Book Forum on German Philanthropic History / New Works in the Field

Re-considering Tocqueville through a Wilhelmine Lens: A Review of Adam’s PHILANTHROPY, CIVIL SOCIETY, AND THE STATE IN GERMAN HISTORY, 1815-1989

Editors Note: The last year witnessed the publication two important books on the history of modern German philanthropy, Thomas Adam’s Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the State in German History, 1815-1989 and German Philanthropy in Transatlantic Perspective, edited by Gregory Witkowski and Arnd Bauerkämper. The coincidence of these two works signals a contemporary flowering of scholarship on the history of German philanthropy. HistPhil delves into this scholarship with a week-long forum–which is also an opportunity to explore the benefits of a comparative and transatlantic perspective in the study of philanthropy history. Stefan Toepler opens this mini-forum with a review of Adam’s book.

In his fascinating new book, Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the State in German History, 1815-1989, Thomas Adam sets out to revise the view of 19th and 20th century Germany as a state centered society, that is common among Anglo-Saxon historians. Following Adam’s account, the reader gains an appreciation that 19th century philanthropy in Germany was not in fact so much different from its contemporaneous counterparts in Britain and the United States. In fields such as education, arts and culture, and social housing, many philanthropic initiatives developed concurrently and influenced each other. But beyond questioning the state centered view of German society, Adam also has a second target in his crosshairs: Alexis de Tocqueville, his modern-day acolytes, and the thesis linking civil society and democratization.

Adam starts his tour in the field of arts and culture. Germany’s many court cities had amassed significant artistic riches and expensive cultural institutions over the course of history. The standard view is that these institutions at some point transferred from aristocratic to government responsibility in an unbroken tradition of state tutelage of culture. Adam, however, argues that the bourgeois middle- and upper-classes began to appropriate arts and culture in the course of the 19th century, as they remained barred from political emancipation. Art associations pooled funds to support local artists, organize exhibitions, and start collections that eventually morphed into new museums and galleries. Arts and culture evolved into a legitimate philanthropic activity, and wealthy collectors started to establish their own institutions as well. But as Adam details, art associations and private collectors frequently sought close collaboration with the ruling nobility. These collaborations frequently led to a division of labor in which private patrons and citizens donated the art and the rulers the buildings to exhibit them. At the same time, aristocratic rulers became increasingly constrained in their ability to finance the maintenance of their own institutions, so nobility and the well-to-do bourgeoisie joined in supporting associations to generate new funding sources for the aristocratic cultural heritage as well.

Interestingly this new “collective philanthropy” sometimes took the form of stock companies to raise capital but that reinvested any surplus. Museums and similar institutions became increasingly dependent on private financing in the course of the 19th century in public-private partnership arrangements in which the state—often at the municipal level—agreed to provide the physical infrastructure and private citizens saw to content and maintenance.

As the American reader will quickly realize, this amounted to essentially the same model on which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was founded (city provision of space and physical plant and maintenance thereof). Incidentally, Adam traces the impetus behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Americans’ experiences with the Dresden art collections and the establishment of the Neues Museum in Berlin. One can, indeed, not help but suspect that 19th century philanthropic endeavors in Germany and the US looked much more similar than most would expect.

Shifting focus to education, Adam first details the importance of philanthropic support for secondary education, which remained neither fully funded nor fully regulated by the state through the 19th century. Schools depended on tuition and additional endowment funds, which were used to support teachers and their families, to expand school facilities, and to provide financial aid to students who would otherwise not be able to attend. As Adam argues, the latter was not intended to provide upward mobility for the lower classes, but to prevent downward mobility for upper and middle-class families not able to pay for the education of all of their offspring. Little philanthropic largess benefited schools serving the lower classes.

The same dynamic extended to the tertiary level, where tuition posed an even greater affordability issue. Scholarship funds were therefore integral in the financing of German universities and a necessity for social status preservation of many middle- and even upper-class families in need of such support. Since pre-modern times, these endowments were typically subject to a number of eligibility restrictions, typically geared towards men of the donor’s religious persuasion (i.e., Catholic or Lutheran), giving rise to new gifts during the 19th century to support Jews and women in their pursuit of higher education.

In addition to supporting students, donors had also supported endowed professorships and research institutes at universities. Philanthropic efforts for research and science ticked up markedly towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. In many ways, private support for research and science mimicked the approaches established in the arts field. Scholars and businessmen came together in associations to support certain aspects of science; and in prominent, national efforts, private patrons collaborated with the aristocratic leadership of the state. Adam uses the examples of the German Orient Society – patterned after British models for funding excavations in the Middle East – and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, founded to foster scientific research, to illustrate these relationships.

In his fourth case study, Adam switches gears from essentially upper class philanthropic interests to the interventions of philanthropists into working class affairs. The chapter details, on the one hand, how housing was designed to undermine social cohesion among working class tenants, out of a fear of social unrest, as much as to help reduce the spread of diseases. On the other, it highlights the use of various business models to pursue housing projects. Connecting to Susannah Morris’ work on Victorian England, Adam shows the mutual influence of housing reformers of the time in Britain and Germany, and the evolution of social entrepreneurial approaches, such as limited-dividend stock corporations in which investors accepted a pre-determined return (3-4%) in lieu of profit maximization to support the social housing mission. The contemporary reader will see clear parallels to the current discussion of new hybrid forms to achieve a similar marriage between social missions and business approaches.

In this and in his earlier discussion of collective philanthropy, one can locate one significant take-away from Adam’s research: “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know,” as Harry S. Truman purportedly said.  Many who believe that the new philanthropists with their giving circles, or the overly enthusiastic social entrepreneurialists with their hyped new hybrid legal forms are leading world-changing innovations may just not know their history. Been there, done that is a conclusion we can draw from Adam’s examinations. The next big question that might merit further historical inquiry is why it is that we currently have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Why did the limited dividend stock corporations of the 19th century fall out of favor? Was it the introduction of corporate income taxes, then exemptions for organizations that would adopt the non-distribution constraint, or something else entirely?

In the final two chapters, Adam recaps and expands on the main theses of this work, which provide the other two major takeaways from this study. First, there is the argument for revising the prevailing view that Germany always was a state-dominated society in which bourgeois underlings willingly did the bidding of the aristocratic rulers.  By contrast, Adam shows ample evidence for extensive philanthropic engagement of German society, where the middle- and upper-class bourgeois elites cooperated with the ruling class in shaping the nation. While excluded from political power, the bourgeoisie utilized its economic and financial prowess to influence and help shape public institutions. “By 1914 Germany was a superpower in the world of philanthropy,” and philanthropy had driven much of its cultural and scientific success and strength by then.

By embracing “an interpretation of German history in which German citizens actively shape the society according to their own views, which included authoritarian concepts of rule,” Adam also introduces the other key argument of his study: civil society and private philanthropists agreed with and supported their authoritarian government and vice versa. Democracy (i.e., the government of the Weimar Republic and to an extent the federal Republic later on), by contrast, remained indifferent in both cases.

In this, Adam argues against the civil society-democracy nexus that political scientists have subscribed to practically since the publication of Democracy in America and that got buoyed after 1989 and then by Robert Putnam’s neo-Toquevillean argument about the decline of social capital. Adam, however, argues that de Toqueville’s America was a “rather poor case study” for causally linking democracy to civil society and offers Germany as the counterfactual: civil society emerged during the authoritarianism of the Wilhelmine Empire, with leadership that supported, rather than opposed, the government and its vision for the state. Philanthropists sought social status and recognition, at the same time helping to shape and foster the social order, outside of the realm of politics. The system was marked by mutual cooperation that worked for both sides.

In contrast, Adam blames the democratic government of the Weimar Republic and its lack of interest in civil society for much of the post-World War I destruction of the foundation community by “indirect expropriation.” While many histories of German foundations have seen the hyperinflation of 1923 as the reason for the near wipe-out of most foundation assets, Adam argues that much could have been saved. During WW I most philanthropic investments had been forcefully converted into war bonds, which only lost their value when the fledgling new Weimar government decided to devalue them to reduce the crushing debt burden of the new democratic Republic.

So, the third and final major takeaway of the study is that authoritarianism was good and democracy bad for German philanthropy and civil society from the late 19th century and into the 20th century. Or, at any rate, there was no causal link: both can very well flourish under authoritarianism  This is a potentially very important argument that also feels exceedingly timely at the moment. As the third wave of democratization is petering out, the ever-growing number of authoritarian and hybrid regimes around the world have launched a major backlash against civil society, ranging from restrictions on foreign support to bureaucratic harassment, defamation and outright suppression of NGOs fighting for Western democratic values and ideals. And while democratization scholars are still trying to make sense of what is happening, there is a slowly growing recognition that democratization strategies resting on civil society may be failing us. Civil society may not be what it is cracked up to be; and a greater analytical focus on the dark side, on uncivil society, may be in order.  As a colleague in Moscow recently remarked, for instance, if the majority of Russians are racist, then the “good“ civil society is really engaged in a confrontation with the rest of society, not just the government. Moreover, one could wonder why we would expect that Russian civil society is only drawn from the non-racist minority. Like the vast majority of the population, many Russian nonprofit leaders like, and approve of, Putin and his government, it has been argued, and perhaps this should not strike us as a surprise, once we take our Toquevillean lenses off. In encouraging us to do so from a historical angle, Thomas Adam has his finger on the contemporary pulse and I am wholeheartedly in agreement with his argument. The one area where additional work might be warranted is the disentanglement between civil society and philanthropy. Adam writes of both, with a slight preponderance of the latter. While often conflated in the vast literature on civil society, both may not be coequal concepts when it comes to democratization though. Toqueville’s and Putnam’s civil societies are based on associations of people, which create the purported democratic spill-over benefits, and money (i.e. philanthropy) has no definite place in the argument. Philanthropic capital, particularly in the form of endowments or foundations, by contrast, has long been considered of dubious legitimacy in modern democratic society. Adam’s new study further buttresses this point: philanthropy can just as easily be at home in authoritarian regimes, as it is in democratic ones.

-Stefan Toepler

Stefan Toepler is associate professor of nonprofit studies in the Schar School of Policy and Government of George Mason University and has also been affiliated with the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow since 2014.

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