Central Europe

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Mary Jo Maynes and Eric D. Weitz

Central European social historians can never "leave the politics out." From the sixteenth century through the twentieth, and to a degree uncommon elsewhere in Europe, the role of the state has loomed large in shaping key social-historical developments. In such realms of social history as class formation, the evolution of the public sphere, family life, gender relations, religious and educational institutions, migration, urbanization, and communications, the state has played a constitutive, at times determining, role.

Complexities of scale, related to a persistent regional pattern of decentralized state building, have also been significant. Central Europeans have retained local loyalties because of both localized state building and other localizing institutions such as craft and merchant guilds, splintered dialect and religious communities, and land tenure patterns. At the same time, links to other parts of Europe and the wider world have also played a historical role. Commercial ties and shared culture linked the central European bourgeoisie with counterparts in England, France, and elsewhere. Catholics of course retained loyalties to a church with universal claims. The notably large number of central European socialists and communists claimed that loyalties should be class-based and international in scope. Jews, also numerous in this part of Europe, had far-flung religious, family, business, and social ties. Over the course of several hundred years, nationalist ideology and the nation-state became superimposed upon the local, regional, and transnational, but these other levels of social relations nevertheless persisted.


"Central Europe" denotes the lands bordered on the west by the Rhine River basin and in the east by a topographically unmarked line running roughly from just west of Warsaw to Budapest and then, swinging further west, to Trieste. In the north, the Baltic and North Seas mark its bounds; in the south, the southern descent of the Alps. Central Europe is a region marked by a high level of diversity—political, religious, and regional—as well as by the more common European divisions by class and gender.

Linguistically, German speakers have dominated central Europe; even in those parts of central Europe where German was a minority language it was usually the language of commerce, governance, and high culture. But German speakers often lived among speakers of Polish, Czech, Danish, Yiddish, French, and other languages or dialects. Significantly, for its entire modern history, central Europe has been politically decentralized, and borders have shifted frequently. In the early modern era there were several hundred virtually sovereign states in the region (over two thousand if the tiny enclaves ruled by Imperial Knights are added). Napoleonic consolidation and national unification in the nineteenth century reduced this number dramatically. Yet political consolidation has never been a one-way street; as empires collapsed in the twentieth century, smaller political units reemerged—an Austria shorn of its possessions further east, an East Germany, a Czech Republic.

Central Europe has also been divided along religious lines. Since the Reformation, the Main River has marked the border between a largely Protestant north and a Catholic south. Jews were once present in communities all across central Europe, in greater numbers as one moved further eastward. But even in some small villages in the rural southwest, one could find significant Jewish communities until the 1940s.

Still another divide has persistently marked central European history—an economic one. Here the Elbe River border has played a persistent role. To its east lay large estates worked by a peasant labor force subject to the "second serfdom"—that is, a system of labor control established around 1500 in conjunction with the rise of export agriculture. This newer form of servitude appeared even as medieval serfdom was waning to the west, where small-scale peasant farms predominated. With industrialization the east-west divide reemerged in a new form when industry developed earliest in the Ruhr and Saar basins and in Saxony, southern Germany, and Switzerland, leaving eastern Prussia and Austria relatively underdeveloped. Patterns of social-class formation and political divisions reflected this economic divide. East of the Elbe, the Prussian landed nobility, the Junkers, secured local autonomy in return for their loyalty to the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty. A few reformers emerged from their ranks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but for the most part, the Junkers remained firmly committed to an authoritarian and aristocratic order. In the west, a more developed middle class, broader commercial and industrial activity, and substantial influence from France created more fertile ground for the emergence of liberalism in the nineteenth century.


The heavy hand of the state in central European society dates back to the early modern era. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 marked the end of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), the last of a series of wars launched by the Lutheran Reformation. The treaty reaffirmed the distinctive central European pattern of decentralized state building in the Holy Roman Empire. "Dual power" was confirmed. That is, political authority remained divided between the Holy Roman Emperor ruling from the Habsburg capital in Vienna and the nearly four hundred fairly autonomous "estates of the empire," including princes of the huge Länder of Brandenburg-Prussia and Bavaria, representatives of city-states like Frankfurt and Hamburg, and prince-bishops like those of Cologne and Mainz. In addition, roughly two thousand Imperial Knights lorded over tiny territories of a few acres or square miles. The settlement at Westphalia was a definitive acknowledgment that the Holy Roman Emperor would continue to exist as the highest level of authority in the region, but with few effective powers. Real governance, the settlement confirmed, was based in the capitals of the territorial rulers.

This particular pattern of political development was enormously significant in social-historical terms. Social-historical development—religious life, of course, but also economic growth in agricultural, industrial, and commercial sectors; family and gender relations and demographic growth; bureaucratization, education, and literacy; migration and urbanization—was penetrated and to some extent organized by the territorial states. Moreover, the intensity of governmentality—the particularly elaborated mechanisms of political authority—meant more state intervention into and more record keeping about the activities of everyday life.

Confessionalization. "Confessionalization"—the establishment of an official territorial religion based on a creed and binding on all subjects—became characteristic of post-Reformation state building throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Beginning in the early sixteenth century, confessionalization dramatically extended the reach of the state. The threat to social order manifested not only in Luther's revolt against Rome but also in the widespread rebellions of peasants and urban underclasses between the 1480s and the 1520s gave territorial rulers the impulse to discipline. The Reformation offered the vehicle. Starting first in the Lutheran territories—where the lure of a state takeover of Catholic Church properties usually figured along with religious ideals into the conversion strategies of princes and city-states—the confessional state eventually was established to some extent even in territories such as Bavaria where the ruling dynasty remained Catholic.

Henceforward, state bureaucracies supervised religious matters. Branches of this bureaucratic structure expanded beyond the administration of church buildings, properties, and staff to include the teaching of religious doctrine, parish visitation, the establishment of primary schools, the supervision of some aspects of secondary and higher education, the regulation of marriage, the enforcement of morality through church consistory courts, and the oversight of charity. In other words, through confessionalization, state-church bureaucracies not only took over many of the functions previously performed by the Catholic Church but also brought state authority into many more aspects of everyday life. Historians have pointed to the ways in which these innovations served to subject the population of central Europe to unprecedented state discipline.

Historians have also argued that confessionalization exacerbated aspects of patriarchal domination. Under the slogan "Gottesvater, Landesvater, Hausvater," the Christian God, the territorial prince, and the male household head were linked in a hierarchical and explicitly patriarchal order. Arguably the Lutheran critique of clerical celibacy and Catholic views of marriage opened a new approach to gender relations. In contrast with Catholic teachings, Lutheran writings exalted marriage as superior to celibacy; marital sexuality was seen as natural and not sinful. But the abolition of female religious orders also removed an honorable alternative to marriage for women. Moreover, the disappearance of female saints as objects of veneration masculinized religious vision and practice. According to the Protestant gender order, adult women belonged in male-headed households under the supervision of a husband whose authority reflected divine and princely authority. Ironically, even where the Protestant Reformation did not come to dominate, women were also brought under tighter male authority. In the wake of the Catholic Reform, nuns had to be cloistered and their convents supervised by male spiritual authorities. The intensification of witchcraft persecutions that were particularly virulent in central Europe in the centuries after Reform was another mark of the epoch's misogynism and need to control women.

It is worth noting that this new discipline, though generalized, did not operate identically in all territories, nor was it as effective as proponents had hoped. Certainly there were differences between the oligarchic governments of the city-states and the more autocratic monarchies like Prussia. Size also mattered; it was in many respects easier to administer smaller than more sprawling and divided territories. Moreover, state authority was more complete over Protestant Germans than over the Catholics and Jews of Central Europe. Catholics continued to hold both international and local religious allegiances, and they took more seriously the tie to the Catholic Habsburg emperor. German Jews continued to reside on sufferance, mostly in cities, where they paid annual Schutzgeld (literally, "protection money") for residence rights but maintained ties with kin and business associates all over the map of central and eastern Europe. The so-called Hofjuden (literally, "court Jews") played a special role in central European state building by putting their wide credit networks and commercial ties to the service of territorial overlords in the hopes of gaining protection and profit for themselves and their communities. While individual Jewish financiers were often immensely powerful, the legal status of Jews was little improved before the nineteenth century; moreover, their association with moneylending and the aggressive fiscal policies of the courts reinforced anti-Semitism.

Fiscal planning. State fiscal planning, with bankers and financiers playing a key role, was crucial to success in the competitive and belligerent arena of central Europe. The Treaty of Westphalia ended one phase of civil war, but European dynastic wars and the new wars of global commerce and colonization continued to involve many central European states. Standing armies became the pattern after the Prussian rulers decided not to disband the armies they had raised during the Thirty Years' War. The Prussian army, the largest in the region, grew from 8,000 troops in 1648 to 200,000 by the mid-eighteenth century. Less ambitious princes satisfied themselves with fewer troops; the duke of Weimar had an army of only thirty-three guards in the eighteenth century! But nearly all of the states of the region invested heavily in armies and armaments throughout the early modern period, and the costs involved drove state governments toward further bureaucratic expansion, fiscal planning, and tax increases.

Beyond the realm of religion and morality, then, states also intervened strongly in the economy of central Europe beginning in the seventeenth century. Arguably, the princely state builders of the Holy Roman Empire created the modern notion of "the economy" as a specific terrain of state activity. Standing armies, courts, and bureaucracies required funds in excess of the income from the ruling family's estates and from secularized church properties. Permanent tax levies, along with policies designed to increase population and taxable wealth, became hallmarks of effective governance. By the eighteenth century, most German universities had newly established chairs in Cameralwissenschaften—university-based studies in the legal, political, and economic sciences of managing the state's population and administration with the goals of rationalizing governance and enhancing tax revenues.

Agriculture and early industry. In the early modern era, most of this wealth still came from agrarian pursuits. In the western and southern parts of the empire (including the Rhineland, Württemberg, Baden, and parts of Bavaria) peasant tenure was fairly secure; holdings were often quite small because of generations of division among heirs. Landlords—sometimes aristocrats, but sometimes towns or merchants or religious establishments—typically relied on rents for their income rather than farming their lands directly. Dense settlement patterns and large numbers of towns and cities in these areas supported small-peasant agriculture as well. Population growth toward the end of the eighteenth century put pressure on land. In some villages, new crops and more intensive farming methods brought marked increases in productivity by the century's end.

But these regions, along with parts of Switzerland, also emerged as classic zones of protoindustry or "putting out"—a form of industrial organization whereby merchants advanced raw materials such as wool to rural households whose members would then work them up into finished products for sale by the merchant. State authorities were interested in increasing farm productivity and in tapping into the newer sources of wealth. They drew on the advice of men of academic education to found "industry schools" that taught rural children work discipline and handicrafts. Model farms disseminated new agricultural techniques. States granted monopoly concessions to entrepreneurs to establish and regulate rural putting-out industries, and they also established state "manufactories"—large-scale handicraft workshops—for the production of luxury goods such as porcelain, tobacco, and silk. Growth in the agricultural and industrial sectors brought wealth visible in new consumption habits documented, for example, by Hans Medick's research on the Württemberg weaving village of Laichingen. But these changes brought new problems as well. The intensification of agricultural labor and the introduction of putting-out work disrupted traditional gender and generational divisions of labor and brought increasing conflict to overcrowded households and communities. Even though some peasants, artisans, and putting-out workers prospered during the economic expansion of the late eighteenth century, the social costs of growth were manifested in rising rates of infant mortality, divorce, and pilfering of firewood and fodder.

Further east, especially in the eastern provinces of Brandenburg-Prussia, the pattern was different. A much larger proportion of the land was farmed by large estate owners who had been shipping grain north through Baltic ports to the cities of western Europe since the sixteenth century. On these large estates, labor supply was the landlord's main concern. The political compromise struck here allowed the Junker landowners a relatively free hand on their own estates in exchange for their loyalty and military service to the Prussian state. There were few nearby cities to lure them or their peasants off the land or to provide an alternative marketing strategy. To be sure, there were attempts in the eighteenth century to reform peasant-landlord relations or at least to reduce the worst abuses. Peasant smallholders fared better on Crown lands than on the typical Junker estate. Labor resistance in a few regions pushed wages higher. But the generally proaristocratic tenor of the state, the practice of filling the upper echelons of the military and civilian administration with Junkers, meant relatively little change in agrarian social relations until the twentieth century.

Cities. The urban economy of early modern central Europe grew around commerce. Urban locations recalled the medieval trade routes along which cities had been founded. Many medieval cities survived into the early modern era, although they had been economically and politically weakened by centuries of warfare and by shifting patterns of global trade that favored Atlantic over northern European ports. The Baltic port cities belonged to the Hanseatic League, whose power in the Middle Ages had been built upon the trade linking eastern Germany and Russia with western ports. Buildings in the proud town of Lübeck recalled its fourteenth-century centrality to the Hanseatic network. Its city hall, like those of other commercial cities, served as the site of both city-state government and commercial transactions, so closely intertwined were the fates of merchants and towns. Urban social and political visions challenged those prevailing in the countryside. By way of illustration, in the city hall of the North Sea port of Hamburg, a painting of the Day of Judgment showed knights and princes being tossed into hell, while merchants were raised to God's right hand.

Other cities were sited on the overland routes that linked the Mediterranean with northern Europe. Leipzig, the largest of these, flourished as a reshipment point. The Leipzig fairs had become the most active in central Europe by the end of the Middle Ages. Local residents even called their city "eine kleine Paris" (a little Paris). Because its merchants had persuaded the town's overlord, the elector of Saxony, that toleration was good for business, the city was open to foreigners of all kinds at fair time. (However, Glückel of Hameln, the wife of a Jewish merchant, did report being fearful for her husband's safety when he traveled to the Leipzig fair.) Leipzig was famous for its inns and coffeehouses—coffee and cocoa were both relatively new products in Europe, first imported in the early sixteenth century—and most of all, for its flourishing book trade.

Despite originally democratic impulses in the constitutions of the cities, by the early 1600s most central European cities were oligarchies ruled by men from the town's wealthiest families. The older egalitarian spirit diminished as evolving social and political structure sharpened distinctions among the urban citizenry. By 1500 most towns had several legally defined citizenship classifications, usually distinguishing among patrician families whose male members qualified for election to the council, citizens with full civic rights, resident noncitizens, and protected residents without guaranteed residence rights. Women were active in gender-specific sectors of the urban economy, but they (along with children) held civic status only by way of their relationship to male citizens; among women only widows and licensed female retailers could operate with a degree of freedom from male legal authority.

Moreover, cities that princely territories had absorbed, or that were founded as capitals, had little basis for democratic institutions. These cities—such as Berlin, first a garrison town and later the Prussian capital, or Karlsruhe, the baroque capital of Baden designed so that the grand duke could see every street in town from his palace windows—were policed by state governments desiring order and revenue. Princes generally suppressed the traditional liberties of towns with a medieval heritage of freedom. For example, in Munich, the capital of the Bavaria, residents lost their rights to trade freely, to elect representatives to the town council, and to grant citizenship.


Still, the cities of early modern central Europe were important as sites of formation of middle-classes and a bourgeois public sphere. As was true elsewhere in Europe, the new institutions of communications and sociability associated with the "the public" were dominated by urban, educated, middle-class men. Such men were attracted to Enlightenment notions of free and rational inquiry, self-cultivation, and social and scientific progress. Historians have argued that German Enlightenment writers, in comparison with British or French, tended to put more faith in reformist princes than in representative governments as the engine of social improvement, although this was a contested notion throughout the "republic of letters." Participants in the emergent public sphere of central European cities met in scientific societies, agricultural reform organizations, reading groups, theaters, cafés, and literary salons. They made their living as bureaucrats, rentiers, pastors or university professors, in a few cases from their literary or artistic works, and from trade and commerce. They were more likely than in other parts of Europe to be in state employ. The newspapers, journals, and books through which they communicated were published at rates that increased exponentially in the eighteenth century.

They were a group particularly defined both by Bildung, education and self-cultivation, and by Besitz, the possession of wealth. The education on which they based their expertise and participation in public discussion was a highly masculine enterprise. Although literary salons and a few of the reading and other clubs did include a few bourgeois and aristocratic women, the gender ideals that characterized this urban middle-class milieu restricted women's access to formal education and to the public sphere. According to Marion Gray's analysis of German economic treatises and manuals, the change was apparent by the mid-eighteenth century. Whereas in earlier epochs household enterprises had rested on the specific economic contributions of the Hausmutter as well as the Hausvater, the modern economic experts, academically trained in the Cameralwissenschaften, relegated women and their tasks to the margins of the economy. Moreover, the female domestic realm was increasingly separated conceptually, legally, and in practice from the masculine world of the economy and politics. This gender dichotomy was most exaggerated in milieus first built around the male career pattern—namely, professionals and civil servants. University education was advocated for sons as a means toward broad cultivation rather than merely narrow professional training. Nevertheless it also came to be a prerequisite for the practice of the professions and for many state administrative offices. The exclusion of women and most lower-class men from access to Bildung was one of the many unacknowledged limits upon the supposedly open public sphere.

The political upheavals brought by the French Revolution and Napoleonic rule in central Europe had a decisive influence on middle-class formation and political culture. Liberals who were the product of the German Enlightenment initially welcomed the Revolution. Its promise of progressive reform, its admiration for the world of antiquity, and its hostility to repressive monarchical and religious institutions echoed their commitments. Later, in reaction to the more radical turn of the Revolution and the conquest of large swaths of central Europe by French revolutionary armies, many came to oppose developments in France, but at the same time remained influenced by revolutionary ideals.

During the Vormärz era (1815–1848, so named by historians because it preceded the March 1848 revolts), a liberal political culture matured. Throughout the German Confederation, established in 1815 by the reactionary Congress of Vienna, repressive laws precluded outright party formation. Still, liberal ideas circulated in the associations of bourgeois civil society—singing clubs, gymnastic societies, Monday clubs, literary groups, and student fraternities. These were mostly local organizations, reflecting the character of urban bourgeois sociability, but they were replicated in cities throughout central Europe. The growth of commercial capitalism and the first glimmers of industrialization provided a new basis for middle-class fortunes and careers built more on Besitz than Bildung. Liberalism and the articulation of middle-class political perspectives were most at home in city governments and parliamentary bodies in those few states where constitutional rights to representation existed—most notably in the southwestern grand duchy of Baden.

In the lower house of Baden, elected by limited male franchise, an increasingly outspoken group of liberal deputies played a key role in the articulation of German liberalism. As Dagmar Herzog has demonstrated, however, their political vision was limited by the social and cultural context in which they operated. Their parliamentary battles with the neoorthodox Catholics who came to power in Baden in reaction against the French Revolution were fueled as much by views on marriage and sexuality as they were by constitutional ideals. The liberals' attacks on clerical celibacy as "unnatural" and antipathetic to the emergent bourgeois gender order were crucial to liberals' notions of manhood and citizenship. Reawakened religious conflict linked liberals with anti-Catholic hostilities that would persist throughout the nineteenth century. Moreover, it was their hostility to orthodox Catholicism rather than an embrace of pluralism that pushed reluctant Badenese liberals toward advocating Jewish emancipation as well. In short, the implicitly Protestant, masculine, and middle-class character of early German liberalism resulted in tacit exclusions (of women, Jews, men without property) that contradicted universal ideals.


The contradictions of liberalism came to the fore in the revolution of 1848. Paralleling the French Revolution, the revolts that began during the "March Days" of 1848 resulted from the convergence of political challenges and socioeconomic crises.

The political challenge involved clamor for reform on several fronts. Since the 1820s student fraternities and other bourgeois associations had called for a single German state. At the same time treaties creating a Zollverein, or customs union, among many central European states, had also promoted unification. The nation-state became the focus of liberals' hopes as well; by the late 1840s, liberals from the smaller states in the south and west were increasingly speaking to allies throughout central Europe. A unified German state based on principles of constitutionalism, representation, and civil liberties would end divisiveness and princely autocracy. This challenge was coming to a head by late 1847, when liberals issued a call for a convention to make plans for a national constitution.

Meanwhile, social and economic hardships intensified among peasants and artisans throughout central Europe. Rising population growth put pressure on land prices. Peasants had been emancipated from serfdom in Austria in the late eighteenth century and in Germany during the Napoleonic era. But emancipation was costly; often it required reimbursing landlords with substantial parcels of land or cash outlays. By the 1820s, many peasants were heavily indebted and land-poor. The golden era of protoindustry was also waning as overproduction and falling prices impoverished putting-out workers. The worst hit were the linen weavers of Silesia, who rose up against their employers in 1844, only to be crushed by armed intervention. Urban artisans also suffered with the increased competition brought by open markets and the first entry of factory goods into the region. The final straw came at the end of the decade of the "Hungry Forties," when crop failures drove food prices upward. The poor were hardest hit; potatoes, upon which their diet increasingly depended, were hit by blight in 1846 and 1847. Food riots ensued and supplies were low at the end of the winter of 1847–1848. The actual rebellion was sparked by peasant revolts; peasants attacked landlords' castles or burnt the books that held their records of debt. Liberal reformers were quick to seize the opportunity to forward their cause. Alarmed princes began to incorporate reformers into their cabinets and to grant constitutions. Plans for unification moved into full gear; deputies from all over central Europe were elected to the Frankfurt Assembly, which convened in May 1848, to write a constitution for a united Germany.

But of course liberal visions and the aims of peasants and handicraft workers were quite divergent. Some of the very reforms sought by parliamentarians—for example open markets—undermined the livelihood of artisans. The peasants' attacks on landlords' property violated the interests of bourgeois property owners as well. The Assembly proceeded apace and indeed wrote a constitution, but as it deliberated the revolutionary forces collapsed or were defeated around it. The princes still commanded armies, and once they realized the weaknesses of the revolutionary coalition, they were able simply to quash the revolutionary governments and assemblies—in Vienna in October 1848, in Berlin in November, and in Frankfurt in May 1849. The strongest army, that of Prussia, played a key role in the repression not only in Berlin but also in Frankfurt and in the last revolutionary holdouts in Baden and Saxony. Military courts-martial sentenced and executed rebels. The lucky ones fled abroad, joining the growing streams of emigrants who had been leaving central Europe since the 1830s in search of better economic conditions in North America and elsewhere.


National unification was created in the end with help from these same Prussian armies. The Second German Empire was forged under the leadership of the Prussian state, led by the conservative chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Social, economic, and political trends favoring unification had been developing for decades (including communications networks, the Zollverein market region, and nationalist organizations). Bismarck had been a reactionary in 1848, but by the 1860s he had come to recognize the powerful potential of the nation-state. Industrialization (already advanced in Prussia's western provinces), nationalism, and a limited form of popular sovereignty could be harnessed by the Prussian state in the service of the monarchy and the Junkers. Bismarck, the classic "revolutionary from above," recognized that to preserve the existing social and political hierarchies, Prussia needed to adapt. Through three short wars between 1864 and 1871, he defeated Austria and rallied the remaining German states behind Prussia as the architect of national unification. Many Germans rallied behind Bismarck and Prussia, including liberals who were joyous that their goal of national unity had been realized, even if in a politically awkward form.

The new German Empire that emerged was a strange hybrid of liberal and conservative elements. The government and the army were responsible to the Crown, not to the Parliament. The inner circle of the emperor (also the king of Prussia) wielded immense powers. As part of the unification compromise individual states retained substantial political autonomy; they even had their own armies and, in some instances, their own foreign ministries. The federalist solution was, in many ways, a persistent central European pattern, one that also characterized Switzerland and the Austrian Empire. The German system was distinctive in its dualism: Prussia, the largest and most conservative state, exercised inordinate powers in the empire. Prussia's authoritarian and aristocratic traditions were carried into the new Germany.

At the same time, the German constitution did not simply reflect the authoritarian proclivities of the Prussian aristocracy. Importantly, the constitution provided for universal manhood suffrage and an elected, if weak, national parliament. The imperial political structure encouraged the development of a national public sphere because it mandated periodic parliamentary elections. Because of the broad suffrage, political parties had to move beyond their practice of "notable politics," whereby community elites controlled party affairs. By 1900 Germany presented the curious spectacle of an authoritarian state with actively contested elections and the most highly mobilized voters anywhere in Europe. Moreover, Bismarck's constitution had established equality under the law, rights of association, and other liberties. Despite periodic and serious harassment of socialists and Catholics, the constitutional prerequisites for a national public sphere did exist.

In terms of religion, the unified nation was very much a Protestant one. Although the southern Catholic states had agreed to unification in 1871, Catholics still had reservations. These suspicions were confirmed when Bismarck, joined by liberal reformers in localities throughout Prussia, launched an attack on Catholic schools and other institutions in the so-called Kulturkampf of the 1870s. These efforts to weaken German Catholicism ultimately failed; the persecution of Catholics helped fuel the expansion of the Catholic Center Party and of educational, social, and welfare organizations that provided the institutional basis of a persistently strong German Catholic social and political identity. For Jews, the new nation offered great promise. The constitution accorded Jews full equal rights under the law. Social discrimination remained immense. The army and bureaucracy proved largely impregnable, the professorate only slightly less so. But in the rapidly growing professions of law, medicine, journalism, and the arts, Jews were able to find places and to advance significantly. Jews invested their hopes in the nation since the end of legal discrimination and economic subordination accompanied unification. Later, these hopes would be tragically disappointed.

In terms of social historical development, the unification process allowed for the survival of powerful nobles, the Prussian Junkers in particular, who continued to predominate in sectors of the bureaucracy and the army. The idealization of Crown and army, conveyed through court ceremonies, military parades, and in schools and the press, contributed an authoritarian and militaristic strain to German society. German employers mimicked the military hierarchy by adopting military discipline over their workers. Even the forceful role of the father in the family was sustained, in part, by the larger culture of authoritarianism. Nevertheless, the German Empire arguably reflected the interests of the professional and entrepreneurial middle classes as well. In the economic sphere, the constitution provided the legal framework for the full development of a capitalist market economy, measures that had been long demanded by businessmen and liberals. The German Empire created a vast market with a single currency, a single system of weights and measures, and eventually a coordinated system of transportation and communications.

Moreover, political unification and the new institutions of the empire contributed to an unprecedented phase of economic growth that despite intermittent recessions lasted until 1914, creating new patterns of wealth. In one generation, Germany became an urban, industrial society and an economic powerhouse. The total value of industrial and crafts production increased more than fivefold between 1871 and 1913, the export of finished products, fourfold. Germany soon became the world leader in the production of coal, steel, and chemicals, and later in electro-technical manufacturing and electrical power generation. German industrialization was distinctive for more than its speed. Military needs and available resources produced an emphasis on heavy industry and a prevalence of large corporations and cartels. Moreover, the state played a broad role in promoting industrial development and forged links with big industrialists. Finally, industrial advancement in some ways outstripped other kinds of social and cultural change, leaving Germany somewhat disjointed and also prompting, from various quarters, resistance to modern developments. Some historians have designated this as part of a special German pattern—termed Sonderweg, or separate path—in modern social history.

Nevertheless, with industrialization, the social structure shifted dramatically, and many changes resembled those in other parts of industrial Europe. Germans became more urban and their livelihood was very much more dependent upon industry. Overseas migration slowed dramatically as employment opportunities expanded within Germany. Instead of sending land-starved emigrants abroad to the United States and elsewhere, regions like the Ruhr attracted eastern Germans and Poles to mine coal and tend blast furnaces. In 1881, 4.89 percent of the German population emigrated abroad. In 1910, only 0.39 percent did so. In 1871, only 4.8 percent of the population lived in cities with a population of over 100,000. In 1910, 21.3 percent of the population did so. The proportion of the population that worked in agriculture declined between 1882 and 1907 from 41.6 percent to 28.4 percent; that which worked in industry increased from 34.8 percent to 42.2 percent.

Social developments fed back into politics. The society of the empire—urban, industrial, mass—proved deeply unsettling to state officials, priests and pastors, middle-class reformers, and ordinary citizens. While migrants to the cities usually found or established networks based upon extended family, village, and religious communities, the very fact that so many Germans were uprooted accentuated fears of urban anomie. The immiseration of a substantial segment of the population living in shanties or crowded tenements, working fourteen-hour shifts, and lacking clean water and sanitation, conditions publicized by investigative journalists and reformers, seemed to threaten the very survival of the German people. The expansion of female factory labor aroused fears that gender proprieties and the family itself were being subverted.

The "social question," the general label for these responses, charged politics in the new empire, leading to new forms of state intervention. In the 1880s Germans pioneered the modern welfare state with three key programs: old-age pensions, accident insurance for work-related injuries, and health insurance. Bismarck had viewed these programs as a way of binding workers to the state and undermining the appeal of socialism. He was right on the first count, wrong on the second. By and large, German workers came to appreciate the benefits they received, however minimal at first. The programs did little to undermine the appeal of socialism, but they did help convince leaders of the German labor movement that improvements for workers would have to come from the state. Moreover, these programs were geared toward male industrial workers and their dependents. As such they helped constitute workers as a class structured by gender, since women workers were either barred totally from the programs or received reduced benefits. Social-welfare programs normalized the patriarchal male breadwinner, even when very few working-class families could subsist solely on one male wage. At the same time, working women were subject to ever increasing supervision by employers and state officials, who sought to ensure that workplace and living conditions would not detract from their roles as housewives and mothers.

The rise of socialism marked another major response to the crisis of industrialization and a new form of the politicization of social conflicts. Never solely political, German socialism grew out of the networks of sociability that workers created in pubs, courtyards, and street corners of working-class neighborhoods and in the factories and mines in which they labored. The close links, spatial and social, between work and community created the substratum for successful socialist organizing. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) helped accentuate a consciousness of class among people who already shared similar working and living conditions. While most of the SPD's specific activities were local—demonstrations at the market square, voting, paying dues—they were replicated all over Germany and reported in the nationally circulated socialist newspapers.

Mass political organizing was facilitated by new technologies of transportation and communications. A newspaper culture had also emerged throughout central Europe; dailies espousing varying perspectives competed for readership in the big cities. The pace of travel quickened. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, it was possible to travel easily by rail. Train stations in all of the major cities of central Europe were simultaneously symbols of a modernized local civic pride and links to the national and international realms. The Leipzig train station, the busiest in Europe, was the major connector between east and west and north and south. It was a magnificent soaring steel skeleton framed by glass panels and boasting over thirty platforms.

By around 1890, these social and economic transformations together allowed for the full-blown emergence of a public sphere on a national scale. Moreover, the public broadened as virtually all segments of society, from workers to women, businessmen to peasants, became more vocal and organized; the public sphere was far more multidimensional, far less exclusively liberal, bourgeois, and male than it had been in the first half of the nineteenth century. For the most part in Germany, the national scale became accepted as the locus of effective political organization. To win support for their interests, groups could no longer operate solely on the local or regional level. In contrast, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where ethnically based nation building countered centralizing impulses, the construction of a national public sphere was more uneven.

Central European socialists pioneered many of the techniques of modern political mobilization, but their opponents used these techniques as well. The 1890s also saw the emergence of a populist right, evident especially in the founding and expansion of a large number of nationalist pressure groups like the Naval League, the Colonial Society, the Agrarian League, and others. Typically, these were organized by people from the middle and upper classes, who sought to influence workers, employees, and peasants. They lobbied, sponsored leafleting campaigns, demonstrations, and petition drives, and engaged in electoral politics. These groups espoused an ideology of extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism; they promoted military expansion and the acquisition of colonies, and they supported an authoritarian political system. Through their appeals to antifeminism and racism they radicalized conservatism and moved the right, including traditional conservatives of the Protestant middle and upper classes, toward a rhetoric and politics of nationalism that emphasized race and biology.

This tendency was exacerbated as well by international developments. By the 1890s, Germany had joined the European rush to establish colonies in Africa and the Pacific. The hunger for raw materials like cotton and the competition for markets were among the lures that led German businessmen to join with naval proponents and argue for global empire. A hungry public lapped up imperial exotica that became part of a new, commercial culture: African people were put on display at carnivals; Asian dance groups performed in Berlin. Karl Peters's memoir, New Light on Dark Africa, was an 1890s bestseller that described Peters's use of guns, whips, and fire to teach Africans "what the Germans are." The notion of Bildung was now supplemented by an imperialist and racialized understanding of the cultural order; German civilization contrasted with the primitive world encountered in overseas empire.


The next stage of renegotiation of state-society boundaries came in World War I, which required an unprecedented mobilization of society. The army drafted men and reoriented resources, human and material, into the war economy. Beyond its intensified control over the economy, the wartime government found it necessary to maintain morale at home and at the front, a task fraught with contradictions. The state moved into even the most intimate spheres of life. While the army provided soldiers with prostitutes, women at home came under increasing moral scrutiny. Since the state provided soldiers' wives with allowances, it also claimed the right to supervise their conduct.

But increased state intervention into the economy and everyday life also politicized these spheres. As conditions deteriorated drastically by 1916, both at home and the front, unrest grew exponentially. The workplace became an extension of the public sphere. Workers in munitions plants, including women drawn from other industrial sectors or the countryside, talked among themselves about the difficulties of work and the loss of loved ones. Leaflets composed by more radical socialist workers circulated surreptitiously. They demanded adequate food supplies, less onerous working conditions, and, most defiantly, an end to the war and the establishment of democracy. By 1917 there was shoptalk about the Russian Revolution, or of gains to be won by a strike. Strikes for food, pay, and peace multiplied in the summer of 1917. Another site of public debate, a primarily female one, emerged in the course of the war. In marketplaces and city squares and in the nearby countryside, women demonstrated and rioted against merchants whom they accused of charging exorbitant prices for food; together they foraged and stole from the fields.

All these actions—food riots and strikes, demonstrations, and foraging trips—were directed not just at employers and merchants but ultimately at the state itself. The massive popular upsurge against desperate wartime conditions contributed to the state's collapse in the face of military defeat. Some of the wartime innovations in the public sphere became institutionalized in the local workers' and soldiers' councils that seized power throughout Germany in the fall of 1918. In these councils, trade unionists, workers, officials, and employers attempted to lay the groundwork for a new social order to arise out of the revolutionary situation. The councils—as their name indicated—gave political authority to associates from military units and workplaces, especially in the heavy industries of coal and steel. They were thus overwhelmingly masculine in character. The visionaries could not so easily incorporate the new female forms of activity. Under the interim government and in the Weimar regime established in 1919, the marketplace with its mainly female consumers was a sphere to be regulated, not a site for the exercise of power.

During the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), the state became more interventionist, though its activities were increasingly subject to critique. Industrial development reached a certain plateau, but not stability, as labor and management battled for control over the workplace. Gender and the family became highly politicized sites as women's rights, sexuality, and reproduction were opened to discussion, experimentation, and contest.

In many ways, Weimar fulfilled the liberal promise; it was a parliamentary nation-state. But more open political contention made social and cultural rifts even more apparent. The unending round of elections provided focal points of political activism, as did mass campaigns like the one to repeal restrictive abortion laws. Strikes were a frequent occurrence in the first half of the decade. The socialist movement fractured, resulting in two leftist parties, Social Democratic and Communist. In their competition for workers' loyalties, these two parties recruited a higher percentage of the working class than ever before, and organized more deeply in workplaces and working-class communities. Hundreds of thousands of workers participated in choirs, theaters, sports clubs, hiking groups, and other associations sponsored by the labor parties.

On the far right a plethora of groups emerged—extreme nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic. They foisted the problems of the 1920s onto Jews and socialists, who were portrayed as betrayers of the nation. The right gave a highly charged, violent tenor to social and political life in the 1920s. But the communists and, less consistently, the socialists also contributed to this trend. Both the right and the communists extolled violence as the path to the future and built paramilitary groups. The style of both political groups drew upon the long-standing idealization of the military in German culture, but took on a new, mass form in the 1920s, legitimizing everyday political violence.

Economically, the 1920s demonstrated the perils of both autarky and international linkages. Germany's territorial losses had disrupted the steel industry; subsequent domestic reorientation, designed to foster German self-reliance in coal and steel, brought only limited success. The chemical industry lost its monopoly of the world synthetic dyes market. Agricultural producers were battered by deflated prices caused by worldwide overproduction. Following American leadership, "rationalization" of the labor process became a slogan of the 1920s and was applied to everything from factory to farm to household. Its success in strict economic terms is much debated; socially, it led to speedup, further diminution of workers' control over their own labor, and substantial unemployment.

Hyperinflation in 1923, rooted in war debt and government efforts to undermine reparations, undermined security. In the autumn of 1923, one dollar could purchase almost 14 billion marks. The middle class suffered as savings became worthless, while workers again experienced the misery of wildly escalating prices, shortages, and unemployment. The agreements that ended the inflation tied Germany more firmly to the international, largely American, economy. At first, the benefits were substantial, as American capital flowed into Germany. But when the American economy crashed, American banks called in their loans, spreading the depression rapidly and forcefully to Germany. Like the hyperinflation, the depression beginning in 1929 caused intense political disorientation, which ultimately redounded to the benefit of the radical right.

Cultural innovations, many of them building on prewar precedents, also added to political polarization. The cinema came fully of age in the 1920s, and movie palaces were built all over central Europe. This cheap entertainment brought the world of film stars and glamour to even small-town audiences. By the end of the decade, the radio brought news, sporting events, and music into homes. Cultural modernists among the communists deployed the new media. The brilliant Willie Münzenberg adapted the bourgeois medium of illustrated magazines for working-class audiences with the highly successful Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Workers' Illustrated Magazine).

Among the cultural icons of the 1920s, the "new woman" was of particular political significance. Slender, active, sexually emancipated, employed, and childless, she was touted in popular magazines, posters, and films. She was also a focal point of intense political conflicts, especially as it became possible for real women to claim aspects of the emancipated life the cultural images promised. Not only were young women going to dance halls and wearing short skirts, they also sought birth control. Left-wing health care professionals and social workers even provided sex counseling and contraceptives to working-class women in clinics that were subsidized by the municipalities. To more conservative elements, the new woman was the symbol of everything that was wrong in German society. In the 1920s the hostility aroused by the new woman fed into radical nationalism, as women's supposed lack of devotion to family and fatherland were seen as the root of social conflicts. Sexuality became a major topic of public discussion. Sexual politics became one of the right's major weapons against the Republic, and in both Germany and Austria antifeminist crusades facilitated the transition of conservatives from nationalist political parties to the fascist right.

Weimar also brought real social change and new opportunities for women. Granted the vote in 1919, women were initially courted by all the political parties, and a substantial number held office. In city councils and social-welfare agencies professional women played prominent roles. More women attended universities than ever before. In other social arenas, cities under social democratic leadership made great gains in building new housing for workers and expanding access to health care. One of the great milestones of social-welfare legislation, a national unemployment insurance program, was created in 1927. These measures undoubtedly improved the quality of life. They were, however, accompanied by enhanced supervision of daily life. In the Frankfurt housing developments, for example, models visited by municipal leaders from all over Europe, each apartment had a speaker wired to the director's office, from which he delivered announcements and speeches to residents. The legacy of the Weimar period was thus ambiguous. The state's interventionist tendencies remained, but Weimar's liberal constitution protected civil liberties and the autonomy of institutions like the family, churches, and the associations of civil society. The Nazi state would overthrow these limitations.


The Nazis assumed power in 1933 with the backing of a substantial segment of the German population (they had won 37 percent of the vote in 1932), but they were not voted into power by an electoral majority. Instead, the Nazis were brought into government by a camarilla of powerful individuals around President von Hindenburg. These army officers, nobles, big businessmen, and state officials made Hitler chancellor not because they were enthralled with him and his party but rather because they had exhausted the other political possibilities acceptable to them and the interests they represented. No chancellor or government had been able to fulfill their program to move Germany out of the depression, restore its great-power status, repress socialism and communism, and establish an authoritarian order in place of Weimar democracy. They agreed with Hitler's extreme nationalism and anticommunism; they either agreed with his anti-Semitism or found it unworthy of concern. The roughly one-third of the electorate that supported the Nazis had similar views. Some radical anti-Semites supported the Nazis for this reason. But most Germans were not mobilized by Nazi anti-Semitism. Compared to other European nations, Germans were not remarkably anti-Semitic in 1933. All that would change drastically in the ensuing twelve years.

There are certainly lines of continuity that connect the Third Reich to earlier German regimes. But the central reality of the Third Reich is that a radical right-wing political party assumed power and adapted the resources and techniques of a highly modern state and society to a new end: the creation and advancement of a racially pure German nation. In so doing, the Nazis broke radically with previous patterns of state and society in German history. The "racial state" threw overboard all previously existing limitations—ethical, religious, legal, and constitutional—on state power. The Nazi state banned political opposition, sought to diminish and ultimately eliminate the Christian churches, abolished the traditional lawfulness of state bureaucracy, radically limited the powers of businessmen and managers, and subjected the army to Hitler's personal command. The fact that so many people—pastors, industrialists, army officers, and state officials—supported or acquiesced to Nazi policy does not in any way undermine the contention that they departed from historical precedent to do so. The racial state offered visions of greater glory; on a more mundane level, it offered collaborators, professionals in particular, career advancement and wealth; most simply took advantage of the opportunities. The racial state was also a "total state," at least in ambition. In return for the advantages and benefits bestowed upon them, Nazi supporters acquiesced to the Nazi state's assertion of its right to intervene and regulate every aspect of life.

Racial politics constituted the core of the Nazi program. Its aim was a Volksgemeinschaft, an organically unified and racially select community. Nazism always envisaged a society of domination and subordination, with the inferior races allowed to survive to provide menial labor for Aryans, the racially elect Germans. This racial utopia could only be established by struggle. Jews constituted the preeminent enemy, the people who threatened the very existence of Aryans. Nazi rhetoric was infused with biological and sexual metaphors; Jews were the "cancer" or the "bacillus" that threatened the healthy Aryan body and had to be eliminated. The physical annihilation of Jews was certainly not planned at the outset of Nazi rule; the initial plans usually called for elimination through deportation. The exigencies of war—itself a manifestation of racial politics—and the internal dynamics of the Nazi system radicalized the solution, leading to the physical extermination of close to 6 million European Jews.

While the Holocaust was the ultimate and most radical manifestation of Nazi racial politics, an array of other racialist measures laid the groundwork. The Nazis implemented programs of compulsory sterilization and killing of the mentally and physically handicapped. They isolated, interned, sterilized, and executed large numbers of Roma and Sinti (Gypsies). "Asocials," a highly elastic category that could include everyone from political opponents to alcoholics, the work-shy, promiscuous women, jazz fans, and homosexuals, were packed off to concentration camps. In all of these programs, the Nazis moved the management of society and everyday life to the epicenter of state policies in the most radically interventionist state program ever seen.

But for the vast majority of Germans, the experience of Nazi society was very different. By promoting war-related industries, the Nazis revived the economy, eliminating the burden of unemployment. By 1936 full employment returned. While wages were kept at a low level, more family members were working, so household income increased. The Nazis honored workers and Aryan mothers, enhancing their status in society. The German Labor Front offered workers social amenities that few had enjoyed before, like Rhine cruises and vacations in the Alps. The Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls provided youth with the pleasures of peer-group companionship, and an escape from church and parents. All of these developments of the Nazi "social revolution" helped the regime win the loyalty of the German population. There were, of course, opponents, but Gestapo repression was largely successful in eliminating organized communist and socialist resistance. Discontent was rife when food shortages appeared, or when Nazi officials received preference from the local butcher or baker. By the late 1930s, workers were complaining about low wages. But none of this grumbling gelled into active resistance. Overall, the Nazis had largely succeeded in destroying the old solidarities of class, replacing them with the solidarity of race and the promise of national and racial aggrandizement.


At the end of World War II, Germany lay devastated, the country divided and occupied by the victorious Allied powers. Ultimately the national scale would survive, but in altered form. Two distinct German nation-states, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), joined Austria and Switzerland, whose prewar borders were preserved. Both German states and Austria were subordinated in an international system marked by the rivalry of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. In the postwar political order of central Europe, the international scale took on a new significance.

In the FRG (developments were similar in Austria), the basic structures of the liberal state and the market economy were firmly in place by 1949. The Allies, especially the Americans, repressed any radical plans for either social restructuring or widespread de-Nazification. Indeed, many old elites, businessmen, army officers, and state officials made an easy accommodation so long as they abandoned overt affection for Nazism. Through international monetary arrangements, the Marshall Plan and others, West Germany's "social market economy" became firmly integrated into the U.S.-led international system. The benefits of the ensuing economic boom trickled down by the late 1950s. West Germans largely retreated into the private realm, experienced as a refuge after the incessant claims of the Nazi state and the economic hardships from 1943 to 1949. West Germans worked hard, saved, and spent on consumer goods. The automobile became the symbol of the age, the icon for which they worked and which enabled them to vacation all over Europe. Probably more than anyplace else in Europe, Germany was becoming "Americanized," even while many traditional features of German society remained strong. Social historians are devoting increasing attention to postwar Germany, finding some surprising continuities in social and gender structure into the 1950s, but afterward, in West Germany, more substantial change.

The West German postwar system, liberal and capitalist in its essentials, was marked by a higher quotient of welfare measures and more active labor union participation than many other Western societies. Social-welfare programs had survived through all the regime changes of the twentieth century, and benefits became more generous. The strictures of the programs continued to reinforce the gender hierarchy, as they had in the nineteenth century, with women disadvantaged and sometimes completely excluded from benefits. Despite the large number of households headed by single women, the nuclear family with the male breadwinner quickly reemerged as the norm. The formal labor participation rate of women remained low in comparison to other European countries, although it crept up throughout the 1950s.

A very different pattern developed in the GDR. While the Western Allies sought to reestablish elements of the pre-Nazi social structure in their area of influence, the Soviets pursued a radical transformation. Controlling the region of Junker estate agriculture, they quickly collectivized land, finally eliminating the social basis of noble power. State control of industry eliminated the powers of entrepreneurial and managerial classes. With an entirely new governmental and security apparatus in the East, the leading members were anything but old elites. As a self-proclaimed "workers' and peasants' state," the GDR actively promoted social mobility. Thousands of citizens from lower-class backgrounds were given opportunities for advanced training and education, enabling them to move up the occupational ladder. Yet a kind of retreat to the private developed in the GDR as well, as many lives were structured by a determination to get ahead coupled with a feeling that the intimate world of family and friends was the only safe place, a refuge from the unceasing claims of the state.

As a Soviet-style state, the GDR tightly controlled its citizenry. The Ministry for State Security became a vast apparatus that spied on the population. Tied to the Soviet rather than the American economy—and subject to Soviet reparations into the 1950s—living conditions were quite straitened well into the 1960s. The GDR had the highest labor force participation of women in the world. While women were accorded formal equality with men, the labor market remained segmented, with women largely confined to low-paying jobs. Women also managed the vast bulk of household labor even while they worked full-time jobs. At the same time, they did have broad educational opportunities. Beginning in the 1970s, when state and party leader Erich Honecker proclaimed the "unity of economic and social policies," women were granted important social benefits, like extensive maternity leave.

In the aggressive international economy of the 1980s, the GDR fell further and further behind. When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced economic and political reforms in the Soviet Union, the communist world quickly crumbled. In the GDR, discontent had been on the rise through the 1980s; dissident groups founded a protest movement that demanded democratic socialism. In the context of the international changes initiated in Moscow, the public sphere reemerged in East Germany. Moreover, by summer 1989 East Germans crowded into the Federal Republic's embassies in Prague and Budapest, demanding the right to settle in the West. In the fall of 1989, the combined force of protest demonstrations and exodus led to the collapse of the government, an exhilarating moment for people until then resigned to a heavy-handed state.

The exhilaration did not last long. The moment was dominated, and ultimately limited, by West German visions of state and society, which promised East Germans instant prosperity in return for reunification. The transition has proven difficult. Germans, indeed all central Europeans, now live in a world of intense economic competition, regional disparities, and multiculturalism. The region's population is increasingly diverse. Some communities, like the Turks, are seen as immigrants despite three generations of residence. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the definition of the nation and the relation between state and society continue to be debated. The nation-state remains significant, though borders altered once again in 1990. Since then the international scale has become ever more important. Negotiating the relationship between state and society, a persistent problem of central European history, will become more complex in the new century as international economic developments, international migration streams, and international organizations have an ever greater impact on social life.

See also other articles in this section.


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