My Ph.D. students preparing their written dissertation qualifying examinations have asked whether I can provide them with examples. The one I have most easily available is my own, which I make available here at the risk of embarrassing myself. As far as I can reconstruct things, I answered questions 1 and 4 from part I, and question 6 from part II. This was a timed exam of perhaps 3 hours duration.
Written examination in Modern German History
The so-called Year Zero, or its more pointed German version, the "Hour Zero", is in my opinion of rather limited value in assessing the significance of 1945 in German history. This does not mean that it is completely useless or misleading, however. There are a variety of contexts in which the concept has been employed, but they are all rooted in the attempt to signify a radical disjuncture in the course of German history. Based on this caesura, the term can denote the end of certain older continuities, or the beginning of new traditions; conversely, it can be employed (as the "Legend of the Year Zero") to express the fact that the political juncture at the end of World War II was not accompanied by fundamental social change.
Before I discuss the utilty of the term more concretely, I would like to sketch the various continuities with which it has been associated. In the interpretative framework of German history current in West Germany in the 1950s, the Nazi period was seen as an aberation in an otherwise extremely progressive historical development at least since the early 19th century (thesis of the "Betriebsunfall"). In that context the year zero marked the end of the detour, the return to the normalcy of Western industrial and socio-cultural modernization. In another version of the "Sonderweg"-thesis the Nazi period was seen to be rooted in prior German history. Major variants on that theme have stressed ideological continuities (of the rather coarse "Luther to Hitler" variety), or they have dug more deeply and unearthed structural continuities in the economic and social organization of Wilhelmine Germany that inexorably led to the establishment of Hitler's state. In this paradigm, now most closely linked to Hans-Ulrich Wehler with his classic statement in the introduction to his "Das Deutsche Kaiserreich", the year zero marks the return of (West) Germany to a presumed norm of historical development in which social values modernize along with economic and political structures. Thus in all of these contexts, the year zero marks the end of certain negative historical continuities.
The term, however, was coined by progressive elements in German society in the immediate post-war period. It was meant to signify that Germans now had a clean slate, a tabula rasa upon which they could build a new society. This original meaning in the mouths of left-leaning public figures, especially intellectuals and party ideologues, is readily apparent in the reminiscences collected by Axel Eggebrecht in the book Die zorningen alten Maenner (Rowohlt, ca. 1979). Apparently the term was appropriated by a moderately-to-highly compromised historians' "guild" in their anxiousness to exonerate their society through dissociation with the Nazi past, and it remained unquestioned by a younger generation of historians more interested in finding the roots of the Nazi era than in tracing its legacy. Thus it retains a strong presence in popular historical consciousness in West Germany.
The year zero has (at least implicitly), however, been under fire for quite some time. While its original proponents had jettisoned it in disgust at the latest with the triple strike-out in 1948/49 of currency reform, creation of two German states, and defeat of Schumacher by Adenauer (as a symbol of political reconstruction); one of its most cogent academic indictments appeared in the mid-60s: the sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf's Society and Democracy in Germany. The 1970s and 80s have seen a much more detailed critique and refutation of the concept. One of the insights reached by Lutz Niethammer in his pioneering oral history study of workers in the Ruhr area, for example, is that from a social history perspective the critical junctures were the downturn of German fortunes in the war in 1943, and then an upturn with the currency reform in 1948. In the broader context of people's lives, the capitulation/liberation of 1945 passed almost unnoticed. But also at the political and economic levels the year zero's applicability has been disproved. Niethammer's weighty doctoral thesis on denazification in Bavaria documents in excruciating detail the political restoration of the post-war era, and the mammoth Sozialgeschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ed. by W.Conze and M.R.Lepsius, ca. early 1980s) begins by documenting the consistancy of the long-term trend of economic development.
In sum, the year zero is misleading when it is used to signify a disjuncture in German history after which a fundamentally new socio-political course was embarked upon. It belies the deep continuities in the (West) German state (judicial system, administrative apparatus) and society (class relations, value systems) across the 1945 divide. On the other hand, it could be usefully employed (if it were not loaded with so much ideological baggage) to describe the Aufbruchstimmung on the left in the immediate post-war period, before older forces were crushingly reinstated under the sign of the East-West split.
For completeness' sake, a word about East Germany is perhaps in order. While a much stronger argument can be made for a fundamental new beginning, politically as well as socially, continuities cannot be dismissed out of hand. Although there were undeniably reinstatements of former Nazis (I think of Havemann's Fragen, Antworten, Fragen), one could also argue that the ideological rigidity of the left enjoyed a certain pedigree in German history. But my knowledge of the east is much too sketchy to develop these themes.
In light of the present Historikerstreit I must give brief pause before claiming that Fischer's legacy in West German historiography is broad and secure, but on the other hand the vehemence and breadth of the progressive counterattack documents the viablity of the "school" (group of historians) one can associate with the aftermath of Fritz Fischer. I will outline what I see as having become possible after Fischer's achievements before I assess their significance in the context of historical writing on the Kaiserreich in particular.
Drawing on historical source material by no means novel in its nature, Fischer was able to demonstrate that the economic and social instability, especially the extreme nationalist sentiment in Imperial Germany led to the formulation of an expansionist policy that could best be pursued through war. The burden of guilt for having started the war was thus shifted from a generally explosive European context to Germany's premeditated "Grasp for World Power", the title of Fischer's 1961 book. That book was the target of the fury of German politicians and historians who had sought to dissociate themselves and German history from the stain of the Nazi era, mainly because it suggested the rootedness of war in domestic society, not only for the First World War, but for the second, too. By the time Krieg der Illusionen appeared in the late 1960s, the political climate had changed considerably, as had West German historiography. The general liberalization of that decade, especially the dramatic expansion of the West German university system, had brought a generation of younger historians into professorial chairs alongside their older colleagues, Fischer's assailants. These historians, most notably the group centered around Hans-Ulrich Wehler at Bielefeld (but also students of Werner Conze and others beyond the grasp of their more encrusted seniors), had attempted to open their discipline to methods of social history, economics, modernization theory, psychology and write more comprehensive analyses. They expanded upon Fischer's use of social tensions and structures in modernizational paradigms as explanatory tools, elaborating on Fischer's continuity thesis.
Although this substantive and methodological legacy was firmly established by the time Wehler published this university-level textbook on the Kaiserreich in 1973, Fischer's thesis had not found its way into popular historical writing by the mid 70s, as Volker Berghahn found in an investigation of school textbooks (published in Geschichte und Gesellschaft ca. 1980). The publication of Fischer's much slimmer Buendnis der Eliten in 1979, as Roger Fetcher noted in his introduction to the English translation, was to help establish Fischer's interpretation of the origins of World War I in a more popular sphere.
Shortly after the "New Orthodoxy" of Wehler & Co., in the tailwind of Fischer, had established itself as a force to be reckoned with in the 1970s, the new doctrine was challenged from the "other" side in 1979 by two English historians, David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley. They criticized the obsession with proving continuities for overlooking fundamental changes that were taking place. This led to a distorted portrayal of imperial Germany and a facile explanation of the rise of Nazism. A large number of recent case studies by non-Germans (e.g. Crew, Evans, Nolan, Koshar, also Blackbourn and Eley themselves), as well as the work of the post-Wehler-orthodoxy Alltagshistoriker in West Germany, has vindicated their criticism, and drawn a much richer picture of the Kaiserreich and of the complexities of the continuities leading up to the Nazi period.
Thus I find the incorporation of new methods in historical research, and the requirement of substantive grounding of hypothetical causal continuities part of the lasting legacy of the opening Fritz Fischer made in German historiography. But apart from this positive side, there is still an entrenched group of West German historians (Hillgruber, the guy in Kiel who destroyed the Rietzler diaries, Zechlin, Fest, Nolte; also Stürmer, Hildebrandt) who exert considerable influence in the public sphere (politics, popular works, school textbooks) that remains closed to the advances initiated by the Fischer controversy.