Local and national elites in the German empire: the case of the Wurttemberg Varnbulers

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Date: Fall 2001
From: German Politics and Society(Vol. 19, Issue 3)
Publisher: Berghahn Books, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,759 words

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For Rudolf Vierhaus

The formation of a national elite in Germany during the period before and after political unification, 1871, is still a largely unexplored topic in German social history. The Prussocentric perspective in German historiography, which is still prevailing in much of the work done by the so-called critical history of the 1960s and 1970s, has tended to give scant consideration to the sociocultural diversity underlying and enshrined in the federal structure of the Empire. The process of national consolidation of Imperial society could profitably be studied along the center-periphery continuum of national integration. (1) It would be interesting, in particular, to subject to closer scrutiny the notion of "preindustrial elites," which held on to the reigns of power in Prussia-Germany at a time of such rapid social and economic change. The cliche of manipulative preindustrial elites has become the explanatory passe-partout for analyzing the retardation of Germany's political modernization. But, as other historians in this field have tried to show, (2) the concrete historical meanings and significance of preindustrial elites for the specific course of German history is in fact exceedingly difficult to pin down. More sophistication has been added to this notion of preindustrial elites by Arno J. Mayer's suggestion of focusing on the persistence of the ruling classes' preindustrial mentality, despite their successful adaptation to capitalist activities. However, this "strange" life in multiple realities was not unique to the German social and political elite. It was typical for all European countries at that time. (3) In any case, it does not seem to invalidate the principal suggestion that the conventional explanatory scheme of German social history is largely derived from the Prussian experience and assumes an essential continuity between the social structure of Prussia and that of the Reich. This assumption seems worthy of closer examination.

In presenting the case of the Wurttemberg Varnbulers, I would like to shed light on one particular aspect of this larger problem considering the question of whether and how the process of national integration happened at the level of the political elite. Naturally, this is only one aspect of the larger process of nation building, which, as James J. Sheehan reminded us, "began rather than ended with the victories of 1866-1871." (4)

The family history presented here intends to begin answering one specific question raised by Sheehan in his searching reflections on the larger problem of "What is German history?"--namely, the question "How and why did national connections develop in social, economic and cultural life?" The paper will address only in passing Sheehan's second, but closely related, question: "What other patterns persisted and why?" (5) Sheehan claims that there is a lack of studies in German social history that explore the broader process of nation building on the vaster popular level. There exists for Germany no analogy to Eugen Weber's study on France, for example, which attempted to trace the social process transforming "peasants into Frenchmen," as his book is titled. (6) As for Germany, such a study would have...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A101338173