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What was the Sonderweg Thesis?

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"Sonderweg" comes from a German phrase meaning "separate path." Basically, the argument is that Germany's political development did not resemble the trajectory of political and social development in any other European country. This is a long-running trope in German historiography, something akin to the idea of "American exceptionalism" in the United States, but naturally the events of the Second World War form a sort of turning point in how we view it. Before World War II, the idea of a Sonderweg emphasized the fact that Germany had not developed the sort of autocratic government that emerged in Tsarist Russia, and that German society was especially amenable to capitalist development and modernization. Contrary to liberal notions in Western Europe, this was because, not in spite of, the fact that Germany lacked a truly parliamentary system and a belief that government existed to protect private property and other individual rights. German intellectual advances, and the rise of the German university, were especially central to this notion.

Needless to say, after World War II, historians looked for reasons why the so-called "separate path" had led the nation into Nazism. Some historians saw Nazism as the negation of much of what Germany had been before. In other words, Germany abandoned the so-called Sonderweg after World War I. Others, though, looked to some of the same developments that historians identified as positive before the war and argued that the "separate path" Germany travelled led straight to the rise of the Nazi dictatorship. They heavily emphasized the militarism of Prussia and later unified Germany, the anti-Semitism that was always latent in German nationalism, and the unity of interests between industrial capitalists and militarists. Because Germany lacked a liberal foundation of human rights, it was relatively easy for Nazis, who explicitly rejected the foundations of liberal democracy, to gain power. The tradition they argued against was not well-established.

Lately, historians have tended to reject the idea of a Sonderweg as overly deterministic and teleological, arguing that Germany's march toward Nazism was, like most developments in human history, characterized by contingency more than inevitability. Still, as one historian has recently written, it remains a "meaningful, though not necessarily accurate, contribution to historical understanding" in Germany.

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Sonderweg (meaning "special path" in German) theory is a school of thought that maintains that Germany took a path from aristocracy to democracy that was fundamentally different from any other country. The Sonderweg Thesis maintains that arriving at a totalitarian regime such as Nazi Germany was inevitable when considering all contributing factors in the development of the nation.

Sonderweg was initially a term of pride and regarded Germany's distinction as an authoritarian state. Germany prided itself over the aristocracy of Russia which it regarded as foolishness as well as the democracy of England and France which it regarded as weakness. It was this special path that led many Germans to believe that Germany had a special destiny, letting themselves become instilled with a strong sense of nationalism. After World War II, for obvious reasons, the term was cast in a more negative light.

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The Sonderweg Thesis is an argument about German history that purports to explain why (among other things) Nazism or a similar political system was inevitable in Germany.  Before World War II, there was a slightly different Sonderweg Thesis that was based on the idea that Germany had taken a special path (this the meaning of "Sonderweg") to development.

The earlier Sonderweg thesis held that Germany had taken a middle way that was not like that of any other European country.  Germany had avoided total autocracy such as was present in Russia.  At the same time, it had avoided going too far in the other direction and embracing democracy like the British had.  German historians felt that Germany's path was superior to those of other countries.

After WWII, the thesis changed.  It still emphasized how different Germany's past had been.  But now it cast this in a more negative light.  It now argued that things like the continuing power of the hereditary aristocracy and the glorification of the military had pushed Germany towards Nazism.  From this point of view, the special path was one that led to disaster.


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