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Did Germany Follow the Sonderweg or 'Special Path' of Development?

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Historians such as Jurgen Kocka have argued that Germany followed a special path of development due to the absence of social and political modernization during economic development. This caused pre-industrial mentalities and structures to remain prominent within all aspects of society. Hence, he argues that this led to an inevitable crisis during the 1930s and therefore, resulted in a logical dictatorship.

Jurgen Kocka’s supporting views towards the Sonderweg thesis are demonstrated in his article ‘Causes of National Socialism’. In an extract from the article, Kocka makes a compelling argument by suggesting that “the German path of economic modernization without thorough social liberalization and political democratization now took its revenge”. This is evident as the public maintained hostility towards a democratic system due to the opposing egalitarian attitudes within the ruling classes which, allowed bureaucracy to continue and exert a substantial influence within the German society. During Bismarck’s chancellorship from 1871-1890, he constructed a strict framework within the German government which restricted the powers of the Reichstag by only allowing them to discuss legislation introduced by the Bundesrat (federal government) and the imperial government. Despite the balance of power changing over time, the structure of the chancellorship remained up until the end of the Second World War due to Article 41 and 48 in the constitution, allowing presidential rule by decree. This significantly supports the Sonderweg thesis as it shows how Germany never went through any radical changes in its political and social structure and, displays how the attitudes sustained from the latter 1800s have led the country down a familiar pathway; therefore, enabling a logical dictatorship to arise.

In terms of context, Kocka’s social and political perspective of history is demonstrated to be greatly influenced by his career. At the time of writing, Kocka was a professor of social history at the University of Bielefeld in Germany as an academic, practicing historian. This is a strength because it demonstrates that Kocka conducted detailed research into his specialist area and is clearly well educated about Sonderweg thesis. Also, Kocka included other historians’ perspectives, as demonstrated in the beginning of the article, which further supports the credibility of his research. This is because it shows a strong judgement of what Kocka truly believes caused the rise of National Socialism in Germany and the pathway of its development. However, social history was a relatively new perspective in the 1980s that had recently emerged and had been criticized for putting politics down to culture and reducing individuals to structures. This limits the validity of Kocka’s view because his perspective could be seen as too deterministic. Also, Kocka’s background could be seen as a weakness as it negatively affects the reliability of his argument due to his predisposition of analyzing history from a social and political angle. Therefore, his argument may not be as balanced as a whole.

Overall, Kocka’s interpretation of the Sonderweg thesis is substantially convincing because he accurately presents how pre-industrial mindsets were a significant continuance within society which, resultantly allowed a restrictive government to develop into a logical dictatorship. However, it could be argued that he places too much emphasis on these factors which, could cause his perspective to become reductionist and deterministic. As a result, Kocka’s article demonstrates his strong support for the Sonderweg thesis and that modern Germany did follow a Sonderweg.

On the other hand, Geoff Eley argues that radical nationalism and fascism were both new concepts within Germany thus, demonstrating his anti-Sonderweg perspective. His argument suggests that radical nationalism was an attraction in Germany during the post-war period, triggered by the short-term crisis of political legitimacy and therefore, this resulted in a dictatorship.

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Eley has demonstrated his perspective in an extract from ‘What Produces Fascism: Pre-Industrial Traditions or a Crisis of Capitalism?’. His argument strongly suggests his rejection of the Sonderweg thesis by stating that “radical nationalism was a vision of the future, not the past”. This is visible in the post-war climate of 1918 where a counter-revolution against the new, liberal Weimar government had developed. There was great instability within all aspects of German life due to the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles that had been signed, ensuring that Germany would accept the harsh terms of the treaty. Consequently, this allowed extremist groups within the left and right to take advantage of this new crisis. Although there was a short period of constancy due to Stresemann’s domestic and foreign policies from 1923-1929, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 soon returned the disorder and divisions within society, causing the public to turn towards extreme groups once again. This substantially supports Eley’s argument as the outbreak of unemployment and uncertainty due to the Wall Street Crash made a leader such as Hitler desirable once again. This is because he was demonstrated to be a strong and unifying character who had nationalist interests at the heart of his cause, contrasting to the weak democratic government. The combination of humiliation and antagonism, whilst being left in unfamiliar circumstances, allowed the idea of radical nationalism to build within society. Therefore, this considerably supports Eley’s claim that it was a new concept as nationalism was shown to only thrive in times of crisis which, consequently led to a logical dictatorship.

In terms of context, Geoff Eley’s book was published in 1986, during the time of the Historikerstreit (historians’ debate) about the crimes of Nazi Germany and if there was a ‘special path’ of development. This is significant because the mood of the period Eley was writing in was openly confrontational and when historians began to look at the more disconcerting areas of German history. Therefore, Eley’s argument would have to be firmly true to what he believes, producing a credible argument. Additionally, Eley has taught and been educated in the West as he has been teaching at the University of Michigan since 1979 in the Department of History and Department of German studies since 1997 therefore, this shows that he is an expert in the field. However, this could be seen as a limitation of his argument because his Western ideas and values of what could be considered ‘normal’, may affect his judgement. Hence, he is an outsider looking into German history which could potentially limit the validity of his argument.

In summary, Eley’s interpretation of the Sonderweg thesis, to a large extent, convincing because he clearly demonstrates the short-term effects that caused a dictatorship to occur and why he rejects that there was a special path of development for Germany.

Kocka’s argument is partially shown to be more convincing because after 1918 there was a great amount of uncertainty, and because of this, people resulted back to the ideologies that they were familiar with and the pre-industrial mindsets that had survived. Subsequently, this led to a logical dictatorship in Germany. However, Eley’s argument is also credible because the unique circumstances that Germany was in drove radical nationalism to spread across Germany in the great way that it did.

The main difference between the two interpretations is that Kocka believes that pre-industrial traditions were the most important factor that led Germany down a pathway to a logical dictatorship, in contrast to Eley who believes that national socialism only developed in Germany after the First World War and therefore, there was no special path of development. This is might be due to their different backgrounds and settings that they have studied. On one hand, Kocka has had a more insider’s perspective as he has taught in Germany and been surrounded by other German historians; on the other hand, Eley has been analyzing German history from outside of Germany.

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Did Germany Follow the Sonderweg or ‘Special Path’ of Development? (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from
“Did Germany Follow the Sonderweg or ‘Special Path’ of Development?” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
Did Germany Follow the Sonderweg or ‘Special Path’ of Development? [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 Mar. 2023].
Did Germany Follow the Sonderweg or ‘Special Path’ of Development? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2023 Mar 30]. Available from:
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