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Response to Review of Our Friend ‘The Enemy’: Elite Education in Britain and Germany Before World War 1

I should like to thank Sonja Levsen for her generous words about many aspects of my book. As the readers of my own review of Levsen’s book on Cambridge and Tübingen students will know (1), while I greatly admire Levsen’s work, Levsen and I have a deep and profound difference of opinion of how historical evidence of the period leading up to the First World War should be weighed. From this difference follows a fundamentally dissimilar interpretation of European society, and more specifically of British and German elite universities, of this era.

I would encourage everyone to read both our books as well as my review of Levsen’s book to make up their own minds about the respective merits of our work. I will thus limit myself to commenting on those aspects of Levsen’s review which are based on what I see as false assumptions about my research.

The general line of argument of my book is not centrally and exclusively based, as Levsen states, on the assumption that the central idea of the Sonderweg interpretation of German history is still highly influential. If that was the case, Levsen would have little with which to disagree in my book as she is also, though to a lesser degree, critical of the Sonderweg. My book is based on the observation that most – but not all – of the recent interpretations of British, German, and European history of the era can roughly be divided into sets of interpretations, the first indeed being a repackaged idea of a German Sonderweg and sometimes of British liberal peculiarities. The second set of interpretations stresses Anglo-German similarities as well as trans-European similarities but sees both the German and British development prior to 1914 as equally flawed. I challenge BOTH sets of interpretations and (while not ignoring the dark underbelly of pre-1914 Europe) present a far more positive view of the ability of pre-1914 European society to deal with the challenges of a changing world as hitherto has been the case.

Nowhere in my book do I deny a growth of student militarism in the decade before the war. Indeed I conclude that ‘both Oxford and Heidelberg fostered militarism and nationalism’ (p. 132) and that ‘war was seen by both Oxford and Heidelberg students as an adventure.’ (p. 134). Contrary to Levsen’s claim, I do describe – indeed in considerable detail – the fact that students tended to have a positive image of war. I also provide figures for the very high participation rate of students in both universities in military and paramilitary associations. Where Levsen and I fundamentally and irreconcilably differ is in our evaluation of the meaning of this militarism.

Levsen’s point about my purported characterization of the kind of nationalism of Heidelberg academics is a moot one, as she misquotes me here. My quote (from p. 95 of my book) refers to the behaviour of political and diplomatic decision makers, not of academics.

I am not, as claimed, ‘critical of gender history’. If that was the case, the two expert readers of Stanford University Press, both whom are gender historians, would have hardly strongly supported publication of my book. If I am critical of interpretations advanced by some gender historians, then this makes me hardly critical of gender history as a subject and as an approach of enquiry. Neither do I claim anywhere, as Levsen purports, that gender relations at Oxford were representative of British academia as a whole. My argument is that they are representative of the British elite.

I agree with Levsen that a separate chapter on Franco-German relations, as opposed to my discussion of Franco-German and Anglo-French relations within the contexts of my other chapters, would have had much to offer. The same would be true for chapters on Russian-German, Russian-British, Anglo-American, and German-American relations as well as of the cases of many other bilateral relationships. I regret to say, however, that both Oxford University and Stanford University Press had set me a word limit for my dissertation and book. I also note with interest that Levsen laments the absence of a chapter on Franco-German enmity, while not missing one on the far more deep-seated Anglo-French variant.

My conclusion that Oxford compared unfavourably even to the most restrictive German university in the admission of women is based on a qualitative, not a quantitative, analysis, namely on the observation that by 1914 even the most conservative German universities had fully admitted women, while the same was not true of Oxford until after the First World War and of Cambridge even not until after the Second World War. Even if this part of my argument had been a quantitative one, I would not share Levsen’s reasoning. Levsen is, of course, correct in stating that 6.7 % is indeed a smaller figure than 10 %. However, both figures mean that in both cases approximately one in ten students was female.

Nowhere do I say that there was an exact German equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge for the education of the German social elite. While stressing the many differences between Heidelberg and Oxford, I did, however, demonstrate that Berlin, Heidelberg, and Leipzig produced the political elite of Germany to the same extent as Oxford and Cambridge did in Britain. Indeed 63 % of British senior government ministers had been trained at Oxford or Cambridge, while the figure for their German equivalents who had been trained at Heidelberg and/or Berlin alone (thus excluding Leipzig) was 56.3 %. Levsen is correct in stating that German students, unlike their British counterparts, tended to attend more than one university. However, the point here is, as I explain in my book, that the German political elite studied at a very limited number of universities even if they attended more than one university. Indeed most of the German senior government ministers who studied at Heidelberg had also studied at Berlin or Leipzig. Almost half of all ministers who had attended Berlin University had also attended Heidelberg. Meanwhile, at most only one out of 20 senior government ministers had studied at each of the other ancient South-West German universities, which make neither them as a whole nor the fraternity students at these universities representative of the German social and political elite.

Contrary to Leven’s claims, I do not state anywhere that corporation students comprised a self-selected minority who were not opinion leaders. In fact, throughout my book I treat corporation students as constituting BOTH a self-selected minority and opinion leaders in student culture. I also stress the heterogeneity of student corporations, pointing out that, for instance, the socially most exclusive student corporations, the Corps – in other words the corporations which were most likely to educate the political and administrative elite of Imperial Germany – did not tend to get involved in student politics and debates. Hence I am rather doubtful of the approach favoured by Levsen to identify the most outlandish, nationalistic, and anti-Semitic quotes from publications by Burschenschaften and the Societies of German Students and to take them as pars pro toto of student opinion among the German elite. Moreover, Oxford and Cambridge had considerably widened their access in the decades prior to the First World War and had become far more academic institutions then they previously had been. It is thus insufficient to see Oxbridge students to have gone through the same kind of self-selection process which corporation students had gone through. This is why I argue in my book that the equivalent of Heidelberg’s student corporations were not Oxford colleges but voluntary associations at Oxford, such as the Oxford Union, college clubs, or the Oxford University Officer Training Corps.

Levsen’s raises the question if comparative history always has to compare degrees of liberalism and emancipation. The obvious answer is that comparative history has not got to do that. However, if the subject is comparative history of political mentalities of early 20th century, it is difficult to see what the point of a comparative history would be that does not compare degrees of liberalism and emancipation.

Levsen’s treatment of my chapter of anti-Semitism ignores the important point that Jewish academics who were neither German nor British could make a career at Heidelberg, while the same would have been much less true about Oxford. It also ignores that I do indeed repeatedly argue that the form, but not the substance, of anti-Semitism at Heidelberg was very different from that at Oxford. It is also not true that I did not take a close look at debates and decision processes about anti-Semitism. I did indeed study them in detail but I also tried to contextualize them. Nor do I question that racism and xenophobia was a majority problem at Oxford and Heidelberg. Levsen and I, however, have rather different interpretations about the character of this racism and xenophobia.

In conclusion I would like to thank Sonja Levsen again for a critical yet respectful review of my book. I would also like again to express the deep respect I have for her work.

June 2009


  1. Thomas Weber, ‘Review of Sonja Levsen’s Elite, Männlichkeit und Krieg: Tübinger und Cambridger Studenten 1900–1929’, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute London, 29, 1 (May 2007), 89–96.Back to (1)