Sonderweg (German: [ˈzɔndɐˌveːk], "special path") identifies the theory in German historiography that considers the German-speaking lands or the country of Germany itself to have followed a course from aristocracy to democracy unlike any other in Europe.

The modern school of thought by that name arose early during World War II as a consequence of the rise of Nazi Germany. In consequence of the scale of the devastation wrought on Europe by Nazi Germany, the Sonderweg theory of German history has progressively gained a following inside and outside Germany, especially since the late 1960s. In particular, its proponents argue that the way Germany developed over the centuries virtually ensured the evolution of a social and political order along the lines of Nazi Germany. In their view, German mentalities, the structure of society, and institutional developments followed a different course in comparison with the other nations of the West, which had a normal development of their histories. The German historian Heinrich August Winkler wrote about the question of there being a Sonderweg: "For a long time, educated Germans answered it in the positive, initially by laying claim to a special German mission, then, after the collapse of 1945, by criticizing Germany's deviation from the West. Today, the negative view is predominant. Germany did not, according to the now prevailing opinion, differ from the great European nations to an extent that would justify speaking of a 'unique German path'. And, in any case, no country on earth ever took what can be described as the 'normal path'".[1]

19th century

The term Sonderweg was first used by German conservatives in the imperial period, starting in the late 19th century as a source of pride at the "Golden Mean"[2] of governance that in their view had been attained by the German state, whose distinctiveness as an authoritarian state lay in taking the initiative in instituting social reforms, imposing them without waiting to be pressured by demands "from below". This type of authoritarianism was seen to be avoiding both the autocracy of Imperial Russia and what they regarded as the weak, decadent and ineffective democratic governments of Britain and France.[3] The idea of Germany as a great Central European power, neither of the West nor of the East was to be a recurring feature of right-wing German thought right up to 1945.

Historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler of the Bielefeld School places the origins of Germany's path to disaster in the 1860s and 1870s, when economic modernization took place, but political modernization did not happen and the old Prussian rural elite remained in firm control of the army, diplomacy and the civil service. Traditional, aristocratic, premodern society battled an emerging capitalist, bourgeois, modernizing society. Recognizing the importance of modernizing forces in industry and the economy and in the cultural realm, Wehler argues that reactionary traditionalism dominated the political hierarchy of power in Germany, as well as social mentalities and in class relations (Klassenhabitus).[4]

20th century

During World War II

Nazi Germany's occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and its invasion of Poland in September 1939 (the latter invasion immediately drawing France and Britain into World War II) provoked the drive to explain the phenomenon of Nazi Germany. In 1940, Sebastian Haffner, a German émigré living in Britain, published Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, in which he argued it was Adolf Hitler alone, by the force of his peculiar personality, who had brought about Nazi Germany. In 1941, the British diplomat Robert Vansittart published The Black Record: Germans Past And Present, according to which Nazism was only the latest manifestation of what Vansittart argued were the exclusively German traits of aggressiveness and brutality. Other books with a thesis similar to Vansittart's were Rohan Butler's The Roots of National Socialism (1941) and William Montgomery McGovern's From Luther to Hitler: The History of Nazi-Fascist Philosophy (1946).[5]

Early postwar period

After Germany's defeat in World War II in 1945, the term Sonderweg lost its positive connotations from the 19th century and acquired its present negative meaning. There was much debate about the origins of this "German catastrophe" (as the German historian Meinecke titled his 1946 book) of Nazi Germany's rise and fall. Since then, scholars have examined developments in intellectual, political, social, economic and cultural history to investigate why German democracy failed during the Weimar Republic and which factors led to the rise of National Socialism.[3] In the 1960s, many historians concluded that the failure of Germany to develop firm democratic institutions in the 19th century had been decisive for the failure of the Weimar Republic in the 20th century.[3]

Until the mid-1960s, the Sonderweg debate was polarized with most non-German participants at one pole and German participants at the other. Historians like Léon Poliakov, A. J. P. Taylor, and Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier, echoed by journalists like the American William L. Shirer, portrayed Nazism as the inevitable result of German history, reflecting unique flaws in "German national character" that went back to the days of Martin Luther, if not earlier.

During the Raleigh Lecture on History in 1944, Namier stated that the German liberals in the Revolution of 1848 were "in reality forerunners of Hitler", whose views about the Poles and Czechs presaged the great international crises of 1938–39, and called the 1848 revolution "a touchstone of German mentality and a decisive element in East-European politics"[6] In his lecture, Namier described the 1848 revolution as "the early manifestations of aggressive nationalism, especially of German nationalism which derives from the much belauded Frankfort Parliament rather than from Bismarck and "Prussianism".[6] Namier concluded "had not Hitler and his associates blindly accepted the legend which latter-day liberals, German and foreign had spun around 1848, they might well have found a great deal to extol in the deutsche Männer und Freunde of the Frankfort Assembly".[6]

Taylor wrote in his 1945 book The Course of German History that the Nazi regime "represented the deepest wishes of the German people", and that it was the first and only German government created by the Germans as the Holy Roman Empire had been created by France and Austria, the German Confederation by Austria and Prussia and the Weimar Republic by the Allies.[7] By contrast, Taylor argued "But the Third Reich rested solely on German force and impulse; it owed nothing to alien forces. It was a tyranny imposed upon the German people by themselves".[7] Taylor argued that National Socialism was inevitable because the Germans wanted "to repudiate the equality with the peoples of eastern Europe which had then been forced upon them" after 1918.[8] Taylor wrote that:

During the preceding eighty years the Germans had sacrificed to the Reich all their liberties; they demanded as a reward the enslavement of others. No German recognized the Czechs or Poles as equals. Therefore, every German desired the achievement which only total war could give. By no other means could the Reich be held together. It had been made by conquest and for conquest; if it ever gave up its career of conquest, it would dissolve.[9]

The American historian Peter Viereck wrote in his 1949 book Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against the Revolt 1815–1949 that:

Is it being unhistorical to judge the anti-Metternichian nationalism and racism of 19th century Germany by its Nazi consequences? Were those consequences the logical outcome or a modern accident for which nationalism should not be blamed? Is it a case of the wise-after-the-fallacy to read so much into those early rebels of 1806-1848, whom many historians still consider great liberals?...The liberal university professors, Metternich's fiercest foes and now so prominent in 1848, were often far from the cloudy idealists pictured in our textbooks. From his own viewpoint, Bismarck erred in mocking their lack of Realpolitik. The majority... was more Bismarckian than Bismarck ever realized. Many liberals... later became leading propagandists for Bismarck, along with the new National Liberal Party. Only an honorable few continued to oppose him and the militarist success-worship that followed his victorious wars.[6]

Shirer in his 1960 book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich argued for the view that German history proceeded logically from "Luther to Hitler",[10] seeing Hitler's rise to power as an expression of German character, rather than of the international phenomenon of totalitarianism.[11][12]