices. Occasionally, however, a work appears which is head and shoulders above the generally competent. It not only demonstrates that some historian has mastered the secondary literature and has turned up a few interesting new materials from primary sources, but that he or she has developed a challenging thesis which will cause other historians to turn again and again to the work in order to test their own hypotheses and conclusions.

Geoff Eley’s book has come very close to this model of excellence. The author, a product of the University of Sussex (England), completed his Ph.D. dissertation on the German Navy League in 1974 under Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann. Although this book is clearly an outgrowth of that dissertation, it has advanced well beyond it in both depth and scope, dealing with significant interpretive matters on the course of German history and with general theoretical questions of political and social history, as well as filling significant gaps in our knowledge of right-wing nationalistic organizations in the Germany of Bismarck and William II.

A work of such excellence is deserving of vigorous critiques, and one hopes that it will be duly acknowledged and debated in the professional journals. The general reader may also perceive apparent shortcomings, some of which should be indicated here. The book sometimes uses an unnecessarily esoteric style and vocabulary. Even allowing for the Anglo-German training of Professor Eley, and the highly scholarly nature of his discourse, it might be suggested that he could have broadened the impact of his work by some judicious copy editing. For example, terms such as “conflate” and “salariat” may obscure where they are intended to enlighten. In addition, many readers will find the leading personalities in Eley’s work, men such as Heinrich Class of the Pan-German League, August Keim and J. E. Strochein of the Navy League, and Gustav Stresemann of the National Liberal Party, portrayed as rather lifeless figures instead of the intense, opinionated, and even exciting individuals which they must have been. Aside from the dust cover, there are no visuals in the book. Not only are readers left in the dark about how these people looked, but they are also limited to only verbal descriptions of the visual propaganda which these men developed in profusion to encourage pride in Germandom, a bigger and better fleet, and so on. Yale University Press, which has done a very professional job of producing this volume, would surely have been capable of adding some reproductions of naval posters and other such materials. They were designed to be eye-catchers at the turn of the century. They would doubtless still be so, making the book more attractive and intelligible for the general reader and providing more depth of understanding for the professional scholar. These criticisms aside, however, one must reiterate that Eley, given his scholarly goals, has written a very fine book indeed.

Its theme is the gradual disintegration of the patrician political forms of German conservatism during the period from 1890 to 1914, and the rise of populist agitation on the right wing of the political spectrum. During Bismarck’s time, the conservative and the Free Conservative Parties were formed of a “natural” elite, consisting of Junkers and other landowning aristocrats, army officers, and high civil servants. Similarly, the bourgeois liberal parties were led by self-appointed notables: well-to-do businessmen, able lawyers and journalists, and a sprinkling of more liberal aristocrats and civil servants. This “politics of notables,” so admirably described by Thomas Nipperdey, involved very few people and virtually no political apparatus. Election campaigns were leisurely and gentlemanly, if indeed there was much campaigning at all. The “better people” of any given district simply formed a committee, named their choice, and (depending on the demographics of the...

(The entire section is 1799 words.)