Wilhelmine Germany and Edwardian Britain – Cultural Contacts and Transfers

Wilhelmine Germany and Edwardian Britain – Cultural Contacts and Transfers

British Academy; German Historical Institute London; German History Society; University of Oxford
United Kingdom
From - Until
23.03.2006 - 24.03.2006
Dominik Geppert (Free University of Berlin); Robert Gerwarth (Corpus Christi College, Oxford)

The first decade of the twentieth century was a defining period in the history of Anglo-German relations. Europe’s two major industrial powers had undergone unparalleled waves of modernization in the nineteenth century and continued to do so until the outbreak of the First World War. The growing economic and military rivalry between these two European ‘superpowers’ has been the subject of numerous scholarly investigations. It is therefore well-established that in the early 1900s, Britain and Germany were watching each other closely with ever-growing mutual interest. The traditional scholarly focus on the rise of Anglo-German antagonism prior to the Great War has, however, largely overshadowed the fact that this mutual interest was not only characterised by fear and suspicion. In many ways, the two countries simultaneously embraced each other’s culture with a striking intensity - an intensity that was partly motivated by rivalry and hostility, but that was also driven by admiration for each other’s achievements and an intention to emulate them.

The Wilhelmine Germany and Edwardian Britain - Cultural Contacts and Transfers conference, which was held on 23 and 24 March 2006 at the University of Oxford, examined the vicissitudes of Anglo-German cultural relations in the age of Kaiser Wilhelm II and King Edward VII. Sponsored by the British Academy, the German Historical Institute London, the German History Society, and the University of Oxford, the conference marked the retirement of Prof. Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, and provided a platform to discuss recent insights from historians working on cultural transfers between Britain and Germany on the eve of the First World War. Cultural transfers and contacts occurred on a number of levels, ranging from the well-researched examples of British emulation of German social reforms and the impact of British Trade Unionism on its German counterpart to trans-national academic discourses, and the great mutual interest for the other’s achievements in music, literature and visual arts. Although many of the transfer processes began much earlier than 1900, the conference’s focus on the years before the Great War enabled the delegates to consider contacts and transfers alongside mounting economic, naval and colonial rivalry. The cultural transfers and contacts examined at this conference reflected the numerous levels on which cultural exchanges occurred. In particular, the conference focused on the often neglected fields of arts, sciences, legal culture, popular culture, and colonial culture. The contributions to this conference testified to the wide variety of Anglo-German cultural transfers and their enormous density in the decade before the First World War.

In his keynote speech, David Blackbourn (Harvard) raised the question as to what extent the recent historiographical focus on cultural contacts and transfer has subverted earlier ways of thinking about Anglo-German relations before the Great War. According to Blackbourn, the central challenge for historians working on early twentieth century Anglo-German history is to reconcile the numerous existing contacts and transfers with the growing antagonism which culminated in a war that seemingly eradicated mutual admiration and exchange. Blackbourn further discussed the different levels on which transfers and contacts occurred. In particular, he pointed to the importance of migration and religion in the broader context of Anglo-German exchange.

The three papers of the first session, chaired by Chris Clark (Cambridge), looked at political and constitutional aspects of British-German contacts and transfers, particularly at parliamentary culture, the relationship between liberalism and women’s rights movements, and the role of satire and humour in the political realm. Frank Lorenz Müller (St Andrews) observed that between 1909 and 1911, the constitutional order in both countries was perceived to be in crisis. He then went on to ask how the political conflict triggered by David Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ was interpreted in the Reich with a view to Germany’s own constitutional impasse. Müller’s findings pointed to the existence of a considerable sense of contentment with the German political system and the determination to move towards a reformed Konstitutionalismus rather than fully-fledged parliamentarism amongst a significant section of the Wilhelmine public. Geoff Eley (Michigan) suggested in his paper on the preconditions of women’s rights movements that the Kulturkampf of the 1870s was a watershed for subsequent alliances between national liberals and women’s rights activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Eley emphasised that anticlericalism was a decisive common element between the two groups which temporarily bridged other profound differences. In his paper on political and social caricatures in Wilhelmine Germany and Edwardian Britain, Lothar Kettenacker (London) drew on material from the satirical journals Fliegende Blätter, Simplicissimus and Punch in order to emphasise the importance of the visual within the realm of politics.

The second session, chaired by Jane Caplan (Oxford) focused on legal culture in Britain and Germany, considering the women’s rights and criminal law reform movements as well as notions of law and civil society. Jean Quataert (New York) examined the nature and extent of trans-national dialogues among German and British women’s rights movements. In focussing on the Women’s Internationals (the International Women’s Council and its offshoot, the International Women’s Suffrage Association), Quataert illustrated the intensity of interactions between members of British and German women’s groups after the turn of the century. In her comparative paper on ‘habitual criminals’ and penal reform movements in Britain and Germany, Sabine Freitag (Cologne) pointed out that although Edwardian England and Wilhelmine Germany had very different legal systems, the image of a ‘professional criminal’ as an incarnation of social fears was instrumental in supporting the movements’ demands for a serious revision of the legal and penal system. While in England it was much easier to introduce new forms of sentencing and punishment by single statute laws, Germany was slowed down by the time consuming codification process of the criminal law, marked by extensive theoretical debates amongst an academic elite. In her paper on law and legal systems in Wilhelmine Germany and Edwardian Britain, Jose Harris (Oxford) argued that historians have traditionally over-emphasised the differences between traditions of legal philosophy in the two countries. There was a constant stream of British commentary on German legal reforms and many British legal philosophers engaged closely with the ideas emanating from Germany.

The third session, chaired by Abigail Green (Oxford), examined contacts and knowledge transfers between British and German institutions of higher learning on an individual as well as an institutional level. In his paper on German students in Oxford and British students in Heidelberg, Thomas Weber (Pennsylvania) coined the phrase ‘cosmopolitan nationalists’ to describe the dominant mindset of German and British students from upper class backgrounds, for whom nationalism and a desire for amicable Anglo-German relations were not mutually exclusive or contradictory. Despite their ardent nationalism, they shared a strong sense of cultural proximity and even a trans-national identity. A simple binary system of Anglophobe versus Anglophile and Germanophobe versus Germanophile, Weber argued, grossly misrepresents the character of Anglo-German relations in the pre-1914 era. Oliver Grant’s (Oxford) paper focused on institutional transference in the field of technical education at the tertiary level. He described the Edwardian era as a time when British technical education caught up with German innovations between 1830 and 1890. In Grant’s view this was a story of adaptation rather than exact replication. Britain was not only well aware of Germany’s reforms, but also of its own institutional strengths and decided to build on these rather than import the German system without modification.

The fourth session, chaired by Ross McKibbin (Oxford), dealt with the political dimensions of various branches of popular culture, ranging from the newly emerging mass press via sports to naval spectacles. In his paper, Dominik Geppert (Berlin) asked how the popular press affected ‘public relations’ between Britain and Germany. Although conceding that warmongering was an important feature of some papers, Geppert also stressed that reporters and editors co-operated successfully and harmoniously across national and ideological boundaries. For all their patriotic posturing, newspaper proprietors were hard-headed businessmen who knew the value of international co-operation. From a commercial point of view, war between the European Great Powers was in nobody’s interest, especially in the newspaper business. Christiane Eisenberg (Berlin) used sport as an example to demonstrate how, in the process of cultural transfers, the ‘transferred culture’ undergoes significant changes. Transferred cultures are re-interpreted by those who adopt them and can thus differ considerably from the original. Jan Rüger’s (London) paper focused on the naval theatre with its fleet reviews, launches of warships and other public rituals celebrating the nation and the navy. Analysis of these spectacles, Rüger argued, provides an excellent opportunity to bring politics back into cultural history. In his view, the public staging of the navy was driven as much by governments and admiralties as by the forces of entertainment, leisure and consumption.

‘High Culture’, the topic of the fifth session chaired by Nick Stargardt (Oxford), was represented by music, architecture, and literature. Sven Oliver Müller (Bielefeld) pointed to the contradictory nature of musical encounters between Edwardian Britain and Wilhelmine Germany. On the one hand, he argued, a common European culture of music emerged. In the two countries, the productions of opera houses and the repertoires of concert halls became increasingly similar. Singers, conductors, and composers travelled frequently between Germany and Britain, thereby exchanging concepts and adopting common tastes. On the other hand, however, an increasing nationalisation and politicisation of music could be observed. Both Germans and Britons thought they could reach the core of their own collective by ‘nationalizing’ music. International contacts therefore did not only produce harmonious results, but also a ‘musical clash of civilizations’. Matthew Jefferies (Manchester) focused on three individual architects from three different generations to assess the transmission of architectural ideas between Britain and Germany: the German-born critic and historian Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83), who credited his adopted homeland with a crucial role in the genesis of modern architecture and design; Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927), the architect and civil servant who spent the period from October 1896 to June 1903 as a technical attaché in London writing his three-volume study of Das englische Haus; and Stefan Muthesius, Honorary Professor of Architectural History at the University of East Anglia, whose research is mainly focused on the British influence in Germany’s nineteenth century architecture and design. Considering their cumulative scholarly work, Jefferies did not discover simple transfers in one direction or the other but rather ‘a truly Anglo-German perspective on architecture’. Marc Schalenberg (Zurich) looked at the personal and cultural entanglements between Britain and Germany in E. M. Foster’s novel ‘Howard’s End’ as a way of analysing literary stereotyping. The Germany portrayed in Foster’s novel, Schalenberg argued, was a rather unspecific ‘other’ to the modern but blunt English society centred around material gain and hollow etiquettes.

The sixth and last session, chaired by Niall Ferguson (Harvard), was devoted to aspects of colonial culture, such as colonial scandals, imperial popular culture and big game hunting. Frank Bösch (Bochum) interpreted British and German colonial scandals as trans-national phenomena which were often caused by cultural transfers. He pointed out that colonial scandals in Britain and Germany developed around similar themes such as violence against the indigenous population, mismanagament, or sexual exploitation. These scandals, Bösch argued, not only helped to create images of each nation’s own colonialism as well as the other country’s colonialism, but were also driving forces for mutual adaptations. In his paper on ‘Empire and Popular Culture’, John MacKenzie (Lancaster) stressed the fact that, inspite of the rising British-German rivalries in international affairs, imperialism on the ground was often more internationalist than nationalist, more co-operative than competitive. Particularly in the realms of science and the environment, the British sought to learn as much as possible from German expertise, whereas German colonists often co-operated peacefully and harmoniously with their British imperial neighbours. However, MacKenzie also pointed to the differences between Britain’s and Germany’s imperial culture, for example the striking lack of great colonial exhibitions in Germany. In his paper on imperial hunting in British and German East Africa, Bernhard Gissibl (Bremen) pointed to the manifold contacts that existed between German and British colonialists in the fields of hunting and wild life preservasion. Gissibl portrayed big game hunting as one of the most powerful manifestations of colonialism in East Africa and suggested that the British and German settlers were separated by arbitrarily defined borders rather than habits.

The conference ended with a panel discussion chaired by Volker Berghahn (New York). The panelists (Richard Evans, Jose Harris, Ross McKibbin, Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, James Retallack and John Röhl) discussed the ambivalence of Anglo-German relations in the period and pointed to a number of under-explored areas of research such as the role of trade in cultural exchange between Britain and Germany, language transmission, migration and tourism. At the same time, they emphasised the difficulty of integrating the often diverse areas of cultural history research into one coherent argument about the nature of Anglo-German relations.

Nevertheless, two major threads of argument that were reflected in most of the conference papers could be identified. First of all, there was an emphasis on the interconnectedness of the cultural and political dimensions of Anglo-German contacts and transfers that has too often been neglected in previous historical research. Second, the very ambivalence of Anglo-German encounters seemed to have been the product of the contradictory character of modernization in Wilhelmine Germany and Edwardian Britain which was deeply influenced both by an increasing nationalization and a simultaneous internationalization. In this respect, the conference shed more light on the mutual reinforcement of two inextricably intertwined processes that were to shape the 20th century.

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