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The origins of an illusion: British policy and opinion, and the development of Prussian liberalism, 1848-1871 Murray, Scott W.


The massive historiography dealing with the problem of Germany's development in the first half of twentieth century has been strongly influenced by the notion that certain peculiar national characteristics led Germany down a Sonderweq, or "special path," which diverged from that of other Western European nations. However, by helping to focus scholarly attention on various political, social and intellectual developments which took place in Germany in the nineteenth century, the Sonderweq thesis has distracted scholars from examining more closely the possible impact which the interplay of international relations had on Germany's development during this pivotal period. The present study examines the extent to which British foreign policy affected the growth of authoritarianism and the decline of liberalism in Prussia during the period 1848-1871, and how certain Intellectual currents in England at the time affected both the formulation and the expression of British policy regarding Prussia. By examining both the policies pursued by British statesmen at certain key points during the period 1848-1871, and the views expressed by a group of highly idealistic British liberal commentators who watched affairs in Prussia closely during this period, I have attempted to demonstrate the following: firstly, that existing interpretations of British policy regarding Prussia have overemphasized the role of liberal idealism in the calculations of British policy-makers, who appear instead to have consistently pursued pragmatic policies aimed at a Prussian-led unification of Germany; and secondly that it was this latter group of British commentators who provided policy-makers with a style of rhetoric which obfuscated the pragmatic considerations underlying British policy. Moreover, it was this same corpus of liberal, "Whig" commentary which laid the conceptual foundations for what was to become the standard interpretative approach to German history, particularly amongst Anglo-American historians writing since 1945 - the Sonderweq thesis. Thus, by separating the rhetoric from the actual practice of British policy, and by identifying the liberal biases which pervaded British liberal discourse on Prussia during this period, I have attempted to clarify Britain's role in the important developments taking place in Germany at this time, while broadening our appreciation of how and why subsequent scholarship on the German question has so readily embraced the notion that German history is "peculiar".

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