On the death of Hans-Ulrich Wehler (1931-2014), German social historian

German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler (1931-2014) has died on Saturday. His most prominent work is a five-volume work on the social history of Germany ("Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte") in the Early Modern and Modern Era (1700-1990). He was not a historian in the "ivory tower" of academia, but also commented on socio-political issues; over the last couple of years, he had repeatedly criticized the increasing inequality in income and property in Germany and globally.

Wehler at the Leipzig Book Fair, March 2013

Wehler, born in Freudenberg near Siegen in Westphalia on September 11th, 1931, died in Bielefeld last Saturday (July 5th, 2014). He graduated from high school in 1952, attending the same gymnasium as the most prominent West German post-war philosopher, Jürgen Habermas. A student at Cologne, Bonn and at Ohio Unversity at the time of West Germany's post-war "economic miracle" ("Wirtschaftswunder"), he became a lecturer at Cologne at the height of the "1968er" student movement in Germany; after a couple of years there, he took up a full professor chair at West Berlin's (left-wing) Free University in 1970. For most of his career, from 1971 until 1996, he taught at the "reform" University of Bielefeld, with stints in Berne, Switzerland, and in the U.S., at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. 

Recently, Wehler had pointed to the increasing inequality as a danger to social peace and to the ongoing social erosion of the basis of a German society, that for the immediate post-war decades rather aptly had been characterized as a rather "levelled middle-class society" ("nivellierte Mittelstandsgesellschaft") by sociologist Helmut Schelsky (who, like Wehler, was one of the pioneers of the newly-founded "reform" university at Bielefeld).

At Bielefeld, Wehler and others developed and taught the method of Critical Social History ("Kritische Sozialgeschichte", "Bielefelder Schule" (Bielefeld School)). Wehler was influenced by Max Weber's theories and saw grand social and economic developments as the motors of history. He always focused on the complexity and totality of modernity.

In 2013, he wrote in Germany's ZEIT weekly newspaper: "It remains an open question, why there is so little resistance against the exorbitant increase in inequality of incomes and property. After all, labour unions have half of the seats on the boards of corporations; but questions of wages and bonuses are mostly decided upon consensually. Are such delicate [i.e. important, PB] questions simply rubber-stamped? For it is not about the enforcement of genuine market forces, as the hegemonic neoclassical school in the U.S., in Britain and in Germany suggests, but about classical decision-making by a few men in a small arena. (...)

The blatant inequality of income and property is indisputably dangerous, despite the domestic tranquility. For it had always been the basis of legitimacy of the Federal Republic of Germany, that the social product of our economy should be distributed more or less equally. That had been the big achievement of a pragmatic cooperation between corporations and labour unions. But nowadays, the blatant differences can't be legitimated any more, even more so because the middle class and the lower class are suffering from a stagnation of their real income. Political pressure, leading to adequate reforms, is necessary. The overcoming of this inequality is vital, Germany's often-praised ability to reform is at stake here."

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