Book Review: Wilhelmine Germany and Edwardian Britain: Essays on Cultural Affinity


By Dominik Geppert and Robert Gerwarth, eds.


Whilst in something of an unofficial, and self imposed, honeymoon period between the end of a series of post-grad essays and the start of serious dissertation research, I have taken advantage on some free time to risk corrupting my brain with  few books which aren't relevant to my studies. Having something of a keen interest in many aspects of the turn of the last century I had my eye on this book in the Uni library for some time but had denied myself it at the expense of more relevant books, until now!
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Price: £65.00
Publication Date: 2008
ISBN: 978-0199558285
Classification: Noodle Scratcher

My undergrad dissertation dealt with the political and diplomatic effects of German war planning in the period 1871-1914 and while reading round the topic I got the clear impression that most of the recent literature has focussed upon the differences between Germany and Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century. For proponents of the controversial Sonderweg interpretation of the German past (that considers the German-speaking lands, or the country Germany, to have followed a unique course from aristocracy into democracy, distinct from other European countries) Britain’s apparently smooth development into a modern democracy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century's has served as a counterpoint to the narrative of flawed constitutionalism, authoritarianism and militarism under the German Emperors, which prepared the way for the Reich’s descent into totalitarian dictatorship and genocide.
Ever since Paul Kennedy’s monumental The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism appeared some 30 years ago, historians of international relations too have presented the two countries in opposition to each other, emphasizing the matters which divided them in the critical period before the First World War. Dominik Geppert and Robert Gerwarth’s exciting new volume offers a highly original alternative portrayal and comparison of Wilhelmine Germany and Edwardian Britain. Through its contributors’ focus on cultural transfers and their use of innovative transnational and comparative historiographical methodology, the volume reveals a neglected history of extensive personal contacts, mutual admiration, intellectual exchange and emulation operating alongside the nations’ well-known ferocious naval rivalry and growing political alienation.

The volume covers a useful an impressive range of subjects: high politics, colonial culture, gender, legal culture, academic life, music and architecture, highbrow and lowbrow literature and popular culture. Unsurprisingly, the nature and extent of cultural affinities and transfers varied greatly within these fields, although they were often striking. John M. MacKenzie notes the ubiquity of certain manifestations of popular imperialism across Europe and Frank Bosch investigates the proliferation in both Britain and Germany of popular scandals about colonizers’ treatment of African peoples from the 1890s. The vibrant intellectual exchanges between architects and lawyers of both countries are examined by Matthew Jefferies and Jose Harris, while Dominik Geppert highlights the readiness of even nationalistic newspaper entrepreneurs to cooperate with their peers abroad for mutual financial advantage. Frank Lorenz Muller discusses the almost simultaneous crises of the two nations’ governing systems from 1909–11 and the conclusions drawn by Germans of different political colours from observing British reforms. Women activists’ transnational connections are the focus of Jean H. Quataert’s essay, while Thomas Weber characterizes Britons studying in Heidelberg and Germans, many of them close relations of the Wilhelmine governing elite, at Oxford University as ‘cosmopolitan nationalists’. The contributors are careful not to overstate the two nations’ affinities. Sabine Freitag, for example, explains how, despite sharing a common concern with so-called ‘habitual offenders’, different cultural and scientific settings resulted in legislation which in England emphasized individual rehabilitation but in Germany prioritized the protection of society. Similarly, Geoff Eley explores why liberalism created a political environment amenable to the development of a large female suffrage movement in Britain, while obstructing the same aspirations of women in Germany. The fascinating essays on technical universities by Oliver Grant and on sport by Christiane Eisenberg also indicate that international cultural transfers were seldom adopted unchanged but were rather adapted to local conditions. The importance of considering both transnational and comparative perspectives is underlined by Jan Ruger’s elegant chapter on Anglo-German naval theatre, which employs both methodologies to draw out the deeper cultural and political meanings behind similar yet nationally distinctive forms of fleet reviews and warship launches. Most interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly,  the book argues that the diverse cultural transfers and affinities did not necessarily run counter to the growing political antagonism between Britain and Germany. In one of the volume’s best essays, Sven Oliver Muller explains that the spread of German music and musical culture to the United Kingdom prompted initial admiration but also lamentation at England’s lack of a first-rate composer. Under such circumstances, music became nationalized and politicized, promoting not international understanding but instead providing a further field of conflict. Naturally, no one volume can cover all areas of Anglo-German cultural interaction. In his engaging opening essay on cultural contacts and transfers, David Blackbourn notes the absence of contributions on religious exchanges and migration. A further, arguably even more important omission is any consideration of military cultures and cultural transfers between the two nations’ armies. This is particularly regrettable, not only because the Anglo-German political antagonism ended in unprecedented bloodshed but also because the most recent and sophisticated attempt to resurrect the Sonderweg theory, Isabel V. Hull’s Absolute Destruction (2005) focuses specifically on this subject, arguing that the German army developed a uniquely extreme and violent military culture due to its isolation from external influences.
The transnational and comparative approaches used in this volume would have been ideally suited to make a fruitful contribution to this current debate. Nonetheless, the cutting-edge research, innovative methodology, broad coverage and genuinely original perspective on turn of the century Anglo-German relations offered by this excellent volume make it essential reading for all students and scholars seeking to understand the bloody first half of Europe’s twentieth century. Now all that's needed is a cheaper paperback edition.