Germany: A New Social and Economic History (2023)

Sheilagh Ogilvie and Richard Overy, eds. Germany: A New Social and Economic History, Volume 3--Since 1800. London: Arnold, 2003. xvii + 430 pp. Tables, notes, index. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-3406-3214-4; $27.50 (paper), ISBN 0-3406-5215-2.

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Reviewed by: L. M. Stallbaumer-Beishline, Department of History, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
Published by: H-German (September, 2005)

Germany's Social and Economic History
Germany: A New Social and Economic History is a welcome addition to the literature that will be useful to "students, teachers, and general readers," but it is not a synthesis (p. xv). Individual chapters on a range of topics (urbanization, social policy, industrialization, finance, government policies, agriculture, demography, science, women, and the standard of living) were written by experts in their fields. Although the essays explore a diverse number of issues, the volume does not provide us with a balanced treatment of Germany's social and economic history since 1800. Indeed, nearly all of the contributors acknowledge the impossibility of writing a thorough treatment of their subject in so few pages. Subsequently, they impose topical limits on their contributions, which reflect individual research agendas and preclude a comprehensive portrayal of social and economic history since 1800. Notably gaping omissions include the failure to examine the impact that post-war European integration has had on Germany and a serious, in-depth examination of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Frank Tipton points out the obvious difficulties in writing German history in his essay on regional diversity. Tipton argues convincingly that national economic integration has been fleeting. Writers have long exaggerated the impact of the Zollverein (Customs Union) and unification on national integration. Diversity, disparity, and most important disunity remained the economic reality of the Kaiserreich until shortly before the First World War. Indeed, Tipton suggests that under Bismarck, because agricultural sectors remained largely rural and backward, regional differences intensified. If the ability to transport goods and services throughout the major regions of Germany is any indication, then a national economy had fully emerged by 1914. But in the twentieth century integration was short-lived because of border changes. Ironically, the division of Germany after 1945, which appeared to make a national economy impossible, did more to eliminate regional disparities because of the overall decline in agriculture. With reunification, a new state of regional economic disparity is evident because of the relative backwardness of East German industry; the uneven development between east and west is stark and renews the problem of creating a national economy.

Several contributors provide insight on demographic features of modern German history. Timothy Guinnane's chapter on population and economy is extremely useful. For college students, he addresses the potential difficulties with quantifying data and identifies trends in marriage, fertility, mortality, migration, and urbanization. Guinnane's willingness to discuss the implications of population growth for Germany's future reminds us that history provides an essential context for current events. Guinnane finds that German demography shares a fate with that of the industrialized world: low birth rates and increasing life expectancy mean that social welfare benefits cannot keep pace with an aging population. Some Germans are already writing about the possibility of a "Europe without Germans," which Guinnane predicts will force Germany to confront the problem of how it defines citizenship (p. 66).

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Urbanization is examined separately by John Breuilly, who puts forth the thesis that by 1914, Germany's urban society had peaked, and that the twentieth century has experienced an urban decline. This is an intriguing hypothesis that suggests avenues for further research, but the chapter itself is devoted to the nineteenth century. Twentieth-century urban movements are largely ignored in this volume. Breuilly found that urbanization and its social impact are comparable to other western nations except that the experience was more intensified over a shorter period of time. Notably, Breuilly acknowledges differences among the German states, so he is reluctant to identify patterns with the exception of how growth in established towns differed from urban areas that were formed by industrialization.

Jrg Baten's article is the quintessential cliometric approach to demographic history. He examines variations and improvements in the standard of living. Baten identifies the multiple components that social scientists have used to assess standards of living: incomes and prices, life expectancy, education, income inequality, social status, leisure, and "other components" (pp. 383-384). He points out that all of these measurements create difficulties for scholars because data is incomplete. So how might the social scientist rectify some of the difficulties in assessing standard of living? The answer is human stature measurements or anthropometrics. Baten maintains that charting human stature is a primary indicator that can be measured over the entire period and is more inclusive because groups of individuals who never earned incomes (nobles, housewives, and so forth) are counted. Baten admits that anthropometrics cannot singularly identify trends in standard of living and must be compared to other indices. Relying upon the measurement of human stature to determine standards of living is based on the belief that nutrition affects individual heights, which in turn indicates quality of life. Large enough samplings presumably average out genetically determined differences. Baten's findings suggest that scholars need to reexamine certain areas of history where he found that declines in stature coincided with periods in which purchasing power had risen, and by his reckoning demonstrated that other indices which measure standards of living may be in error. Three periods Baten specifically identifies for reconsideration: the nineteenth-century agrarian reform era, the 1920s, and the mid-1930s. Baten's methodology points to new research directions, but readers suspicious of cliometrics will not find his thesis entirely convincing.

The relationship between government and the economy are explored by Tipton and Richard Overy. Tipton's second contribution focuses on the relationship between government and economic development in the nineteenth century. Prussia is central to his analysis, and Tipton makes the case for the Prussian government's reluctance to involve itself in most industrialization efforts. Therefore, the private sector was largely responsible for modern industrial development and transferring technology. Essentially, the Prussian government was highly selective in deciding which economic sectors it was willing to support and protect. Tipton encourages readers to question the conventional portrayal of Bismarck as "powerful and purposive" (p. 134). A number of comparisons are made to Japan's Meiji era, which are instructive but digress from the purpose of the volume; it would have been more edifying to compare Prussia with other German states within the Empire.

Richard Overy highlights the stark difference in the relationship between the economy and the state by comparing the Third Reich with the Federal Republic. While state direction was present in both eras, an obvious difference emerges. In the Third Reich, the state-sponsored economy was intrusive and even predatory, as exemplified by the Four Year Plan. While Nazi state intervention initially facilitated economic recovery, in the long run economic performance suffered. On the other hand, the Federal Republic promoted economic growth, but it allowed market forces to determine development as well. While Overy maintains that private businessmen contributed significantly to the 1950s "economic miracle," the state was equally important. The mixed economy that Germany presently has is successful because the state has fine-tuned its function in the economy drawing upon earlier failed experiments. The history of the GDR's state-directed economy is marginalized by portraying it as having been doomed to failure from the outset.

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Volker Wellhner and Harald Wixforth challenge the conventional beliefs about the relationship between financial institutions and big business during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wellhner and Wixforth reject the notion that banks dominated industry, arguing that the interlocking directorates rarely gave banks a decisive voice in corporate policies. This argument is made against the backdrop story of how private banks were slowly marginalized by the competition of the Great Banks during the second half of the nineteenth century. During the Weimar years, banking institutions witnessed the erosion of their powers through industry for two reasons: industrialists repaid loans quickly during the inflation years, and they borrowed more frequently from foreign banks after the mark was stabilized in 1924. Wellhner and Wixforth treat the Nazi era as a "black box," difficult to assess because of limited research. While it is correct that historians have only recently begun to focus on banking and industry in the Nazi era, more information could have been culled from the secondary source literature, including English-language sources. Moreover, the authors made only provisional observations about the post-1945 era, citing inaccessible archives as the reason. Therefore, readers curious about post-Weimar history will be disappointed in this chapter. Moreover, by focusing on high finance and industrial relations, the authors have given readers a very restricted view of finance.

Agriculture is the only other industry that receives attention in this volume. Jonathan Osmond maintains that agriculture is important in German politics today because it is idolized in public memory, even though it only makes up 2 percent of the gross national product. Osmond outlines major trends in agricultural development during the nineteenth century, but he largely focuses on two case studies, Bavaria and East Elbia, to identify trends up to 1914. Most twentieth-century developments in agriculture are ignored.

Three chapters are devoted to social structure and welfare. Co-authors Christina Benninghaus, Heinz-Gerhard Haupt, and Jrg Requate not surprisingly find that German social structure was transformed significantly during the twentieth century. The authors acknowledge that German social structure is more complex than the simple breakdown of elites, middle, and lower strata, but because the general public and historians continue to use these classifications, they utilize the same categories. Benninghaus, Haupt, and Requate question the accuracy of modern-day perceptions presumably held by many Germans that inequalities are virtually non-existent. The popular belief is that competition for social status among Germans has been replaced by a struggle to achieve happiness based on individual conceptions of what that constitutes (referred to as "'experience-orientation'"). The authors propose that "experience-orientation" is a rationalization by Germans to avoid unremitting social inequalities, an idea which deserves further exploration. Rather than overwhelm readers with tables, social statistics are offered in narrative form which makes for dry reading.

In a separate chapter, Lisa Pine concisely identifies major developments in women's and family lives since 1800. The trends predictably fall into patterns of most western nations with the exception of the Nazi era when racial imperatives led to apparently contradictory policies in order to encourage child birth. Pine dutifully points out the divergent experiences for women and family policies between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany. Her chapter serves as a useful introduction to the trends for students of German history.

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With respect to social welfare, non-specialists will find Peter Stachura's discussion of the Wilhelmine era challenging the notion that Bismarck's programs were innovative and far-reaching. Significantly, Bismarckian social policies may have lessened the stigma associated with poor relief as a number of liberal and religious welfare groups acknowledged that poverty could be triggered by circumstances beyond individual control and that welfare might "redress inequalities" (p. 230). Confessional welfare organizations clashed with how liberals envisioned social welfare. The contemporary debate centered on the proper role of the state. The experiences of the First World War strengthened the belief that the state should take on more responsibility for welfare. The Weimar coalition implemented more far-reaching social welfare to win the working class over to the republic. Stachura maintains that this tendency marked the first true welfare state (Sozialstaat) even if it was short-lived. The Nazis dismantled the Weimar welfare state with social policies defined by racism and the goal of creating a "national community" (Volksgemeinschaft). Even before the war began, the Volksgemeinschaft had essentially failed to fulfill its promise. Less helpful was Stachura's discussion of Strength through Joy (Kraft durch Freude, KdF) and Beauty through Labor (Schnheit der Arbeit, or SdA) which he claims improved workers' material conditions. Pierre Aycoberry and Richard Grunberger point out that the majority of workers could not afford to take advantage of the short excursions offered by the KdF. Perhaps the opportunity represented an "upward trend" as Detlev Peukert notes, but to suggest that living standards were improved is certainly debatable. Stachura focuses primarily on West Germany in the post-1945 era, where he points out that political parties no longer debated if social welfare should be offered but disagreed over priorities. The GDR's welfare provisions are perfunctorily dismissed as corrupt. The GDR system may have been irredeemably flawed, but it shapes how many East Germans have judged the impact of reunification. While this material may seem like current events to historians, to our students it is already history.

The inclusion of a chapter on the relationship between science, technology, and society offers a refreshing concept of social and economic history. Weber rejects periodizing the history of science and technology according to traditional political eras. He argues that for eighty years (1880s-1960s) scientists were consistently "oriented towards great national goals" and "science-based industries" have enjoyed state patronage (p. 328). The pattern that emerges during this period is that German scientists were more frequently making innovations upon what European and American scientists invented. Since the 1970s, Weber maintains that German scientists have pursued a social conscience research agenda which sets them apart from earlier generations.

Ogilvie and Overy's volume should be applauded for offering a more nuanced view of what constitutes social and economic history as evident in chapters on anthropometrics, science, and technology, and a concise, thorough examination of women and family. Each of the individual essays is well-written and researched with notes that will point to further reading. Yet, this volume would be more serviceable to students if the editors had included brief biographical sketches of the contributors and a bibliography of recommended reading that emphasizes English-language sources to point undergraduates in the direction of accessible reading material. The weaknesses of this volume are partially inherent in its commendable goal to offer a synthesis to readers, but the chapters do not form a whole. The individual contributors emphasized quality over quantity, which left gaping omissions: agriculture and urbanization in the twentieth century, finance outside of the "big-banks," large sectors of the economy, the GDR, and post-1945 historical developments, particularly the social and economic impact of the European Union and its predecessors on Germany.

Citation: L. M. Stallbaumer-Beishline. "Review of Sheilagh Ogilvie and Richard Overy, eds, Germany: A New Social and Economic History, Volume 3--Since 1800," H-German, H-Net Reviews, September, 2005. URL:

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