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Response to Review of Imagining a Greater Germany: Republican Nationalism and the Idea of Anschluss

I would like to thank Timothy Schmalz for his thorough review of my book. I was heartened to read that he thinks the book and its transnational approach to democracy and nationalism in the Weimar and First Austrian Republics open up new ways of thinking about the period and lines of inquiry for future research. I appreciate his comments and critiques, and I would therefore like to address a couple of his points, one methodological and the other more specific to the book.

Schmalz raises an important methodological question concerning the ways that historians can assess the political engagement of ordinary citizens. As he points out, much of inter-war political history tends to focus on elites. With regard to my book, he asserts that it contains few instances that reveal how non-elites participated in the heated political debates of the era. Here he suggests that there are only two examples cited: a letter from Louise Modersohn-Breling about the flag debate and a set of lyrics composed by Richard von Kralik (whom Schmalz mistakes for a republican, a non-elite, and the author of said lyrics). The book does, however, mention other letters sent by individuals to the German and Austrian governments about the flag and anthem debates. Moreover, Schmalz implies that only individually penned missives allow historians to assess how ordinary people contributed to the disputes about democracy and nationhood raging in inter-war Germany and Austria. I would argue that we need a broader view of the multiple ways that scholars can investigate popular involvement in politics. As social historians have shown in a number of different contexts, there are various ways to gauge how ordinary people influenced politics, including the analysis of crowd dynamics, police reports, and court cases.(1a) Similarly, scholars who study celebrations and conflicts over symbols have illustrated how such occurrences can help us to understand popular interventions in political processes and power dynamics.(2a) Such approaches were extremely useful to me, especially since many individuals at the time did not leave behind written records regarding their thoughts about particular political developments or nationalism. Drawing inspirations from these scholars, my book used a mix of archival documents (including police reports, court cases, and petition campaigns in addition to letters) and published primary sources (especially newspapers) in order to look at how both political elites and ordinary citizens engaged in the political discourses of the era. Some of these materials did allow me to focus on the behaviors and attitudes of specific individuals. To name just a few examples, the book discussed a court case in which students and soldiers explained their reasoning for tearing down the republican flag in Konstanz, another case in which a school teacher in northwestern Germany clarified his rationale for informing authorities about a man who had insulted the black-red-gold republican flag, and a petition campaign started by another school teacher to change Austria’s anthem.

In many instances, however, the primary sources that I used only allowed for the analysis of crowds who attended political rallies and celebrations. As I showed in my book, enthusiasm for the democratic republics and the idea of republican großdeutsch nationalism was not simply confined to the leaders of the republican parties in both countries. Ordinary workers and members of the middle classes chose to spend their time, energy, and money participating in rallies at home, elsewhere in their country of residence, and even across the Austro-German border. Although I could not know the precise reasons that motivated people to take part in such events, I did pose a series of questions to help me evaluate political engagement of non-elites: How many people attended an event? Who participated in an event? What aspects of speeches elicited enthusiastic applause, heckling, or a lukewarm response? What did individuals in the crowd choose to chant? What actions were undertaken by spectators? Did they show their support by singing certain songs, waving handkerchiefs or specific flags, or showering guests with flowers? Or did they seek to disrupt the event? By asking these types of questions, I could gleam how ordinary individuals not only responded to the political elites, but also helped to shape political debates. After all, political leaders could not simply dictate how these individuals should act, even in highly structured, paternalistic political parties like the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria.(3a) To appreciate the civic and political engagement of those who did not leave behind personal accounts, I think that we should not simply dismiss the individuals who participated in rallies, celebrations, and petition campaigns as the masses. Rather, scholars should seek to analyze the actions of those in the crowds in order to appreciate the multitude of ways that everyday people sought to take part in politics.

I would also like to take a moment to respond to another criticism raised by Schmalz. He states that the book lacks a discussion of its methodology. As Schmalz has made apparent, I should have included a more detailed explanation about how I evaluated popular involvement in politics, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to elaborate on my approach here. Yet, the book did broadly address the historiography and theoretical approaches that informed my thinking about nationalism and the inter-war experiments with democracy, particularly in the introductory section titled ‘Rethinking German history, German nationalism, and German democracy’. This section has extensive footnotes about the secondary sources from which I draw, as do other discussions of my interventions in the secondary literature contained throughout the book. Perhaps Schmalz would have liked a thorough overview of each of the secondary works in the body of the text as opposed to the footnotes, a perfectly valid preference, but my decision to cut such a detailed discussion when I substantially transformed what was once a dissertation into a book does not mean that the book is missing an explanation of the previous works that inspired me and that I was in conversation with.

I once again want to express my appreciation for Timothy Schmalz for reviewing my book and Reviews in History for providing me the opportunity to respond.

Notes

  1. Pioneering social historians first pointed out that so-called crowds, mobs, and rioters in the early modern period had political and social goals that needed to be taken seriously.  For a few examples, see George Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford, 1967); E.P. Thompson, ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century’, Past & Present 50, 1 (1971), 76-136; Natalie Zemon-Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, CA, 1975).  In the modern context, social historians have shown how police reports can be used to analyze the actions and ideas of ordinary individuals within crowds.  See, for one instance, Belinda Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill, NC, 2000).  For an example of the use court cases to evaluate ordinary people’s reactions to the idea of nationhood, see Tara Zahra, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900-1948 (Ithaca, NY, 2008).Back to (1a)
  2. See works cited in footnote 44 in the introduction to my book.Back to (2a)
  3. Helmut Gruber, Red Vienna: Experiment in Working-Class Culture, 1919-1934 (Oxford, 1991).Back to (3a)