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Comparing Comparisons: Disciplines and the Sonderweg

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2008

Kenneth F. Ledford
Case Western Reserve University


Inspired in part by a recent exchange in Central European History in which Volker Berghahn and Margaret Lavinia Anderson debated trends in the historiography of the Wilhelmian era of the Kaiserreich, Marcus Kreuzer offers to historians the perspective of a political scientist on what he calls the neglected issue of the “parliamentarization” of the imperial regime over its last two decades. From the starting point of an interpretive dispute about German exceptionalism among historians, a dispute that to him seems easily solvable, Kreuzer compares the various arguments that historians have made about whether by 1914 the Imperial Reichstag was already, or was developing toward becoming, a truly parliamentary regime; he next categorizes historians into schools of interpretation; and he finally resolves the issue for historians by comparing the imperial Reichstag with an array of other parliaments, showing that, based upon evidence contained in the cumulative scholarship produced by historians, it in most cases ranks toward the more powerful end of the spectrum. In the end, he remains puzzled as to why this easily available method has remained too difficult for historians to grasp, concluding that it has been rather easy to drive a stake through the heart of the German Sonderweg, as it is with any exceptionalism.

Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 2003

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1. “An Exchange on the Kaiserreich,” Berghahn, Volker R., “The German Empire, 1871–1914: Reflections on the Direction of Recent Research,” Central European History 35 (2002): 7581CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Anderson, Margaret Lavinia, “Reply to Volker Berghahn,” Central European History 35 (2002): 8390CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2. Berghahn, 81.

3. Anderson, 90.

4. See Blackbourn, David and Eley, Geoff, Mythen deutscher Geschichtsschreibung. Die gescheiterte bürgerliche Revolution von 1848 (Frankfurt am Main, 1980)Google Scholar and idem, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford, 1984). For the succinct statement of the comparison inherent in any discussion of exception from a “norm,” see ibid., 10.

5. Exemplary comparative histories that fit this description include Fredrickson, George M., White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (Oxford, 1981)Google Scholar, Kolchin, Peter, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, Mass., 1987)Google Scholar, and Dunlavy, Colleen A., Politics and Industrialization: Early Railroads in the United States and Prussia (Princeton, 1994)Google Scholar. For thoughtful reflections that place issues of exceptionalism in a comparative perspective, see the essays in Glaser, Elisabeth and Wellenreuther, Hermann, eds., Bridging the Atlantic: The Question of American Exceptionalism in Perspective (Cambridge, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6. Kreuzer compounds this problem of telescoping time by using a reference system that refers to the date of the versions of the books that he cites; for example, he makes the Wehler book appear more recent than it is by citing the 1985 English translation of a book originally published in German in 1973; likewise, he dates as 1999 the Böckenförde essay on the “German type of constitutional monarchy,” an essay unchanged since it first appeared in 1967.

7. Kühne, Thomas, Dreiklassenwahlrecht und Wahlkultur in Preussen 1867–1914. Landtagswahlen zwischen korporativer Tradition und politischem Massenmarkt (Düsseldorf, 1994)Google Scholar, and Spenkuch, Hartwin, Das Preussische Herrenhaus: Adel und Bürgertum in der Ersten Kammer des Landtages 1854–1918 (Düsseldorf, 1998)Google Scholar.

8. The triad that Geoff Eley seeks to separate differs slightly from this formulation; see idem, “The British Model and the German Road: Rethinking the Course of German History before 1914,” in Blackbourn and Eley, The Peculiarities of German History, 37–155, especially “Bourgeoisie — Liberalism — Democracy: Some Necessary Distinctions,” 75–90.

9. McDonald, Terrence J., ed., The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences (Ann Arbor, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.