Hans-Ulrich Wehler

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Hans-Ulrich Wehler (born 1931), German historian of the 19th and 20th centuries, and founder of the "Bielefeld School" of Social history. In the 1970s and early 1980s German historians of society, led by Wehler and Jürgen Kocka at the "Bielefeld school" gained dominance in Germany by applying both modernization theories and social science methods to create a "historical social science" (Historische Sozialwissenschaft).


Wehler studied history and sociology in Cologne, Bonn and, on a Fulbright scholarship, at Ohio University the United States; he worked for six months as a welder and a truck driver in Los Angeles. He took his PhD in 1960 under Theodor Schieder at the University of Cologne. His dissertation examined social democracy and the nation state and the question of nationality in Germany between 1840 and 1914. His postdoctoral thesis on Bismarck and imperialism, opened the way for an academic career. His habilitation project om "American imperialism between 1865 and 1900", supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, permitted him to do research in American libraries in 1962-3 and led to two books. In all he spent six years in the U.S. and was strongly influenced by its academic structures and by research in comparative modernization.

Wehler first taught American history at the John F. Kennedy Institute of the Free University of Berlin, then moved in 1971 to the University of Bielefeld, where he served as Professor of General History until his retirement in 1996. During that period, he also was a visiting professor at Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Stanford universities.

Wehler and his colleagues Jürgen Kocka and Reinhart Koselleck founded the Bielefeld School of historical analysis. Instead of emphasizing the political aspects of history, as in the conventional approach, its proponents concentrate on socio-cultural developments. History as "historical social science" (as Wehler described it) has mainly been explored in the context of studies of German society in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Wehler won the 2003 NRW State Prize; the premier of North Rhineland Westphalia Peer Steinbrück praised Wehler:

"Hans-Ulrich Wehler clearly and persuasively demonstrated over 30 years ago that modern historiography has a socio-political mission. He regards it as "critical social science" which aims "above all … to make a conscious contribution to honing a freer and more critical awareness of society". He has always lived up to this aim, with trenchant insights and courageous political judgment."


Social history developed within West German historiography during the 1950s-60s as the successor to the national history discredited by National Socialism. The German brand of "history of society" - Gesellschaftsgeschichte - has been known from its beginning in the 1960s for its application of sociological and political modernization theories to German history. Modernization theory was presented by Wehler and his Bielefeld School as the way to transform "traditional" German history, that is, national political history, centered on a few "great men," into an integrated and comparative history of German society encompassing societal structures outside politics. Wehler drew upon the modernization theory of Max Weber, with concepts also from Karl Marx, Otto Hintze, Gustav Schmoller, Werner Sombart and Thorstein Veblen.[1]

Wehler's Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, (1987- ) is a comprehensive 5-volume history of German society in the 18th-20th centuries. Each volume approaches historical processes from a social history perspective, organized under the themes of demographics, economics, and social equality. His detailed structural analysis of developmental processes supported by a vast body of notes and statistics sometimes obscures the larger context. Nonetheless, patterns of continuity and change in the social fabric are emphasized. More than a historiographical synthesis of Ranke and Marx (envisioned by some German historians after the catastrophe of World War I), Wehler's work incorporates Max Weber's concepts of authority, economy, and culture and strives toward a concept of "total history."

Volumes 1-2 cover the period from feudalism through the Revolution of 1848. Volume 3 Von der "Deutschen Doppelrevolution" bis zum Beginn des Ersten Weltkrieges 1849-1914 (1995) employs Wehler's longtime emphasis on a German Sonderweg or "special path" as the root of Nazism and the German catastrophe in the 20th century. Wehler places the origins of Germany's path to disaster in the 1860s-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). Wehler's Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte: Vom Beginn des Ersten Weltkrieges bis zur Gründung der Beiden Deutschen Staaten 1914-1949 (2003) is the fourth volume of his monumental history of German society. The catastrophic German politics between 1914 and 1945 are interpreted in terms of a delayed modernization of its political structures. At the core of Wehler's fourth volume is his treatment of "the middle class" and "revolution," each of which was instrumental in shaping the 20th century. Wehler's examination of Nazi rule is shaped by his concept of "charismatic domination," which focuses heavily on Adolf Hitler. The fifth volume will extend to 1990; none of the series has yet been translated into English.[2]

From the 1980s, however, they were increasingly criticized by proponents of the "cultural turn" for not incorporating culture in the history of society, for reducing politics to society, and for reducing individuals to structures. Historians of society inverted the traditional positions they criticized (on the model of Marx's inversion of Hegel). As a result, the problems pertaining to the positions criticized were not resolved but only turned on their heads. The traditional focus on individuals was inverted into a modern focus on structures, the traditional focus on culture was inverted into a modern focus on structures, and traditional emphatic understanding was inverted into modern causal explanation.[3]

Wehler has been highly critical of various fads, such as psychohistory. He believes that the "history of everyday life" (Alltagsgeschichte) has been a failure, theoretically speaking, but that attention by the 1990s had shifted to the New Cultural History.


  • Blamming, T. C. W. "The French Revolution and the Modernization of Germany." Central European History 1989 22(2): 109–129. Issn: 0008-9389 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Fletcher, Roger. "Recent Developments in West German Historiography: the Bielefeld School and its Critics." German Studies Review 1984 7(3): 451–480. in Jstor
  • Lorenz, Chris. "'Won't You Tell Me, Where Have All the Good Times Gone'? On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Modernization Theory for History." Rethinking History 2006 10(2): 171–200. Issn: 1364-2529 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Lorenz, Chris. "Beyond Good and Evil? The German Empire of 1871 and Modern German Historiography." Journal of Contemporary History 1995 30(4): 729–765. in Jstor
  • Sperber, Jonathan. "Master Narratives of Nineteenth-century German History." Central European History 1991 24(1): 69–91. Issn: 0008-9389 Fulltext: Ebsco

By Wehler

  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. Sozialdemokratie und Nationalstaat: Nationalitätenfragen in Deutschland 1840­-1914 (2d ed., 1971)
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. Der Aufstieg des amerikanischen Imperialismus: Studien zur Entwicklung des Imperium Americanum 1865-­1900 (1974)
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. Grundzüge der amerikanischen Außenpolitik 1750­-1900 (1983).
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. Bismarck und der Imperialismus (5th ed., 1984)
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. "Historiography in Germany Today," in Jürgen Habermas, ed., Observations on The Spiritual Situation of the Age, (1984), 221–59.
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. Das deutsche Kaiserreich 1871­-1918 10th ed., 2000; English ed., The German Empire, 1871-1918 (1985, 1997) excerpt and text search
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. "A Guide to Future Research on the Kaiserreich?" Central European History 1996 29(4): 541–572. Issn: 0008-9389 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. Politik in der Geschichte (1998), essays
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. Die Herausforderung der Kulturgeschichte (1998), essays
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte (5 vol 1987- )
  • Daum, Andreas. "German Historiography in Transatlantic Perspective: Interview with Hans-Ulrich Wehler" GHI Bulletin (2000) online edition

Edited by Wehler

  • Kritische Studien zur Geschichtswissenschaft, a monograph series, co-editor
  • Geschichte und Gesellschaft a journal, co-editor


  1. Roger Fletcher, "Recent Developments in West German Historiography: the Bielefeld School and its Critics." German Studies Review 1984 7(3): 451-480.
  2. A partial summary appears in Hans-Ulrich Wehler, The German Empire, 1871-1918 (1997)
  3. Chris Lorenz, "'Won't You Tell Me, Where Have All the Good Times Gone'? On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Modernization Theory for History." Rethinking History 2006 10(2): 171-200.