Asymmetrical historical comparison: The case of the German Sonderweg (Modern German history, interpretation)

Frequently, historical comparisons are asymmetrical in the sense that they investigate one case carefully while limiting themselves to a mere sketch of the other case(s) which serve(s) as comparative reference point(s). The debate on the German Sonderweg (special path) and the rich historical literature originating from this debate can serve as examples. This article reconstructs the pros and cons within this controversial debate, reports its results and puts it into a broader historical context. It analyzes the comparative logic implied by the Sonderweg thesis and argues that the interpretation of modern German history in the sense of a Sonderweg can only be maintained if related to the question why Germany turned fascist and totalitarian in the interwar period while other (comparable) societies did not, and if Western countries are selected as units of comparison. The choice of comparative reference points turns out to be decisive and partly dependent on normative priorities and conventions. The article points to dangers and opportunities inherent in asymmetrical comparison.