by guest contributor Steven McClellan
What’s in a name? When I began thinking about writing a dissertation on the history of the Verein für Sozialpolitik (Association for Social Policy), I assumed that the largest problem would be related to the “Verein” part of the name: tracking down members, finding personal papers, mastering the voluminous output of their writings, etc. After all, this was an association that included some of the most important economists and sociologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: Gustav Schmoller, Lujo Brentano, Adolph Wagner, Max Weber, Alfred Weber, Werner Sombart, Ferdinand Tönnies, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Emil Lederer, and Eduard Heimann among others. It is more or less a who’s who of German social scientists for the time period. However, though this issue still remains (and will continue to do so), I’ve found it far harder to nail the jelly that is the word ‘Sozialpolitik’ to the wall. Often translated into English as ‘social politics,’ it isn’t quite the equivalent of that still-ambiguous term. Certainly, calling someone a ‘social politician’ doesn’t roll off the tongue, or invite understanding in the way that calling someone a ‘Sozialpolitiker’ in German does. Although this group is well-recognized—a biographical lexicon of German Sozialpolitiker during the Imperial Germany has recently been published under the supervision of the Kassel historian Florian Tennstedt, with a volume on the Weimar period is underway—this hardly gets us any closer to a definition. Both the notion and the practice of social politics/Sozialpolitik are crucial to the history of the last 150 years, and not just in Germany.


Schriften des Vereins (Titelblatt)

Traditionally, Sozialpolitik refers to the responses by actors from the state, church and civil society to the ‘social question,’ or the group of problems centered on alleviating the social and economic disadvantages of particular groups in society. In the particular case of Germany, rapid industrialization and political unification in the latter half of the nineteenth century spurred interest in Sozialpolitik. It was in this context that Gustav Schmoller called a group of academics, civil servants, businessmen, politicians, union leaders and journalists to Eisenach (where the Social Democratic Workingman’s Party was founded in 1869) to discuss ways to address the social question. This meeting would lead to the founding of the Verein für Sozialpolitik. One year later, Schmoller declared that, “Standing above egoistic class interests, [the State] would issue laws, administer justly, protect the weak [and] raise the lower classes[‘s]” standing in society. Schmoller’s conception of Sozialpolitik was one based on moral-ethical and nationalist premises, as he sought the social unification of Germany, thereby completing her political unification. The founding of the Verein was a great success and resonated with contemporaries. Many commentators at the time and successive generations of historians would point to the effectiveness of the Verein in mobilizing support for the social policies implemented under Bismarck during the 1870s and 1880s.
However, two things need to be pointed out. First, the Verein did not monopolize Sozialpolitik—in fact, far from it. Furthermore, it was never a monolithic group. At times there were prevailing tendencies, but individual members often did not fit this mold. Therefore, the Verein always found itself in a peculiar dialectic between inner and outer tensions and debates. This was especially the case when it came to issues related to the working class. Approaches to Sozialpolitik were loaded with a host of ideological underpinnings and assumptions that were shaped along the lines of members’ political, social and religious affiliations. What is perhaps most odd about the Verein is that it attempted to navigate the stormy waters of these often divergent strands of German society by standing on the firm ground of “science”. They were, as their secretary and historian Franz Boese repeatedly wrote in correspondence, merely a “scientific publication society.”
Gustav von Schmoller )by Nicola Perscheid, c. 1908)

Gustav von Schmoller (by Nicola Perscheid, c. 1908)

Flying the banner of Sozialpolitik became a way to ingratiate oneself into the academic fields of economics and sociology at the time, however. The leading figures of the Verein (especially Schmoller, through his personal relationship with the Prussian Minister of Education, Friedrich Althoff) were thought to dictate postings in Prussian academic institutions. The idea that Schmoller and the Verein wielded this sort of influence led dissident economists and political opponents to use words like “tyranny” and “terrorism” in the press and in pamphlets to describe their iron grip on economic teaching in Germany. Did this mean that young economists had to become a Sozialpolitiker in order to hope for an academic posting? Not exactly. But that opponents levelled the accusation shows that the Verein had helped to shape Sozialpolitik. But how did it exactly do this? And for how long did it do so? This is the at the heart of the problem that I am grappling with in my research.
Another key issue is one of boundaries. Can the term be globalized, or at least expanded beyond the borders of the nation-state? For some members of the Verein, it certainly could be. In a meeting that took place in Dresden on May 15, 1910 to decide the future research agenda, the Munich professor Moritz Julius Bonn proposed an “international” investigation on whether white races could live and work in the tropics. During the exchange that followed, noted economist Max Sering explained, “In the colonies, the race question is always an economic and a sozialpolitische question.” This was in response to his mentor Georg Friedrich Knapp’s dismissal of the proposal on the grounds that such a study did not fall under the purview of the Verein. That Sering objected to this extension and argued that colonial spaces were important to the national economy at home (heimischen Volkswirtschaft) while also claiming that the Verein’s work should taken an international turn is suggestive. Coupled with his statement about the race question and Sozialpolitik, one has to wonder how far the Verein was willing to really push the boundaries of Sozialpolitik, geographically and conceptually. The transformation of the members’ ideas about economics and sociology beyond continental Europe is a dimension of their work that is not often discussed by historians.
Indeed, around the same time of Bonn’s proposal, the Verein was undergoing an expansion of its working groups and investigations. It was recruiting scholars from numerous countries to collaborate and publish in their publication series. Unfortunately, the First World War put a stop to much of this activity, though efforts were made to rebuild those transnational scholarly networks in the 1920s. Still, the question remains: how successful was the Verein in broadening the confines of the social question? In what ways did they spur changes in Sozialpolitik in Germany and elsewhere? These are questions that we need to be asking, even if conclusive answers are hard to find.
Steven McClellan is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. He is currently on a DAAD Research Fellowship in Germany. His dissertation project is a history of the Verein für Sozialpolitik, focusing on the years between 1890 and 1936.