Detlev Peukert

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Detlev Peukert (September 20, 1950 in Gütersloh – May 17, 1990 in Hamburg) was a German historian, noted for his studies of the relationship between what he called the "spirit of science" and the Holocaust and in social history and the Weimar Republic. Peukert taught modern history at the University of Essen and served as director of the Research Institute for the History of the Nazi Period. Peukert was a member of the German Communist Party until 1978, when he joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

Working Class History

Peukert was born in a working class family in the Ruhr, his father a coal miner and his mother a housewife, and he was the first member of his family to attend university.[1] Many of his father's fellow coal miners had been members of either the SPD or KPD, and were sent to concentration camps during the Nazi era.[1] Growing up in the coal miners' milieu, where many so had been sent to concentration camps for anti-Nazi views, left Peukert very interested in the subject of outsiders in the Third Reich, as he wanted to know why so many coal miners chose to oppose the Nazi regime when so many other ordinary people were passive, indifferent or supportive of the Nazi regime.[1] As a "68er" whose politics were defined by the student protests of 1968, Peukert was active in left-wing politics and joined the German Communist Party.[2]

Peukert's first book was his 1976 book Ruhrarbeiter gegen den Faschismus (Ruhr Workers Against Fascism), a study of anti-Nazi activities amongst the working class of the Ruhr during the Third Reich.[3] Reflecting his left-wing views, Peukert praised the "our red grandfathers" who chose to oppose National Socialism, despite their downtrodden status, arguing that their willingness to take action when so many were passive or supportive of National Socialism, made them heroes.[4]

Historian of Alltagsgeschichte in the Third Reich

Peukert was a leading expert in Alltagsgeschichte ("history of everyday life") and his work often examined the effect of Nazi social policies on ordinary Germans and on persecuted groups such as Jews and Roma.[2] The subject of alltagesgeschiche had first been established in the 1970s, and had first attracted attention when Martin Broszat and his protégés had launched the "Bavaria project" intended to document everyday life in Bavaria in the Third Reich. In the early 1980s, Peukert began teaching alltagesgeschiche, until then a subject mostly ignored by German historians, as he argued that the subject was important.[2] In 1980, Peukert planned the historical exhibition at the Old Synagogue of Essen on the subject "Resistance and Persecution in Essen 1933-1945".[5] In 1984, Peukert won the Maeier-Leibnitz prize for his habilitation on youth policy in Germany in late 19th and early 20th centuries.[6]

In particular, Peukert looked at how in "everyday" life in Nazi Germany, aspects of both "normality" and "criminality" co-existed with another.[7] Peukert was one of the first historians to make a detailed examination of the persecution of the Romani. Peukert often compared Nazi policies towards Roma with Nazi policies towards Jews. As a homosexual, Peukert was especially interested in the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. As a gay man, Peukert was especially troubled by those who used the homosexuality of Nazi leaders like Ernst Röhm as an excuse for homophobia, writing:

"The National Socialists' fundamental hostility to homosexuals should not be trivialized by references to individual Nazi leaders' homosexuality. The disgraceful denunciation of SA leader Ernst Röhm, precisely by the Social Democratic press, to gain votes in 1930, thus sullying its own liberal tradition, was taken up again after the so-called Röhm putsch of 1934 and used by the National Socialists to justify their murderous actions".[8]

Another interest of Peukert was in the youth movements like the Swing Kids and the Edelweiss Pirates that clashed with the Nazi regime. The American historian Peter Baldwin criticized Peukert for treating those Swing Kids and Edelweiss Pirates sent to concentration camps as morally just as much as victims of the National Socialist regime as the Jews exterminated in the death camps.[9] Baldwin took Peukert to task for his 1987 statement: "As long as the Nazis needed armament workers and future soldiers, they could not exterminate German youth as they exterminated the Poles and Jews".[10] Baldwin called this statement "a wholly fanciful suggestion" that the Nazi leaders were planing to exterminate the young people of Germany, going on to comment that the reader should "note also the order of priority among the actual victims".[10] Baldwin wrote that "This is Reagan's Bitburg fallacy of the SS as victims, this time committed from the Left".[10] In 1985, the U.S. president Ronald Reagan had taken part in a memorial ceremony at a cemetery in Bitburg whose graves were those of soldiers killed in the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS; when criticized for honoring the sacrifice of SS men, Reagan had stated those Germans killed fighting in the SS were just as much victims of Hitler as the Jews exterminated in the death camps, and that therefore placing a memorial wreath honoring the memory of the SS men buried at the Bitburg cemetery was no different from placing a memorial wreath at Auschwitz. Reagan's statement that the SS and the Jews exterminated by the SS were all equally victims of Hitler is known to historians as the Bitburg fallacy.[11]

In his 1987 book Spuren des Widerstands Die Bergarbeiterbewegung im Dritten Reich und im Exil ("Traces of Resistance The Miners' Movement in the Third Reich and In Exile"), Peukert began with the question: "How does one write a history of continual failure?...To write a history of the resistance from the "loser's" viewpoint means trying to understand why, in spite of everything, they did not give up".[5] Peukert argued even through the Social Democratic and Communist miners failed utterly in their attempts to overthrow the Nazi dictatorship, their willingness to take a stand, no matter how hopeless, and to suffer for their beliefs in the concentration camps meant that they should not be dismissed by historians as "losers".[5]

The problems of modernity

In his 1982 book Volksgenossen und Gemeinschaftsfremde (National Comrades and Community Aliens), Peukert argued that the Nazi regime's:

"racism offered a model for a new order in society...It rested on the racially legitimated removal of all elements that deviated from the norm, refractory youth, idlers, the asocial, prostitutes, homosexuals, people who were incompetent or failures at work, the disabled. National Socialist eugenics...laid down criteria of assessment that were applicable to the population at whole".[12]

Peukert described the aim of National Socialism as:

“ The goal was an utopian Volksgemeinschaft, totally under police surveillance, in which any attempt at nonconformist behaviour, or even any hint or intention of such behaviour, would be visited with terror”.[13]

At the same time, Peukert argued that the völkisch ideology was not "an inexplicable, sudden appearance of 'medieval barbarism' in a progressive society" but rather "demonstrated with heightened clarity and murderous consistency, the pathologies and seismic fractures of the modern civilizing progress".[14] Peukert's thesis that all aspects of the National Socialist regime reflected thevölkisch ideology and that far from being a break with modernity, that the National Socialism regime represented at very least an aspect of modernity was very novel at the time and proved to be influential on the historiography of Nazi Germany.[15]

One of the central issues of German historiography has been the debate over the Sonderweg question, namely whatever German history in the 19th and 20th centuries developed along such lines as to make the Third Reich inevitable.[16] The "Bielefeld School" associated with Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Jurgen Kocka and others have argued for a failed modernization of Germany with the Junkers holding inordinate political and social power in the 19th century that led to Nazi Germany in the 20th century. The most famous riposte to the Sonderweg thesis was the 1984 book The Peculiarities of German history by two British Marxist historians, David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley. In The Peculiarities of German History, Eley and Blackourn argued for the "normality" of modern German history.[16]

Peukert rejected both viewpoints, instead arguing for seeing Nazi Germany as the product of the "crisis of classical modernity".[17] One of the central objections to the "normality" thesis promoted by Eley and Blackbourn has been if Germany was such a "normal" and "modern" nation, how does one explain the Holocaust?[17] Though Peukert rejected the Sonderweg thesis, he criticized Eley and Blackbourn for associating modernity with "progress", and argued for a "skeptical de-coupling of modernity and progress".[17] Peukert argued that historians must:

"raise questions about the pathological and seismic fractures within modernity itself, and about the implicit destructive tendencies of modern industrial class society, which National Socialism made explicit and which elevated it into mass destruction...This approach is supported by a wide variety of debates that have gone within the social sciences, using such notions as 'social disciplining' (Foucault}, the pathological consequences of the civilizing progress (Elias), or the colonisation of the Lebenswelten (Habermas).[17]

Peukert argued that societies that have reached "classical modernity" are characterized by advanced capitalist economic organization and mass production, by the "rationalization" of culture and society, massive bureaucratization of society, the "spirit of science" assuming a dominant role in popular discourses, and the "social disciplining" and "normalization" of the majority of ordinary people.[17] Peukert was greatly influenced by the theories of Max Weber, but unlike many other scholars, who saw Weber attempting to rebut Karl Marx, he viewed Weber's principle intellectual opponent as Friedrich Nietzsche.[17] Peukert wrote that for Weber, the principle problems of modern Germany were:

  • The increasing "rationalization" of everyday life via bureaucratization and secularism had led to a "complete demystification of the world".[17]
  • The popularity of the "spirit of science" had led to a misguided belief that science could solve all problems within the near-future.[18]

Contrary to the "Bielefield school", Peukert argued by the time of the Weimar Republic, Germany had broken decisively with the past, and had become a thoroughly "modern" society in all its aspects.[18] Peukert argued that the very success of German modernization inspired by the "dream of reason" meant the contradictions and problems of "classical modernity" were felt more acutely in Germany than elsewhere.[18] For Peukert, the problems of "classical modernity" were:

  • The very success of modernization encourages "utopian" hopes that all problems can be solved via the "spirit of science" that are inevitably dashed.[18]
  • Modern society causes unavoidable "irritations" which led to people looking backwards to "traditions" and/or a "clean" modernity where the state would attempt to solve social problems via radical means.[18]
  • The "demystification of the world" leads people to seek faith and self-validation either via irrational theories such as "race" and/or a charismatic leader who would revitalize society.[18]
  • Modernity creates a mass society that can be more easily manipulated and mobilized to ends that can be either moral or amoral.[18]

In the last chapter of his 1987 book Die Weimarer Republik : Krisenjahre der Klassischen Moderne, Peukert quoted Walter Benjamin's remark: "The concept of progress must be rooted in catastrophe. The fact that things just "carry on" is the catastrophe".[5]

Dominican studies

Peukert was fluent in Spanish, and was very interested in the history of Latin America, especially the Dominican Republic, which he spent much of the late 1980s visiting.[19] Peukert was interested in youth policy in the Dominican Republic and at the time of his death had began writing a biography of the Dominican dictator General Rafael Trujillo.[19]

"The Genesis of the 'Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science"

Peukert is perhaps best known for his 1989 essay “The Genesis of the 'Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science”. Peukert argued in his essay that the late 19th and early 20th centuries had seen tremendous scientific and technological change together with in Germany the growth of the welfare state, which had created widespread hopes both within the government and in society that “utopia” was at hand and soon all social problems could be solved.[20] At the same time, owning to the great prestige of science, a scientific racist, Social Darwinist and eugenicist worldview which declared some people to be more biologically “valuable” than others was common amongst German elites.[21] Peukert wrote that the Shoah was not the result solely of anti-Semitism, but was instead the a product of the “cumulative radicalization” in which “numerous smaller currents” fed into the “broad current” that led to genocide.[22]

Peukert argued that because the modern welfare state began in Germany in the 1870s, that this had encouraged an "utopian" view of social policy within Germany.[18] Peukert wrote that the great success by medical practitioners in reducing morality in the 19th century had encouraged hopes that practitioners of the new emerging social sciences like sociology, criminology and psychology would soon solve all problems and personal unhappiness would be banished forever.[23] Peukert wrote:

"From the 1890s...the conviction that social reform was necessary was increasingly outflanked and overtaken by the belief that all social problems could find their rational solution through state intervention and scientific endeavor...The dream of a final solution to the social problem resonated in the plans of the 'social engineers', regardless of whatever they were active as youth welfare workers, social hygienists or city planners. Just as medicine had put paid to bacteria, so too, the union of science and social technology in public interventions would make all social problems disappear".[24]

Peukert argued the very growth of the welfare state under the Weimar Republic ensured the backlash when social problems were not solved was especially severe.[24] Peukert wrote:

"Weimar installed the new principle of the social state, in which, on the one hand, the citizen could now claim public assistance in (his/her) social and personal life, while on the other, the state set up the institutional and normative framework, (defining how) a 'normal' life of the citizen of the state could progress...This process, which had already began before the turn of the century, reached its apex in the Weimar Republic and was also thrown into crisis, as the limits of social technology could achieve were reached in every direction".[24]

Peukert wrote after the First World War, the pre-war mood of optimism gave way to disillusionment as German bureaucrats found social problems to more insolvable than at first thought, which in turn guided by the prevailing Social Darwinist and eugenicist values led them to place increasing emphasis on saving the biologically “fit” while the biologically “unfit” were to be written off.[25] Peukert maintained that after 1929, when the Great Depression began, the economic limits of the welfare state to end poverty were cruelly exposed, which led German social scientists and doctors to argue that the "solution" was now to protect the "valuable" in society from the "incurable".[24] Peukert wrote that rather than accept that the "spirit of science" could not solve all social problems, those who believed in the "spirit of science" started to blame the victims of poverty themselves for their plight, depicting their poverty as due to biological instead of economic factors, and began to devise measures to exclude the biologically "incurable" from society.[24]

At the same time, Peukert argued that the "spirit of science" had aided the rise of racism.[24] Peukert argued that scientific advances had reduced morality, but could not end death, and unlike religion, science could offer no spiritual consolation.[24] Peukert wrote that for precisely these reasons, scientific racism was embraced since though the body of the individual would inevitably end, the volkskörper (the "eternal" body of the race) would live on.[26] In this sense, ensuring the survival of the "healthy genes" was a bid for a type of immortality.[26] Conversely, this required the elimination of "deficient genes" carried by the "unfit".[26] Furthermore, Peukert argued that völkisch racism was part of a male backlash against women's emancipation, and was a way of asserting control over women's bodies, which were viewed in a certain sense as public property since women had the duty of bearing the next generation that would pass on the "healthy genes".[26]

Another related area of interest for Peukert was resistance, opposition and dissent in the Third Reich. Peukert developed a pyramid model starting with "nonconformity" (behavior in private that featured partial rejection of the Nazi regime) running to "refusal of co-operation" (Verweigerung) to "protest", and finally to Widerstand (resistance), which involved total rejection of the Nazi regime.[27]

Peukert often wrote on the social and cultural history of the Weimar Republic whose problems he saw as more severe examples of the problems of modernity. Peukert died of AIDS in 1990, aged 39. The British historian Richard Bessel described Peukert's last months as a "nightmare of suffering".[28] At the time, there were no drugs to treat HIV, and Peukert died in much agony, but was described by as having kept his spirits up the end.[1]


  • Ruhrarbeiter gegen den Faschismus Dokumentation über den Widerstand im Ruhrgebeit 1933-1945, Frankfurt am Main, 1976.
  • Die Reihen fast geschlossen : Beiträge zur Geschichte des Alltags unterm Nationalsozialismus co-edited with Jürgen Reulecke & Adelheid Gräfin zu Castell Rudenhausen, Wuppertal : Hammer, 1981.
  • Volksgenossen und Gemeinschaftsfremde: Anpassung, Ausmerze und Aufbegehren unter dem Nationalsozialismus Cologne: Bund Verlag, 1982, translated into English by Richard Deveson as Inside Nazi Germany : Conformity, Opposition and Racism in Everyday Life London : Batsford, 1987 ISBN 0-7134-5217-X.
  • Die Weimarer Republik : Krisenjahre der Klassischen Moderne, Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1987 translated into English as The Weimar Republic : the Crisis of Classical Modernity, New York : Hill and Wang, 1992 ISBN 0-8090-9674-9.
  • “The Genesis of the `Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science” pages 234-252 from Reevaluating the Third Reich edited by Thomas Childers and Jane Caplan, New York: Holmes & Meier, 1994 ISBN 0-8419-1178-9. The German original was published as "Die Genesis der 'Endloesung' aus dem Geist der Wissenschaft," in Max Webers Diagnose der Moderne, edited by Detlev Peukert (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1989), pages 102-21, ISBN 3-525-33562-8.


  1. ^ a b c d Zimmermann 1991, p. 245.
  2. ^ a b c Bessel 1990, p. 321.
  3. ^ Zimmermann 1991, p. 245-246.
  4. ^ Zimmermann 1991, p. 245=246.
  5. ^ a b c d Zimmerman 1991, p. 247.
  6. ^ Bessel 1990, p. 322.
  7. ^ Kershaw, Ian The Nazi Dictatorship Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, London: Arnold Press, 2000 page 230.
  8. ^ Zimmermann 1991, p. 247.
  9. ^ Baldiwn 1990, p. 33.
  10. ^ a b c Baldwin 1990, p. 33.
  11. ^ Baldwin 1990, p. 3-4.
  12. ^ Pendas, Devin & Roseman, Mark Beyond the Racial State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017 page 3.
  13. ^ Peukert, Detlev Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition and Racism In Everyday Life, London : Batsford, 1987 page 220.
  14. ^ Pendas, Devin & Roseman, Mark Beyond the Racial State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017 page 3.
  15. ^ Pendas, Devin & Roseman, Mark Beyond the Racial State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017 page 4.
  16. ^ a b Crew 1992, p. 319-320.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Crew 1992, p. 320.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h Crew 1992, p. 321.
  19. ^ a b Bessel 1990, p. 323.
  20. ^ Peukert, Detlev “The Genesis of the “Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science” pages 274-299 from Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945 edited by David F. Crew, London: Routledge, 1994 pages 280-284
  21. ^ Peukert, Detlev “The Genesis of the “Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science” pages 274-299 from Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945 edited by David F. Crew, London: Routledge, 1994 pages 279-280
  22. ^ Peukert, Detlev “The Genesis of the “Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science” pages 274-299 from Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945 edited by David F. Crew, London: Routledge, 1994 page 280
  23. ^ Crew 1992, p. 321-322.
  24. ^ a b c d e f g Crew 1992, p. 322.
  25. ^ Peukert, Detlev “The Genesis of the “Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science” pages 274-299 from Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945 edited by David F. Crew, London: Routledge, 1994 page 288
  26. ^ a b c d Crew 1992, p. 323.
  27. ^ Kershaw, Ian The Nazi Dictatorship Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, London: Arnold Press, 2000 page 205.
  28. ^ Bessel 1990, p. 324.


  • Baldwin, Peter Reworking the Past: Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Historians' Debate, Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.
  • Bessel, Richard "Detlev J.K. Peukert" pages 321-324 from German History, Volume 8, Issue 3, August 1990.
  • Crew, David "The Pathologies of Modernity: Detlev Peukert on Germany's Twentieth Century" pages 319-328 from Social History, Volume 17, No. 2, May 1992.
  • Kershaw, Ian The Nazi Dictatorship Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, London: Arnold Press, 2000, ISBN 0-340-76028-1
  • Zimmermann, Michael "Detlev Peukert 1950-1990" pages 245-248 from History Workshop, No. 31, Spring 1991.
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