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GE2: German History and Thought since 1750

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24

GE2 offers an introduction to German history and thought, from the late eighteenth century to the present. It looks at the major events and ideas that defined modern Germany. Even though the History and the Thought section are taught separately, the paper’s premise is that the two are closely interdependent: ideas are conditioned by and in turn condition the social and political reality of a particular historical period.

The History Section of the paper surveys the major social and cultural developments since the French Revolution and the political events that shaped a country in the heart of Europe: the rise of German nationalism and liberalism, the failed revolutions of 1848, Bismarck’s foundation of the German Empire in 1871, colonialism and racism, the Great War and its aftermath, the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi seizure of power, World War II and the Holocaust, the division of Germany, its eventual reunification in 1989/90, and its new role in the 21st century as a standard-bearer of liberal democracy. We will analyse the significance of these events for the German people, but also for the rest of Europe and indeed the world. Alongside the well-known narrative of “blood and iron” and its (in)famous protagonists, we aim to unearth an alternative, often forgotten story of the German nation, one defined by radical dissent and resistance to the powers that be and by the men and women – democrats, socialists, pacifists, feminists – who fought for a different Germany that did not and still has not come into being.

In the Thought Section, we look at some of the most influential philosophers of the modern era. The ideas of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger transformed the way we think about the universe and our place in it, the way we treat other human beings (and animals) – and the way we think about thinking itself. Their legacies far transcend the realm of “pure thought”, however. Hegel, Marx, and Adorno, for instance, inspired socialist and anti-colonial movements across the world. Often associated with his support of National Socialism, Heidegger’s critique of modern rationality and technology also influenced certain strands of environmentalism in the later twentieth century. Our principal goal is to make accessible the ideas themselves and at the same time to examine their wider impact on culture, politics, and society in Germany and beyond. We will consider these ideas “in context”, that is, as responses to and interventions in particular intellectual debates and historical situations, including the thinker’s own lived experience. GE2 traces the evolution of German thought from the Enlightenment (Kant) and its Romantic (Novalis) and neo-Romantic (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger) critics via Idealism (Hegel) and Materialism (Marx) to the theorists of the Frankfurt School (Adorno and Habermas). It investigates these traditions in relation to wider European intellectual movements, but also seeks to show what is distinctively German about German philosophy.

We aim to appeal both to those who may have some background in German history and thought and to those who have never had the opportunity to study these subjects before. Most of the primary and secondary sources for the History Section are in English. The short excerpts from philosophical works that we read for the Thought Section are in German, but will also be made available in English translation.

The topics studied in GE2 lend themselves well to treatment in a Long Essay and indeed to further exploration in a Year Abroad Project or an Optional Dissertation. GE2 students often go on to take Paper GE12 (“The German Historical Imagination, 1750 to the Present”) in Part II or papers “borrowed” from the History Tripos. Many of them choose to focus on the Thought and History modules in Papers GE8, GE9 and GE10.


Section A: History

1. The French Revolution, Napoleon, and the Rise of German Nationalism, 1789-1819

2. German Liberalism, the “Vormärz” and the Revolutions of 1848/49

4. Imperial Germany, 1871-1918: Politics, Culture, and Society

5. World War I, the Weimar Republic, and the Rise of Nazism

6. The Third Reich: Hitler, the Holocaust, and World War II

7. The Divided Nation, 1945-1989: From “Stunde Null” to Reunification

8. Germany since 1990: Towards a New Identity


Section B: Thought

1. The German Philosophical Revolution: Kant

2. Re-enchanting the World: Novalis and Early Romanticism

3. From Idealism to Materialism: Hegel and Marx

4. Pessimism: Schopenhauer

5. After the Death of God: Nietzsche

6. The Crisis of Reason: Max Weber

7. The Question of Being: Heidegger

8. The New Duties of Philosophy: Adorno, Habermas and the Frankfurt School

Students will receive reading lists on specific topics from their supervisors. The best preparation for the course is to read one or more of the general books listed below.

Preparatory reading: 


H. Schulze, Germany: A New History (1998)

W.H. Hagen, German History in Modern Times: Four Lives of the Nation (2012)

A. Bowie, Introduction to German Philosophy: From Kant to Habermas (2003)

V. Hoesle, A Short History of German Philosophy (2018)

Students might also like to consult the websites listed in the Learning Resources below.

Teaching and learning: 

Sixteen lectures (8 on History, 8 on Thought) complement the 8 supervisions spread out over Michaelmas and Lent. All lectures are accompanied by extensive handouts.

The Moodle site for GE2 can be found here.

These are the most helpful online resources for the History Section:


In the GE2 examination, you will have to answer three questions, at least one from each section (History and Thought, respectively). One question will be set on each topic. This paper is also available for examination by Long Essay, which means that in place of the three-hour exam, you submit two essays of 3,500-4,000 words each, one at the start of Lent and one at the start of Easter Term. You may write both Long Essays on History or on Thought, or one on each.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Martin Ruehl