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Modernization in Historical Perspective: The Case of Imperial Germany

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Sheri E. Berman
Professor of Politics at Princeton University.


In recent years historical research on Imperial Germany has called into question traditional interpretations of this case at the same time that political science research on the “third wave” has transformed the study of political development. This article argues that combining the insights of these two literatures offers benefits to both. For historians, the exercise provides a fresh perspective on the purported distinctiveness of Imperial Germany's political system and the relationship between its economic and political development. For political scientists, the German case has important lessons to teach about the role of structure versus agency in driving political liberalization, the time frame necessary for genuine political development to occur, and the role of war and the nature of the international system as wild cards in changing the outcome of the game. Most interestingly, perhaps, it also shows that a weak version of modernization theory holds true, namely, that it is not possible over the long term for a simple authoritarian regime to maintain control over an increasingly economically developed society.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 2001

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1 “Letter from the president to the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate,” White House Press Office, January 24, 2000.

2 GOP presidential candidates debate in Phoenix, Arizona, December 7, 1999.

3 The example has even been raised as a charge against today's neomodernizationists: “American foreign policy is now anchored in a peculiarly ahistorical syllogism that assumes industrial capitalism leads eventually to civil democracy (never mind Nazi Germany and other unfortunate exceptions).” Greider, William, “Ambassador Babbitt,” Nation (May 8, 2000), 8.Google Scholar

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5 Important recent exceptions to this generalization about political scientists include Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, Stephens, Evelyn Huber, and Stephens, John, Capitalist Development and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)Google Scholar; and Collier, Ruth Berins, Paths towards Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).CrossRefGoogle Scholar Tom Ertman has also recently reexamined German political history from a broad comparative perspective, but he has come to conclusions that differ from the ones presented here. Ertman, “Liberalization and Democratization in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Germany in Comparative Perspective,” in Lankowski, Carl, ed., Breakdown, Breakup, Breakthrough: Germany's Difficult Passage to Modernity (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000).Google Scholar See also Berman, Sheri, The Social Democratic Moment: Ideas and Politics in the Making of Interwar Europe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).Google Scholar

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11 For citations to such arguments, see Evans, Richard J., Rethinking German History (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987), 50Google Scholar n. 4. Even quite sophisticated observers have been partial to such explanations. Late in his life, for example, A. J. P. Taylor remarked that “for years after the Second World War I continued to believe that there would be another German bid for European supremacy and that we must take precautions against it. Events have proved me totally wrong. I tried to learn lessons from history, which is always a mistake. The Germans have changed their national character.” Taylor, , “London Diary,” New Statesman (June 4, 1976)Google Scholar, quoted in Waltz, Kenneth N., Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979), 187 fn.Google Scholar

12 Ranke, Leopold von, “A Dialogue on Politics,” reprinted in von Laue, Theodore H., Leopold Ranke: The Formative Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 152–80Google Scholar, esp. 167–68; Hintze, Otto, “Military Organization and the Organization of the State,” in Gilbert, Felix, ed., The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 183Google Scholar (Hintze, however, gave up this perspective after 1918); Taylor, A. J. P., The Origins of the Second World War (London: Atheneum, 1961)Google Scholar; and Calleo, D. P., The German Problem Reconsidered (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978).CrossRefGoogle Scholar A more subtle and sophisticated variant of this perspective is Downing, Brian, The Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy and Autocracy in Early Modern Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).Google Scholar For a general argument about how systemic pressures can shape domestic in stitutions and policy, see Gourevitch, Peter, “The Second Image Reversed: The International Sources of Domestic Politics,” International Organization 32 (Autumn 1978)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for a review of the “second image reversed” literature on the German case, see Iggers, George, The German Conception of History (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1983).Google Scholar Andrew Janos has suggested another way in which the international system and military competition in particular affected German political development. Janos argues that Germany faced a choice between competing economically or militarily with rival states and chose the latter largely because it would have fewer social and political consequences. This argument is somewhat similar to those that will be discussed later in the article regarding the intentionality of the First World War. Janos, , “The Rise and Fall of Militarized Societies: Germany and Russia as Great Powers, 1890–1990,” German Politics and Society 14 (Spring 1996)Google Scholar; and idem, “Paradigms Revisited: Productionism, Globality, and Postmodernity in Comparative Politics,” World Politics 50 (October 1997).


13 Winkler, , “Bürgerliche Emanzipation und nationale Einigung,” in Böhme, H., ed., Probleme der Reichsgründungszeit, 1848–1879 (Berlin: Kiepenheuer und Witsch 1968), 237.Google Scholar See also Anderson, Margaret, Practicing Democracy. Elections and Political Culture in Imperial Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 8.Google Scholar

14 Dahrendorf, , Society and Democracy in Germany (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969).Google Scholar The “bourgeois revolution” approach probably began with Karl Marx; see, for example, Marx, , “The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution,” Neue Rheinische Zeitung, December 14, 1848Google Scholar, in Marx, Karl, The Revolutions of 1848 (London: Harmondsworth, 1973)Google Scholar; and idem, “A Radical German Revolution,” in “Toward the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction,” Deutsch-Französische Jahrbucher (1844), reprinted in Padover, Saul K., Karl Marx on Revolution (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), 422–26.Google Scholar References to works in this genre will be sprinkled throughout the article, but some well-known statements include Fischer, Fritz, From Kaiserreich to Third Reich (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986)Google Scholar; Parsons, Talcott, “Democracy and Social Structure in Pre-Nazi Germany,” in Parsons, , Essays in Sociological Theory (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1954)Google Scholar; and Taylor, , The Course of German History (New York: Capricorn Books, 1962).Google Scholar A nuanced discussion of this type of argument is Nipperdey, Thomas, “1933 und die Kontinutät der deutschen Geschichte,” in Nipperdey, , Nachdenken über die deutsche Geschichte (Munich: C. H.Beck, 1986).Google Scholar For good overviews of this literature, see Evans, Richard, “The Myth of Germany s Missing Revolution,” in Evans (fn. 11)Google Scholar; Martel, Gordon, ed., Modern Germany Reconsidered (New York: Routledge, 1992), chaps. 13Google Scholar; and Eley, Geoff, From Unification to Nazism (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986).Google Scholar


15 Blackbourn, and Eley, , The Peculiarities of German History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also Eley (fn. 14); Evans (fn. 11); Moeller, Robert G., “The Kaiserreich Recast?Journal of Social History 17 (Summer 1984)Google Scholar; Fletcher, Roger, “Recent Developments in German Historiography,German Studies Review 7 (October 1984).CrossRefGoogle Scholar My concentration on Blackbourn and Eley is not meant to suggest that they were the only scholars questioning the Sonderweg thesis but only that they were particularly influential, especially among English speakers. See also Nipperdey (fn. 14, Nachdenken); and idem, “Wehlers Kaiserreich,” in Nipperdey, , Gesellschaft, Kultur, Theorie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1976).CrossRefGoogle Scholar


16 Wehler, Hans-Ulrich, The German Empire, 1871–1918 (New York: Berg Publishers, 1985), 55.Google Scholar

17 Taylor, A. J. P., Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), 98.Google Scholar

18 Schmitt, , Staatsgefüge und Zusammenbruch des Zweiten Reiches (1934)Google Scholar, quoted in Grosser, Dieter, Vom monarchischen Konstitutionalismus zur parlamentarischen Demokratie (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), 3.Google Scholar

19 On Prussia and federalism, see Rauh, Manfred, Föderalismus und Parlamentarismus im Wilhelminischen Reich (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1973)Google Scholar; Hucko, Elmar M., ed., The Democratic Tradition: Four German Constitutions (New York: Berg, 1987), 2930Google Scholar; and Nipperdey, , “Der Föderalismus in der deutschen Geschichte,” in Nipperdey (fn. 14, Nachdenken).Google Scholar

20 Mommsen, Wolfgang, Imperial Germany, 1867–1918 (London: Arnold Publishing, 1995), 199Google Scholar; and Snell, John, The Democratic Movement in Germany, 1789–1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976).Google Scholar

21 In 1866 Bismarck argued that “in a country with monarchist traditions and a loyal mentality universal suffrage, by removing the influence of the liberal bourgeoisie, will result in monarchical elections, just as anarchism is the outcome of elections in countries where the masses harbour revolutionary sentiments. However, in Prussia, nine-tenths of the people are loyal to the King; it is only through the artifical mechanism of a [restricted] suffrage that they are being prevented from expressing their opinions.” Quoted in Hucko (fn. 19), 33–34. See also Pollman, Klaus Erich, Parlamentarismus in Norddeutschen Bund, 1867–1870 (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1985).Google Scholar

22 Lidtke, Vernon, The Outlawed Party: Social Democracy in Germany, 1878–1890 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 81.Google Scholar

23 Anderson (fn. 13), 86. See idem, “Piety and Politics: Recent Work on German Catholics,” Journal of Modern History 63 (December 1991); idem, Windthorst: A Political Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); Ross, Ronald, “Enforcing the Kulturkampf in the Bismarckian State and the Limits of Coercion in Imperial Germany,Journal of Modern History 56 (September 1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Sperber, Jonathan, Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth Century Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).Google Scholar


24 For cites on Bismarck's calculations, see Anderson (fn. 13), 246 n. 22; but see also Stürmer, Michael, ed., Bismarck und die preussisch-deutsche Politik, 1871–1890 (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch, 1970)Google Scholar; and idem, “Staatsstreichgedanken im Bismarckreich,” Historische Zeitschrift 209 (December 1969).


25 On the troubles of the Bismarckian system and the debate over different political options, see Breuilly, John, Labour and Liberalism in Nineteenth Century Europe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Eley, Geoff, Reshaping the German Right (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Berghahn, Volker, Imperial Germany, 1871–1914 (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1994)Google Scholar; Rohl, J. C. G., Germany without Bismarck (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967)Google Scholar; Mommsen (fn. 20); Snell (fn. 20); Rauh (fn. 19).

26 In England property restrictions disenfranchised at least one-third of all male voters, while in the United States voluntary registration lowered turnout and most African Americans were effectively barred from meaningful political participation. For a discussion of voting requirements in Germany and comparisons with other countries, see Suval, Stanley, Electoral Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985)Google Scholar; and Sperber, Jonathan, The Kaiser's Voters (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 Suval (fn. 26), 21, 17.

28 Dahrendorf (fn. 14); and Wehler (fn. 16).

29 Suval (fn.26), ll.

30 Brett Fairbairn, “Interpreting Wilhelmine Elections: National Issues, Fairness Issues, and Electoral Moblization,” in Jones, Larry Eugene and Retallack, James, Elections, Mass Politics and Social Change in Modern Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 25CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Blackbourn, David, Class, Religion and Local Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), esp. 9ff.Google Scholar; Fairbairn, Brett, Democracy in the Undemocratic State: The German Reichstag Elections of 1898 and 1903 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Sperber (fn. 26), esp. 76ff.; and Suval (fn. 26).

31 See, for example, the classic article by Lipset, Seymour Martin and Rokkan, Stein, “Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments,” in Lipset, and Rokkan, , eds., Party Systems and Voter Alignments (New YorkFree Press, 1967).Google Scholar

32 Nipperdey (fn. 19).

33 Blackbourn (fn. 30), 12.

34 Anderson, Margaret Lavinia, “The Kulturkampfand the Course of German History,Central European History 19 (March 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and idem (fn. 13), chap. 5.


35 Sperber (fn. 26), 123. See also Sheehan, James, German Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).Google Scholar

36 Estimates of the German unemployment rate at the turn of the century are as low as 2.7 percent and wages were also creeping up during this era. Such figures show just how tight the labor market was, giving German workers some flexibility.

37 Among the best discussions of this development is Eley (fn. 25). For an analysis of the implications of this phenomenon, see Berman, Sheri, “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,World Politics 49 (April 1997).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

38 On conflicts within this new progovernment bloc, see Snell (fn. 20), esp. 173ff.; and Fairbairn (fn. 30, 1997), 62.

39 Fairbairn (fn. 30, 1997), xi; Fairbairn (fn. 30, 1992). But see also Wehler, Hans-Ulrich, Bismarck und der Imperialismus (Berlin: Kipenheuer und Witch, 1969).Google Scholar

40 Fairbairn (fn. 30, 1997), 62; and Anderson, Margaret Lavinia, “Voter, Junker, Landrat, Priest: The Old Authorities and the New Franchise in Imperial Germany,American Historical Review 98 (December 1993).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

41 Anderson (fn. 13), 247–48.

42 Ibid., 256–57.

43 Quoted in Röhl, J. C. G., Germany without Bismarck (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 216.Google Scholar

44 Rosenberg, Arthur, Imperial Germany: The Birth of the German Republic, 1871–1918 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 5253.Google Scholar

45 On the increasing role of the national government, see Nipperdey, , Deutsche Geschichte, 1866–1918, vol. 2 (Munich: Beck, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, sec. 4.

46 Retallack, James, “The Road to Philippi,” in Jones, Larry Eugene and Retallack, James, Between Reform, Reaction and Resistance: Studies in the History of German Conservatism from 1789 to 1945 (Providence, R.I.: Berg, 1993).Google Scholar On the finance contoversy more generally, see Witt, P.-C., Die Finanzpolitik des deutschen Retches von 1903 bis 1913 (Hamburg: Matthiesen, 1970)Google Scholar; Lerman, Katharine, The Chancellor as Courtier: Bernhard von Bülovo and the Governance of Germany, 1900–1909 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Sperber (fn. 26), 255ff.; Snell (fn. 20), 350ff.; Grosser (fn. 18), 8ff.; and Heckert, Beverly, From Basserman to Bebel: The Grand Bloc's Quest for Reform in the Kaiserreich, 1900–1914 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 79ff.Google Scholar

47 Quoted in Rauh (fn. 19), 245. Biilow later wrote of this period that he feared that it was “‘the starting point of a trend that creates embittered party conflicts, brings forth unnatural party groupings, and is detrimental to the welfare of the nation.’ To the Conservatives he declared: ‘We will see each other at Philippi.’” Quoted in Retallack (fn. 46), 268.

48 On the struggle and failure to put together such a coalition, see Heckert (fn. 46). Indeed such coalitions appeared in a number of the more liberal states, further increasing the apprehension of conservatives (and radicals within the SPD).

49 Retallack (fn. 46), 271.

50 On the SPD and the 1912 election, see Berman (fn. 5), 128–30. On the election in general, see Bertram, Jürgen, Die Wahlen zum Deutschen Reichstag von Jahre 1912 (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1964).Google Scholar On growing tensions between conservatives and liberals at the regional level, see Retallack, James, “‘What Is to Be Done?’ The Red Specter, Franchise Questions, and the Crisis of Conservative Hegemony in Saxony, 1896–1909,Central European History 23 (December 1990).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

51 For an explanation of why the party failed to make this shift, see Berman (fn. 5), chaps. 4, 6.

52 Berghahn (fn. 25), 274.

53 Ibid., 275.

54 Bethmann-Hollweg, Theobald von, Betrachtungen zum Weltkrieg, vol. 1 (Berlin: R. Hubbing, 1919–21).Google Scholar

55 Berghahn, V. R., Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973), esp. 22ff.Google Scholar and 162ff.

56 Among the most influential examples of such argumentation are Fischer, Fritz, Germany's Aims in the First World War (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967)Google Scholar; idem, War of Illusions (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975); Kehr, Eckert, Battleship Building and Party Politics in Germany, 1894–1901 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983)Google Scholar; Craig, Gordon, ed., Economic Interest, Militarism and Foreign Policy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977)Google Scholar; and Wehler (fn. 16). On the controversy over this thesis, see Moses, John A., The Politics of Illusion (London: George Prior, 1975).Google Scholar For a somewhat different perspective on the endogeneity and inevitably of the war, see Janos (fn. 12, 1996).


57 Nipperdey has an interesting analysis of this point, using the work of Heinrich rather than Thomas Matin as his starting point. “War die Wilhelminische Gesellschaft eine Untertanen-Gesellschaft,” in Nipperdey (fn. 14, Nachdenken).

58 Rustow, , “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model,” Comparative Politics 2 (April 1970).CrossRefGoogle Scholar Anderson (fn. 13), in fact, makes excellent use of the work of Rustow and other comparative political scientists in her analysis of the imperial era.

59 See Inglehart (fn. 10).

60 For a theoretical and comparative analysis of this issue, see Migdal, Joel, Kohli, Atul, and Shue, Vivienne, eds., State Power and Social Forces (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

61 Berman (fn. 37); and idem, “Civil Society and Political Institutionalization,” American Behavioral Scientist 40 (March-April 1997).


62 Huntington, , Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).Google Scholar

63 About 1910 the leader of the conservatives was purported to have told a left-liberal parliamentarian: “The future does indeed belong to you, the mass will assert itself and deprive the aristocrats of their influence. A strong statesman may stem this tide, but only for awhile. We will not, however, abandon our position at our own free will. Nevertheless, if you force us to, then you will have what you want.” Retallack (fn. 46), citing a passage in Pachnicke, H., Führende Männer im alten und im neuen Reich (Berlin, 1930), 296 fn. 100.Google Scholar See also Nipperdey (fn. 57), 184.

64 Some might argue that this was itself a consequence of structural factors—that the forces in Germany one would expect to have pushed for further liberalization were unable or uninterested in doing so because their actions and preferences were themselves conditioned by the historical, social, and political context within which they operated. Devising appropriate methodological tests for such reflexive hypotheses is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, as this article has tried to argue, curren understandings of Imperial Germany emphasize not the strength and constraining effect of the historical context but rather its fluidity and development over time. Moreover, dramatic examples of successful political reform elsewhere driven by actors operating under similar structrural constraints further suggest that for the SPD and other German progressives, the fault lay to a large extent not in the stars but in themselves. See Berman (fn. 5).

65 Karl, Terry Lynn, “Dilemmas of Democratization in Latin America,Comparative Politics 23 (October 1990), 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

66 Fearon, James D., “Counterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Science,” World Politics 43 (January 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tetlock, Philip E. and Belkin, Aaron, eds., Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Cowley, Robert, ed., What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1999)Google Scholar; and Ferguson, Niall, Virtual History (London: Picador, 1997).Google Scholar

67 For a remarkable behind-the-scenes glimpse of how authoritarian elites grapple with such questions, see “The Tiananmen Papers,” Foreign Affairs 80 (January-February 2001).

68 Przeworski, Adam and Limongi, Fernando, “Modernization: Theories and Facts,World Politics 49 (January 1997).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

69 See fn. 56; and Janos (fn. 12).

70 One recent attempt at counterfactual history also considers the possibility of Imperial Germany's making a successful transition to democracy; see Ferguson, Niall, The Pity of War (New York: Basic Books, 1999).Google Scholar Ferguson argues, however, that this would have occurred not if Germany had avoided the war but rather if it had won it. A quick victory by Germany, he claims, would have avoided most of the horrible bloodshed, allowed the kaiser to claim an impressive success, and left ex-corporal Adolf Hitler permanently on the sidelines of history. What Ferguson fails to consider, however, is that such a victorious campaign would have strengthened the kaiser and conservative elites, forestalled a National Liberal move to the left, and alienated the SPD further from its potential coalition partners. The most likely result would therefore have been, indeed, eventual further liberalization, but under the leadership of a revivified conservative coalition that would have been reluctant to go all the way to a full democratic regime.

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