Spring 2011 Editorial Board

Christian Bjørn Bak, Christ’s
Faridah Zaman, Corpus Christi

Managing Editor
Lindsey Mannion, Trinity Hall

Publishing Editor
Matthew Eccles, Trinity Hall

Senior Editor
John Woolf, Downing

Faculty Advisor
Dr. William O'Reilly

Peer Review Board
Natasha Pesaran
Alex Forzani
Joshua Mills
Alice Lilly
Joseph la Hausse
de Lalouvière

The Cambridge Undergraduate History
Journal is a bi-annual publication
featuring scholarly articles written by
Undergraduate students at the
University of Cambridge. It is a
primarily student- run publication with a
blind peer review selection process,
soliciting submissions from a range of
faculties. Authors retain all rights to
scholarship presented in the Journal.



We encourage submissions from all
Cambridge faculties, and students may
submit work up to two years after the
date of graduation. See page 94 for
further details.

Please direct any queries to:

We employ the principle of double blind
review and therefore can only accept
submissions sent via the following
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Statements of fact or opinion presented in this publication are the sole responsibility of
the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board.

Letter from the Editors

Dr. Colin Shindler on Film & the Historian

ANYA BURGON The Rhetorical Function of Architecture
in Gilbert Limerick’s imago ecclesiae

NATASHA PESARAN Utopia and the New World: Early
Modern Fact or Fiction

JOHN MUELLER The 1848 Revolutions and the German

ANTONIO WEISS The civil rights movement and the
African American in Hollywood

JOEL WINTON Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing
Executioners: The unexpected toast of the German public

Submission Guidelines
2 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
Letter from the Editors

Corpus Christi & Christ’s

Dear readers,

Welcome to the third issue of CUHJ. Our bi-annual journal has reached its first birthday, and
continues to present you with stellar examples of the interesting and thoughtful work of Cambridge
undergraduates. As you read on, you will find that this issue has a strong visual theme throughout. We
have a fascinating piece on race and Hollywood by Antonio Weiss that dissects the representation of
black people in motion pictures, from the era of Sidney Poitier to near-contemporary works involving the
likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry. It is accompanied, appropriately enough, by a special feature
by Dr Colin Shindler (Cambridge) – the BAFTA-winning historian tells us in personal terms how films
stir his own appreciation for history and why they are an incredibly valuable resource for the twentieth

The theme of ‘history through media’ is continued in the article by Joel Winton on Daniel J.
Goldhagen’s controversial study, Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996). In this article Winton employs a
plethora of press responses to evaluate how and why the German public sphere responded to this book,
which dealt with the hugely emotive subject of the Holocaust, in wildly differing ways. He comes to see it
as a critical indicator of the mentality of the age in which it was published.

Our three other articles are located beyond the twentieth century. Anya Burgon’s article is a study
of an early twelfth-century illumination of a church, which she reads in relation to a text by the Irish
reformer Gilbert of Limerick. She discusses eruditely how both sources act as models designed to edify
through the visual metaphor of the church edifice. Natasha Pesaran deals also with the realms of
imagination in her piece on early modern utopian thought as it related to the New World. She examines
the boundaries between fact and fiction, knowledge and ideals, and understandings of oneself and the
other. John Mueller finally writes of the construction of the German nation as a concept, with specific
attention given to the 1848 Revolutions. Using pamphlets and a number of interesting visual sources
dating from as early as the sixteenth century, he argues in favour of seeing the events of the mid-
nineteenth century in much deeper historical long-view.

We hope you will enjoy reading this edition, and we look forward to showcasing more work in
the not too distant future. Thank you to all authors whose work is featured here, and the many others
who submitted theirs for consideration. Additionally, we would like to thank the entire editorial board for
your tireless work and the fellows of St. John’s College for their generous financial support. Details for
submission are, as ever, available on our website.

Christian and Faridah
June 2011

Dr Colin Shindler on
Film & the Historian

Dr Colin Shindler

Why is film so useful to the historian? My answer is that film, particularly fiction film, tells you things that
conventional historical documents do not. Film is not a substitute for conventional historical documents
but it is an extremely valuable addition. I have been running my course Hollywood & Race in the History
Faculty at Cambridge for over ten years, in which I plot the changing nature of the African American
stereotype as perceived by Hollywood films from Birth of a Nation (1915) to the time of Denzel
Washington and Halle Berry.

I have always championed the use of the fiction film as opposed to the use of newsreels possibly because
its benefits to the historian, though more difficult at first to perceive, feel to me to be ultimately more
rewarding. It might seem that the use of newsreels for the historian is self-evident. We have many of the
key events of the twentieth century preserved on film from the jerky awkward actions of early motion
pictures to the latest in high definition and satellite television news. We assume, certainly in the early
newsreels, that what we see is what we get but a documentary feature length film like The Battle of the
Somme (1917) which purported to show the genuine events of the battle turns out to have been partly
"recreated" on Salisbury plain with British soldiers playing the evil Hun as well as themselves. There is one
famous shot of a British soldier poised to go over the top of the trench and into No Mans Land when he
is shot and killed, his body sliding helplessly back into the mud of the trench. It is extremely moving until
you discover that the soldier was acting - rather well as it so happens.

The American newsreel The March of Time, so brilliantly parodied by Orson Welles at the start of
Citizen Kane, was famous for its recreations. Those poor nuns incarcerated by the evil Nazis in jail in the
notorious Inside Nazi Germany segment (1938) were actually two cleaners in The March of Time offices in
New York who were each paid $10 to wear a rented nun's costume. The "jail" was actually a square of
cardboard held over the camera lens with vertical holes to give the appearance of jail bars. Give me the
honesty of the fiction film every time!

I first saw Frank Capra's 1936 masterpiece Mr Deeds Goes To Town in the Arts Cinema of blessed
memory one June day shortly after Tripos had finished in June 1969. It was the time of student protests
against the Vietnam War and the time of the year when Cambridge students are at their most
"relaxed". The story involves Gary Cooper playing Longfellow Deeds, a kind, decent, unambitious man
who unexpectedly inherits twenty million dollars from an uncle he barely knew in life. He moves from
sleepy Mandrake Falls, a small town in Vermont, to his uncle's mansion in New York City. He is now
part of the celebrity lifestyle of 1936 and as such perfect fodder for the tabloids. He is set up by the
cynical but beautiful reporter played by Jean Arthur with whom the honest man falls in love believing her
to be starving and homeless. What appear to be his antics are reported in humiliating detail for the
delectation of Arthur's tabloid readers. One evening she asks him where he'd like to go next and he tells
her he wants to pay his respects at Grant's Tomb so they travel to the unexceptional mausoleum where
she tells him there's nothing of significance to look at. "That depends on what you see" he replies. "And
what do you see?" she wonders aloud. Cooper goes off into a short but deeply felt speech about the Civil
War General, later President, Grant, extolling his rise from poor Ohio ploughboy to his place as the
successor to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. "I see men marching in the rain, I see General Lee with a
broken heart surrendering, I see that poor Ohio ploughboy becoming president like Abraham Lincoln
said." So far the speech is unexceptional but his final words are "Things like that can only happen in a
country like America".

Well, we had just been told about the My Lai massacre. The following year four students were
4 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
shot dead at Kent State University for protesting at Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia. If you were a
20-year-old student in Cambridge in June 1969 you didn't want to hear this paean of praise to the glories
of American democracy. "LBJ, LBJ, How many kids have you killed today?" we chanted. When Cooper
finished his speech the Arts Cinema erupted into catcalls. I should have joined in but I didn't. I was cross
with the cat callers. Instinctively I realised that though the speech sounded trite and corny in 1969 it
would have sounded very different to American ears in 1936. Frank Capra had emigrated with his family
from Sicily in 1903 when he was six years old. He had sold newspapers on the streets of Los Angeles
when he was aged seven otherwise his family would not have eaten. He had risen to become one of the
top directors in Hollywood and he wanted to make it clear that he still believed in the American Dream
even at the height of the Depression. Mr Deeds Goes To Town tells us things about America in 1936 that we
can't get simply from a study of New Deal legislation.

That's one example but there are so many Hollywood movies that are revealing for historians. I
speak of Hollywood because that is what I know best but the principle applies equally well to say Ealing
Cinema and the problems of post-war austerity in Britain and to the up and down career of Sergei
Eisenstein. The Russian director of Battleship Potemkin was up or down depending on whether his films
were endorsed by Stalin – apparently Stalin loved Ivan the Terrible Part One but hated Ivan the Terrible Part
Two and that finished Eisenstein at a relatively young age.

Period films in particular tell you far more about the period in which they are made than the
period in which they are set, just as a nineteenth-century Whig historian will write a very different history
of the English Civil War from a twentieth-century Marxist historian. The problems of historiography are
well documented and the benefits have long been accepted but really there is very little difference between
those lessons and the lessons that can be learned from shall we say different attitudes to Tudor
monarchs. In 1937 Flora Robson played Elizabeth I in Fire Over England, a British film made by Alexander
Korda at his Denham studios. She spoke the "I have the heart and stomach of a king" speech at Tilbury
whilst attempting to rein in a rather frisky horse – a fine piece of acting all round.

Three years later she was in Hollywood reprising the role for Warner Brothers in an Errol Flynn
swashbuckler called The Sea Hawk. This time in the Tilbury speech there is no reference to problems of
gender. Magically Elizabeth of England has morphed into President Franklin D Roosevelt as she carefully

And now, my loyal subjects, a grave duty confronts us all: To prepare our nation for a war that
none of us wants, least of all your queen. We have tried by all means in our power to avert this war. We
have no quarrel with the people of Spain or of any other country; but when the ruthless ambition of a
man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the
earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on
which we exist. Firm in this faith, we shall now make ready to meet the great armada that Philip sends
against us. To this end, I pledge you ships – ships worthy of our seamen – a mighty fleet, hewn out of the
forests of England; a navy foremost in the world - not only in our time, but for generations to come.

It's a fine speech stirringly delivered but because it was made in 1940 the film showcases the
arguments of the isolationists and their interventionist ideological opponents. Roosevelt was running for
re-election for an unprecedented third time in November 1940. For all his sympathy for Britain and the
occupied countries of Europe he could not afford to be accused of being a warmonger when he was on
the campaign trail. As that final speech makes clear, Elizabeth spends most of the film trying to avoid a
confrontation with Spain. Only when Errol Flynn captures the plans of the Armada, unmasks the traitor
at the heart of the English court and presents her with overwhelming evidence of Spanish aggression and
duplicity does she change her mind and offer her support to the war party. Warner Brothers were fiercely
anti-Nazi and their adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s 1915 novel was their plea for America to recognise the
threat emanating from the Third Reich in 1940.

If you want to know what America was really thinking during those fateful months between
Hitler's invasion of Poland and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor watch The Sea Hawk – and The Great
Dictator and Sergeant York and A Yank in the RAF and Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent. Yes, they are
"only" movies but it is a wise historian who opens his eyes and his mind to the possibilities offered by the
study of the fiction film, even if it stars Buzz Lightyear, Woody, and Mr Potato Head.

Copyright Colin Shindler 2011

6 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
The Rhetorical Function of Architecture in
Gilbert of Limerick’s imago ecclesiae

Anya Burgon
Trinity Hall

This article examines the rhetorical function of architecture in the 'image of the church', an illumination accompanying a text
by the Irish reformer, Gilbert of Limerick and dated circa 1190 from Durham. Focusing on the use of the architectural
analogy, this article attempts to place this relatively unaccounted for northern English product within its twelfth-century
pedagogical context, linking it specifically to the Victorine School in Paris. The edifice in the image is recognized as a visual
mediator, acting as a model for spiritual or mental building. By showing how its appearance on the page is designed for its
assimilation by the mind, the article aims to reveal the direct relationship made between edifice and edification.


The fully coloured imago ecclesiae or Image of the Church now found in Cambridge University Library’s
MS.Ff.I.27 (figure 1) is a picture not easily accommodated by the modern mind. It is only via a reading of
its accompanying text, de statu ecclesie, by the Irish reformer Gilbert of Limerick that the illumination is
even revealed as showing the hierarchy of the church, along largely recognizable European lines.
Structured and contained by an architectural elevation of what looks like gothic arcading, the image offers
an intriguing interpretation of Gilbert’s architectonically useful employment of the word ‘pyramid’ to
articulate his system of working up from the smallest to largest units of church organization, from parish
to Pope. Indeed it is this interpretation that makes use of the architectural metaphor that the present
study endeavors to explain.

The illumination has proved difficult to date, but is most likely from twelfth-century Durham,
and copied from a simpler version of Gilbert’s diagram still in the Cathedral’s library (figure 2) by a scribe
with comparatively greater pictorial concern.
The exact motivation for a reproduction of the diagram,
and particularly along such elaborate lines, remains unclear. Indeed, before it was separated from its sister
manuscript now in the form of Corpus Christi Library’s MS66, it was accompanied by several other rather
sophisticated diagrams.
While these will be shown to offer parallels, they do not exploit the specific visual
analogy between scripture and building found in the imago ecclesiae. Here, it will be argued that this places

For further information as to the origin of MS.Ff.I.27 see C. M. Kauffman, Romanesque Manuscripts 1066-1190,
Survey of Manuscripts illuminated in the British Isles, volume III (London; Boston, 1975), no.102; B. Meehan,
‘Durham Twelfth Century Manuscripts in Cistercian Houses’, in D. Rollason, M. Harvey and M. Prestwich (eds),
Anglo-Norman England 1093-1193 (Woodbridge, 1994), pp. 439-449; C. Norton, ‘History, Wisdom and Illumination’,
in D. Rollason (ed.), Symeon of Durham: Historian of Durham and the North, (Stamford, 1998), pp. 61-105; N. R. Ker,
Medieval Libraries of Great Britain: A List of Surviving Books (London, 1964), suppl. 5, pp. 16, 177, 335; D.M.
Dumville, ‘The Corpus Christi Nennius’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 25 (1974) pp. 369-80; P. Jones, ‘The
Medieval Encyclopedia: Science and Practice’, in P. Binski and S. Panayotova (eds), The Cambridge Illuminations:
Ten Centuries of Book Production in the Medieval West (London, 2005), no. 146.
For the literature on MS 66 see references in Jones, ‘The Medieval Encyclopedia’, p. 307.
the image in the light of a distinctly twelfth-century school of thought that stretched far beyond the
confines of the Durham scriptorium: tying aesthetic concerns with an ecclesiastical end of reform and
renewal, its agenda is particularly akin to the work of the Victorine School in Paris.

Hence the illumination has a bureaucratic function, and will be explored in this article as a
rhetorical site rather than representational in the normal artistic sense. Indeed, one would not be wrong
to find it a puzzle: the image was designed mnemonically and forces an act of reading to in order to be
understood. This understanding, one must build or erect in the mind: the edifice depicted serves to edify,
encouraging our own spiritual (Augustine’s word for ‘mental’ or ‘cognitive’) building, or aedificium.

The argument will be organized around a rebuilding of this mental process, via an exploration of
the ways in which the architectural analogy plays an amplificatory role as a visual mediator, by translating
its appearance on the page to its assimilation by the mind. Indeed first, its very basic, formal function will
be addressed, and how this was intended to work upon the mind as an ordering device, aiding
understanding and memory. Following this, I will consider how the architectural metaphor acts
associatively as a cue for mental (or ‘spiritual’) invention, setting the mind in play and the reader as
exegete. These processes will then be shown to give way to a creation out of the image personal (and as
we shall see, communal) moral value. Via this consideration of the material and spiritual edifice, the image
of the church might be seen to take on rhetorical character like that of Hugh of Saint Victor’s Ark, a
model for spiritual building designed as that ‘which your eye may see outwardly so that your soul may be
built inwardly in its likeness’.

I. Construction: form and content
First then, the use of architecture as a rhetorical device in the imago ecclesiae can be explained by its
role as a formal representation of, and aid to, the construction of memory. The image acts as an apparatus
that in both its known transmissions precedes Gilbert’s statute in the sense that it is held in the mind as
one reads the text, as well as leaving its imprint long afterward. It is key to remember that one could not
depend on continuous access to such material; as Aristotle had famously stated, memorizing was to be
regarded as an ethical imperative.
The edifice, by storing, condensing, and dividing the wider concept
into its basic elements or component parts, and aligning these within an ordered context, can be revealed

Augustine, Confessions, trans. H. Chadwick (Oxford, 1998), p. 89.
The phrase ‘material and spiritual edifice’ is taken from the rubric heading ‘De templo materiali et spirituali’ to one of
the manuscripts of Grosseteste’s Templum Domini, described in R.D. Cornelius 1930: The Figurative castle: a study in
the medieval allegory of the edifice with special reference to religious writings (Pennsylvania, 1930), p. 4; For the Ark
see Hugh of Saint Victor, De Archa Noe Morali, I, pp. iii, 236-238, cited in M. Carruthers and J. M. Ziolkowski (eds)
2002: The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
See Aristotle, On Memory and Reminiscence, trans. J.I. Beare and G.R.T. Ross (Digireads.com, 2006).
8 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
as bestowing increased clarity and therefore persuasive force on its contents. For, ‘orderly arrangement
illuminates the intelligence and secures memory’.

Before this arrangement can be scrutinized, it seems necessary to show the need for spatializing a
concept such as Gilbert’s, and how this aids its mental accommodation. The use of the word
‘accommodate’ is perhaps particularly helpful: memories occupy the ‘space’ of the mind in the same way
that words occupy the space on a page. Mary Carruthers has explored the metaphorical translations of this
conception since antiquity: the honeycomb, money pouch, cella, and the Ark are just a few.
What they
have in common is their implication of storage.

Hence it will come as no surprise that the building metaphor can be added to the list, made
popular since its advocation in Cicero’s discussions of memory training. In his De Oratore, the character
Antonius recounts a story in which Simonides, having left a banquet just before the roof fell in, could
reconstruct the guest list by remembering the seat order.
In the Ad Herennium, this idea is extended to
the architectural locus, which could come in the form of a house, a recess, an arch or an ‘intercolumnar
While here, however, the reader is advised to base these on recognizable buildings, the imago
ecclesiae represents a medieval preference for immediately perceptible backgrounds or external ‘memory
pictures’. Thus Gilbert’s diagram, which probably alludes to arcading, can be described as entailing a
likeness for purposes of recollection, rather than imitating real architecture.

The imago ecclesiae’s value as a diagram lies not in its accuracy to life, but in the ease with which
one could commit to it an orderly array of images and ideas, so that they are clearly visible and easily
recalled. It is interesting to compare its value as a diagram with that in Durham’s MS.B.II.35, which
lacking pictorial attention and even clear architectural form is more effective formally. But while the
Durham version articulates the concept more clearly, it lacks the sort of rich associations that as we will
see are attachable to the more decorative Cambridge image.
The arcade-derived motif in Gilbert’s
diagram therefore acts as a spatial mediator, housing the concept externally so that it can be transferred to
the rooms of the mind.

This housing of the concept, or at least its basic organization, is committed to the spaces of the
image as follows: beginning from the bottom left and under the blue arches, are the seven offices of the

Hugh of Saint Victor, The Three Best Memory Aids for Learning History, trans. Carruthers, The Medieval Craft of
Memory, p. 33.
M. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, 2
edn (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 18-56.
For the story of Simonides see Cicero, De Oratore, II, pp. 86-87.
Unknown author, Rhetorica ad Herennium, III, pp. 15-24; See F.A. Yates, The Art of Memory (London, 1966), p. 22.
The diagrammatic versus artistic concern in each is pointed out by Norton, ‘History, Wisdom, and Illumination’, p.
parish from the priest down, set level to the monastery or nunnery, headed by an abbot or abbess and also
divided into seven ranks. These are then divided into three more categories: those who pray (oratores),
those who plough (aratores) and those who fight (bellatores) which make up the laity, male and female,
marked by the initials V. and F. One will notice that the monastery only houses the first of these. The
next unit, which governs both the parish and the monastery, is the diocese, represented by the red arch,
headed by the bishop, who in turn is supervised by the archdiocese and its archbishop. Above the
archdiocese presides the primate, and the Church is finally headed by the Pope, ‘Papa’, whose type is
Noah and over whom presides Christ. Each of these ecclesiastical ranks finds its correspondence in the
secular hierarchy, so that the priest is aligned with the soldier, the bishop with the knight, the archbishop
with the duke, the primate with the king, and the Pope with the Emperor.

The image is thus one of summary, for as Gilbert writes, it, ‘contains the first letters of the names
for the names themselves because it does not have the space for writing the names in full’.
While it
might seem far-fetched to give such a practical comment conceptual significance, it is this very practicality
that places the method within a wider intellectual trend, for the memory was known to delight in brevity,
and to retain material by working visually from single units.
By memorizing the image, and therefore
also these letters, one should be able to track down the words, and therefore the things, that they stand
The writing of these initials serves to emphasise the necessity of reading the image; the image of the
cherub in MS 66 (figure 3) uses a similar technique of inscription. Gilbert goes on to say that, ‘not only is
the overall outline of the church arched, but each entity within it is also enclosed’.
Architectural members
used as frames or borders serve to catalogue the memory, geometry being the ‘fount of perceptions and
the origin of utterances’.
This basic idea is found in canon tables (figure 4), where columns and arches
act as enclosures but also suggest concordances between the narratives of the four Evangelists. This is a
fine example of formal amplification, as lists intended to correspond laterally are understood as easier to
read if they are deployed in a framework that makes the parallels explicit. Our Durham designer builds on
this Eusebian idea, used most simply at the level of the parish and monastery, where the columns
articulate a ‘visual grammar’.

J. Fleming, Gille of Limerick (c.1070-1145): Architect of a Medieval Church (Dublin, 2001), p. 147.

See Hugh of Saint Victor, The Three Best Memory Aids for Learning History, trans. Carruthers, The Medieval Craft
of Memory, p.37.
For letters as signs of words see John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, I, pp. 13, 24-26, trans. in McGarry, The
Metalogicon: a twelfth-century defense of the verbal and logical arts of the trivium, (Berkeley, 1955).
Fleming, Gille of Limerick, p. 147. Emphasis added.
Hugh of Saint Victor, Didascalicon II, p. 15, cited in M. Evans, ‘The Geometry of the Mind’, Architectural
Association Quarterly, 12, 4 (London, 1980), p. 34.
Evans, ‘Geometry of the Mind’, p. 39.
10 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
Paul Binski has noted that this desire for visual coherence in fact manifests a fine example of
what Erwin Panofsky called the ‘principle of progressive divisibility’.
While this addresses a slightly later
scholastic mindset, Gilbert’s image can perhaps be seen as an early example of this trend in which the
orderliness of logic and thought became palpably explicit in both the work of the scholastics and church
architecture. The image would seem, in the light of what has been discussed above, to engage with this
wish to systematize information via the uniform division and subdivision of its structure, so that the
‘whole is thus composed of smallest units’.
Therefore, the use of the edifice in the diagram exercises a
special formal pull, in an age obsessed with the categorization of religious information.

By virtue of its spatial association, the arcade-like motif forms an effective setting for the text-
summary, and facilitates its transfer to the spaces of the memory. As both a storage place and an ordering
device, the architectural form allows its reader to comprehend better Gilbert’s hierarchy; in its image, the
reader is encouraged to cultivate a filed memory. The edifice, though, is not as prescriptive as these formal
characteristics might suggest: we may have constructed its concept but we have not yet responded to its
invitation. For the image also acts as a cue, for the invention of associations living in the inventory of the
monastic mind.

II. Invention: integration and overlapping
In addition to its formal powers, the edifice is rhetorical in its function as a cue for mental
expansion and interpretation. It acts an invitation to the reader to make his own associations and to attach
to the edifice not only the contents of the text, but also the inventions of the mind. Here, we will see how
it not only reproduces but also elevates the word, by pointing to universal equivalences that set the ‘mind
in play’, with the aim of persuading a community as opposed to encouraging individual meditation.
Indeed, it is in this way that the text is to be transformed and placed within an existing memorial network,
for we must be able to attach it to something else in our inventory for it to find its appropriate place
Thus one can explore how the edifice collapses imagery familiar to the monastic mind, for mental
overlapping and integration, itself a process of spiritual or mental building. The image in this chapter will
be considered as a simultaneous reference point, for in finding it we will see many more things disclosed
to us.

This brings us back to a comparison with the diagram in MS.B.II.35. Unlike its archetype, the
Cambridge image acquires a gloss via its intricate architectural form that gives it exegetical value, placing it

P. Binski, Becket’s Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England 1170-1300 (New Haven; London, 2004), p. 60.
E. Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (New York, 1957), p. 37.
Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 39.
This comes from Hugh of Saint Victor’s De Archa Noe, IV, pp. ix, 132-140: “..When you find one thing, you will
see many more disclosed to you.”
within the context of scripture. Interestingly, before it was an interpretative method allegory was classified
as stylistic ornament.
For medieval exegetes Augustine, Bede, and Gregory the Great, scriptures’ figures
and tropes generated new compositions in the mind via meditation, so that every verse of scripture
became a spiritual foundation or gathering place for the assembly of other stories. This method in the
west had its chief formulator in Gregory who wrote that ‘first we put in place the foundations of literal
meaning; then through typological interpretation we build up the fabric of our mind in the walled city of
the faith; and at the end, through the grace of our moral understanding, as though with added colour, we
clothe the building’.

This of course prepared the method of scriptural interpretation for transferral to the visual, often
in the form of a compressed picture.
Albertus Magnus advises that for memory one should use, ‘many
similitudes, and unite in figures, that which we wish to retain and remember.’
Exploited at length at the
Victorine School, this visual method enabled the student to learn more quickly the three or four levels
being presented in the lesson. The architectonic scheme was popular, allowing the scholar to extract
biblical structures and reposition them as the centrepiece of a more systematic moral exposition.
used were contemporary architectures, such as the one in MS.Ff.I.27. While this references the existing
institution, it is validated or ‘clothed’ in typological allusions to the visionary. In keeping with the
techniques of the period, the imago ecclesiae is thus set in relation to the sacred structures of the Old
Testament: Noah’s Ark and the Temple of Jerusalem, both types for the contemporary ecclesia.

A deliberate textual reference to the former can be found in Gilbert’s text, where he writes that,
‘Noah sits with him [the Pope] at the top of the arch. For just as Noah was in charge of the Ark in the
midst of the waves of the flood, so also the Roman pontiff rules the church in the waves of the ages’.
border inscription around the imago ecclesiae also envisages the Ark of Noah as a three-chambered emblem
for the World, divided into celestial, earthly, and infernal domains. Christopher Norton has argued that by
advertising the twelfth-century church (which he sees very specifically as an image of the church of
Durham) as a refuge from the flood and an image of Jerusalem, one could persuade rulers and princes that
the only sure salvation was to be found in following the path of wisdom as embodied in the institution.

It is possible that this was contrasted with the image of the labyrinth in the medieval mind. For in
contemporary literature, the clear course provided by the church is often contrasted with the distracting

Carruthers and Ziolkowski, The Medieval Craft of Memory, p. 130.
Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, prologue 3 (CCSL 143, 4.110-114).
See A. C. Esmeijer, Divina Quarternitas: A Preliminary Study in the Method and Application of Visual Exegesis
(Gorcum, 1978), p. 2.
Albertus Magnus, De memoria et reminiscentia, Opera omnia, IX cited in Yates, The Art of Memory, p. 20.
C. Whitehead, Castles of the mind: A study of medieval architectural allegory (Cardiff, 2003), p. 19.
Fleming, Gille of Limerick, p. 151.
For his argument for the ‘imago ecclesie Dunelmensis’ see Norton, ‘History, Wisdom and Illumination’, p. 98.
12 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
temptations of the world outside, conceived of as a maze in which the way is obscured both morally and

Gilbert further writes that, “Christ goes before both of these since He is the legislator of both
the Testaments and ‘He made both one’”.
This phrase is very useful, for in making ‘both one’ textually
and, in this transmission, visually, Gilbert was able to validate and authorize his contemporary product,
exposing a logical universal order that united the story of Genesis with twelfth-century reform.

Today we may not ‘see’ such correspondences in the image itself (apart perhaps from the
obvious reference to ‘Noe’). But in the medieval mind, these associations were easily inventible, and
visual overlapping would have been just as vivid as those spelled out in the text. Indeed, literature and
pictures, like memories and thoughts, are not unyielding but change their meaning, as they become tools
for different ends. The relatively unfamiliar nature of Gilbert’s diagram to us today suggests that it
represents a contemporary shared educational strategy, which by means of a specific set of images could
guarantee shared resonance and therefore communication. Carruthers uses the term ‘textualism’ to
describe this interpretive process by which a work is socialized, acquiring layers of meaning as it is woven
through the historical and institutional fabric of a society.
The imago ecclesiae can then be read as one
engaging in a process of mutual valuation; it is not meditatively but politically useful for Old and New
Testament architectures to echo one another.

In this chapter, the image has been read as a statement of inclusion, and as part of an effort to
give an intelligible shape to the whole accumulated tradition of Christian learning.
For by cueing
associations in the ways that we have seen, the architecture functions rhetorically: in pointing to a
universal order, it serves to elevate the word and give it greater persuasive force. As we will now go on to
see, the visual diagram turned to this contemplation of universal themes empowers its recipient to take
part in God.
Indeed, by the invention of associations, itself a process of spiritual building, the reader is
allowed to make the diagram his own. The final section will explore this ultimate function of the imago
ecclesiae, as a vehicle for moralization.

III. Moralization: mobility and improvement
Having read the edifice as a storage place and as a cue, this chapter will address what would seem
to be its final objective: that which structures, regulates, and protects relationships for the spiritual

P. R. Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages (Ithaca; London, 1990), pp.
Fleming, Gille of Limerick, p. 151.
Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 13.
G. Henderson, Gothic (Harmondsworth, 1967), p. 49.
Whitehead, Castles of the Mind, p. 46.
mobility and improvement of the soul. It is via these functions that the use of church architecture can be
revealed as occurring within the context of a larger narrative concerned with every last detail of liturgical
practice. For our imago ecclesiae can be compared with other texts in which the same idea is translated into
socially encyclopedic terms that reveal ecclesiastical thinking upon the divisions and interdependencies of
Christian society.
It is by moralizing these directions of the edifice that the spiritual ‘way to God and
God’s way to humans’ is revealed.
It is this that allows the reader to take part in the programme, for it
must work mentally for the societal ideal that it structures, to be accomplished.

Thus the route is a visual phenomenon before it can be internalized, referred to as the ductus by
Consultus Fortunatianus who defined it as a rhetorical concept.
Carruthers describes it as ‘the conduct
of a thinking mind on its way through a composition’.
While the labyrinth discussed earlier leads to
confusion, the clear route provided both visually and spiritually by the church will lead the reader via
‘stations’, and to various goals.
Hence the diagram’s formal characteristics dealt with in the first chapter
can be shown here to take on metaphorical or moral value, and are essential to the conception of the ductus
or the ‘way’ of understanding, for every composition must be experienced as a journey, mobilizing the eye
and then the mind.

It might be helpful at this point to find analogous examples of diagrams in which directions and
elevations have been moralized. Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana, compares meditation as ascending
the steps of a mental ladder, from fear of God, to wisdom (or knowledge of him).
The Heavenly Ladder
image, or scala virtutis, describes this pictorially; the steps of the ladder are ‘stations’ which mark the route,
each embodying a new level of knowledge of God, from fear to wisdom.

Made popular in the thirteenth century, the heavenly ladder was also incorporated into the
diagram of the Tower of Wisdom (figure 5,6), an elaborate moralised edifice, in which the reader moves from
‘humble’ foundations to the application of virtues in the public sphere. Such images can be seen to draw
on a sort of ‘moral geography’, which decided the medieval mapping of the world, obvious in MS 66’s
Mappa Mundi (figure 7), the earliest in a small family of English illustrated maps. In these, Paradise (the
Far East) is typically placed at the top in order to demonstrate its closeness to heaven; journeys or
pilgrimages could also be traced on these, directly relating the rhetorical ductus to spiritual building. Motifs

Ibid., pp. 53-55.
Hugh of Saint Victor, De laude caritatis, cited in P. Rorem 2009: Great Medieval Thinkers: Hugh of Saint Victor,
(Oxford, 2009), p.122.
Fortunatianus was a contemporary of Augustine, and his work reflects the pedagogy of rhetoric that Augustine
himself knew. This is taken from Carruthers, The Craft of Thought, p. 77.

Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, trans. R. P. H. Green (Oxford, 1995), Book II, Chapter VII.
14 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
like these reinforced the message of moral progress, for a love of God, ‘awakens within each level of the
awareness of the soul, a restless longing to search for and find the Beloved himself’.

Gilbert’s diagram adopts the pyramidal or triangular shape of the Ark to show the difficulty of
such an ascent, an association easily made by the monastic mind. For in Genesis, God advises Noah to,
‘make a roof for the Ark, giving it a fall of one cubit when complete,’ in comparison to its length of ‘three
hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits’.
Early Christian writers took this to
show how individuals could rise up from the wide base of the many, through steps and decks, to the
narrow peak that is Christ. Hugh of Saint Victor’s Ark is demonstrative of this idea, for while it is, ‘wide at
the bottom… above it narrows to the measurement of one cubit’.
Similarly, Gilbert writes that his imago
ecclesiae moves from a wide base to the ‘narrow way of the religious and the ordained’.

Thus the image in MS.Ff.I.27 is more socially or organizationally minded than the Tower of
Wisdom. It not only offers the ladder as a vehicle for improvement, but also strictly situates the reader on
his respective step. It engages with the commonplace idea that Christians themselves constitute the
temple of God, as ‘living stones’.
Using this conception, writers would assemble the taxonomy of
Christian society on the figurative edifice: Origen in his Homiliae in Genesim sorts the population into a
series of neat architectural levels that reflect and validate the order of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Gilbert’s organization is much in this vein. As we know, however, he modernizes the ecclesiastical vision
by including members of the secular world, whose roles are perhaps intended to be something like those
described in Honorius of Autun’s de Gemma animae, where,

The columns that support the house are the bishops, who maintain the machinery of church life
at a level of high rectitude. The beams that hold the hours together are the princes of the world who
defend the church in an unbroken state. The roof tiles, that repel rain from the house, are soldiers, who
protect the church from soldiers and enemies… The floor, that is trodden underfoot, represents the
common people, by whose labour the church is sustained.

This concern with the operations of the secular world is suggestive of a more practical goal of
regulation. The architecture holds princes and soldiers firmly within the body of the ecclesia to create a

Robert Grossesteste ecclesia sancta celebrat, pp. 36-37, cited in J. McEvoy, Roberte Grosseteste, exegete and
philosopher (Aldershot, 1994), p. 34.
Genesis 6,7.
Hugh of Saint Victor, A Little Book About Constructing Noah’s Ark, II, p. 6, trans. Jessica Weiss, Carruthers and
Ziolkowski, The Medieval Craft of Memory, p. 48.
I Peter 2: 4-6: ‘Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual
sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.’
Whitehead, Castles of the Mind, p. 41.
Honorius of Autun, de Gemma animae, 1, pp. 131, 134, trans. Whitehead, Castles of the Mind, p. 41.
united Christian defence, and this sort of control could be internalized. Since Plato, the soul and its
functions had been compared to the operations of the state: a soul that could balance appetite and will via
rationalism was used as an analogy for the fully functional and powerful city.
The conception of the soul
as dwelling led to further allegories of the soul that must be protected, carried out by its wardens,
somewhat like those in Gilbert’s organization. This had its scriptural foundations in Proverbs 4:23:
‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.’ If each brother could build in himself such
an equipped soul or spiritual edifice, the brotherhood, or church, would be sufficiently well fortified. The
mind, like the state, ‘God has honoured with tranquillity wishing it to be completely
undisturbed…adding…a desire for sovereignty over the passions’.

This leads us to the importance of mediation and by what means one could even hope for
movement or improvement when faced with such an inflexible edifice. The principal source for the type
of hierarchy Gilbert describes is found in the work of Pseudo Dionysius who explains the ecclesiastical
hierarchy as a mere image of the celestial world.
The vertical arrangement is made according to the
members’ level of participation in God, so that the order signifies the graduated manifestation of his
goodness to the universe. Within each grade, the activity of purifying, illuminating and perfecting is the
task, respectively of the lowest, middle and highest order. The hierarchic activity is thus a process of
For example, Gilbert writes that the priest must both, ‘serve [the bishop] wholeheartedly’ and
also, ‘teach’, ‘bless’, ‘anoint’ and carry out many other actions that will serve to perfect those below him,
or ‘further’ from God.
As Giles of Rome wrote in the fourteenth century, ‘all rightful human relations
of command- whether over other human beings…or over things…depended on their subordination to
the command of the Pope’.
Giles understood hierarchy as a plurality reduced to God’s unity by the
mediated subjection of the lowest to the highest.

The use of the architectural analogy would therefore seem to engage with many contemporary
conceptions of the church edifice as spiritually reproducible and therefore moralizing. If one could build
and fortify one’s soul so that it carried out its functions in the same way as the ideal state pictured here,
one would be able to mediate effectively, therefore fulfilling one’s liturgical duty, and maintaining the
structure of the whole. For adherence to the rules will allow you to dwell within God’s house, and him to
dwell within your spiritual house. Thus it is this sort of inward mobility that the edifice finally encourages;
a movement described by Philo:

See Plato, The Republic, Book IV.
Bohn’s ecclesiastical library, Works of Philo Judaeus, III, p. 483, cited in Cornelius, The Figurative Castle, p. 15.
See Pseudo Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy.
D. E. Luscombe and J. Marenbon, ‘Two Medieval Ideas: Eternity and Hierarchy’, in A.S. McGrade (ed.), The
Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 60-62.
Fleming, Gille of Limerick, p. 157.
Giles of Rome, On Ecclesiastical Power, in Luscombe and Marenbon, ‘Two Medieval Ideas’, p. 288.
16 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal

The mind, when walking among and living in the company of these things, as between well
fortified boundaries firmly standing and solidly established, triumphs and rejoices, meeting with no
hindrance on any side to prevent it from exerting its own impulses, but having its road in every direction
easy, and level, and open, and easy to be travelled.

* * *

Gilbert’s imago ecclesiae was employed to edify, and operates rhetorically as a location, cue, and
vehicle. The formal function of its architecture as explored in the first chapter allows for the information
it holds to be assimilated and stored in the orderly fashion it itself takes. The second explored the appeal
of the architectural form associatively, and how it encourages a reading of the edifice as a reference point
for other architectures invented by the monastic mind, authorizing and validating the product it tried to
‘sell’. Finally and most importantly, the edifice maps a spiritual route for its reader, thereby acting as a
vehicle for internal mobility and salvation. In each instance, the material edifice as seen in the image can
be seen to speak to its reader persuasively, encouraging believers to cultivate their own interior, spiritual

Further reading

Binski, Paul, Becket’s Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England 1170-1300 (New Haven; London,
Carruthers, Mary, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, 2nd edn (Cambridge,
Carruthers, Mary and Ziolkowski, Jan M. (eds), The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts
and Pictures (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2002)
Fleming, John, Gille of Limerick (c.1070-1145): Architect of a Medieval Church (Dublin, 2001)
Panofsky, Erwin, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (New York, 1957)
Whitehead, Christiana, Castles of the mind: A study of medieval architectural allegory (Cardiff, 2003)
Yates, Frances, The Art of Memory (London, 1966)

Bohn’s ecclesiastical library, works of Philo Judaeus, II, p. 5 in Cornelius, The Figurative Castle, p. 20.
(Figure 1) Imago ecclesiae, Gilbert of
Limerick’s De statu ecclesie, Cambridge
University Library, MS Ff.I.27, fol. 238,
(Figure 2) Imago ecclesiae, Gilbert of Limerick’s De
statu ecclesie, Durham Cathedral Library, MS B.II.35,
fol. 36v, (mid twelfth century).
statu ecclesie, Durham Cathedral Library, MS B.II.35,
fol. 36v, (mid twelfth century).
(Figure 3) Cherub, Corpus Christi
College, MS 66, fol. 100 (c.1190).
Limerick’s De statu ecclesie, Cambridge
University Library, MS Ff.I.27, fol. 238,
(Figure 4) Eusebian canon tables,
Library of Trinity College, Dublin,
Book of Kells, fol. 5 (c.800).
18 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
(Figure 5) Tower of Wisdom, Beinecke MS 416
also known as The Speculum Theologiae, from
the Cistercian Abbey of Kamp, West Germany,
fol. 135 (late thirteenth or early fourteenth
(Figure 6) World map, Corpus Christi
College, MS 66, part I, fol. IV (c.1190).
Utopia and the New World: Early Modern
Fact or Fiction

Natasha Pesaran

This article sheds light on the nature of utopian thought in the early modern period through an examination of the tensions
between fact and fiction inherent in the utopian project. As well as creating a fictional ideal or ‘other’, early modern utopias
also contained an implicit critique and comparison with the social, political and cultural realities. By drawing parallels
between utopian thought and writings on the New World, this piece reveals the way in which utopian thought was part of a
process of coming to terms with new forms of knowledge and challenging existing boundaries of European self-understanding.

The dream of an ideal society is in many ways as old as humanity itself. Elements of utopian thought
appear in many literary and historical contexts; in biblical accounts of the innocent state of Adam and
Eve, in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and in ethnographic accounts, such as Tacitus’ Germania.
However, it was not until the sixteenth century that these kinds of literary imaginings became known as
‘utopias’, following More’s coining of the term in his seminal work of 1516. Historians have sought to
categorise and create boundaries within genre of early modern utopian writing in their attempt to analyse
the ‘utopia proper’, classifying certain texts as ‘utopias’ and excluding others according to an arbitrary,
imposed set of requirements.

Certainly any historical analysis of early modern utopian writing must begin
with some form of definition in order to pinpoint the subject under analysis. However, the very nature of
utopian thought complicates any attempt to impose boundaries and definitions; the genre itself represents
a break from reality, rejecting its perceived flaws in favour of a constructed ideal. Nevertheless, the utopia
is also a product of that same reality which it claims to reject, and can only act as reflection of social,
political and cultural realities. This article sees such a tension between reality and utopia as central to our
understanding of the utopian genre. It is hoped that an analysis of the utopian genre within this
framework will shed light on the complex relationship between utopian thought and the cultural and
social bounds of the European imagination.

Such an understanding of the utopian genre demands that texts are analysed not under imposed
conditions, but as complex phenomena that form part of the intellectual milieu of the early modern
period. In particular, utopian texts will be considered as part of the process of expanding European
knowledge about the world. At the beginning of this period, the world was seen as a narrow and ordered
place, which could be described and understood by a complete and accurate body of knowledge.
However, this world view and many of the assumptions it embodied were gradually broken down, giving
way to an age of empiricism and Enlightenment. This was a long and uneven process, which saw the

See J. C. Davis, Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing, 1516-1700 (Cambridge, 1981) and
M. Eliav-Feldon, Realistic Utopias: The ideal imaginary societies of the Renaissance, 1516-1630 (Oxford, 1982).
20 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
creation of new identities and revised understandings about the world and Europe’s place in it. In
particular, new geographical discoveries challenged classical learning and demanded new ways of thinking
about European culture and civilisation. This article will demonstrate the importance of this context of
discovery and possibility to the construction of early modern utopian thought. Indeed, utopian writing
can be seen as part of an intellectual response to the changing boundaries of European knowledge. These
texts often involved a closed society’s opening to a wider world and were concerned with questions of
truth and cultural difference. They were thus a reflection of reality, refracted through the particular
concerns of the author.

This article will draw parallels and connections between utopian thought and the other ways of
coming to terms with the existence of the wider world. The intellectual exercise involved in utopian
thought was similar to that of Europeans considering newly discovered societies; both acts involved the
construction of an imaginative stretch and the ability to extend one’s understanding to an alternative
reality. Both accounts of the New World and utopian texts also represent statements about the world
which imply an element of cultural relativity. In representing something different from European society,
utopian texts inevitably contained an implicit critique of and comparison with European reality. Similarly,
a traveller describing new worlds cannot escape the conceptual apparatus of the old. Thus the encounter
with an ‘other’ society, whether real or imaginary, reveals a gap which reflects back on and marks the
identity of the knowing society. Utopian writing then held up images of other worlds to the real,
European one as distorting mirrors. It was engaged in a complex dialogue between fact and fiction,
Europe and the ‘other’, reality and utopia, and was part of a process of contesting, rather than breaking,
the bounds of European identity and society.

In many ways the new geographical discoveries of the early modern period extended the bounds
of knowledge which set the identity of European society. The encounter between Europe and the
Americas, in particular, challenged the fundamental ways in which Europeans had viewed the world.
Where previously they had relied on the authority of the ancient scriptures and texts, European thinkers
now had to deal with lands and societies whose very existence they had not expected. The New World,
then, presented an ‘other’, something which was outside an immediate European frame of reference and
could not easily be reconciled with contemporary understandings about European history, culture, and
civilisation. Travellers brought back accounts of new societies and the customs they had encountered,
which were disseminated throughout Europe, thanks to the new technology of the printing press. The
way in which the discovery of the New World was conceived by travellers and writers can be seen as an
exercise in utopian thought. It provided a conceptual space in which Europeans sought to break out of
European discourse and translate the imagination of an alternative to the reader. Often, this alternative
took the form of an ideal. Indeed, J. C. Davis has argued that ‘the Americas, and discoveries elsewhere,
stimulated…the sense of a tabula rasa on which new forms of ideal society could be both formulated and

The sense that the New World presented a clean slate was a particularly attractive concept in light
of the bitter wars of religion that were being fought in Europe at that time. For many Catholics in
particular, the new continent had been sent by God so that they might set up a new kingdom. Indeed,
many missionaries went over to the New World in the hope that they might build a utopian Christian
world. This hope was based on a belief in the innocence of indigenous societies; a people so new and
unspoiled could be elevated to the ideal standards of Christianity. In his study of Indian societies,
Dominican friar Bartolomé Las Casas sought to demonstrate that Indians possessed reason and natural
virtues which made them capable of embracing the Catholic faith.
This was a view shared by Vasco de
Quiroga, the first bishop of Mexico, who wrote that ‘not in vain, but with much cause and reason is this
called the New World, not because it is newly found, but because in its people and in almost everything it
is like as was the first and golden age’.
The Indians, like those existing at the time of the Kingdom of
Saturn, were good, obedient, humble, unselfish, care-free, and naked.

Other early reports of the New World also sought to demonstrate that recently discovered
societies presented an ideal way of life. Peter Martyr depicted the indigenous peoples as living in an earthly
paradise, filled with plenty and abundance. He observed: ‘Theirs is a Golden Age: they do not hedge their
estates with ditches, walls or hedges, they live with open gardens; without laws, without books, without
‘They pass their lives content with nature and are not afflicted by the selfishness: nor do “mine
and yours”, the seeds of all evils, fall among them’.
Similarly, in the texts attributed to the explorer
Vespucci, which provide accounts of his discovery of the New World, he admits he thought he ‘must be
near the Earthly Paradise’. The people have ‘no law or faith, they live as nature dictates’. They have no
need to administer justice since there is no greed: ‘nor have they private property but own everything in
Like Martyr and Vespucci, Montaigne in his essay, Of Cannibals (1580), upholds the
indigenous peoples of the New World as living ‘neere their originall naturalitie’, commanded by the laws
of nature. Indeed, he argues that neither Lycurgus nor Plato could have imagined ‘such a pure and simple’
way of life and a ‘happy condition of man’ in their descriptions of the golden age.

J.C. Davis, ‘Utopia and the New World, 1500-1700’ in R. Schaer, G. Claeys and L. Tower (eds.), Utopia: The Search
for the Ideal Society in the Western World (New York, 2000), p. 116.
G. Sanderlin (ed. and trans.), Bartolomé Las Casas; a selection of his writings (New York, 1971).
Quoted in S. Zavala, ‘Sir Thomas More in New Spain’ in R.S. Sylvester and G.P. Marc’hadour (eds.), Essential
Articles for the Study of Thomas More (Hamden, CT, 1977), pp. 302-11.
G. Eatough (ed. and trans.), Selections from Peter Martyr, Repertorium Columbianum 5 (Turnhout, 1998), p. 55.
Ibid., p. 69.
A.Vespucci, Letters from a New World: Amerigo Vespucci’s discovery of America, ed. and trans. D. Jacobson and L.
Formisano (New York, 1992), p. 31.
M. de Montaigne, ‘Of Cannibals’ in J. Florio and L.C. Harmer (eds.), Montaigne’s Essays, p. 218.
22 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal

In some ways this idealisation can be seen as an attempt to break out of European discourse and
champion an alternative, ideal way of life. Montaigne tries to remove himself from an established mode of
thinking and asks the reader to appreciate strange and foreign customs on their own terms. He is aware
that ‘we have no other ayme of truth and reason, than the example and Idea of the opinions and customs
of the countrie we live in’, and argues that because of this, we should use the power of reason to break
through conventional stereotypes.
Indeed, Montaigne provides a detailed account of the customs and
way of life of South American tribes, including descriptions of the construction of the long house,
sleeping arrangements, their dietary regimes, religious assemblies, and beliefs. Writers describing the New
World had to translate the radically different way of life of newly discovered peoples to their European
readers. In doing so, their accounts represented an engagement with a different culture. As, Vespucci
writes, ‘I strove hard to understand their life and customs, since I ate and slept among them for twenty-
seven days’.
But above all, these writings presented an ‘other’ which in European thought became a
metaphor for the absence of civilisation and the promise of a new beginning.

Slavin has argued that the New World provided More and other ‘revolutionary’ thinkers with ‘a
free space, apparently one with neither history nor any political forms at all’ which inspired them to break
away ‘from the habitual patterning of events’ and create anew.
In constructing a utopia, writers had to
persuade the reader to extend their imaginations to the realities of the ‘other’. In his Southern Land,
Known, Foigny recognises the challenge this posed and admits that ‘those who measure the divine from
within limits of their own imagination will see the work only as a fiction’. But attempts to extend the
bounds of their imagination, since things that previously had been thought impossible, such as the
existence of the New World, have now been proven to be true; thus ‘because nothing in this story is
impossible, one should at least suspend judgement as to what might be possible or real’.

Similarly, when
describing the Utopians’ attitudes towards precious metals, More admits that ‘as a general rule, the more
different anything is from what the listeners are used to, the harder it is to believe’. Therefore he appeals
to reason to persuade readers to believe his account: ‘considering that all their other customs are so unlike
ours, a sensible judge will perhaps not be surprised that they treat gold and silver quite differently from
the way we do’.
Indeed, the treatment of gold and silver is one way in which the society of the Utopians
challenges European perspective and accepted norms. Hythloday, the traveller in More’s work, explains

Ibid., p. 219.
Vespucci, Letters from a New World, p. 31.
A. J. Slavin, ‘The American Principle from More to Locke’, in F. Chiappelli et al., First Images of America,
2 vols. (Berkeley, 1976), vol. 1, p. 139.
G. de Foigny, The Southern Land, Known, ed. and trans. D. Fausett (Syracuse, 1993), p. 7.
T. More, Utopia [1516], ed. and trans. R.M. Adams (Cambridge, 2002), p. 60.
that what are considered ‘precious metals’ by Europeans, the Utopians use for their ‘chamber pots and
humblest vessels’ and for the chains and shackles of slaves.

Foigny’s Southern Land, Known also seeks to extend the imaginative bounds of its readers in
order to persuade them that another culture represents a better way of life. The theme of a voyage to the
austral regions sets up the isolation of the Australian’s world and implies a transition from one cultural
world to another; Sadeur’s voyage, first to the Congo and then onwards to the Southern Land can be seen
as part of his process of breaking from European reality and entering a utopian society, based on abstract
rationality and philosophy. The hermaphrodism of the Australians forms a monoculture; untroubled by
any kind of difference, they cannot even conceptualise a social boundary and are appalled at the sectarian
and national violence of European states. Indeed, they appear to have achieved an ideal harmony to which
all other nations aspire. In his discussion of the Australians and their customs, Foigny uses a dialogue
between an old man and Sadeur to compare the customs and culture of European society with that of the
Australians. By the end of the conversation, Sadeur has been won over by the old man’s reasoning and
admits ‘I was seeing things in a quite different way...and was ashamed to have to admit to myself how far
removed we are from their perfection’.

However, establishing a society as an ‘other’ representing an ideal way of life also involved an
implicit comparison and criticism of the European life. Sadeur also explains how in reaching his
conclusion about the Australians’ perfection, ‘[he] was forced to make continual comparisons between
what we are and what [he] was seeing here’.
In order to extend the imaginations of their readers and help
them comprehend difference, writers had to make reference to what the New World, or the utopian
society, was not. In this way, there was an interaction between Europe and ‘other’, reality and utopia.
Thus, the idyllic life of the peoples described by Montaigne is depicted in contrast to Europe, which he
depicts as being full of inventions and artificial devices. Similarly, in Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de
Bougainville the people of Tahiti are presented as being close to the origins of man and nature, unlike
Europeans who cannot live according to what is natural but must follow ‘strange precepts contrary to
nature’ such as marriage and the laws of religion.
Indeed, the conversation between the visiting chaplain
and native Tahitian Orou reveals the absurdity of European way of following different authorities who
decide what is forbidden, rather than acting on what is natural. Vasco de Quiroga equally upholds the
greed and misery of famine and war in Europe against the fact that property and labour are in common
among Indians, while praising their sexual innocence in contrast to polemics over the celibacy of clergy in

Ibid., p. 61.
Foigny, The Southern Land, Known, p. 62.
Ibid. p. 62.
D. Diderot, ‘Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage’, in Political Writings, ed. and trans. J.H. Mason and R. Wokler
(Cambridge, 1992), p. 50.
24 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
In order to break out of European norms and suggest an alternative as an ideal, writers had to
refer to what they perceived as flawed aspects of European society.

Moreover, the only available tools for describing a world different from Europe were the
categories of European experience and language.
Travellers’ accounts were therefore never value-free
reports of experience, but were ideologically loaded, implicated in European collective identity and belief
system. Elliott has argued that because of this, the ‘real’ America was slow to impinge on European
consciousness; it was a European dream which had little to do with the American reality.
Indeed, rather
than describing any reality, the descriptions of Martyr and others were a projection of humanist ideals.
The difficulty of establishing true representation and breaking out of discourse is explored in Montaigne’s
essay Of Cannibals.
The article begins with a comparison of the immediacy of experience and that of
writing and representation, in which Montaigne argues that the learned are not reliable witnesses since
‘they never represent things truly, but fashion and maske them according to the visage they saw them in’.

Furthermore, Montaigne also creates a sense of the limitations of communication; in the final section of
the account, where the Indians are questioned, he admits he had to rely on an interpreter who was ‘so
troubled to conceive my imaginations, that I could draw no great matter from him’. Montaigne is also
unable to give an accurate report due to the limits of his memory, commenting that ‘they answered three
things, the last of which I have forgotten’.
The essay thus invites a suspicion of its own authority and
creates ‘an awareness of the enormous difficulty of translating imaginations from one world to another’.

Indeed, in translating ideas and norms from the societies they encountered, Europeans made
reference to their own identities. For example, they drew on European concepts of civilised and barbaric
behaviour. Vasco de Quiroga’s praise of the Indians was above all driven by his desire to convert them to
Christianity, civilise them, and introduce them to a European way of life. Such a view was shared by
others, including humanist Niccolò Scillacio who wrote, ‘They are quick witted, naturally intelligent and
clever so that they will be able to be brought to our laws and reasonable way of life without much
Above all, de Quiroga and Scillacio transplanted Europe’s ideals and morality to the New
World. Indeed, Vasco de Quiroga literally sought to create a ‘Utopia’ in Mexico.
In a legal brief of 1535,

Zavala, ‘Sir Thomas More in New Spain’, pp. 305-6.
For further elaboration of this argument see A. Pagden, European Encounters with the New World: From
Renaissance to Romanticism (New Haven CT, 1993).
J.H. Elliot, The Old World and the New: 1492-1650 (Cambridge, 1992).
D. Norbrook, '"What care these roarers for the name of a king?": language and utopia in The Tempest', in G.
McMullan and J. Hope (eds.), The Politics of Tragicomedy: Shakespeare and after (London, 1992), p. 28.
Montaigne, ‘Of Cannibals,’ p. 218.
Ibid., p. 229.
Norbrook, '"What care these roarers for the name of a king?"', p. 30.
G. Symcox and L. Formisano (eds.), Italian Reports on America, 1493-1522: Accounts by Contemporary Observers,
Repertorium Columbianum 12 (Turnhout, 2002), p. 40.
Ibid., p. 309.
he suggested to the Crown that it should lay down laws inspired by his reading of More’s text. When his
advice was ignored, he took matters into his own hands, bringing More’s Utopia to Mexican soil in his
founding of two hospital villages modelled on the text. His actions must therefore be seen as an attempt
to establish a European ideal on American soil, as they derived from a European mindset. A similar
civilising ideal can indeed be found in More’s work itself: More explains his commonwealth, not as part of
indigenous society, but as the work of a benevolent conqueror who invaded the region and transformed ‘a
pack of ignorant savages into what is now, perhaps the most civilised nation in the world’.
The ideal
conceptualised in the New World in many ways consisted of the possibilities of civilising its inhabitants,
and was therefore dependent on European identities. But it also rested on the perceived potential of New
World societies to adhere to European norms.

In this way, the New World represented a conceptual space in which American reality met
European ‘dream’ and inherited ideas and norms were employed in the process of coming to terms with
the ‘other.’ As Rubiés has demonstrated, ethnographic accounts were a complex interaction between the
European Christian, humanist tradition, the moral and political concerns of European writers, and the
everyday observation of difference.
Europeans used a number of different techniques to translate the
unfamiliar to the familiar. Grafton and others have shown that in seeking to describe their discoveries,
writers such as Columbus and Vespucci placed them within an inherited framework.
By the early
modern period, there were a number of ethnographic common places available to the traveller, such as
Herodotus’s History and the writings of Pliny and Solinus. The novel of Sir John Mandeville also created
a vernacular ethnography which depicted the fantastic and the monstrous. In their response to New
World, Europeans frequently drew on this ethnographical tradition.
Greenblatt has argued that the
European response of ‘wonder’ was used as a rhetorical device, while Fitzmaurice has shown that
European writers used the humanist art of persuasion to convince the audience to accept something they
did not already hold to be true.

The New World can be seen not so much as a ‘free space’ where Europeans sought to break
from European identity, but rather an arena in which understandings about European identity and society
interacted with the discovery of difference. Just as images of the New World interacted with European

Thomas More, Utopia, p. 42.
See J.-P. Rubiés, ‘New worlds and Renaissance ethnology’, History and anthropology 6 (1993), pp. 157-197 and J.-
P. Rubiés, ‘Travel writing and humanistic culture: a blunted impact?’ Journal of early modern history 10 (2006), pp.
A. Grafton, A. Shelford and N. Siraisi (eds), New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The power of tradition and the shock of
discovery (Cambridge, MA, 1992), pp. 69-85.
For further discussion of ethnographic models used by early modern travellers see M. T. Hodgen, Early
Anthropology in the 16th and 17th Centuries (Philadelphia, 1964).
S. Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Oxford, 1992); A. Fitzmaurice, ‘Classical
rhetoric and the promotion of the New World’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 58 (1997), pp. 221-44.
26 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
identity and culture, utopian texts were part of an interaction between reality and imagination, fact and
fiction. Both the New World and Utopia represented an ‘other’ that embodied a conceptual space in
which imaginative speculation could be carried out. Indeed, factual events often provided a trigger to
European imaginations. William Strachey’s account of the shipwreck of a group of colonists in 1609 in
Bermuda provides the background to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Shakespeare uses the shipwreck as an
imaginative starting point for his play.
Prospero’s island itself becomes the ground for a utopian thought
explored in Gonzalo’s utopian fantasy and in the play’s underlying discourses of power.
writings then were an imaginative product of early modern reality.

Indeed, the conceptualisation of utopian texts owed much to the context of European expansion
and exploration. During the sixteenth century, growing European commercial competition drove the need
to find new trade routes and colonies. By 1600 the coasts of America, Asia and Africa had been mapped
with considerable accuracy, as had parts of their interiors. However, only very slowly did fragments of
geographical information which could be fitted into a coherent picture start to emerge. Information about
new lands was vague and confusing and the boundaries with which Europeans thought about their place
in the world became increasingly blurred. Columbus and early commentators on his voyages were unsure
of whether he had discovered Asia or some other unknown continent. They naturally fell back on what
was familiar: traditions derived from the knowledge of ancient authorities. Ptolemy’s Geographia and
Macrobian cosmology presented schematic views of the world which remained influential. Grafton,
Shelford, and Siraisi have shown that ancient learning was adapted by European thinkers to fit modern
But in practice, they were often obstacles as much as aids to understanding, distorting the
emerging picture of the world. This new geographical reality was also clouded by inaccurate estimates of
distances travelled, as well as competition between the Spanish and Portuguese, which meant that
overseas activity was veiled in secrecy.

The uncertainty that surrounded new discoveries contributed to the formation of an imaginative
space for early modern utopias. Unlike earlier representations of ideal worlds, which made no claim to
literal or prophetic truth, early modern writers presented their fictional narratives as fact. In doing so,
they played upon the unclear nature of the boundaries of European knowledge about the world and the
possibility of the unknown. Utopian societies were in isolated places that were geographically removed
from Europe in order to give them greater narrative plausibility. Thomas More in 1516 placed the island
of Utopia in the Pacific Ocean, which had been discovered only a few years earlier. In the History of the
Sevarites, Vairasse places his fictional account directly in the context of recent voyages of discovery in

W. Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611), ed. S. Orgel (Oxford, 2008); More, Utopia, p. 60.
For further discussion of utopian aspects of the play, see Norbrook, '"What care these roarers for the name of a
Grafton, Shelford and Siraisi, New Worlds, Ancient Texts.
order to make it more credible. In the ‘Notice to the Reader’, the publisher underlines the veracity of the
account by reasoning that since Europeans have recently discovered so many remote places that had been
unknown for thousands of years, it is possible that there remain many more to be discovered.
Fausett has shown that the unknown nature of the southern region continued to provide fertile ground
for utopian speculation until its exploration in 1772-5.

In seeking to present utopias as literal truth, writers often contributed to unstable boundaries of
knowledge. Fact and fiction sometimes became so unclear that real reports were viewed with scepticism,
whereas fictional ones were received as real. Vairasse plays upon this uncertainty, implying that his
fictional account ought to be read as truth since ‘the Histories of Peru, Mexico, China etc. were at first
taken as Romances by many, but time has shewed since that they are verities not to be doubted of’.
Fausett has shown that the secrecy surrounding events such as the wreck of a VOC (East India Company)
ship, the Batavia, in 1629 off the west coast of Australia, also created opportunities for imaginative
speculation and served to further cloud the distinctions between fact and fiction.
Neville’s The Isle of
Pines and Vairasse’s History can be seen to take their imaginative impetus from the Batavia shipwreck and
mutiny. While the details were not fully disclosed to the public, the accepted historical narrative holds that
the castaway Europeans mutinied and disappeared on the Southland, creating their own society based on
sexism and slavery. Both authors envisage a shipwreck on the Southern continent and imagine how
surviving Europeans might organise themselves into a colony, placing sexual themes at the forefront.
Thus we can see the complex way in which utopian texts inhabited an imaginative space between fact and
fiction, reality and utopia. They were both a product of the changing boundaries of European knowledge,
but could also play an active role in distorting them.

Fausett also points out that speculation about other worlds played an important role in filling
gaps in Europe’s knowledge, acting as an allegory that reflected the writer’s own world and its deepest
Writings about the ‘other’ were part of a process whereby Europeans came to terms with
changing knowledge and understanding about the world. Accordingly, utopian writing did not represent
blueprints for an ideal society, detached from or opposed to reality, any more than traveller’s accounts
were objective observations. Indeed, Louis Marin defines utopia not as opposite to the real world, but as a
reconstruction of the author’s reality which displaces aspects of its own world into the fictional world it
In so doing, the texts stretched imaginative bounds, seeking to raise questions in the reader’s

D. Vairasse d' Allais, The History of the Sevarites or Sevarambi (London, 1675), p. 4.
D. Fausett, Writing the New World: Imaginary Voyages and Utopias of the Great Southern Land (Syracuse, NY,
Vairasse d' Allais, The History of the Sevarites, p. 4.
Fausett, Writing the New World, pp. 25-27.
See Fausett’s introduction to Foigny, The Southern Land, Known.
L. Marin, Utopiques: jeux d’espaces (Paris, 1973).
28 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
mind. For example, More raises questions of cultural difference in an account of a visit of Anemolian
ambassadors to Utopia. Unaware of the local customs, the ambassadors arrived dressed as ‘elegantly as
Gods’. They were in fact ‘decked out in all the articles which in Utopia are used to punish slaves, shame
wrongdoers or entertain infants’ and the Utopians subsequently considered ‘this splendid pomp a mark of
While this is often considered a minor episode in the text, it highlights to readers the great
differences in custom and values that exist between one society and another, as well as demonstrating the
bounded views of closed societies. In this way, More displaces debates from reality about the differences
between European and other cultures into an imaginary setting.

Many utopian texts were concerned with questions of changing social, cultural, and political
boundaries and the relationships between different societies - concerns which reflected contemporary
reality. Indeed, the texts both commented on and contributed to debates surrounding the discovery of
new peoples and places. We can see this in Bacon’s New Atlantis, which in many regards can be seen as a
comment on closed society’s opening to a wider world. The text is often interpreted as a blueprint for an
ideal scientific institution, but the author does not illustrate the benefits of science for his community. We
are in fact given only hints about certain aspects of the society of Bensalem. The text itself is shrouded in
secrecy and incompletion, particularly in its ending (‘The rest was not perfected’).
The repeated denial of
information leaves the reader with a sense of powerlessness and uncertainty that as Susan Bruce has
pointed out, forces the reader to consider the importance of knowledge to political power.
Indeed, the
text itself is an imaginative exploration of the implications of the changing boundaries of knowledge about
the world. The society of Bensalem presents the paradox of knowing without being known: while it sends
ambassadors to learn the secrets of other nations, it remains hidden from the rest of the world. Indeed,
the Europeans marvel ‘that they should have knowledge of the languages, books, affairs of those that lie
such a distance from them ... it seemed to us a condition and propriety of divine powers and beings, to be
hidden and unseen to others, and yet to have others open and as in a light to them’.

Bacon raises issues that are thus of great importance to the contemporary realities of European
empire and global commerce. In this way, we can see Bacon’s utopia not so much as an ideal, which seeks
to create something detached from European reality, but as an imaginative exercise that embodies the
process of European expansion and seeks to question the implications of new knowledge. Similarly,
Foigny’s Southern Land, Known, rather than presenting an ideal form of social organisation, can be seen
as a metaphor for the impossibility of national isolation and unity in an increasingly interconnected world.

More, Utopia, p. 62.
F. Bacon, ‘New Atlantis’, in S. Bruce (ed.), Three early modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis, The Isle of Pines,
(Oxford, 1999), p. 185.
Ibid., Introduction.
Bacon, ‘New Atlantis’, p.162.
The logic and rationality of the Australians’ culture that was revered as perfect by Sadeur after his
discussion with the old man, has by the end of the narrative been revealed as problematic. The final
chapter on the Australians’ wars demonstrates that they do have real enemies and borders and are not as
isolated as they imagined, while Sadeur’s departure from the Southern Land presents a rejection of both
the homogeneity of Australian culture and its imagined national isolation. Indeed, Sadeur himself becomes
a metaphor for a new interconnected world; his hermaphrodism allows him to embrace cultural duality. In
this way, as Fausett has suggested, Foigny’s text reveals that while all nations imagine themselves to have
boundaries and a fixed identity, they are in practice open to a world of travel, war, and commerce.
therefore can see the way in which utopian texts were concerned with questions of changing boundaries
and were a comment on reality, refracted through the particular concerns of the author.

Utopian writing was part of a process of extending the boundaries of European identity and
society. Utopian texts were deeply implicated in contemporary European debates and concerns. They
reflected the writers’ worlds and thus worked within the boundaries of European thought and identity,
but their symbolic meanings also extended imaginative boundaries, raising questions in readers’ minds.
Utopian writing cannot be understood in terms of the creation of a blueprint for an ideal society,
detached from reality. Rather, the creation of new worlds and ideals, whether real or imaginary, were an
essential way in which European thinkers contested European identities and understandings about the
world in the face of increasingly uncertain and unstable boundaries of knowledge. In particular, utopian
writing as a genre transcended boundaries of fact and fiction in its creation of new worlds, which were
both real and imaginary. This article has sought to highlight this by focusing on the relationship between
utopian thought and new geographical discoveries; America represented perhaps the most obvious
example of a ‘New World’ that was being forged in the European consciousness during the early modern
period. However, many other ‘new worlds’ were being created thereby challenging the boundaries of
European self-understanding: among them were new scientific approaches, religious conflict and renewal,
and processes of state-building. All of these developments exposed deep-seated dilemmas for existing
moral, social, and political orders, thus challenging accepted boundaries and opening up conceptual spaces
for the imagination of alternative worlds.

Further Reading

Bruce, Susan (ed.), Three early modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis, The Isle of Pines (Oxford, 1999)
Davis, J. C., Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing, 1516-1700 (Cambridge,
Fausett, David, Writing the New World: Imaginary Voyages and Utopias of the Great Southern Land
(Syracuse, NY, 1993)
Grafton, Anthony, April Shelford, and Nancy Siraisi, New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The power of tradition
and the shock of discovery (Cambridge, MA, 1992)

See Fausett’s introduction to Foigny, The Southern Land, Known.
30 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
Pagden, Antony, European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism (New
Haven, 1993)


The 1848 Revolutions and the German

John Mueller
Fitzwilliam College
The 1848 Revolutions in the German states are regarded as historic failure, and moreover a failure that would inevitably
lead to the foundation of an empire under Prussian leadership and eventually the rise of Nazism. However the radicals of
1848 were part of a much older debate rooted in the complicated make-up of the Holy Roman Empire. It was the
uncertainty of the empire’s constitution that created the conditions for internal feuding and interference from outside. As the
pamphleteers analysed in this article reveal, their aim was to solve these constitutional problems, which had dogged the
empire since Samuel von Pufendorf wrote on the state of Germany in the seventeenth century.


In 1510 David de Negker published a print of the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire (see Figure
1). Displayed on the spread wings of the eagle are the arms of the most important principalities. It is a
cumbersome and unpleasing design, but it shows the great diversity of the Empire and the problem of
visualising the whole and the composite parts in one. After Napoleon had simplified the map of Europe
things changed only slightly. The super-structure of the Holy Roman Empire disappeared and tiny
principalities amalgamated to make larger ones. Yet even these were intensely complex. In 1830 the civil
servant Adam Heunisch published a lithograph of the population of the Grand Duchy of Baden (see
Figure 2). Arranged around the Duke in the centre are the statistics of the inhabitants of the
principality, including aristocrats, members of parliament, towns, cities, districts and confessions of the
state. This small principality alone was so intricate and complex that it was difficult to explain its
constitution graphically and in simple terms. These two illustrations show us how intensely intricate
Germany was. What were the dynamics behind this complexity?

The history of Germany as a nation of states is little told. The Prussian School of History, still
very popular believed that Prussia was fulfilling an age-old mission of unifying Germany.
The drift to
this idea was possibly a result of the failure of the 1848 Revolutions.
Apparently the belief spread that a
strong government guaranteed peace and prosperity better than the sort of written constitution the
Frankfurt Parliament had tried to instigate.
Liberal Germans turned towards the Hohenzollern dynasty
to foster a National identity and keep the peace after their Revolution petered out.
This is also the
beginning of the Sonderweg theory. 1848 failed to bring forth a modern democratic Germany and the
political system remained the most anachronistic in Europe. Germany was on its ‘inevitable’ path to the
Third Reich.
Fortunately this idea has been slightly deflated since and it has become evident that the

G. G. Iggers, Nationalism and Historiography, 1789-1996: The German Example in Historical Perspective, in S.
Berger et al (eds), Writing National Histories: Western Europe Since 1800 (London, 1999), p. 20. Although
officially rejected see A. Green, Fatherlands (Cambridge, 2001), p. 7.
E. Breisach, Historiography. Ancient, Medieval and Modern (Chicago, 1983), p. 235.
Iggers, The German Conception of History (Middletown, 1983), p. 108.
Iggers, ‘Nationalism and Historiography’, p. 18.
P. Lambert, ‘Paving the `Peculiar Path´: German Nationalism and Historiography Since Ranke', in G. Cubit (ed.),
Imagining Nations (Manchester, 1998), p. 94.
32 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal

nineteenth century was not just the foundation of Nazism.
1848 however, remains a crucial point in
Germany’s history. Today the Federal Republic of Germany sees itself as the spiritual child of that
The idea of Marx and Engels, that 1848 was a bourgeois revolution is possibly true.
However the events seem to be seen too much in the light of social struggle.

Various sources have been used to re-examine the 1848 Revolutions in the light of Germany’s
complexity. At first pre-Napoleonic Germany will be examined with the aid of Samuel von Pufendorf’s
De Statu Imperii Germanici. Pufendorf might be accused of having a clouded vision, because he was
German, hence his ideas will be contrasted against more detached foreigners. The post-Napoleonic
period will then also be examined in search of constitutional themes and to give sufficient background
to the events of 1848. The leap from seventeenth to the nineteenth century is enormous, but can partly
be justified as the problems discovered by Pufendorf remained largely the same until, and even after,
Napoleon created a news status quo. This relatively extensive time span reveals just how long
contemporaries realised the Constitution of the Empire needed reform and how prone the Empire was
to interference from outside.

After the general survey of the period before the nineteenth century will follow a more detailed
examination of the Grand Duchy of Baden, selected for two reasons. First, because it has been little
examined in the past, and secondly, because it was a hub of revolutionary activity between 1847 and
1849. The motor of the Revolution was the German Bürgertum. It will be referred to by its German
name as the English term ‘middle class’ implies commercial strength. The Bürgertum was, however, a
class largely defined by education. As such it created a public sphere that was served with information
and opinion in the form of newspapers and pamphlets.

Pamphlets or so-called ‘flying pages’ issued between September 1847 and February 1849 will
be discussed extensively in this article in order to establish the nature of the German ‘middle classes’
answer to apparent constitutional problems. The pamphlets are short, usually no longer than a modern
A4 page. Reading aloud and memorising key points must hence have been easier. Also printing was
cheap and distribution fast. Sometimes the same person or organisation would publish two short
pamphlets in one week rather than one long one. The pamphlets were usually either addresses to the
people by individuals and corporations or addresses by the people to the government of Baden and
members of Parliament. There are several recurring themes that appear with different emphasis
according to who is writing and who is being spoken to.

The 1848 Revolutions are often seen as a blip in Germany’s otherwise bombastic, capitalistic or
aristocratic development or as a direct result of Revolutionary rumblings in France. Had 1848 not taken

R. J. Evans, Rereading German history: from unification to reunification, 1800-1996 (London, 1997), p. 23.
Iggers, ‘Nationalism and Historiography’, p. 16.
L. Stein, Geschichte der socialen Bewegung in Frankreich, Volume II (Leipzig, 1850), p. 200; J. Brophy, Popular
Culture and Public Sphere in the Rhineland, 1800-1850 (Cambridge, 2007); J. Cohen et al (eds), Karl Marx
Friedrich Engels Collected Works, Volume 6, 1845-48 (London, 1976), pp. 17, 25.

place at all, the interpretation of German history might have been a lot easier. These views are over-
simplistic. The Revolutions are not just an anomaly in the history of a nation trudging along some
otherwise straightforward path to the First or Second World War, nor were they the result of Germans
forming their own version of someone else’s Revolution. The sources chosen will hopefully help to
show that 1848 is a seminal point of a long-term development within the German states and part of a
distinctly German problem: the problem of a nation in search of a state. Who or what the nation was
remained unclear; what state the nation is looking for was even more uncertain. These unanswered
questions brought about a certain amount of instability that weakened the Empire. This article hopes to
prove that 1848 was the result of a seemingly endless debate about the nature of the German Empire
caused by its own fragility. In this context, the possible alternatives which prospective reformers faced
are not of immediate interest and will not be examined here closely.

I. A Something without a Name
According to Samuel Pufendorf the German Empire was suffering from many problems at the
end of the seventeenth century, they were broadly of a constitutional nature. The quarrelsome states,
the impotence of the Emperor, the lack of a judicature, the irregularity of the executive and the want of
an external policy could all possibly have been solved by a massive reform of the constitution. Eighty to
a hundred years later, this reform had still not taken place. Amongst others, the French editor Louis-
Pierre Antquetil and the Englishman John Bancks observed this.

There were however more than just constitutional problems: ‘Almost every-where the peasants
are slaves, or tied down in a state of subjection nearly approving to slavery.’ Although all three authors
laud the German peoples for their qualities, in particular their ‘Wit’ and ‘Ingenuity’, no one sees them as
part of the solution to the Empire’s problems.

Of the multitudinous principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, no two were governed alike.
There were small and large states, temporal and secular, monarchical and popular.
Each was absolutely
sovereign and ‘they appoint magistrates, make laws, change religion, exercise a power of life and death,
declare war or make peace, all in their own names’.
The different forms of government led to mistrust
and ‘from hence proceed Envy, Contemt [sic], Mutual Insults (and) Suspicion’ as each wished to be
more powerful than its neighbour.
This bickering meant the Empire was not one unit. It lacked an
internal cohesion, which manifested itself as weakness towards the outside.

Jealousy as such would not have been such a great problem if each prince were not ‘so far
Soveraign [sic], that he makes War upon his Neighbours’.
Maintaining an army, which a Prince was

L-P. Anquetil, A summary of universal history 8/9 (London, 1800) and J. Bancks, The History of Germany
(London, 1768).
S. von Pufendorf, The Present State of Germany (London, 1689), p. 155.
Ibid., pp. 136, 178.
Bancks, History of Germany, p. 28.
Pufendorf, The Present State of Germany, p. 179. Bancks, History of Germany, p. 24.
Pufendorf, The Present State of Germany, p. 151.
34 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal

entitled to do, was a great expense. Equally the keeping of the many courts, which were ‘in such
splendid circumstances’ in Germany, drained the Empire’s assets.
The financial situation of the
Empire was not helped by the ‘great variety of Monies (sic)’, which damaged trade.
Hence the Empire
was further destabilised, arguably unable to sustain itself.

The different states and the different forms of rule brought about a number of questions. Was
the Empire a confederation, a union or a single state? Was it a democracy, an aristocracy or a kingdom?
The exact nature of the Empire’s constitution was unclear, as it was a ‘mis-shapen Monster (…) a
something (without a Name)’!
The diversity of the Empire meant that it was difficult to decipher
exactly what ‘it’ was. Perhaps it was best described as a ‘republic of foreigners’ bound together by loose

The only time these ‘foreigners’ met to deliberate was at the Imperial Diet. The right of many
states to sit in the Diet was questionable and when they did meet they usually ended up quarrelling over
Even if such matters were resolved, as a legislature this body was useless because ‘the
Diet is not holden as a settled and perpetual Senate, which has Soveraign (sic) Authority’.
The only
institution that could unite the diversity of Germany was rendered ineffectual.

Matters of precedence and jurisdiction could have been resolved by a high court. This would
also have prevented other states taking advantage of those that were quarrelling, but there was no such
court. No regulated judicial was responsible for the entire Empire.
Even if there was, the Empire ‘can
never be reformed (…) to the Laws of a Just and regular Kingdom.’
The Emperor himself was only a
vague guarantor of treaties and customs.

The Emperor had only a tenuous ability to protect law because of his impotence. His authority
was great, but his power was not.
The ruler of a large principality ‘looks upon the Reverence he ows
(sic) to the Emperor, as a meer (sic) empty piece of Pageantry.’
To assert his power the Emperor
would have needed to draw revenue from the Empire itself, which he could not.
In order for the
Empire to act as a body in foreign politics the Emperor would have had to take on the role of its’
spokesman. The only reason he had some power at all was because the ruling house of ‘Austria’ was
itself potent.
Although they could not prevent quarrels amongst the states, the Habsburgs were

Ibid., p. 155.
Ibid., p. 185.
Ibid., p. 152.
Anquetil, A summary, p. 265. Bancks, History of Germany, p. 20.
Anquetil, A summary, p. 20. Bancks, History of Germany, p. 31.
Pufendorf, The Present State of Germany, p. 141.
Pufendorf, The Present State of Germany, p. 141.
Ibid., p. 153.
Ibid., pp. 150.
Bancks, History of Germany, pp. 21.
Pufendorf, The Present State of Germany, p. 151.
Ibid., p. 152.
Bancks, History of Germany, p. 21.

sufficiently powerful to ignore the advice of their councils and engineer hereditary succession of an
‘elected’ throne.

The Emperor was not responsible for foreign affairs concerning the whole Empire. The
German states lacked a uniting foreign policy and a system of defence. Some states had such little
military power that they could only exist through communal protection
, indeed some were ‘almost
imperceptible’ and needed to ally themselves to larger states in order to exist.
If the German states
acted as one on the European stage, they could have dominated the continent.

The solution to Germany’s internal strife and external show of weakness could have been a
reform of the Empire. All foreign affairs should be ‘committed to (a) Council’ and the defence of the
Empire co-ordinated.
Preventing feuds within the Empire and interference from without would have
provided peace externally. Internally the Emperor should ‘govern those Affairs with him, which every
day happen in the Administration of Publick (sic) Affairs.’ This would have given the Emperor a fixed
role. Whether he should receive remuneration or not is unclear, but the Habsburgs should definitely
give up their hereditary right to the imperial throne.
All in all the nature of the Empire and the way it
should have been ruled needed to be clarified and simplified. The best thing would have been a written
In it the diet should be empowered and regulated, so it meets frequently and is the only
place a law can be passed.
Further a constitution would have to establish a judicial system, ‘that all
new Controversies (…), should be referr’d to the Arbitrement (sic).’
At this time the actual problem of
the Empire was controversies. This continuous arguing amongst the states could be avoided by
guaranteeing each the rights it already enjoyed, including religious and territorial integrity.
A single
external policy would prevent foreign powers from interfering and attempting to spread discord

II. A Sense of their Rights
By the turn of the nineteenth century the problem of states perpetual quarrelling had been
partly solved by the mighty hand of Napoleon. The Imperial Deputation of 1803 and the formation of
the Rheinbund in 1806 were the last nails in the coffin of the Holy Roman Empire. The mass of tiny
principalities had been amalgamated to form states of medium size. Their monarchs were the only
sovereigns in their territory, answerable to no one. They were free to make and execute policy as they
pleased. They had to submit neither to a council nor to any other authority. This did reduce the number
of quarrelling states. They were, however, faced with new challenges. Firstly they had to consolidate

Pufendorf, The Present State of Germany, p. 194, Bancks, History of Germany, p. 22.
Pufendorf, The Present State of Germany, p. 151.
Anquetil, A summary, p. 265.
Ibid., p. 265.
Pufendorf, The Present State of Germany, pp. 194, 188, 194.
Ibid., p. 187.
Ibid., p. 194.
Ibid., p. 187 and p. 194 respectively.
Ibid., p. 193.
Ibid., p. 188.
Ibid., p. 195.
36 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal

their new states. Secondly a new class of people was emerging clamouring for better governance: The

Possibly people travelling through Germany were best at noticing the challenges that faced the
new states. The enlargement of the Markgrafschaft of Baden into a Grand Duchy has been used as a
typical example of the development of a petty principality into a veritable state and viewed through
travel literature.

As the ruler of a Markgrafschaft Carl-Friedrich of Baden had ranked as the lowest form of prince
but one, in the order of precedence of the Holy Roman Empire. Yet the House of Baden had ‘availed
themselves, more adroitly, zealously under the banners of Napoleon’.
This had resulted in the
elevation of Carl-Friedrich, first to the rank of an Elector and later to that of a Grand Duke, to be
addressed as His Royal Highness.
This change in title had become bitterly necessary, as, in less than
twenty years, the number of people he ruled over had grown from 25,000 to 270,000.

This had come about when Napoleon, over compensating Carl-Friedrich for his loss of land
west of the Rhine, handed over all the secularised territories east of the river. This is a prime example of
a ‘foreigner’ meddling with Germany’s domestic affairs. Baden now consisted of such diverse places as
the Bishopric of Burchsal the Bavarian Palatine and the Austrian territories Brisgaw and Ortinaw.

Naturally it would take the Dukes much effort ‘consolidating their dominion and confirming tenure.’

This was an expensive business and the Duke’s ‘treasury at this moment is by no means
overflowing.’ The Duchy was in bad financial state. ‘The taxes are high and the people generally
discontented’, not least because much of the money was being wasted on art to adorn the royal palace
and on a large standing army’.
This was not looked upon with great kindness by the emerging

Noble and bourgeois students mixed at the tables of the public houses in Heidelberg.
A new
professional class was emerging which began to develop a self-consciousness and pride. Carl-Friedrich’s

The terms “middle class” and “bourgeoisie” carry connotations not applicable to their German cousins. In France
and England the bourgeoisie is generally associated with economic success. . In Germany education is the defining
element of the German middle class. The lower German middle class is usually referred to as the “Kleinbürgertum”,
the well-educated middle class as the “Bildungsbürgertum” and the middle class with economic success as the
“Großbürgertum”. See: F. Reuleaux (ed.), „Das Buch der Erfindungen, Gewerbe und Industrie. Rundschau auf allen
Gebieten der gewerblichen Arbeit“, quoted in L. Haupts, Das kaiserliche Deutschland (Quellen zur Geschichte und
Politik) (Stuttgart, 1999), p. 26.
A principality that runs along a border of the Holy Roman Empire was called a “Markgrafschaft”, its ruler is a
“Markgraf”, which may be loosely translated as “Marquis” or “Margrave”.
C.E. Dodd, An Autumn near the Rhine, or, Sketches of Courts, Society, Scenery etc. in some German States
bordering on the Rhine (London, 1818), p. 194.
The Universal Magazine (London, 1806), p. 106.
F. Engehausen, Kleine Geschichte des Großherzogtums Baden (Leinfeld-Echterdingen, 2005), p. 20.
Dodd, An Autumn near the Rhine, pp. 163, 367; The Universal Magazine (London, 1806), p. 106.
A. H. Everett, Europe, or, a General Survey of the present situation (London, 1822), p. 171.
Dodd, An Autumn near the Rhine, pp. 198, 196.
Ibid., p. 334.

grandson and heir, Carl, had married the bourgeois goddaughter of Napoleon!
The duchy profited
from an egalitarian schooling system. All Gymnasiums, which prepared pupils for university, admitted on
merit alone. All ranks of society could be found there.
The spreading of education was the making of
the Bürgertum, but at the same time brought dangers for the (new) established order. The Bürgertum
considered the way they were governed as inadequate and complained about conditions:

The spirit of enquiry, and a sense of their rights, have been too much raised by… the Germans to
be silenced by any thing but compliance with their rational requisitions. The most staunch
supporters of arbitrary Governments see plainly that concessions are no longer to be evaded.

The concessions they demanded were a body of representation and a written constitution. It was hoped
this would guarantee order in the principality. The Duke opened the first parliament in 1819.
A year
before, on 22 March, the ducal government had issued a constitution. It regulated the franchise to
which elections were to be held. All males of mature age had the right to vote and select an elector to
choose a member of parliament.
Although the constitution was granted solely on the authority of the
sovereign it was considered one of the most liberal in Germany.
It included all the rights and
privileges of citizens, the ending of serfdom, the right to property, freedom of religion and the rule of

There was, however a major problem. The members of parliament were far too active and
vocal for the comfort of the Duke and his ministers. So the ducal government ‘offended at the zeal with
which [the deputies] laboured to introduce economy in the administration, closed the session
Parliament re-convened and the relationship between government and deputies relaxed

In spite of this, the Duchy alone was inadequate at providing the necessary level of order and
liberty: ‘The more shrew well-wishers to despotism see clearly that the rising generation are educating at
the Gymnasium and the University with ideas of independence, ill-suited to the capitals of the little

Patriotism was another area where the Bürgertum was zealous. German things and the German
language became ever more popular. There was ‘a violent hostility to everything foreign, and in
particular the French language, both as one of the insignias of aristocracy, and as a memento of their

Ibid., p. 185.
Approximation, possibly, of a Grammar School. The Name “Gymnasium” stems from the ancient Greek
academies. Dodd, An Autumn near the Rhine, p. 172.
Dodd, An Autumn near the Rhine, p. 201.
Ibid., p. 200 and Everett, Europe, p. 172.
Everett, Europe, p. 172.
Ibid., p. 173.
Engehausen, Geschichte des Großherzogtums Baden, p. 38; The Constitution of the Grand Duchy can be found in
The Foreign Office Librarian (ed.), British and Foreign State Papers, 1817-1818 (London, 1837), p. 161.
Everett, Europe, p. 173.
Dodd, An Autumn near the Rhine, p. 174.
38 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal

old oppressors.’
Even the court at Carlsruhe was not immune. Although French was necessary to be
admitted at court, the nobility had begun to speak German in private company.

Students were especially patriotic. In Heidelberg they started wearing ‘alt Deutsche kleidung
[sic]’ as a mark of national devotion.
Although many students at the duchies Universities in
Heidelberg and Freiburg were from Baden, most came from other German states.
It was not just the
students from the small Duchy that were developing this national spirit. Unification was seen as a way
of preserving the German homelands. Students from all over Germany ‘loudly assert that they form but
one body of Germans(!)’.

III. Honest and Peaceful Men
Between the seventeenth and nineteenth century fundamental constitutional questions
remained unanswered. Even when a part of a problem is solved, another defect emerges. The main
problems seem to be an internal instability and inconsistency. This made the German states look weak
and ineffectual. They were open to attack. This problem was recognised by the Bürgertum and addressed
under the banner of national patriotism and citizen’s rights. The new ideas of the Bürgertum brought
fresh problems to the constitutional crisis. In 1848 the Bürgertum tried to solve Germany’s dilemma in its
own way.

The first popular pamphlets on the subject of constitutional reform appeared long before 1848.
However, after the February Revolution in Paris they became more frequent. Many pamphlets called
for some form of peaceful protest in conjunction with their demands. Really radical (for instance
communist) pamphlets were rare, at least in south-western Germany. Order was praised and demanded
repeatedly by most. The pamphlets were usually addressed to the people or supposedly by the people.
Individuals and political clubs wrote under various pseudonyms, from ‘the people of Baden’ to ‘the
people of Germany’.

The events in Paris of early 1848 were definitely a catalyst for the German states, but the exact
nature of the catalysing moment is a matter of debate. Did the Revolution ignite a love of revolutionary
principles and emulation or did it bring fear of revolutionary turmoil? The ideals of the American and
French Revolutions had reached the provinces of Germany. It had become clear that the people were
entitled to certain rights. They were called ‘unbreachable human rights’.
If these fundamental human
rights were infringed or non-existence one had the right to fight for them with a ‘strong hand’.

Ibid., p. 185.
Ibid., pp. 184.
Ibid., p. 330.
Ibid., p. 334.
‘unveräußerliche Menschenrechte’ State Archives Karlsruhe (hereafter StaatsAK). ‘Forderungen des Volkes’,
8/StS 11/17,9; K. Obermann, Flugblätter der Revolution 1848/49 (Munich, 1972), p. 40: Vorwärts ist der Ruf der
Zeit (Title chosen by Editor), Mannheim, 1848 and Municipal Archive Freiburg (hereafter StadtAF). Dvd 7680
RARA, Part 1, Nr 19.
‘Die Völker mit kräftiger Hand die Rechte sich selbst genommen.’ Municipal Archives Offenburg (hereafter
StadtAO). ‘Hohe zweite Kammer’, 27 February 1848.


‘We demand personal freedom’, the freedom of the individual was no longer seen as a
privilege, but a right.
Part of personal liberty was the right to voice ones opinions freely. It was ‘the
unimpeachable right of the human spirit to impart his thoughts without dismembering them.’ Hence
the calls for freedom of the press were very loud.
The pamphlets were an expression of this wish for
freedom. In fairness it should however be pointed out that censorship was lax in Baden and
pamphleteers hardly risked their lives publishing these demands.

Although the Germans had been shown how to fight for their human rights by other nations,
the pamphleteers preferred an orderly and peaceful debate as opposed to full-blown street rioting. The
happy side effect was that pamphlets were generally not banned and their authors not censored. The
municipality of Offenburg, which was arguably one of the hubs of the Revolution in Germany,
exemplified the idea of orderly protest and debate. The town council organised several revolutionary
rallies and made it quite clear that ‘the entire present group do their duty in civilian (or civil) clothes and
without weapons’.
The council wanted peaceful protest and, as a pamphlet published on a similar
occasion stated, orderliness
. After all the revolutionaries were ‘honest and peaceful men’.

This was possibly why the unordered French Revolution was perceived as such a threat.
‘Possibly the French army will be standing on our borders within the next days’, one pamphlet noted
with some alarm.
The threat from outside was still there and would not go. The ducal authorities were
quick to dispel fears by announcing the borders were protected from the French and that ‘the grand
duke’s garrison commanders had, for this purpose, promised the military occupation of the most
important places in the area’.
Whether the stationing of troops was such a great relief to the people is
questionable. The organisers of rallies were usually quick to point out if they had arranged for no
military to intervene.

Broadly speaking all pamphlets had constitutional reform or constitutional government as their
subject. Two spheres of interest can be detected. One is concerned with internal affairs, the other with
external affairs. Concerning internal affairs the nature of the state was the most debated question. A

‘Wir verlangen persönliche Freiheit’ StaatsAK. ‘Forderungen des Volkes’, 8/StS 11/17,9. On German radical
revolutionary thought see: K. Wegert, German radicals confront the common people, Revolutionary politics and
popular politics 1789-1849 (Mainz, 1992).
‘das unveräußerliche Recht des menschlichen Geistes, seine Gedanken unverstümmelt mitzuteilen.’ StadtAF. Dvd
7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 8.; StadtAO. ‘Hohe zweite Kammer’, 27 February 1848 and StaatsAK. ‘Forderungen des
Volkes’, 8/StS 11/17,9.
‘die ganze aufgebotene Mannschaft ihren Dienst in bürgerlichem Kleide und ohne Waffen versehe.’ StadtAO. ‘An
das badische Volk’, March 1848.
Stadt AO. ‘Erklärung der Stadt Offenburg’, 19th April 1848. “Hierin liegt der Ausdruck seines Sinnes für
‘redliche und wohlmeinende Männer’ StadtAO. ‘Hohe zweite Kammer’, 27 February 1848.
‘Vielleicht in wenigen Tagen stehen französische Heere an unseren Gemarkungen’ Ibid.
‘insbesondere (...) zu diesem Zweck die Großherzogliche Garnisons-Commandantschaft die militärische
Besetzung der wichtigsten Punkte der Umgebung zugesagt (hat).’ StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 30.
StadtAO. ‘An das badische Volk’, March 1848.
40 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal

republic with no monarchical elements was suggested, but was by no means popular.
It was not that
the idea of a popular republic was disliked per se; the disorder that might come with it was feared.
‘Offenburg belongs to the towns of this country, where there can be found strong sympathies towards
the republican form of state in wide parts of the population.’
The council publishing this statement
openly admitted to having republican sentiments, but made it quite clear that it would not declare
Germany a republic or let ducal authorities in the town be threatened by anyone.

Order and safety were far too precious to risk endangering them. This meant most
pamphleteers advocated a constitutional monarchy because ‘ order ist not the daughter, but the Mother
of freedom. In practice only inherited power can give order’.
This simple formula of order providing
freedom and order being guaranteed by hereditary succession was very popular. How the monarch
should rule and, in the context of a united Germany, who the Emperor should be, was hotly debated.

The Grand Duke’s position within the state of Baden was not in great danger, but the way the
state was ruled was criticised. The Civil Service needed to be reformed as did, above all, the judicial arm
of state.
Oriental Despotism was never an accusation levelled at the Duke and his ministers however
laws should be made ‘worthy’ of all citizens.
New ideas influenced old on how internal order could be
guaranteed. A reform of the judicature had long since been suggested but now this would have to
involve the introduction of trial by jury, ‘according to England’s example’.

Recent events had changed the ideas of how a just and stable society should look. In such a
society some people could not enjoy more privileges than others without good reason. For instance
aristocracy had hunting and forestry rights. These would have to be eradicated as a whole.
They were
seen as a cause of the economic hardship of large parts of the population.
Bad harvests had created
pauperism and ‘like a dessert animal the hollow eyed fellow, hunger, has set himself upon the German
countries and hunted his prey.’
Whoever lived in misery was a potential threat to peace. A further
reason for the financial plight of the population was the system of taxation.
Taxation in itself was fine,
but not under this system, which was indirect and seemed to give the aristocracy tax advantages.

StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 19. “Wir werden unter der bisherigen Fürstenherrschaft also weder frei,
noch einig, noch wohlfeil regiert sein.”
‘Offenburg gehört zu den Städten des Landes, wo sich kräftige Sympathien für die republikanische Staatsform im
größten Theile (sic) seiner Einwohner finden.’ Stadt AO. ‘Erklärung der Stadt Offenburg’, 19th April 1848.
‘Ordnung (ist) nicht die Tochter, sondern die Mutter der Freiheit. (...) Die Erblichkeit der Gewalt allein stellt in der
That (sic.) die Ordnung dar.’ StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nrs 154f.
StaatsAK. ‘Forderungen des Volkes’, 8/StS 11/17,9.“Wir verlangen eine volkstümliche Staatsverwaltung.”
Ibid. “Gesetze, welche freier Bürger würdig sind und deren Anwendung durch Geschworenengerichte.”
StadtAO. ‘Hohe zweite Kammer’, 27 February 1848.
StaatsAK. ‘Forderungen des Volkes’, 8/StS 11/17,9.“Wir verlangen die Abschaffung aller Vorrechte.”
StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 8. “dasjenige System der Bevormundung, unter dessen Einfluß unser
Wohlstand so schwer gelitten hat.”
‘wie ein Wüstenthier stürzt sich der hohläugige knochige Gesell, der Hunger, über die deutschen Länder und
ergreift seine Beute.’ StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 1.
StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 19. “Die last der Abgaben erdrückt das Volk; ein gedrücktes Volk ist nie
In Baden the Constitution was supposed to end all aristocratic privileges, except a seat in the Upper-Chamber. See
Chapter II, VIII, III and XXVII in British and Foreign State Papers, 1817-1818.

Instead an income-based tax system should be introduced: ‘In place of the existing taxation system we
should place a progressive tax on earnings.’

Although the privileges of the aristocracy were criticised, their role as an elite was not greatly
questioned. They were seen as an element of the monarchical order and as such part of the stability it
guaranteed. That is why the aristocracy should not be a burden on society but lead by example and
‘foster our trade and commerce, which would help us to feed ourselves and bring prosperity’.

Doubtless doing away with the aristocracy as a whole with its ‘attached princes, the great military… the
expensive ministers… the spies… the great amount of people watching over the indirect system of
taxation’ would be cheaper, but this was only advocated by the most radical pamphlets.

One of the new ideals that had come into the equation was education. It was seen as a way of
escaping poverty and improving ones station in life.
So fostering education was far more important
than questioning the existence of the ordinary aristocracy. Pamphleteers demanded free education for
every person according to their ability.
To ensure that the people could actually better their situation,
education should be in the hands of the community. This was why they demanded an educational
system free from the interference of church and state.

These were the demands that concerned internal affairs. Guaranteed by a constitution, ‘justice
and internal freedom’ was to bring internal stability.
Domestic stability could only be reached fully if
there was security from foreign intervention. Germany was weak in comparison to its neighbours.
There was, at least a perceived, threat from France and not just because of revolutionary disorder. The
general problem of security from outside meddling was probably the oldest of the Empire. Almost all
pamphlets lamented the insecurity of the German states. They were apparently ‘undefended and open
to attack’ and hence easy pray to any foreign power. The answer was to have a common foreign and
defence policy and hence ‘a stronger position abroad’.

A unified Germany would be stronger and protect its component parts better. Unification was
probably the single greatest wish of the pamphleteers.
This was also a point of critique levelled at the

‘An die Stelle der bisherigen Besteuerung trete eine progressive Einkommenssteuer.’ StaatsAK. ‘Forderungen des
Volkes’, 8/StS 11/17,9.
‘unsere Handel und Gewerbe befördern, uns Nahrung und Wohlstand verhelfen’ StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part
1, Nr 1.
‘Apanagen der Prinzen und Prinzessinnen, die ungeheure Militärs, (...), die theuren Minister, (...), die Spione, (...),
die Menge von Wächtern über das indirekte Abgabesystem’ StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 19.
StadtAO. ‘Hohe zweite Kammer’, 27th February 1848 and Obermann, Flugblätter, pp. 40: ‘Vorwärts ist der Ruf
der Zeit’.
StaatsAK. ‘Forderungen des Volkes’, 8/StS 11/17,9. and StadtAO. ‘Hohe zweite Kammer’, 27th February 1848.
StaatsAK. ‘Forderungen des Volkes’, 8/StS 11/17,9.
‘Gerechtigkeit und Freiheit im Inneren’ StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 8 and StaatsAK. ‘Forderungen des
Volkes’, 8/StS 11/17,9.
‘eine feste Stellung im Auslande.’ StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 8. StaatsAK. ‘Forderungen des Volkes’,
8/StS 11/17,9.
StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 19; StadtAO. ‘Hohe zweite Kammer’, 27th February 1848 and StaatsAK.
‘Forderungen des Volkes’, 8/StS 11/17,9.
42 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal

ruling princes ‘you do not form a body of national and political unity in Germany.’
The wish for
unification might be almost universal but the suggested modalities differed greatly. Was the new
Germany to include Austria (Großdeutsch) or exclude Austria (Kleindeutsch)?
Closely tied to this question
was the search for the executor. A monarch was the most favoured option in Southern Germany, but as
to who was to become Emperor there was little consensus.

Although Archduke John of Austria was declared Protector of the Reich at the opening of the
Frankfurt Parliament, a Habsburg on the Throne was not inevitable.
The Protestant and Lutheran
provinces of Baden favoured the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty. When the Austrian Emperor
dissolved the Imperial Diet in Kremsier, thus excluding Austria from a possible unified Germany, a
pamphlet from the former West-Austrian Province of Breisgau lamented: ‘It is painful to see the link
between the German-Austrian country to be regarded as severed from the German land.’
When the
Imperial Crown was offered to the Prussian King another pamphleteer cautiously voiced his misgivings
‘This step has shocked and hurt us, as much as we wish to express our reverence of the person of the
This is a good example of the kind of domestic bickering that was the Achilles’ heel of

The unification of Germany would naturally provide the German states with a single voice
towards the outside. This alone however was not a guarantee for security. The military would have to be
reformed. Instead of being responsible to the Duke or an Emperor, soldiers should give their oath of
allegiance to the constitution.
The army itself should no longer exist in the form it had done, after all
‘the citizen, trained in arms and owning arms can alone protect the state,’ the idea being that the citizen
was to serve as a soldier.

When exactly the 1848 Revolutions in Germany end is a matter of debate. By the end of 1849
the revolutionary fervour seemed to have petered out. The sentimental pamphlets of this time substitute
the constitutional demands with songs and poems, either lamenting the untimely or celebrating the
timely end of the troubles.

IV. Deutschland über alles

‘Ihr bildet kein Organ der nationalen und politischen Einheit Deutschlands.’ StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr
StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nrs 156f. “Wir Deutschen (wollen) Österreich mit Freuden aufnehmen.”
Reichsverweser, sometimes translated as Imperial Vicar.
‘So schmerzlich es (...) bewegt, die bisherige Verbindung der deutsch-österreichischen Lande mit Deutschland (...)
als gelöst zu betrachten.’ StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 199.
‘Dieser Schritt hat uns, (…), überrascht und schmerzlich ergriffen, so gerne wir unsere Verehrung für die Person
des Königs aussprechen.’ StadtAF. Dvd 7680 RARA, Part 1, Nr 203.
StaatsAK. ‘Forderungen des Volkes’, 8/StS 11/17,9.
‘der waffengeübte und bewaffnete Bürger kann allein den Staat schützen’ StadtAO. ‘Hohe zweite Kammer’, 27th
February 1848.

The Germans were split into a myriad of small states with no institution successfully uniting
them; if they had acted as one they could have dominated Europe.
The Empire could do so much
more than just maintain a fragile status quo if the German states had a functioning deliberating body, a
powerful court and a mechanism to regulate external and internal affairs all guaranteed by a charter of
some sort. However, at best that was all it could manage.
Internal disagreement over matters of
diversity encouraged foreigners to meddle, which in turn led to further strife. Napoleon’s re-drawing of
the Empire’s borders epitomizes this. He reduced the number of states, thus also depleting the number
of argumentative princes. This did not mean things became easier. The states were left to deal with their
domestic peculiarities on their own.
Worse still, the question of who or what was to give Germany a
common face was more difficult to answer than ever before. The old institutions of the Holy Roman
Empire had been swept way and were not replaced by new ones. The question of sovereignty had
however been solved. The Empire simply had no sovereign and each prince was henceforth Dei Gratia
in his state. Thus each principality became a different manifestation of God’s will.

The problems of the German states remained largely the same after Napoleon’s rule. Germany
still lacked a set continuity and space.
There was no longer even a nominal unifying body. The
problem of unification at home and protection from outside remained largely unsolved. The newly
emerged German middle class, the Bürgertum, was greatly concerned with this problem. The middling
sort in Germany was the result of education. Bildung was its identity. The German universities were not
only the places where the Bürgertum acquired education; these were also the places where the German
spirit of nationhood was planted.
Hence the ideas of education and patriotism were linked, and the
concept of Bildung was at the heart of the German character.
Education, widely available to all, could
lead to social advancement.
It was even possible to ‘jump’ from one class to another.
monarchy was based on office not on land and, as such, embraced the Bürgertum.

What exactly the role of the working class was around 1848 is difficult to say. Shortly after the
end of the Revolution it was quite clear that the working classes had been conspicuous by their
Doubtless they had been a consideration to the Bürgertum, but almost only as a sort of
democratic alibi.
More recently it has been shown that the working class were active and politically

Anquetil, A summary, p. 265.
C. Applegate, A Nation of Provincials (Berkley, 1990), p. 7.
Ibid. Although Russia was also a feared influence.
E. Breisach, Historiography. Ancient, Medieval and Modern (Chicago, 1983), p. 234.
H. Schulze, The 1987 Annual Lecture – Is there a German History ?’ (London, 1987), p. 8.
Lambert, ‘Paving the `Peculiar Path’’, p. 93. For more on the role of education: Applegate, A Nation of
Provincials, p. 4.
Pointed out, though possibly odd, by H. von Treitschke in G. A. Craig (ed.), History of Germany in the
Nineteenth Century (London, 1975), pp. 63 and 67.
Lambert, ‘Paving the `Peculiar Path´’, p. 95.
For instance the family of Carl von Rotteck and Gustav (von) Struve, who dropped his title to join the
revolutionary forces. See also, R. J. Bazillion, Modernizing Germany: Karl Biedermann’s Career in the Kingdom of
Saxony (New York, 1990).
M. Sonenscher, Before the Deluge (Princeton, 2007), p. 357.
L. Stein, Geschichte der socialen Bewegung in Frankreich, Band II (Leipzig, 1850), Engels, Marx etc.
Stein, Geschichte der socialen Bewegung, Band II, p. 122 and Sonenscher, Before the Deluge, p. 350.
44 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal

literate during this time, yet possibly had similar agendas to those of the bourgeoisie.
The role of the
aristocracy is also unclear, unlike in England and France where their tasks and position in society was
more apparent. It is important to separate the mediatised aristocracy, which had a seat in the upper
house and of which there where very few, from the ordinary aristocracy, which were numerous. The
question of whether the state actually needed either of them was raised, but they were often simply seen
as part of the natural order of things.
The petty aristocrats’ lives and ideals differed little from those
of the Bürgertum.

Education was seen as a way of bettering ones position in life and at the same time a place
where character and patriotism was formed. German patriotism was influenced in at least two ways by
the French. Firstly, the Napoleonic Wars led to the Germans discovering their ‘other’, in the form of
the French.
The greatest threat to Germany was the sort of oppression and interference that it had
suffered under Napoleon.
The reason it had been so easy for him to meddle in German affairs was
that the Germans were not united. A unified Germany would have been a force able to resist such
interference. Secondly the French had transported the passion and politics of the ancient world into the
modern ideas of war that was adopted in Germany.

The Bürgertum’s patriotism was however not wholly dependant on positive and negative
European influences. The influence of education has been mentioned. The German province was also
essential in forming Germany’s and in particular the Bürgertum’s patriotism. The Abbé Sieyès had seen it
as essential to re-organise France into departments, ending all forms of regional loyalty.
It is not
easier to abolish the province for the sake of the whole.
In fact, in Germany this was not necessary as
there was always the underlying awareness that the province was part of a larger whole.
Ethnic and
political units could be used to evoke loyalty.
In Germany this resulted in a unique combination of
patriotism. The French were regarded as the ‘other’, but at the same time their fervour for a nation was
borrowed. This did not mean that provincialism was sacrificed for the nation, rather, it was
incorporated and utilised. The domestic context could provide moral and cultural stability.
relationship to the locality, a German developed his sense of self by education. The province became
the seat of civil virtue.

This possibly odd combination presented itself as German patriotism in the 1840s. The idea of
citizenship with fundamental rights was accepted. In Germany human rights included not only freedom

J. Brophy, Popular Culture and Public Sphere in the Rhineland, 1800-1850 (Cambridge, 2007), p. 300.
Sonenscher, Before the Deluge, p. 356, Iggers, The German Conception of History, p. 106.
Schulze, Is there a German History? (Middletown, 1983), p. 13.
A. Green, Fatherlands (Cambridge, 2001), p. 5.
I. Hont, Jealousy of Trade (Cambridge, 2005), p. 521.
Hont, Jealousy of Trade, p. 133.
Evans, Rereading German history, p. 215.
Green, Fatherlands, p. 21.
Ibid., p. 2.
Hont, Jealousy of Trade, p. 138. Interesting here is also a study on postcards showing provincial landscapes of
Württemberg used during WWI as propaganda, by A. Confino, The Nation as a local Metaphor - Württemberg,
Imperial Germany and National Memory, 1871-1918 (London, 1997).
Applegate, A Nation of Provincials, p. 9.

of expression and freedom of worship, but also the right to live in order and peace. The Monarchy was
seen as bringing order and order was the guarantor for peace. The foundation of an un-monarchical
republic would have been an option if it could have guaranteed similar security, as a monarchy. Similar
to the idea of Abbé Sieyès one could argue the question of monarchical or republican rule was simply
secondary, first of all the good of the people should be considered.
The question was however
important because constitutional monarchies, as mixed forms of government, are ambiguous towards
the location of sovereignty.
This brought about even more questions as to the size and constitution
of the state. As the pamphlets show the idea of a monarch as such was little contested. A quasi-mythical
bond between sovereign and subjects made it far more moral than republican democracy.
affection for the ruler comes from the love born of trust,’ so dynastic loyalty had been the forerunner of
patriotism and is an important link to the province.

Although the monarchical system was accepted, its exact modus of operation and the person
actually on the throne was not. Each state had its ruler by the grace of God, but who had the deity’s
assent to rule all the German states? The answering of this question was hindered by the old allegiances
of the pre-Napoleonic order. If the Protestant King of Prussia had ascended the Imperial throne the
Catholics might have been oppressed. The old Austrian provinces, and Catholics in general, would have
favoured the Emperor of Austria resuming his role as head of the Empire. Germany’s diversity and the
lack of an exactly defined geographic location became an obstacle. When the Austrian Emperor
dispelled his democratic parliament it made the Kleindeutsch solution look inevitable.
The ideas of
Germanic blood transcending borders might belie this belief.

The aim was maximum security and order. Whether this could be achieved with or without
Austria seemed to have only been an issue in so far as it might rule out a Catholic head of state. The
French had been established as the German’s single greatest threat to order, but Russian despotism was
also seen as a menace.
‘Divided we fall’ was recognised as the greatest problem and the unification of
Germany was seen as the answer. How was such a diverse ‘something’ to be unified? Herder imagines a
nation based on linguistic and cultural common ground.
It has been suggested that this idea would
be an antipode to the sovereign and commercial state.
Yet the great diversity of the German peoples,
the many variants of the German tongue they spoke and the differing customs they had were points
against unification. The Heimat or Homeland is what the Nation and the Province have in common.
They stick together against political and economic adversity.
In establishing borders and a foreign

Hont, Jealousy of Trade, p. 132.
Sonenscher, Before the Deluge, pp. 355-356.
Iggers, The German Conception of History, p. 106.
Die Sympathie für den Herrscher ist die Liebe aus dem Vertrauen kommt’ Stein, Geschichte der socialen
Bewegung, Band II, p. 131. Iggers, ‘Nationalism and Historiography’, p. 17.
Evans, Rereading German history, p. 27.
Lambert, ‘Paving the `Peculiar Path’’, p. 102 and Green, Fatherlands, p. 15.
Sonenscher, Before the Deluge, p. 268, although the idea of a mythical bond between monarch and people sounds
like the ethos spread by the Romanow dynasty.
`Germans and Slavs’ in J.G. von Herder, Sämtliche Werke (Stuttgart, 1859), p. 103.
Hont, Jealousy of Trade, pp. 137 and 141.
Applegate, A Nation of Provincials, p. 6. In principle this does not exclude Austria or any other Germanic state.
46 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal

policy they reach greater security.
Borders are a credential of the nation-state.
The major problem
was that national aspirations were not easily reconcilable with regional reality.

The 1848 Revolutions were, up to a point, the result of these internal problems. The German
states were diverse and predisposed to argument. This allowed foreign powers to interfere. Alien
intervention in turn caused further factions. Napoleon was a meddler who caused as many problems as
he solved. The princes were also unable to solve them. When the German middle classes emerged, they
were spurned on by the unification of France and their own unique brand of patriotism, which they
adapted to their needs. In this particular part of the development of the 1848 Revolutions the working
classes only played a role in so far as they had to be considered when policy was being made. Policy
itself was intent on solving the age-old problems of Germany by establishing a secure order. Ideally a
federation of German states should have existed, each state having its own peculiar quirks, which were
guaranteed by the federation. This would bind the locality to the super-structure. The exact nature of
the Federation, especially in political terms, remained unclear. Most importantly the federation provided
security externally, which enabled the monarchs of the small states to concentrate on keeping order

In 1871, under the direction of Bismarck, Germany was finally unified. This was a different
state to the one the pamphleteers of 1848 envisaged. It was distinctly authoritarian. The Obrichkeitsstaat
did guarantee peace and security, but at the cost of personal liberty. Why it was possible for the
Bürgertum to accept this has to now be reassessed in the light of the long-term development leading to
1848. In this context it would be interesting to look at the entire History of Ideas behind the German
constitutional debate. What role, did the History of Thought play? Why did, for instance, Hegel’s
School split in two, one legitimising the Prussian authoritarian Empire and the other becoming the basis
of Marxism? Does this separation have anything to do with constitutional problems and what was the
role of the Bürgertum?

The dynamics forming diverse states also need to be considered further. Germany was not the
only nation with a problematic relationship between domestic and foreign affairs. Italy was also a
Nation formed of diverse states. The Swiss managed to gloss over the internal difficulties that the
rivalry of the Cantons produced. Whig history leads us to believe that England has a linear past and can
be examined as a single location. Some studies concerning the role of the counties during the Civil War
tell a different story.
Germany probably remains a good example to work from. The dynamics

An overseas Empire was not on the agenda, and would remain off it until after Bismarck. See M. Fitzpatrick ‘A
Fall from Grace? Unity, the search for Naval Power and Colonial Possession, 1848 - 84’, in German History, vol. 25,
2 (2007), p. 139.
Ibid., p. 140.
As suggested by Applegate, A Nation of Provincials, p. 13. Although this is not subject of this dissertation, it
might be said, that this is the reason for the failure of the 1848 Revolutions.
For contrasting views see A. Everitt, The Community of Kent and the Great Rebellion (Leicester, 1966) and A.
Hughes, Politics, Society and Civil War: Warwickshire 1620-1660 (Cambridge, 1987).

between Eastern Prussia and Poland need re-examining in this context, although it would in part mean
going back to a quasi-Prussia School history.

Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s Deutschland über alles was re-adopted as the German
National Anthem after the Second World War when it was renamed Das Lied der Deutschen. Only the last
verse may be sung because of the bitter taste left by the Nazis’ theory of Germany’s superiority. Yet,
when Fallersleben wrote his poem the words Deutschland über alles were expressing the hope for a union
in which the German Nation would be a unit above its petty provinces and protect them.

The 1848 Revolutions are not usually considered the result of a long-term development. They
are mostly seen as a background to what happened after them. However, they are neither just an
anomaly nor the cause of some peculiar path to genocide, nor are they simply part of a social debate.
These aspects are doubtless important, but the 1848 Revolutions need to be examined in the context of
a long-standing problem: the question of what Germany is and how it is constituted. To understand
fully the role of the 1848 Revolutions a much larger time frame has to be considered. Not one reaching
exclusively forward towards the first half of the twentieth century, but one that goes backwards. The
problems addressed in the pamphlets of 1848 are almost the same ones that Germany had had since the
1648 Peace of Westphalia. The treaty that was supposed to re-constitute the Empire was in fact only the
start of a long debate of which the Revolutions of the German Bourgeoisie were a seminal point. The
present attempt to draw clearer lines between the jurisdictions of the German states and the German
federation, under the so-called ‘Föderalismusreform” (see Figure 3), is the third in the past five years or
so. The debate as to the nature of Germany and its constitution rages on.

Further Reading

Applegate, C., A Nation of Provincials (Berkley, 1990)
Evans, R. J., Rereading German history: from unification to reunification, 1800-1996 (London, 1997)
Iggers, G.G., The German Conception of History (Middletown, 1983)
Nipperdey, T., Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck (Goldenbridge, 1996)
Wegert, K., German radicals confront the common people, Revolutionary politics and popular politics 1789-1849
(Mainz, 1992)

Illustrative Materials

Figure 1: D. Negker, Quaternionenadler (Augsburg, 1510) coloured print.
Figure 2: A.I.V. Heunisch, Bevölkerung des Großherzogthums Baden (...) 1830 (Karlsruhe, 1830) lithography
with additional colouring (Generallandesarchiv Karlsruhe J-N-B/1).
Figure 3: http://www.dbb.de/dbb-beamtenbund-2006/3150_2928.php, Black and White Magazine
Publicity of the German Civil Service Union (last accessed on 3 May 2009).
Maps 1 and 2: F.W. Putzger, Hisotrischer Weltatlas, 83. Ausgabe (Bielefeld, 1954).
Map 3: O. Ischler, Badischer Schulatlas ‘B’ (Karlsruhe, 1923).

Other provinces such as Silesia and Bohemia or other formerly German territories in Eastern Europe would also
prove interesting: H. Fischer (ed.), Die Ungarische Revolution 1848/49. Vergleichende Aspekte der Revolutionen in
Ungarn und Deutschland (Hamburg, 1999).
48 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
Figure 1: Coloured print of the
so-called ‘Quaternionenadler’ by
David de Negker (1510) showing the
most important principalities and
towns of the Holy Roman Empire.

Figure 2: Lithography of the population of the Grand Duchy
of Baden by A.I.V. Heunisch (1830), the Duke at the centre
surrounded by the various princes, districts and towns
constituting the principality.
‘Bevölkerung des Großherzogthums Baden nach seinen
Kreisen - Aemtern - Städten - Standes- und Grund-
herrschaften bei dem Regierungs Antritte (sic) Sr. Königl.
Hoheit des Grosherzogs (sic) Leopold 1830’
‘The population of the Grand Duchy of Baden according to
its Counties - Administrative Districts - Towns - Princes
without principalities and noblemen at the time of the
beginning of the government of his Royal Highness Grand
Duke Leopold 1830’
Figure 3: Black & White publicity
from the Union of Civil Servants, as a
protest against constitutional uncer-
tainty, showing a shattered German
Figure 4: Example of pamphlet. StadtAO. ‘Hohe
zweite Kammer’.
Map 1: Central Europe before circa 1790.
Map 2: Central Europe after circa 1820.
Map 3: Pre-1801/03 territories
within the 1819 borders of the
50 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
The civil rights movement and the African
American in Hollywood

‘You’re going to make a movie, you’re not going to change the world’

Antonio Weiss
Trinity Hall

Using the papers of civil rights organisations and published interviews with filmmakers and actors, this article aims to
explain why in spite of the civil rights movement, prejudicial stereotypes remain ubiquitous in Hollywood’s depictions of
African Americans. Arguing that though the civil rights movement was relatively successful in breaking down
discrimination in the filmmaking industry (with regard to employment), this article notes that it largely failed to change
the industry’s on-screen output. Furthermore, the article highlights that many civil rights campaigns against Hollywood
were often hindered by the very African Americans these campaigns were trying to help.

‘Until the concern of movies is for the dignity, the manhood, the thinking of the Negro in his world… there can be
no true portrait of the Negro, and no true art.’

Clifford Mason’s condemnation of Sidney Poitier as Hollywood’s ‘showcase nigger’ in 1967’s Guess Who’s
Coming to Dinner was symptomatic of African American attitudes towards the American film industry.

Here, not only did Poitier’s ‘charming, good-looking, mannerly…candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize’
bear no discernible relation to the African Americans rioting in US cities in the same year, but one of the
black characters – the maid, ‘Tillie’ – seemed so shocked by the prospect of a black man marrying a white
girl (especially her white girl) that on the subject she snorts, ‘civil rights may be one thing, but this here is

In truth, Guess Who, despite the film’s clear failings, is one of the few examples of Hollywood
genuinely trying to tackle the issue of racial prejudice. As this article contends, from the birth of
Hollywood up until the present day, the mainstream American film industry (hereafter interchangeable
with Hollywood) has largely failed to escape from using condescending and prejudicial stereotypes for its
depictions of African Americans on-screen – Bogle’s five key characterisations: ‘toms, coons, mulattoes,
mammies and bucks’ being the most obvious.
This is in spite of the emergence, development, and legacy

Quote from Keenan Ivory Wayans in G. Alexander, Why We Make Movies: Black filmmakers talk about the magic of
cinema (New York, 2003), pp. 147-8.
Clifford Mason, “Why does white America love Sidney Poitier so?”, New York Times, 10 September 1967.
Ibid.; This article has tried to use terms such as Negro, coloured, black and African American in their proper historical
D. Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: an interpretive history of blacks in American films, 4
(New York, 2001), p. 217; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, Columbia Pictures; US, 1967).
See Bogle, Toms, p. 3-18.
of the civil rights movement.
Of course there have been examples of non-stereotypical portrayals of
blacks – films which, as Clifford Mason called for in 1967, depicted black characters in three-dimensional
ways, with an ethnic and cultural past, and as more than merely passive agents in a white world, whilst at
the same time eschewing demeaning stereotypes. But these films more often than not are independent
productions, and when there have been Hollywood productions of this kind they have usually fared
poorly at the box-office.
There is nothing particularly novel, however, in highlighting Hollywood’s use of racially
prejudicial stereotypes in depicting African Americans on-screen. As early as 1940 Peter Noble ‘deplored
the stereotyping of Negroes in American movies’; in 1950 VJ Jerome ‘believed that newly emerging film
stereotypes would perpetuate the oppression of black people’; a generation later Leab noted the
‘condescending and defamatory…stereotypes’ of blacks in films; Bogle claimed that ‘black actors…have
played – at some time or another – stereotyped roles’; Guerrero posited that on-screen, ‘blacks have been
subordinated, marginalized, positioned and devalued in every possible manner’; and, as late as 2004,
Benshoff wrote of ‘stereotyped images of African Americans’.

Using the papers of civil rights organisations and published interviews with filmmakers and
actors, this article examines why – in spite of the civil rights movement – stereotypical depictions of
African Americans have persisted on-screen up until the present day. In a broader context, this matters
not only because Hollywood has the power to create images which ‘actively contribute to the ways in
which people are understood and experienced’, but also because Hollywood is itself an industry,
employing thousands of workers, yet the role of the civil rights movement in changing this industry (as
opposed to the output of the industry) has yet to be properly documented.

Three main arguments are outlined in this article. Firstly, that the civil rights movement had a
direct, and largely successful, impact in eroding racial discrimination in Hollywood as an industry.
Secondly, and rather paradoxically, that despite the advances in employment of African Americans in
Hollywood – particularly in areas of film direction and production – racial stereotyping has persisted on-
screen throughout the twentieth century and into the next. And thirdly, that the campaigns of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) against Hollywood played a key – and
hitherto understated role – in breaking down discrimination in the industry. Yet ironically, it was mainly
African Americans working in Hollywood who proved most resistant to these campaigns in the sense of
persisting to act, write or direct stereotypical roles.

Here, the ‘civil rights movement’ refers to the period of 1955-1968, where the movement was a predominantly
church-based one, and was largely symbolised by the role of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Described in Bogle, Toms, p. xi; Described in E. Mapp, Blacks in American Films: today and yesterday (New Jersey,
1972), p. 9; D. Leab, From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Picture (Boston, 1975), p. 263;
Bogle, Toms, p. xxii; E. Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African Image in Film (Philadelphia, 1993), p. 2; H.
Benshoff, America on Film: representing race, class, gender and sexuality at the movies (Oxford, 2004), p. 76.
Benshoff, America on Film, p. 1.
52 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal

I. The civil rights movement and the filmmaking industry
The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ‘banned discrimination in employment, federally assisted programs,
public facilities and public accommodations’ marked a watershed moment for African Americans in
If prejudiced depictions of African Americans on-screen were to change, there is much
evidence to suggest that it could only occur when blacks actually worked in Hollywood in large numbers
behind the cameras; directing, writing, and producing, for even white-liberal filmmakers who clearly
sympathised with the plight of blacks had problems in moving away from racial stereotypes in their films.
Whilst making Gone with the Wind, producer David O. Selznick made clear that he had ‘no desire to make
an anti-Negro film’.
Yet despite the excellent performances of Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel
(the latter of whom became the first black to win an Academy Award for her role), McQueen’s Prissy was
essentially an updated variation on the ‘pickaninny/coon’ stereotype first seen in Thomas Edison’s Ten
Pickaninnies (1904), and McDaniel’s Mammy was the archetypal loyal, servile ‘mammy’.

In terms of the employment of African Americans, late-civil rights movement Hollywood was in
a dire state. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) Report of 1969 into ‘The
Motion Picture Industry in Los Angeles’ concluded: ‘based on analysis of 1967 data, the industry is a very
poor employer of blacks, falling below the average rates for all industries in the LA metropolitan area, in
almost every occupational category’.
The Los Angeles average for employment of blacks was 7.4 per
cent, compared to the ‘Motion Picture Producers’’ average of 4.2 per cent. More revealingly, the bulk of
these black workers were at Universal Studios. At Warner Bros., the report found an ‘almost total
exclusion of blacks in upper category jobs’ and at Walt Disney there were no blacks working as either
officials, managers or technicians. Such employment disparities between the studios led the report to
determine that ‘Universal’s figures show that black employment in the motion picture industry is not a
problem of qualification but of effort’. As such, the EEOC unanimously voted to ‘recommend to the
Justice Department that action be taken immediately to institute a suit under Section 707 of the Civil
Rights Act of 1964’.

More recent EEOC figures show the changes that have occurred in the employment of African
Americans in Hollywood. In 1999, 10.7 per cent of those working in ‘Motion Picture Production and
Services’ were blacks (5.3 per cent in ‘officials and managers’ positions, and 5.4 per cent as
‘professionals’), and in 2006 the total figure stood at 13.3 per cent (5.3 per cent as ‘officials and managers’,

A. Fairclough, Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000 (London, 2002), p. 282.
Quoted in T. Cripps, Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights
Era (New York, 1993), p. 3.
Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, MGM; US, 1939); Bogle, Toms, p. 7.
1969 Equal Employment Opportunities Commission Report on ‘The Motion Picture in Los Angeles’, in NAACP
Papers, Part 30 Series A, Reel 3, Cambridge University Library (hereafter N30A-RL3).
and 6.1 per cent as ‘professionals’).
Comparing these figures to the total number of African Americans
residing in the United States – 13.1 per cent – it becomes clear that not only has Hollywood progressed
dramatically since the late 1960s in terms of employment of African Americans, but that this has been as a
direct result of federal legislation emanating from the civil rights movement.

In terms of African Americans as film directors, the Directors Guild of America database
suggests that in 2008 some 7.3 per cent of its members self-defined as ‘minority’.
Whilst proportionately
this is of course still a low figure, it nonetheless represents a marked shift from the pre-civil rights era
when, for instance, in 1952 William Greaves ‘left…for Canada [because] I couldn’t break the racist film
industry here’.
The biggest change of this period occurred because, as James Snead wrote, ‘as a direct
result of the civil rights movement, black students began entering in university film programs and films
schools in large numbers in the 1960s’.

The most obvious result of this surge in black filmmakers manifested itself in the form of
independent cinema in the 1970s. This ‘L.A. Rebellion’ group, as it became known, all studied at the
University of California Los Angeles’ Theater Arts Department and featured such directors as Haile
Gerima, Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, John Reir, Bill Woodberry, and Julie Dash, amongst others.

These directors openly rejected Hollywood, and were seemingly disgusted by its flurry of hugely profitable
‘blaxploitation’ films such as Shaft (1971), The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and Cleopatra Jones (1973).

These Hollywood films either turned the ‘desexed’, ‘Uncle Tom’ Sidney Poitier figure on its head and
returned to the old stereotype of the ‘buck’ (epitomised by the black would-be rapist Gus in D.W.
Griffith’s magisterial yet racist epic The Birth of a Nation), or presented the ‘buck’ female equivalent in the
form of Tamara Dobson and Pam Grier. Instead, independent films such as Charles Burnett’s Killer of
Sheep (1977) focused on a black, emotionally conflicted, slaughterhouse worker.
Devoid of stereotypes
or traditional Hollywood gloss, the film received poor national distribution despite winning the 1981
Critics Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Ironically then, when black filmmakers have made
non-stereotypical films about African American life, they have often been in the independent sector

Equal Employment Opportunities Commission Report on ‘Motion Picture Production and Services’, 1999 and 2006.
EEOC website: www.eeoc.gov/stats/jobpat/jobpat.html.
US Census Bureau 2006, website: www.census.gov.
Directors Guild of America, website: www.dga.org. Here ‘minority’ is taken to include ‘black’ or ‘African
Alexander, Why We Make Movies, p. 29.
J. Snead, “Images of Blacks in Black Independent Films: A Brief Survey” in M. Martin ed., Cinemas of the Black
Diaspora: Diversity, Dependence and Oppositionality (Detroit, 1995), p. 371.
Alexander, Why We Make Movies, p. 518; N. Masilela, “The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers” in Martin
ed., Cinemas of the Black Diaspora, p. 107.
Shaft (Gordon Parks, Sr, MGM; US, 1971); The Legend of Nigger Charley, Paramount Pictures (1972). Director:
Martin Goldman. Producer: Larry Spangler; Cleopatra Jones (Jack Starrett, Warner Brothers; US, 1973); The Birth of a
Nation (D.W. Griffith, Epoch Film Co.; US, 1915).
Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, Milestone Films; US, 1977 – reissued 2007).
Bogle, Toms, p. 339.
54 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
(where blacks have the greatest autonomy over their work – rather like independent radio), yet inevitably
these films reach a smaller audience than Hollywood productions.

Nevertheless, there are currently many successful African American filmmakers in Hollywood,
almost all of whom went to film schools and were thereby impacted upon by the civil rights movement’s
changes to educational provision. Kathe Sandler, George Tillman, Jr., Malcolm D. Lee, Bill Duke, and
Spike Lee all studied at New York University’s Tisch School; Reginald Hudlin went to Harvard Film
School; and John Singleton was educated at the University of Southern California School of Cinema. Of
these directors, Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) grossed over $127 million domestically and Shaft (2000)
took over $70 million.
Lee’s Malcolm X grossed nearly $50 million, and Hudlin’s Boomerang (1992)
grossed over $70 million.
Whilst on-screen stereotypical depictions of African Americans have
continued, there have been many successful black directors in Hollywood.
The civil rights movement also gave opportunities for African Americans to perform as actors in
a newly expanded range of serious acting roles with the development of black independent (though not
necessarily separatist) theatre. As Loften Mitchell wrote in 1967, ‘when Black Power exploded on the
scene in 1966, the federal government willingly supported the concept by funding a number of theatre
groups that offered training to young actors, writers and stage technicians’.
Roger Furman set up the
‘New Heritage Players’ and Louis Gosset (who would later win an Academy Award for Best Supporting
Actor in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)) founded the ‘Gossett Academy of Dramatic Arts’.

Most famous of all the black theatres founded in the late civil rights period was the ‘Negro
Ensemble Company’ (NEC) which opened in 1967 with funding from the Ford Foundation. As Samuel
Hay wrote, the NEC ‘developed the talents of thousands of theatre people – a list of their names reads
like a “Who’s Who” in the world of theatre, television, and film’.
Hay did not overstate the point.
Alumni of the NEC include Angela Bassett, Adolph Caesar, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson (all
Academy Award nominated), and Denzel Washington (twice Academy Award winner).

The role of theatre in developing black actors matters precisely because it allowed these actors to
veer away from stereotyped performances in films. Thus it is no surprise that it is these professionally
trained actors who have starred in some of the most racially sensitive Hollywood films: Angela Bassett
and Laurence Fishburne in Boyz N The Hood (1991); Adolph Caesar in A Soldier’s Story (1984); Samuel L.

On black radio, see B. Ward, Radio and the struggle for civil rights in the South (Gainesville, 2004).
Box Office Mojo figures, www.boxofficemojo.com. All figures for this article are for domestic US box-office
revenue; 2 Fast 2 Furious (John Singleton, Universal Studios; US, 2003); Shaft (2000) (John Singleton, Paramount
Pictures; US, 2000).
Malcolm X (Spike Lee, Warner Bros.; US, 1992); Boomerang (Reginald Hudlin, Paramount Pictures; US, 1992);
Torriano S. Berry, Historical Dictionary of African American Cinema (Plymouth, 2007), pp. 381-6.
L. Mitchell, Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre (New York, 1967), pp. 220-1.
Ibid., p. 221.
S. Hay, African American Theatre: An Historical and Critical Analysis (New York, 1994), p. 162.
Negro Ensemble Company, Inc, website: www.negroensemblecompany.org.
Jackson in A Time to Kill (1996); and, of course, Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992).
these professionally trained actors to the glut of black professional athletes turned actors in the 1970s
(Woody Strode, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson had all made a similar transition in the 1950s), it becomes
apparent that the latter group – primarily because they were already known for being athletic and
powerful – were frequently typecast as ‘buck’ characters. Thus Jim Brown played on ‘white paranoia and
fascination with black male strength and sexuality’ in Fingers (1978) and the former boxer Ken Norton
appeared as a ‘part noble tom/part sexy buck’ in Mandingo (1975) and Drum (1976).

Of course, theatre and performance have always played a role in the development of African
American actors – the American Negro Theater which ran from 1940 to 1949 counted Sidney Poitier and
Harry Belafonte amongst its alumni – but the difference was that post-civil rights, the federal government
took seriously the claim of forwarding African American theatre and funded it accordingly.

II. The African American on-screen
The advent of the civil rights movement effectively ended three genres of film that had hitherto
dealt with African Americans on-screen. Firstly, black-independent ‘race films’ of the late 1910s to 1940s
floundered as liberally conscious post-war Hollywood began to tap into the black-audience market,
thereby removing these black-independent productions’ core audience (as will be shown, it has often
taken the advent of successful independent productions for Hollywood to change its attitude towards
Such ‘race films’ were produced by black owned production companies such as Noble Johnson’s
Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Oscar Micheaux’s Micheaux Corporation, and made specifically for
black audiences in ghetto theatres.
Though stylistically poor, some of these films dealt with serious
racial problems such as Micheaux’s Within our Gates (1919) which showed on-screen the horrors of
Such was the uproar that the film caused riots in South Side Chicago, and the Chicago
Methodist Episcopal Ministers’ Alliance campaigned to have the film banned.

Secondly, Hollywood’s all-black cast musicals were also wiped away by the civil rights movement.
These pictures, such as Hallelujah (1929), Hearts in Dixie (1929) (both commercial failures), The Green
Pastures (1936), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Stormy Weather (1943), Carmen Jones (1954), and Porgy and Bess (1959),
often idealized ‘Negro’ life and portrayed blacks as all-singing, all-dancing, and ever happy. By the civil

Boyz N The Hood (John Singleton, Columbia TriStar; US, 1991); A Soldier’s Story (Norman Jewison , Columbia
Pictures; US, 1984); A Time to Kill (Joel Schumacher, Warner Bros.; US, 1996).
Bogle, Toms, pp. 243-244.
T. Lott, “A No-Theory Theory of Contemporary Black Cinema” in Martin, Cinemas of the Black Diaspora, p. 42.
D. Bogle, Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: the story of Black Hollywood (New York, 2005), p. 21; Bogle, Toms, p.
Within our Gates (Oscar Micheaux, Oscar Micheaux Corporation; US, 1919). Rediscovered as La Negra in Madrid,
J. Gaines, “Free and Desire: Race Melodrama and Oscar Micheaux” in M. Diawara ed., Black American Cinema
(New York, 1993), p. 49.
56 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
rights era this would became politically dangerous. Thus, when in Porgy and Bess (the last of these
musicals) Sidney Poitier sang (in a role he was pressurised into playing): ‘I got plenty of nothing, and
nothing’s plenty for me’ just a few months before student sit-ins began in Greensboro, the divorcement
from reality was too much even for Hollywood.

Thirdly, the civil rights movement swept away the ‘Negro problem pictures’ born out of the
post-war liberal conscience of the late 1940s. Stanley Kramer’s independently produced Home of the Brave
(1949) was hugely successful and, in dealing with the discrimination of a ‘Negro’ soldier during the war,
placed Kramer firmly at the pinnacle of those who wanted to use film (in his own words) ‘as a weapon
against discrimination, hatred, [and] prejudice.’
Latching on to the popularity of the film, Hollywood
released a further three films that same year which dealt with the issue of discrimination. Lost Boundaries
and Pinky’s ‘tragic mulatto’ heroines and Intruder in the Dust’s defiant black man were undoubtedly
progressive characters for the time (even if Pinky did reinforce segregationist ideals).
But the advent of
the civil rights movement meant that potentially divisive films such as the ‘Negro problem pictures’ were
deemed too dangerous for Hollywood – an industry which traditionally had seen its role as uniting the

Thus, the films that Hollywood made concerning race during the civil rights period were deeply
integrationist in their message. Epitomised by the works of Stanley Kramer and Sidney Poitier, audiences
left with the rather simplistic impression that if the two races could only work together, all problems
would be solved. In truth, many films of the period were bold – Tony Curtis’ character in The Defiant Ones
arrestingly (and somewhat comically) pleads: ‘You can’t go lynching me, I’m a white man!’
This was
particularly impressive given the pressures placed on Hollywood to make financially profitable films. The
studio divorcement decree of 1948 ended the vertical oligopoly the major Hollywood studios had had on
the production, distribution and exhibition of films, and thus as the financial risks mounted in making
films, fewer and fewer were made – just 142 in 1963, compared to 320 in 1951.

However, the problem with the majority of these films was that they bore no real relation to the
ongoing civil rights movement, and they persisted in using condescending stereotypes when portraying
blacks. Thus, compare the SNCC worker Robert Moses’ claim in 1965 that ‘it’s very hard for some of the
[black] students…who are the victims…of race hatred not to begin to let all that out on the white staff’
with Poitier’s Oscar-winning performance in Lilies of the Field (1963). Here, not only is Poitier the saviour

Porgy and Bess (Otto Preminger, Columbia Pictures; US, 1959).
S. Kramer, A mad, mad, mad, mad world (London, 1997), p. 233.
Home of the Brave (Mark Robson, Stanley Kramer; US, 1949); Lost Boundaries (Alfred L. Werker; US, 1949);
Pinky (Elia Kazan, MGM; US, 1949); Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown, MGM; US, 1949).
For more on this, see N. Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews invented Hollywood (London, 1989).
The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer, United Artists; US, 1958).
D. Gomery, The Hollywood Studio System (London, 1986), p. 1; P. Monaco, History of the American cinema vol. 8:
The Sixties, 1960-1969 (New York, 2001), pp. 20-21.
of the poor white nuns, but when a construction manager racially patronises him – calling him ‘boy’ –
Poitier’s reaction is to pull up his bootstraps and graft hard to prove his worth.
If anything, this was a
throwback to DuBois’ ‘talented tenth’ proclamation, and very much out of tune with the ongoing civil
rights movement.
There were, of course, notable exceptions. The ostensibly right-wing director John Ford (who
appeared as an unaccredited Klansman in The Birth of a Nation) produced one of the most racially sensitive
films of the era with Sergeant Rutledge (1960). Here, Woody Strode’s sergeant (who stands wrongly accused
of the rape of a white girl) is portrayed as dignified and noble throughout. Indeed, Ford’s seeming apologia
for his ‘coon-esque’ depictions of Stepin Fetchit in Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935)
even has Strode crying out: ‘It was all right for Mr. Lincoln to say we was free. But that ain't so! Not yet!
Maybe someday, but not yet!’ But Sergeant Rutledge was poorly received by critics (bar commendation for
Strode’s performance) and failed to mark a notable change in Hollywood’s standard depictions of African

Indeed, the vast majority of characterisations of blacks on-screen in this era retained the same
stereotypical traits of decades before. Poitier consistently represented the archetypal ‘Uncle Tom’:
‘desexed’, loyal, and unthreatening. He gave his freedom up for his white companion in The Defiant Ones,
suffered bedroom problems in A Raisin in the Sun (1961), and even when confronting racial prejudice in In
The Heat of the Night (1967) his character seemed desperate to prove his worth to the erstwhile bigoted
Rod Steiger.
Given that Poitier was by this point one of the highest grossing actors of all time, the
impact of seeing the one, leading black icon on-screen portrayed in roles so removed from the reality of
the black experience was clearly not lost on African Americans, as Clifford Mason’s aforementioned
diatribe highlights.
It took the success of an independent production for Hollywood to change its attitude towards
African Americans on-screen. Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) – for which,
notably, he gained funding by pretending ‘I was shooting this little porno film’ and had to ‘hire a white
man to pretend he was the boss to release the film’ – signalled a new era of blacks on-screen.
Not only
did this hugely successful low-budget film about a black hustler, stud, white-cop killer echo many
sentiments expressed in separatist, post-civil rights black attitudes – Huey Newton of the Black Panthers
called it ‘the first revolutionary Black film’ – it prompted a string of Hollywood imitations.
Shot on a
budget of $500,000 and grossing over $4 million domestically, through the success of the film, Hollywood

R.P. Warren, Who Speaks for the Negro? (New York, 1965), p. 96; Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, MGM; US,
Bogle, Toms, p. 186.
The Defiant Ones, see endnote 38; A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie, Columbia Pictures; US, 1961); In The Heat of
the Night (Norman Jewison, United Artists; US, 1967).
Alexander, Why We Make Movies, p. 23.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baasasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, Cinemation Industries; US, 1971); Benshoff, America on
Film, p. 86.
58 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
realised the potential of the black-audience market it could tap into at a time when film revenues had hit
an all-time low.
As such, films like Shaft (1971), The Bus Is Coming (1971), Cool Breeze (1972), and Detroit
9000 (1973) heralded in a new era of ‘blaxploitation’ films.
However, these films merely presented
updated stereotypes of the ‘buck’ character, and were simply a passing fad for Hollywood. The NAACP
condemned the films as glorifying ‘black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters and super males’, yet
they need not have worried, for as Rosalind Cash remembered of the mid-seventies: ‘my agent [called],
saying, not facetiously, that blacks were out of style’.
And thus the ‘blaxploitation’ era was over.
Late 1970s and 1980s depictions of African Americans did not always rely on negative
stereotyping. A string of Poitier directed films – Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975),
and A Piece of the Action (1977) – were successful both amongst black audiences and commercially.
despite the breakthrough of artists like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, the success of “The Cosby
Show” on television, and the attempted presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson, depictions of African
Americans in Hollywood still continued to eschew three-dimensional representations.
Thus the cross-
over ‘bi-racial buddy movies’ of the Rocky trilogy (1976-1982), 48 Hrs (1982), and Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
were throw-backs to the black-white ‘buddy movies’ of The Defiant Ones and In The Heat of The Night,
portraying blacks very much in a white world, without any discernible cultural or ethnic heritage.

Exceptions to this include the Lethal Weapon films (1987-1998) where at least Danny Glover’s family
background is shown, and Coming to America (1988), where Eddie Murphy’s character actually has relations
with a black woman.
Yet these films were by and large exceptions, and commercially, Coming to America
remains one of Murphy’s least successful films.
Even so, for all of these movies, Fred Williamson’s
underlying question about Hollywood remained pertinent: ‘how many black stars in this goddamn
business can do movies without a white counterpart?’

To name just two of the decade’s celebrated films on race – Stephen Spielberg’s The Color Purple
(1985) and Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988) – provides clear examples of the persistent failure of

T. S. Berry, 50 Most Influential Black Films: A Celebration of African-American Talent, Determination, and
Creativity. (Kensington, 2001), pp. 116-119.
Bogle, Toms, p. 242.
Ibid., p. 242; G. Null, Black Hollywood: From 1970 to today (New York, 1993), p. 14.
Bogle, Toms, p. 251.
For more on blacks in television, see H. Gray, Watching Race: television and the struggle for ‘Blackness’
(Minneapolis, 1995), and K. Zook, Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television (New York,
Guerrero, Framing Blackness, p. 128; In particular, Rocky II (Sylvester Stallone, United Artists; US, 1979), and
Rocky III (Sylvester Stallone, MGM/United Artists; US, 1982); 48 Hrs. (Walter Hill, Paramount Pictures, 1982);
Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, Paramount Pictures, 1984).
See for instance, Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, Warner Bros.; US, 1987); Coming to America (John Landis,
Paramount Pictures; US, 1988).
E. Guerrero, “The Black Image in Protective Custody: Hollywood’s Biracial Buddy Films of the Eights”, in
Diawara, Black American Cinema, p. 239.
Alexander, Why We Make Movies, p. 65.
Hollywood to veer away from stereotypes of African Americans.
The former over-simplified its plot
and failed to explain how the root cause of black male brutality on black women was borne out of
enslavement (as implied in the book on which it was based). The latter, though historically quite good in
highlighting the nature of 1950s white-supremacist Mississippi, was effectively a ‘white-buddy’ movie set
in the civil rights era, with blacks merely as passive agents.
However, the biggest disappointment in Hollywood’s depiction of blacks can perhaps be found
in the era when African American filmmakers actually began to make an impact in the industry. Spike
Lee’s (written, directed, and produced) independent cross-over hit Do the Right Thing (1989) and Robert
Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1986) undoubtedly had black sensibilities at their core in a way that white-
made Hollywood films about blacks had never managed before.
Similarly, John Singleton’s Boyz N the
Hood (1991) and Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991) both captured the essence of a new, post-
Reagan generation of black frustration, without resorting to glorifying violence.
But Forest Whitaker’s
Waiting to Exhale (1995) seemed merely to reinforce male patriarchy (and grossed nearly $50 million);
Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (2001) – the fifth-highest grossing film made by an African American –
glorified ghettocentricity; and John Singleton’s Shaft (2000) merely harked back to the ‘buck’ stereotypes
of the ‘blaxploitation’ era.

Indeed, Tim Story’s NAACP Image Award-nominated Barbershop (2002) – which grossed over
$75 million – was offensive not because it mocked Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but because
through its comical depiction of the lazy, ignorant, ‘coon-esque’, ‘hip-hop generation’, it reinforced racial
stereotypes, rather than rejected them.
The film, unlike Boyz N the Hood, placed the failure of the
African American in society squarely on the ‘lazy’ individual, rather than any external socio-economic
pressures. As the ‘hip-hop ex-con’ Ricky says: ‘[We need] some discipline. Don’t go out and buy a Range
Rover when you are living with your mama. Pay your mama some rent. And can we please try to teach
our children something other than the Chronic Album? And please black people be on time for
something other than free before eleven at the club’.

Of course, it was not only black filmmakers who were falling into the same stereotypical traps as
before. In Frank Darabont’s 1999 film The Green Mile – which grossed over $136 million – the wrongly
convicted black-rapist, ‘John Coffey’, not only has no ethnic or cultural background, such is his innate-

The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg, Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment; US, 1985); Mississippi Burning (Alan
Parker, Orion Pictures; US, 1988). Both films were nominated for several Academy Awards.
Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, Universal Pictures; US, 1989); Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend, The Samuel
Goldwyn Company; US, 1986).
Boyz N The Hood, see endnote 28; New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, Warner Bros.; US 1991).
Waiting to Exhale (Forest Whitaker, 20
Century Fox; US, 1995); Training Day (Antoine Fuque, Warner Bros.; US,
2001); Shaft (2000), see endnote 22.
Box Office Mojo figures.
Barbershop (Tim Story, MGM; US, 2002); for more on black press criticisms of Barbershop, see D. Leonard,
Screens Fade to Black: contemporary African American cinema (London, 2006), pp. 141-161.
60 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
goodness that he bears no ill-will to his white executioners because: ‘I’m tired, boss’. Indeed, even when
his innocence becomes apparent, the noble, sexless, ‘tom-esque’ Coffey is seemingly content to die,
labelled as yet another black rapist.
Even if he is a ‘black Jesus’, as the film hints, as Janet Maslin wrote
in The New York Times, his ‘capacity for self-sacrifice has its inadvertently racist overtones’.
Robert Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance (considered a box-office flop in grossing over $30 million –
still more than Lee’s Do The Right Thing) portrayed Will Smith as Matt Damon’s noble, ‘Uncle Tom-esque’
servile caddy; helping him regain his bedroom and golfing prowess, all because he is his ‘Magical African
American Friend’ (as Time called him).
Referring to Bagger Vance, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote:
‘Hollywood is still, in the year 2000, disinclined to let black actors play human beings’.

Clearly, the depiction of African Americans had changed from the rapist Gus in The Birth of a
Nation in 1915 to Spike Lee’s three-dimensional characters in the late nineteen-eighties and beyond
(especially in his critique of a racist, reactionary television industry in 2000’s Bamboozled).
But many
depictions retained the same negative stereotypical portrayals of decades before. This was despite that fact
that blacks began not only writing films but directing them too in the post-1970s era of ‘auteurism’, when
directors truly began to influence the nature of films.

III. Civil rights campaigns against Hollywood

One of the unwritten histories of Hollywood’s depictions of African Americans has been the role
of civil rights organisations’ campaigns against the industry in the second half of the twentieth century.

Seemingly, it was only the least militant of the civil rights organisations (and the one with the greatest
resources), the NAACP, which put any direct pressure on Hollywood during the period.
During the
civil rights era and beyond, the NAACP campaigned vigorously to improve the perception of blacks on-
screen. However it was confronted by the dual stumbling blocks of condescending white racism, and
African Americans within the industry that refused to support the cause.

Box Office Mojo; The Green Mile (Frank Darabont, Warner Bros.; US, 1999); Bogle, Toms, p. 230.
New York Times, 10 December 1999.
Time, 27 November 2000; The Legend of Bagger Vance (Robert Redford, Dreamworks; US, 2000).
Bogle, Toms, pp. 430-431; New York Times, 3 November 2000.
The Birth of a Nation, see endnote 19; Bamboozled (Spike Lee, New Line Cinema; US, 2000).
Peter Biskind, Easy riders, raging bulls (London, 1998), p. 16.
The part of this section which deals with the campaigns of civil rights organisations against Hollywood in the second
half of the twentieth century is based on the archival research of the author. As far as the author is aware, these
campaigns have been hitherto undocumented (unless mentioned otherwise in the footnotes) in any works dealing with
Hollywood and the civil rights movement.
Cripps’ Making Movies Black focuses on the first half of the twentieth century.
The papers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
reveal no discernible efforts to influence the film industry, although the SNCC was clearly aware of the power of film,
recommending group leaders to use clips from films such as MGM’s 1949 Intruder in the Dust to spark debate on civil
rights classes. SNCC Papers, “Films on civil rights”, Cambridge University Library, Reel AFL-C10.
The NAACP had always been aware of the power of film as a medium for representation of
blacks. It campaigned vociferously against The Birth of a Nation in 1915; in World War II it kept a file of
filmmakers who ‘might help them use film as a weapon’; and in 1942 its then executive secretary Walter
White told the editor of the LA Tribune, Almena Davies, ‘broadening roles for Negroes in the movies
will…help the Negro as a whole’.
White targeted Hollywood with the genuine belief that the industry
could be changed. In 1940, he, along with Wendell Wilkie (the 1940 failed Republican presidential
candidate), Walter Wanger (a Hollywood film producer), and Darrly Zanuck (producer at Fox) met to
discuss ‘ways and means of presenting to motion picture producers, writers, directors, and actors the
justice of picturing the Negro as a normal human being instead of a monstrosity’.

After a meeting with Hollywood moguls in 1942, White ‘found a surprising number of writers,
directors, actors…and a small number of producers, who were genuinely disturbed by the situation and
eager to find practical ways of solving it’.
However, few films that were released bore any of the
hallmarks of these meetings. It was not until 1949’s Pinky, that White, on receiving the script from
Zanuck, replied: ‘it begins to look as though what you and Wendell and I have been working for all these
years is beginning to show results’.
Yet Pinky did not have the impact White desired. His successor,
Roy Wilkins, denounced its ‘underlying theme that agitation is wrong…[that] good-will will eventually
correct matter, and – most dangerous of all – [that] segregation should be accepted!’
Nevertheless, the
film, and the work of White, highlighted both how seriously the pre-civil rights era NAACP viewed the
role of Hollywood, and the difficulties it faced in trying to change the industry.
Nevertheless, during the civil rights period the NAACP campaigned in earnest to change
Hollywood. In 1957 Roy Wilkins told a conference of Hollywood film producers and actors:
[There] are three Negroes in Congress, many [Negro] state legislators and city councilmen, yet
with all this, we find that films seldom picture Negroes as part of an American crowd
scene…it is unrealistic for the movies and television not to keep pace with the Negro’s own
progress. It is not fair to the race or to the Negro actor…to be handicapped by
misrepresentation in a medium which speaks powerfully to people everywhere.

Similarly, in 1961 the NAACP Los Angeles Branch met with the Directors of the Screen Extras Guild and
the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) to discuss ‘hiring policies of the studio’, eventually leading to the SAG
adopting an ‘anti-segregationist policy’.
In 1962 the NAACP setup its Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch

Benshoff, America on Film, p. 78; Cripps, Making Movies Black, p. 15; NAACP Papers, N18B-RL20, 28 April
W. White, A man called White: the autobiography of Walter White (London: Victor Gollancz, 1949), p. 200.
Ibid., p. 202.
Ibid., p. 234.
Cripps, Making Movies Black, p. 234.
N24A-RL28, 24 October 1957.
N24A-RL28, 3 March 1961; ibid., p. 14 August 1961.
62 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
with the specific aim of improving depictions of blacks on-screen.
And, in the mid-1960s, the
NAACP’s labor secretary Herbert Hill ‘threatened to...“disfranchise” studio guilds that had been denying
blacks employment…and the studios began to grudgingly admit black apprentices to the guilds’.

Throughout the NAACP’s campaigns they faced unwillingness on the part of Hollywood studios
to change their practices. Nevertheless, it would seem that it was less an explicit racism that caused this,
and more, as Melvin Van Peebles described it, a ‘benign, unconscious racism’.
In reality, this would
perhaps be harder to change. As Stanley Kramer reminisced on selling the idea of Guess Who’s Coming to
Dinner to Columbia, ‘I made a careful, studied sell…I didn’t say that it would be a marriage between a
black man and a white woman’.
Similarly, when John L. Doles of the SAG wrote to Roy Wilkins in
1961 that, ‘certain producers still take the stand that certain prohibitions or policies promulgated by the
NAACP impede full employment opportunities for negroes. For instance, we have heard that Negroes
may not be cast as villains or in scenes of brutality’.
The implicit assumption here was that these
producers simply did not believe that there was much of a market for ‘Negroes’ being cast in much other
than these stereotyped roles.
Nevertheless, the campaigns of the NAACP did make gains. In 1966, the head of the
Association of Motion Picture, Television and Film Producers, Charles Boren, thanked the NAACP for
‘making us aware’ of the discrimination of ‘Negroes’ in the industry, and announced that ‘training
programs are being started in co-operation with the unions to bring in Negro workers behind the cameras
in addition to portraying them on the screen’.

Perhaps most revealingly, the greatest hurdle these campaigns against Hollywood faced came in
the form of the people they were trying to help – African Americans in the film industry. As early as
1942, the LA Tribune noted that its campaign against demeaning stereotypes of ‘Negroes’ in Hollywood
was ‘not well received by the majority of Negro actors in Hollywood, who complained that we were trying
to take the bread out of their mouths’.
A similar situation arose in 1955 when the presiding officer of
the Co-ordinating Council of Negro Performers urged members to picket discriminatory television
studios, only to be met with the response: ‘Let’s not antagonise anyone. It may lose us our jobs.’
in 1959, Stepin Fetchit – who made famous the lazy ‘coon’ stereotype in the 1930s – attacked the NAACP

N24A-RL28, 1 June 1962.
Cripps, Making Movies Black, pp. 292.
Alexander, Why We Make Movies, p. 23.
Kramer, Mad World, p. 220.
N24A-RL28, 13 October 1961.
N28A-RL8, 13 March 1966.
N28B-RL20, 14 September 1942.
N24A-RL24, 29 November 1961.
for having ‘Communist influence’ and defended his career, denying ‘that his characterization of the Negro
ever belittled his race’.

Later on in the period the NAACP still faced black hostility towards its actions. The early 1970s
Committee Against Blaxploitation, formed in conjunction with the Urban League, had to be disbanded
after pressure from African American filmmakers and actors who felt that the group – which complained
that the ‘blaxploitation’ genre glorified pimps, drugs and violence – was hindering their employment
Even in the early twenty-first century there appeared tensions between African American
filmmakers who felt that criticism from blacks was holding back their progress in the industry. As
Keenan Ivory Wayans, whose Scary Movie films (2000, 2001) and White Chicks (2004) made him the
second-highest grossing African American film director ever, said of the black press in 2003: ‘they don’t
understand the damage that’s being done by them taking negative spins of everything we do. They naively
have expectations of people…you’re going to make a movie… you’re not going to change the world’.

Of course, there is another side to the story. Ostensibly John Singleton used the prestige gained
from his Shaft sequel to write, produce and direct 2001’s Baby Boy about the hardships of an immature,
young, black father of two children – harking back to some of his social and familial concerns in Boyz N
The Hood.
But it would seem that it in order to makes films that have ‘something to say’ (as Singleton
opined), black directors first have to prove their worth in Hollywood, by making successful – yet racially
stereotypical – films such as Shaft (2000), in the process rejecting campaigns by black pressure groups to
change stereotypical depictions of African Americans on-screen.

IV. Conclusion
In 2003, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, when discussing the possibility of a romantic film
with Denzel Washington and Halle Berry (both Oscar winners), said: ‘white people aren’t interested in
watching black people fall in love and make love’.
This statement goes some way to explaining the
ongoing stereotypical depictions of African Americans on-screen in Hollywood. The use of stereotypes in
films is commonplace because they reflect the prejudices and perceptions of the target demographic
viewer (indeed a similar history of stereotypical depictions could be traced with regard to Native
Americans, Latin Americans, and other ethnic minorities). Given that in 2007, 909 million movie
admissions were sold to Caucasians, and only 150 million to African Americans, it is perhaps unsurprising

N24C-RL22, 23 May 1959.
Benshoff, America on Film, p. 87.
Alexander, Why We Make Movies, pp. 147-8; Scary Movie (Keenan Ivory Wayans, Dimension Films; US 2000);
Scary Movie 2 (Keenan Ivory Wayans, Dimension Films; US, 2001); White Chicks (Keenan Ivory Wayans, Columbia
Pictures; US, 2004).
Baby Boy (John Singleton, Columbia Pictures; US, 2001); Boyz N The Hood, see endnote 28.
Alexander, Why We Make Movies, p. 473.
Skip Gates interview with Arnold Milchan in ‘America behind the color line’, BBC/PBS (2004).
64 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
that only a handful of Hollywood films eschew stereotypical depictions of blacks that speak directly to
white audiences and instead target African American viewers.

Nevertheless, what is perhaps surprising is that these stereotypes so often have retained the same
prejudicial qualities that were first aired around the birth of Hollywood. This is especially surprising,
given that civil rights movement clearly had a direct impact on the American film industry, both in
eroding discriminatory employment practices, and in opening doors for a new generation of post-civil
rights African American directors and actors. Many of this new generation have done much to change
these negative portrayals on-screen. Spike Lee, Reginald Hudlin, Mario Van Peebles, Morgan Freeman,
and others have not only succeeded in Hollywood (as well as countless independent African American
filmmakers), but have done so without resorting to negative portrayals of blacks.
But there are also
others who have seemingly perpetuated many of the stereotypical characterisations of blacks that the civil
rights movement (especially the NAACP) fought hard to destroy. Perhaps one should sympathise
because the pressures of a white-dominated film industry have often made it near-impossible to break free
of these prejudicial visual representations. But perhaps it is also the case that many of these directors and
actors are of a generation who did not really understand what the civil rights movement meant, and what
it had fought for. As Eddie Murphy told Newsweek in 1983: ‘I’m not angry… If somebody white called me
“nigger” on the street, I just laughed’.

Further reading

Alexander, George, Why We Make Movies: Black filmmakers talk about the magic of cinema (New York,
Benshoff, Harry M., America on Film: representing race, class, gender and sexuality at the movies
(Oxford, 2004)
Bogle, Donald, Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: the story of Black Hollywood (New York, 2005)
Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: an interpretive history of blacks in American films, 4
(New York, 2001)
Cripps, Thomas, Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil
Rights Era (New York, 1993)

MPAA Movie Attendance Survey 2007, website: www.mpaa.org, p. 11.
However Spike Lee has been criticised by some members of the black community, notably Amiri Baraka. See “Spike
Lee at the Movies” in Diawara, Black American Cinema, pp. 145-153.
Quoted in Bogle, Toms, p. 281.
Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing
Executioners: The unexpected
toast of the German public sphere

Joel Winton
Sidney Sussex

For those interested in understanding Germany's Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the Goldhagen controversy offers a platform
from which to explore some of the most pertinent issues relating to the politics of memory in contemporary Germany. The
bifurcated German reception of *Hitler's Willing Executioners*, viewed by many contemporaries as a litmus test for
Germany's democratic rehabilitation, highlighted competing conceptualisations of the role of history among historians and the
German public. This article asks why Goldhagen was in such high demand and often so well received by a German public
when historians were so critical. In doing so we are confronted with a German public striving to fully come to terms with the
Nazi past, and in the process hoping to no longer be fettered by it.

On the 20th of March 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the
(from here on referred to as HWE) was released in the USA on a wave of media hyperbole
about fully ‘explaining’ the Holocaust. It was unequivocally condemned by Holocaust experts.
what should be seen as the first of three distinct stages in the Goldhagen controversy, the doyens of
German history responded with increasing vitriol. Early German reviewers (historians and editors alike)
argued that the book contained ‘nothing new’ and was ‘simply bad’.
It was a ‘provocation’, a ‘collective
guilt thesis’ festooned with accusatory language that pinned Germany to an eternal ‘sonderweg’.

Yet only six months later (as stage two drew to a close), Josef Joffe and Volker Ullrich would write
respectively about Goldhagen’s ‘conquering of Germany’on his ‘Triumphal Procession’ through the country.

More favourable reviews now permeated the press (often attacking the dismissive earlier critics) whilst the
public propelled HWE to the top of the best sellers’ lists.
Meanwhile would-be audience members
scuffled for tickets outside the podium discussions.
What had changed? Why was Goldhagen, so
despised by his early critics, now seemingly in such high demand? Why almost one year after the release of

Daniel. J. Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, 1996).
Raul Hilberg, ‘The Goldhagen Phenomenon’, Critical Inquiry, 23 (1997), pp. 721-728, at p. 725. Hilberg describes
early reactions of Historians at the Washington Holocaust Symposium.
Michael Wolffsohn, ‘A People of Willing Jew Murderers?’, Berliner Morgenpost, (24 April 1996); and Eberhard
Jackel, ‘Simply a Bad Book’, Die Zeit, (May 17 1996).
Volker Ullrich, ‘A Provocation to a New Historikerstreit’, Die Zeit (12 April 1996); and Frank Schirrmacher, ‘Hitler’s
Code’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (15 April 1996); and Norbert Frei, ‘A People of “Final Solutionsts?”,
Suddeutsche Zeitung (April 13 1996).
Josef Joffe, ‘The Killers Were Ordinary Germans’, The New York Review of Books (28 November 1996); and Volker
Ullrich, ‘A Triumphal Procession’, Die Zeit (13 September 1996).
Representative examples include, Ingrid Gilcher-Holtey, ‘The Mentality of the Perpetrators’, Die Zeit (7 June 1996);
Ulrich Herbert, ‘The Right Question’, Die Zeit (14 June 1996); Andrei Markovits, ‘Discomposure in History’s Final
Resting Place’, Blatter fur deutsche und international Politik (June 1996).
Bernhard Rieger, ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den?’, History Workshop Journal, 43 (1997), pp. 226-233, at p. 228.
66 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
HWE (during the third and final stage of quiet reflection), was Goldhagen the toast of the liberal left and
German democracy, as Jurgen Habermas delivered a laudatory speech to the young American now back
in Germany to accept his ‘Democracy Prize’?
Unpacking these questions that cut to the very core of the
Goldhagen controversy shall be the primary focus of this article.

For those interested in understanding Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the Goldhagen
controversy offers a platform from which to explore some of the most pertinent issues relating to the
politics of memory in post Nazi Germany. Part of Goldhagen’s success lies in the way in which his book
highlighted themes and questions that have, since 1945, both captivated the German public sphere and
been avoided by it. As Habermas noted, ‘Goldhagen’s investigations are tailored to address precisely those
questions that have polarized our public and private discussions for the past half century.’
study poked at long established issues of: collective guilt, resistance, victim hood and normalisation. He
further highlighted and thrust into the centre of public discourse oft-neglected questions of morality and
individual responsibility. German historians had never concerned themselves with such subjective
questions, and much of their criticism is explained by discrepancies between what they and Goldhagen
believed to be the role of history. Where Goldhagen saw an opportunity to recreate a moralising bloody
narrative, German historiography identified a need to explain the structural processes that had led to the
event. The ensuing controversy emphasised exactly which model the public preferred.

Goldhagen was concerned with the perpetrators’ thought process at the moment they pulled the
trigger. Objectivity in this matter was deemed impossible and so it was neglected by the German guild. In
highlighting the ordinary perpetrators, establishing them as Germans motivated by anti-Semitism,
Goldhagen broke the sacrosanct taboos that had been conscientiously avoided by German historiography
and political culture. The content in Goldhagen’s book, though perhaps familiar to historians, came as a
shocking discovery to the German public and goes some way to explaining HWE’s success. However,
content alone does not sufficiently explain the bifurcated reception of Goldhagen. Further evinced in the
controversy are: issues of generational conflict, political concerns, questions of censorship and historical
aesthetics, which add to our understanding of the public reception. The context of ‘events’ preceding,
and indeed occurring during the controversy, heightened public sensitivity to some of Goldhagen’s key
themes and taboos. In coming to understand why the public received Goldhagen as they did, it is of the
utmost importance that we recognise what Goldhagen was offering them. His message was two-fold, and
the second part, emphasising how Germany had changed completely since 1945, was what they responded
to best. Goldhagen ultimately offered a version of normalisation and redemption previously unpalatable
to the ‘public’.

Robert. R. Shandley, Unwilling Germans? The Goldhagen Debate (Minnesota, 2001), at p. 1.
Jurgen Habermas, ‘Goldhagen and the Public Use of History: Why a Democracy Prize for Daniel Goldhagen?’,
Blatter fur deutsche und internationalePolitik (April 1997).

To truly understand the reaction of the ‘German public’, we must first recognise that it was a
specific public sphere that ‘received’ Goldhagen on behalf of the nation. Seemingly unacknowledged at
the time was the absence of East German voices from the debate (Kurt Patzoldexcepting).
Goldhagen’s tour of ‘Germany’ never ventured East of Berlin. Thus we are dealing with a predominantly
West German ‘public’. Moreover, reviews of the book, often invoking complex methodological and
historiographical arguments, were clearly aimed at an intellectually active ‘public’. The locations chosen to
host the podium discussions are equally important. Goldhagen filled the venerable sites of German
bourgeois culture like the Hambruger Kammerspiel, and the Mozart Saal of the Alte Oper in Frankfurt.

Such venues would play host to an audience already familiar with them.

Reporting on the podium discussions, commentators noted how the enthusiastic audiences were
predominantly made up of those belonging to the ‘third generation’ (those whose grandparents may have
experienced National Socialism).
Discourse concerning Goldhagen before, during, and after his tour
was driven overwhelmingly by the centre-left. It was the left historians and editors who first came out so
vociferously against Goldhagen.
The ‘right’ was largely absent from a debate that (unlike its
predecessors Bitburg and the Historikerstreit, the two most explicit examples) saw very little political
delineation. Ultimately when speaking of the ‘public’ in the Goldhagen controversy, we are dealing with a
predominantly West German, left/liberal, intellectually active ‘middle-class’ drawn from the third
generation. It is imperative that we recognise this debate as one conducted in a specific public sphere that
was not representative of a ‘German’ whole. Only then can we understand the public reception.
At a loss to explain the rapid polarisation between historians and the public, numerous observers sought
an explanation in Goldhagen’s perceived stylistic novelty. Reviews in Germany often alluded to
Goldhagen’s ‘thick’ descriptions of genocide.
All previous German historiography had developed a
detached ‘bloodless’ style when portraying these events, and as Norbert Frei noted, ‘[Goldhagen] has us
confront the dreadful details of the killing actions… with an urgency and clarity only rarely to be found in
the previous scholarly literature’.
There can be no denial that Goldhagen’s descriptions were explicit:
‘Blood, bone, and brains were flying about, often landing on the killers, smirching their faces and staining

Kurt Patzold, ‘On the Broad Trial of the German Perpetrators’, Neues Deutschland (17 August 1996).
Atina Grossman ‘Memory, Repetition, and Responsibility in the New Germany’, in Geoffrey Eley (ed.), The
“Goldhagen Effect”: History, Memory, Nazism – Facing the German Past, (Minnesota: University of Michigan Press,
2001), pp. 89-129, at p. 113.
Both Joffe’s ‘Killers’ and Ullrich’s ‘A Triumphal Procession’ highlight this peculiarity.
Frei, ‘A People of “Final Solutionsts”?’; Schirrmacher, ‘Hitler’s Code’; Jackel, ‘Simply a Bad Book’; Hans-Ulrich
Wehler, ‘Like a Thorn in the Flesh’, Die Zeit (24 May 1996); Rudolf Augstein, ‘The Sociologist as Hanging Judge’,
Der Spiegel (15 April 1996).
Jackel, ‘Simply a Bad Book’; Ingrid Gilcher-Holtey, ‘The Mentality of the Perpetrators’, Die Zeit (7 June 1996);
Herbert, ‘The Right Question’; Markovits, ‘Discomposure in History’s Final Resting Place’. These provide
characteristic samples.
Frei, ‘A People of “Final Solutionsts”?’
68 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
their clothes.’
Kocka and Mommsen respectively argued that the ‘books aesthetics were key in
establishing its popularity’ and that in its portrayal of sadistic and gruesome violence it realised a ‘certain
voyeuristic moment’.
Such claims that reduce the non-academic readership to ‘voyeurs’, discount the
book’s themes, content and message as a factor in its popularity. If so, all that a German public wanted to
read was a gore-filled narrative. This explanation falls woefully short. Descriptions of atrocities were not
difficult to find in 1996.
The Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibition offered audiences an even more
‘voyeuristic’ experience with its collection of macabre photos and soldiers’ letters narrating the genocide.

Likewise, Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, which achieved none of the public attention
accorded to Goldhagen, renders stylistic novelty a tenuous explanation.
Browning, using perpetrators’
testimony, explains the same events as Goldhagen in exactly the same language: ‘Through the point-blank
shot that was thus required, the bullet struck the head of the victim at such trajectory that often the entire
skull or at least the entire rear skullcap was torn off, and blood, bone splinters, and brains sprayed
everywhere and besmirched the shooters.”
If the German public, as Kocka suggested, were simply
lapping up descriptions of horror that approximated ‘the aesthetics of mass media’, then why did they not
appropriate Browning’s book with similar gusto?
Indeed this is a point that shall be considered again
later, but for the moment it serves to emphasise that Kocka and Mommsen’s stylistic explanations do not
stand. It was not simply the descriptions that readers were responding to but something more nuanced
within the book’s content.

To the ire of historians, Goldhagen claimed that all previous Holocaust literature had failed to
‘explain why’ the Holocaust happened, and so was in need of ‘radical revision’.
Goldhagen called for a
‘reconceiving’ of three key and neglected areas in Holocaust historiography, namely: the specific role
played by German anti-Semitism; the role of the perpetrators (in particular who they were and what
motivated them); and a ‘thicker’ description of the realities of genocide (a self-proclaimed stylistic shift).
Each of these three ‘taboos’ had been avoided by German historians, and in breaking them Goldhagen
was said to have had a ‘liberating’ effect on the German public.
Whilst German historiography had dealt
superbly with processes explaining how (the structural processes) the Holocaust had happened, it had
failed to consider the moral questions of why (motivating factors) the Holocaust had occurred. Moreover,

Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, p. 22.
Cited in Joffe, ‘Killers’; Hans Mommsen, ‘The Thin Patina of Civilization’, Die Zeit (31 August 1996).
Geoffrey Eley, ‘Ordinary Germans, Nazism, and Judeocide’, in Eley (ed.) The “Goldhagen Effect”, pp. 1-31, at p. 7.
Bill Niven, Facing the Nazi Past: United Germany and the Legacy of the Third Reich (London, 2002) at p. 151.
Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (London,
Ibid., at p. 65.
Cited in Joffe, ‘Killers’.
Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, p. 9.
Istvan Deak, ‘Holocaust Views: The Goldhagen Controversy in Retrospect’, Central European History 30 (1997),
pp. 295-307, at p. 306.
the answers that historians had proposed were so complex and convoluted as to have made them
practically incomprehensible to the non-specialist. Goldhagen’s most basic argument, that the Germans
killed Jews because of their anti-Semitic beliefs, jarred with the complexity of the ‘functionalist’
interpretative model which had been the orthodoxy since the 1980s.

Whilst historians chastised him for ‘simplification’ and mono-causality, for the public such
concerns were irrelevant. Playing down the role of anti-Semitism, Mommsen’s typical argument was that,
‘the structure of the regime… fuelled a process of cumulative radicalization whose inevitable endpoint
was the liquidation of the Jews.’
In Goldhagen’s descriptions the perpetrators had free agency: in
Mommsen’s they appeared as victims of a process. Thus Goldhagen’s account tapped into a public
demand for exploring issues of autonomy, responsibility and resistance. It tackled exactly the subjective
moral issues that German historiography had eschewed in its quest for absolute objectivity. Goldhagen’s
simple moral explanation was far more understandable and thus more comforting. For German historians
Goldhagen’s approach lacked Rankean objectivity: for the public this was one of its most appealing
factors. A report on the Berlin podium discussion demonstrates this point unequivocally. As Mommsen
argued that ‘many perpetrators were themselves unclear about their motives’ the audience erupted into
loud protest. Goldhagen countered, ‘Is there anyone here in this auditorium, who agrees with Professor
Mommsen that people who were murdering Jews did not know what they were doing?’ Mommsen,
described as turning a shade of ‘beet red’, could not provide a simple answer to this fundamental moral
question. He did not believe such an answer existed. Consequently the audience sided with Goldhagen’s
one-size-fits-all explanation.

Goldhagen made the crimes of ordinary Germans far more relevant, accessible, and
understandable to the public than ever before. Whilst historians had long recognised the complicity of
ordinary individuals in the killing apparatus, for much of the public this discovery was genuinely new.
Readers’ letters in Die Zeit emphasise this point well. Dietrich Giffhorn wrote, ‘Goldhagen is right: the
perpetrators were quite normal people....people like you and I’.
Similarly Stefaine Weidemann wrote,
‘The awareness that it was not “beasts”, but people who committed these atrocities for explainable
reasons means that we lose the distance to them that we build up by denying their humanity.’
never before, Goldhagen had presented the holocaust in a black and white manner. He told the public,
‘who did it’ and then explained ‘why’. German historiography and political culture had developed a
penchant for referring to the war crimes of Hitler, the Nazis or the SS. Goldhagen shifted the ascription
of who was a ‘perpetrator’ from ‘Nazi’ to ‘German’ whilst simultaneously inflating the numbers of those

Mommsen, ‘Thin Patina’.
Ullrich, ‘A Triumphal Procession’.
Niven, Facing the Nazi Past, p. 132.
Ibid., p. 151.
70 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
implicated in genocidal activities. The Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibition (as we shall see below) was doing
exactly the same on an even grander scale, and the centrality of this theme in a national exhibition only
serves to emphasise that in exploring the role of ‘ordinary German perpetrators’, Goldhagen had hit on an
issue that the public was keen to explore.

It should of course be noted that ‘demand’ is a relative concept, and as such should be
contextualised. The German edition of Hitler’s Willing Executioners certainly sold well.
The first printing
of 40,000 copies was exhausted in five days and during Goldhagen’s tour in September 3,000 books a day
were flying off the shelves.
By the time Goldhagen returned to Germany in 1997, over two hundred
thousand copies had been sold.
For an academic work its commercial sales figures were without
However sales should not be blown out of proportion. When compared with the commercial
popularity of events that preceded the Goldhagen controversy, HWE’s success begins to look less
surprising. The release of Schindler’s List in Germany in 1994 attracted 371,482 viewers in its first week and
after 15 weeks over 5,000,000 people had seen the film.
The German translation of Thomas Keneally’s
book on which the film was based, sold one million paperback copies in March and April 1994 alone.
Schindler’s List did more to throw the questions of individual resistance and personal responsibility into the
centre of public discourse than any other previous event. Schindler had shown that resistance was far
easier than previously assumed. Goldhagen in his insistence on free agency broached a similar topic
eliciting a similar response.

Likewise, the Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibition launched in 1995 had by 1999 attracted nearly one
million visitors across Germany.
Whilst one could argue whether Goldhagen’s police battalions
represented a reflective sample evincing a ‘national will’, the conduct of the Wehrmacht (as a twenty million
strong conscription army) gave an altogether clearer picture.
The two ‘events’ seemed to corroborate
each other. Both explored the roles of ordinary Germans, informing the public that the number of
ordinary killers was higher than previously believed. The exhibition destroyed the mythical image of a
‘clean’ Wehrmacht pushing the question, ‘who was a perpetrator?’ into the national limelight. Considering
the commercial success of Goldhagen’s work against a Hollywood blockbuster or national exhibition may
not seem like a fair comparison. However, each should serve to demonstrate that by 1996 the German

Daniel. J. Goldhagen, Hitlers willige Vollstrecker. Ganz gewohnliche Deutsche und der Holocaust (Berlin: Sideler
Eley, ‘Ordinary Germans’, p. 4.
Ulrich Herbert, ‘Academic and Public Discourses on the Holocaust: The Goldhagen Debate in Germany’, German
Politics and Society, 4 (1999).
Ullrich, ‘A Triumphal Procession’.
Bill Niven, ‘The Reception of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ in the German Media’, Journal of European
Studies 25 (1995), pp. 165-195, at p. 166.
Niven, Facing the Nazi Past, p. 143.
Grossman ‘Memory’, p. 124.
public sphere was a proven consumer of Goldhagen’s chosen topic. Had Goldhagen’s work not been an
academic thesis, its sales figures would certainly have been less surprising.

An even more revealing comparison is with Victor Klemperer’s diaries released in 1995.
Klemperer and Goldhagen acknowledged the centrality of anti-Semitism in the lives of ‘ordinary
Germans’, Klemperer on the ‘home front’ and Goldhagen on the ‘killing front’.
As persuasively as
Goldhagen demonstrated that ‘ordinary Germans’ had autonomy in deciding whether they would become
‘ordinary murderers’, Klemperer showed how even under dictatorship ordinary Germans retained free
agency when choosing between brutal anti-Semitism and expressions of sympathy. In this way Klemperer
had also by 1996 thrust the issues of individual responsibility and anti-Semitism, so key in Goldhagen’s
text, into the centre of public discourse. Unsurprisingly, the public thanked Klemperer, as they did
Goldhagen, by buying over one hundred and forty thousand copies of his diary.
Thus ‘high demand’
appears as an obfuscating term, implying a level above the ordinary. With demand for Goldhagen better
contextualised, the public reception seems in keeping with precedent and certainly less extraordinary. This
is not to downplay the importance of the new and neglected issues that Goldhagen highlighted in his
‘reconceiving’ of the Holocaust. What it should emphasise though is the way in which Goldhagen’s
success fed off its context. Schindler’s List, Klemperer’s Diaries and the Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibition, all
ensured that the public would be much more willing to listen to stories of Willing Executioners.

The secondary literature overwhelmingly views Goldhagen’s success as occurring in spite of the
historians’ rebuttals. For many this was the defining characteristic of the Goldhagen controversy, that is, a
bifurcated reaction to a book that highlighted the gap between public and academic sensitivities. Whilst
this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Goldhagen controversy, in understanding it, we should
shift the emphasis and recognise Goldhagen’s cordial reception as a result of, or rather because of, the
historians. Simplistic as it sounds, the public received Goldhagen so enthusiastically because historians,
editors, and other opinion makers rejected him so vehemently. Rather than engage in an active discussion
of Goldhagen’s thesis, during the first stage of the controversy, they rejected it out of hand as unworthy
of debate. As Josef Joffe noted, ‘“Don’t read” was the basic point, and this set a key pattern; pre-emptive
As such, the public began to question why this book, not even available in German yet, was
the recipient of such a concerted effort of rejection. Surely there must have been something in it? Even
when the historians did engage in close textual analysis, they often returned pedantic criticisms. The book
was ‘riddled with errors’, names had been misspelled, or photographs wrongly labelled.
This early

Niven, Facing the Nazi Past, p. 138.
Grossman ‘Memory’, p. 109.
Joffe, ‘Killers’.
Jackel, ‘Simply a Bad Book’; and Mommsen, ‘Thin Patina’.
72 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
reluctance of critics to tackle any of the key questions and themes that Goldhagen had raised, can in part
explain why when the book was released so many Germans bought it.

Critic Rainer Lingernthal noted how ‘the premature demontage of the Goldhagen book…
deprived the German public of the right of decision’.
As the second stage of the Goldhagen controversy
took hold and criticism of the critics began to appear, it is discernable from reviews that these concerns
had pushed many into the ‘Goldhagen camp’.
The message was clear: the critics could not be trusted,
and as Goldhagen himself put it to the German public, ‘before people judge, they should read the book’.

The reading public further corroborates this explanation for the popular reception. A reader of Die Zeit,
Maria Mischowsky, noted how, “The self confident rebuttal of the American book by the critics is
frightening”. Briefe an Goldhagen, a collection of letters from readers released by Goldhagen after his tour,
revealed similar concerns.
Ultimately, the more the critics acted to quash debate, the more the public
seemed determined to stage it. The diatribes, the ad hominem attacks and reluctance to engage with any of
HWE’s merits and themes during the first stage of the controversy, led to an air of censorship which
paradoxically undermined attempts to limit discussion.

That the first stage of this ‘discussion’ unfolded even before the German publication was
available suggests a sense of German uneasiness and self-awareness of how much the Nazi past, or rather
contemporary efforts at vergangenheitsbewältigung, are still observed overseas. Ever since the early post-war
period, when Konrad Adenauer sought Germany’s readmission into the community of ‘civilised’ nations,
sensitivity to the German image abroad has been a prevalent feature of German national identity.
the re-unification of Germany, the supergedenkjahr in 1995 and the proposed shift of government from the
Bonn Republic to the new Berlin Republic, debates regarding the ‘normalisation’ of German political and
cultural life pervaded the public sphere with an urgency and relevance as never before. As Joste Nolte
concluded in an early review of Goldhagen’s book, “More than half a century after Hitler’s death and after
the Wende of 1989-1990… it finally looked as though Germans would be released… Goldhagen has tried
his best to push them back into damnation”.
Commenting on the early reception of Goldhagen in the
USA, Ulrich Herbert noted that, ‘an important element of these articles [reviews and opinion pieces] was
an underlying tone implying that the German reaction to the book would be the decisive test for its dealing
with the Holocaust’.
It is no coincidence then that Volker Ullrich, initiating the German debate in Die

Niven, Facing the Nazi Past, p. 132.
Markovits, ‘Discomposure in History’s Final Resting Place’; Volker Ullirch, ‘Familiar Tones’, Die Zeit (14 June
Daniel. J. Goldhagen, ‘The Failure of the Critics’, Die Zeit (2 August 1996).
Niven, Facing the Nazi Past, p. 132.
Gavriel Rosenfeld, ‘The Controversy That Isn’t: The Debate over Daniel J. Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing
Executioners in Comparative Perspective’ Contemporary European History, 8 (1999), pp. 249-273, at p. 265.
Joste Nolte, ‘Sisyphus Is a German’, Die Welt (16 April 1996).
Herbert, ‘Academic and Public Discourses on the Holocaust’.
Zeit, drew on, “the fierce commotion that the book’s appearance has unleashed in the US”, before
concluding, “How we receive this book… much can be registered about the historical consciousness of
this republic”.

In highlighting the German ‘reception’ of the book, Ullrich tacitly recognised that German
reactions are under surveillance. Hostile retorts to Goldhagen could be interpreted in the USA as
reluctance to face the past. Frank Schirrmacher summed up the feeling of many early reviewers when he
put it bluntly that, ‘If one believes the book’s theses, the German’s pathway into the twenty-first century
can only be regarded with scepticism’.
But as the liberal public had proven again and again in opposition
to the right (at Bitburg, during the Historikerstreit and in their clamour for a Holocaust memorial in Berlin),
it would certainly not be accused of seeking ‘normalisation’ with all its ‘relativising’ connotations. For a
newly unified, newly confident Germany, whose democratic principles were cast in Hitler’s shadow,
grounded and constantly reaffirmed in opposition to the Nazi past, would not a positive reception of
Goldhagen’s message prove that German democracy (now in the hands of the third post-war generation)
had truly come of age?

Numerous commentators have come to see the role of generational conflict as a key factor in the
Overwhelmingly, the historians and critics that so vehemently rejected HWE during the
first stage of the debate (and against whom the ‘public’ ultimately defined themselves during the second
stage), had either experienced the war or were members of a post-war generation with far less distance to
it than the public that received Goldhagen. Increasingly young German historians performed a ‘demi-
defection’ to the side of the public. Prefacing any praise for Goldhagen with methodological and historical
objections, they none the less welcomed the moral implications of his work and the way in which it had
captivated the public imagination.
That Goldhagen received such a warm reception amongst this third
generation (some of whom were even historians) is because it was precisely only this generation that could
have welcomed Goldhagen’s arguments. Assertions that the prevalence of anti-Semitism in a majority of
ordinary Germans meant that the Holocaust could be construed as a national project, was no indictment
of the contemporary Germans who now considered such a mindset abhorrent.

For the preceding generations however, such arguments came too close to collective guilt. Josef
Joffe pointed eloquently to the moral and emotional distance which meant that, ‘the stigma no longer

Ullrich, ‘Provocation to a New Historikerstreit’.
Schirrmacher, ‘Hitler’s Code’. Similar concerns were expressed by Nolte, ‘Sisyphus Is a German’; Wehler, ‘Like a
Thorn in the Flesh’; Augstein, ‘The Sociologist as Hanging Judge’.
Axel Korner, ‘“The Arrogance of Youth”: A Metaphor for Social Change? The Goldhagen-Debate in Germany as
Generational Conflict’ New German Critique, 80 (2000), pp. 59-79. Korner’s exploration of this topic is the most
Herbert, ‘Academic and Public Discourses on the Holocaust; Gotz Aly, ‘The Universe of Death and Torment’. These
two were the most prominent ‘defectors’.
74 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
oozes blood; the unbearable horror was perpetrated almost two generations ago… and so latter-day
Germans need not fear what awaits them if the fog is pierced… The ordinary monsters that younger
Germans may find in Goldhagen’s mirror did their killing ‘in another country’.
For the elder historical
and cultural gatekeepers, the perceived implications of Godlhagen’s thesis were clear. It was they, their
friends, their siblings, their colleagues, their parents, their cousins, and their spouses who shared some
responsibility for the Holocaust. Even if not involved directly as perpetrators, their lack of resistance and
purported indifference to the fate of the Jews rendered them culpable. These caveats that precluded them
from accepting Goldhagen, and did so much to define their defensive and at times nationalistic rejection
of HWE, were simply not relevant to the third generation, who were thus free to embrace the redemptive
part of Goldhagen’s message.

Claims that Goldhagen was peddling collective guilt also served as a device allowing elder critics
to side-step one of the key implications of HWE: the question of individual resistance. As Klaus
Theweleit noted, Goldhagen had touched a ‘sore spot’ and ‘among German historians and some
journalists like Augstein who had grown used to repeating, “But it was not all Germans”… it doesn’t
change the fact that there were lots of them, and not just SS men’.
As Spielberg, Klemperer and
Goldhagen had demonstrated, individual resistance was an option. It did not have to take the form of a
Stauffenberg plot, it could mean refusing to murder Jewish children, a choice that Goldhagen highlighted
as being as readily available as it was rarely exercised. As Gotz Aly noted, ‘Goldhagen rightly insists upon
the complete freedom of each individual to decide and refuse. Not a single German who refused to kill a
Jew was demoted… [Goldhagen] brings a new and different intensity to the question of responsibility
shared by many Germans’.
No longer would Augstein’s self-exculpatory claims (representative of
others) that resistance, ‘could only be done by an institution, not by an individual’, carry much weight with
the younger Generation.
As Goldhagen replied to Augstein, ‘You – as almost everyone has until now –
are assuming that there was a will, but not a way, to resistance… I show that there wasn’t even a
widespread will to protest’.
In accepting Goldhagen, the public were rejecting assertions that
totalitarianism ruled out resistance as a possibility. Through recognition of the possibility of resistance,
they were reaffirming their own morality when concluding that, now as good democrats, they would
certainly not have exercised such moral ambivalence. Taking in Goldhagen’s descriptions of murders
carried out by members of their grandparents’ generation with a feeling of moral indignation, was all part

Joffe, ‘Killers’.
Klaus Theweleit, ‘Killing for Desire’, an interview in Badische Zeitung (15 October 1996).
Rudolf Augstein, ‘What were the Murderers Thinking? An interview with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’, Der Spiegel (12
August 1996). Making similar arguments were, Marion Grafin Donhoff, ‘Why Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Book is
Misleading’, Die Zeit (6 September 1996), and Schirrmacher, ‘Hitler’s Code’.
Goldhagen quoted by Augstein, in ‘What were the Murderers Thinking?’
of the appeal. It ‘proved’ to the public that they were morally different to their forbearers, utterly changed
in their cultural and political values.

On this reading, much of Goldhagen’s appeal exists in his redemptive message, and in the way in
which he made palatable to the youthful left a version of that notion so synonymous with the
contemporary German right: ‘normalisation’. Previous calls for normalisation from the right were viewed
negatively as nationalistic attempts to relativise the past and so absolve the German nation. Goldhagen’s
version of normalisation required, rather than relativisation, a complete acceptance of the Holocaust’s
singularity along with recognition of the most uncomfortable aspects of the Nazi past. It was therefore a
much more appealing pill for the left to swallow. Goldhagen proclaimed that young Germans could be
confident, indeed proud of their democratic achievements and European role, so long as they had fully
grappled and come to terms with their national past. Whilst Goldhagen’s book was a stinging indictment
of Germany and ‘Germans’ until 1945, it was also a eulogy to the exorcising of evil and democratisation
that had occurred post 1945. As Goldhagen explained while accepting his Democracy Prize,
‘Acknowledging the past does not shame today’s Germany but emphasizes to the whole world that the
Federal Republic is different and that it abhors such deeds and the beliefs that led to them.’
message, non-existent in the main body of the American edition, was highlighted in the preface to the
German edition and constantly repeated by Goldhagen whilst in Germany.
Along with a greater more
personal understanding of the holocaust, this was the main message that the public took from the

In concluding, it will be enlightening to return to a question posed earlier. Why were Browning’s
‘ordinary’ Germans ignored by a public so desperate to know Goldhagen’s? After all, Browning’s book
tackled similar taboos and themes to Goldhagen’s. It explored perpetrators’ motivations, expanded their
numbers and showed them to have been ordinary. It highlighted free agency and the possibility of
resistance, using the same ‘thick’ descriptions and presented to the same third generation. Goldhagen’s
book must have had something further then. The discrepancy in reception (and thus Goldhagen’s
popularity) is best explained by the two books’ differing conclusions. Unlike Goldhagen’s prose, which
challenged all previous interpretations of the Holocaust, Browning’s conclusions reaffirmed the
functionalist orthodoxy. Like that of German historiography, Browning’s work lacked the moral lesson
that the public responded to so positively in Goldhagen’s book. It confirmed a consensus that universal
and situational factors such as discipline, authority and peer group pressure had played an equally
important if not greater role in the genocide than anti-Semitism.
As such it mitigated individual

Daniel J. Goldhagen, ‘Modell Bundesrepublik’, Suddeutsche Zeitung (April 1997).
Grossman ‘Memory’, p. 110.
Omar Bartov ‘Reception and Perception: Goldhagen’s Holocaust and the World’, in Eley (ed.), The “Goldhagen
Effect”, pp. 33-87, at p. 53.
76 Cambridge Undergraduate History Journal
responsibility by portraying the perpetrators as victims of circumstance. Goldhagen through his moral
message offered the public a sense of closure denied by previous historians. ‘This is the evil that was
done, this is who did it; here is why they did it and how they felt.’
The Holocaust was unique and anti-
Semitism caused it. Such a simple message had never been relayed so emphatically to the public. The
importance of the Holocaust in the public sphere is that it serves as a moral lesson of good versus evil; an
example and a warning emphasising the depths of barbarism into which humankind can sink. Yet
historical literature had never approached the simplest moral questions. History was not supposed to fulfil
such a purpose. It was meant to refrain from subjective judgements and explain things objectively. When
Goldhagen breached this gap by offering, in an academic work, a moral explanation like never before, the
public responded with gratitude.

Context is equally important and Goldhagen ‘arrive[d] here at the right time’.
conclusions were simply more relevant to the public sphere as they debated issues of normalisation.
Browning’s answers could not help explain the resurgence of the radical right, attacks on asylum seekers
or whether the Bundeswher should be deployed in Bosnia. In essence they bore no real relevance to
Germany’s present. Goldhagen’s redemptive message, repeated to audiences time and time again, was as
much about the future as it was about the past. Goldhagen came in the wake of Schindler’s List, Klemperer’s
Diaries, and the Crimes of the Wehmracht exhibition. Each of these events increased demand for the taboos
that Goldhagen broke. His style made these topics more accessible, but is not sufficient in explaining his
reception. What highlighted these taboos, making more acute the sense of controversy, were the critics’
vehement rejections. Had the historians ‘let it be’, it is feasible to consider that the public may not have
developed such an interest. But they could not – Goldhagen’s work was an affront to their years of careful
and objective archival research. It jarred completely with what they believed was the true purpose of
history. Regardless, Goldhagen’s message for young Germans was irresistible: remember the past, but no
longer be fettered by it. He exclaimed to the public: the more you strive to recognise and abhor your Nazi
past, the more you ground democracy and legitimise your national future. Above all else the public
embraced this message, and the promise of normalised redemption that Goldhagen represented.

Further Reading

Eley, G. The “Goldhagen Effect”: History, Memory, Nazism – Facing the German Past, (Michigan, 2000)
Goldhagen, D. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, (New York, 1996)
Kautz, F. The German Historians: Hitler’s Willing Executioners and Daniel Goldhagen, (Montreal, 2003)
Niven, B., Facing the Nazi Past: United Germany and the Legacy of the Third Reich, (London, 2002)
Rieger, B., ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den?’, History Workshop Journal, 43 (1997), pp. 226-233
Shandley, R. Unwilling Germans? The Goldhagen Debate, (Minnesota, 2001)

Joffe, ‘Killers’.
Kurt Patzold, ‘On the Broad Trial of the German Perpetrators’, Neues Deutschland (17 August 1996).
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