Term originated in the 19 th century – Germany’s political, economic & military success were down to unique values & institutions. Germany was pursuing a ‘middle way’ between Tsarist Autocracy & western democracy.
After 1945 the notion took on a more negative slant – Germany had taken a ‘wrong turning’ on the path to modernity which led to National Socialism.
1960s: Wehler – failed bourgeois revolution led to Germany developing a modern economy governed by pre-modern elites (monarchy, army, aristocracy).
1980s: Blackbourn & Eley – German middle class disempowered in political life but dominated culture & society. Sonderweg a flawed tool for looking at German history.
Related to the debate over Sonderweg is the issue of continuities in modern German history.
1940s & 50s: West European & American historians saw the Third Reich as the result of flaws in the German character; while West German historians saw it as an aberration & the consequence of wider European trends.
1960s: Fischer controversy & new debate on Sonderweg led to ‘structuralist’ historians identifying & highlighting continuities between Imperial & Nazi Germany.
Undoubtedly there are similarities – no period of history is divorced from what precedes it – but this approach can be misleading.
Hindsight shouldn’t mislead us into assuming that the course of history was fixed.