'Volksgeschichte' als moderne Sozialgeschichte? Werner Conze und die deutsche Ostforschung

Marco Wauker


Despite an intense scholarly debate, there is still no satisfying answer to the question of how to judge the quality of academic studies by followers of the ethnic paradigm in interwar German historiography. In this context, the present article takes an exemplary view at the early works of the prominent historian and "Ostforscher" Werner Conze.
In contrast to the dominating view that Conze's early works impress with political objectivity and methodical originality, the detailed analysis of his dissertation and his postdoctoral thesis leads to the conclusion that, to a large extent, they did not meet high academic standards. Instead, they are characterized by the noticeable influence of an antimodernist value system and social-conservative ideas of order, the assumption of an organic body called "Volk", or the vision of a natural civilizational supremacy of the Germans in Eastern Europe, and, in contrast to that, a biologistic view of the other ethnic groups there. These elements were not merely concessions to the Zeitgeist or a kind of ideological superstructure that did not only not prevent but possibly even inspire serious and productive research. Rather they were a leitmotif that determined the structure and content of Conze's studies, causing considerable fade-outs and distortions, pre- and deforming even the core results of his research.
The fundamental doubts having been raised about the argument that, as a rule, German ethnic history produced solid and original results despite its ideological outlook, have, at least by the example of Werner Conze, been proved. This insight also bears significance for the present-day German historiography on East Central Europe, which still has a positive attitude towards Conze's pre-World War II research and that of other representatives of the "Ostforschung" as well.