The Peculiarities of German History after Thirty Years: Modernity and Bourgeois Revolution in the Age of Multiple Modernities?

AHA Session 175
Central European History Society 2
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Andrew Zimmerman, George Washington University
Reflections on Modernization Redux and the Imperial Present
Harry D. Harootunian, New York University
The Peculiarities of Comparison
Manu Goswami, New York University
Transnational Method and the State
Micol Seigel, Indiana University Bloomington
David G. Blackbourn, Vanderbilt University and Geoff Eley, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor

Session Abstract

2014 will be the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley’s The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984). It is no exaggeration to say that this book transformed, even redefined, the field of German history. It also made an essential intervention in the field of history more broadly, raising questions about multiple modernities that have only become more central to our discipline in the last thirty years.  However, its questions about bourgeois revolutions, state formation, and class hegemony have perhaps fared less well, though they remain no less urgent, after more recent neoliberal turns in politics, society and scholarship. This topical-style roundtable will bring together scholars from multiple academic generations and from multiple regional specialties to present work that critically builds on the themes that the Peculiarities of German History raises for our discipline as a whole. This will allow us both to celebrate a pathbreaking work in academic history and also to take stock of the progress of our various fields since the publication of this work three decades ago.

Blackbourn and Eley’s critique of a single-track liberal modernization has become central to a number of fields of history. As Blackbourn and Eley pointed out, the norm of ‘western’ liberalism against which most of the world, including Germany, was measured and found to be wanting was a serious distortion of both the ‘deviant’ and the ‘normal’ nations. Some historians would now follow Bruno Latour in declaring “we have never been modern” while others, perhaps a larger group, would speak instead of multiple modernities. This turn from the study of modernization to the study of modernities has enabled, and benefitted from, a general weakening of Eurocentrism and a strengthening of transnational approaches in our discipline.

Yet, modernization theory raised a valuable complex of social-theoretical questions that have perhaps been neglected since its otherwise welcome decline in our discipline. These include comparative questions about bourgeois revolutions, state formation, and class hegemony. Indeed, one of the great achievements of Peculiarities was that it offered ways to rescue these categories from the ideological banalities into whose service they had been pressed. One way to conceive of this roundtable is as a kind of counterfactual: what if the method of comparative case studies of class conflict and state formation exemplified by Barrington Moore’s 1966 Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy had flourished, rather than declined, after the critique of modernization theory? This roundtable will probe these and other questions raised by Peculiarities of German History to critically evaluate a work that has profoundly shaped the very recent history of our discipline.

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