What Was Sonderweg?

Theme: Sonderweg or ‘Special Path’
Sonderweg is the term used to describe Germany’s unique social and political development in nineteenth century Imperial Germany. It is claimed that Germany differed greatly from other nations in Europe, particularly Britain and France who had a ‘normal’ progression into democracies. Unlike Western Europe, Germany did not have a democratic government; yet it cannot be identified with the alternative style of authority in Europe - Russian autocracy. Instead it created its own type of governance often described as ‘absolutism,’ government was imposed from above and power remained strictly with the aristocracy. The bourgeois minority, unlike Britain and France, never revolted allowing the development of liberalism, historian Eley writes that the preindustrial elite of Germany were capable of maintaining power after industrialisation partly because of the ‘weakness of liberalism.’
The origins of the term ‘Sonderweg’ can be traced back to Imperial Germany, and the rule of one individual in particular – Bismarck. He organised the unification of the States in 1871 and introduced protectionist policies and tariffs to protect the elite’s wealth and authority. Using all his political influence he ensured that opposition like the Social Democrats were suppressed and the authoritarian government and ‘preindustrial traditions’ prospered.
Historian Richard J. Evans identifies the main methods of government in Germany to be: repression, manipulation and negative integration; a method of dividing sectors of society such as foreign minorities and depicting them as dangerous in order to unite native Germans. There was censorship, restrictions on civil liberties, propaganda and the constant threat of arrest or dismissal from employment. Industrialisation created a new working class who were under represented despite their growing pressure and their expanding population in the run up to 1914. The term ‘Sammlung politiks’ can be seen as a...

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