Thomas Adam’s Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the State in German History, 1815–1989, presents a highly readable overview of philanthropic funding for a range of important institutions in modern German society, including museums (primarily of art), fellowships and stipends for university students and teachers, zoos, libraries, archaeological projects, research institutes, and affordable housing provision. The book combines concise and intelligent summary of the recent literature on the topic with judicious use of primary sources. The depth of Adam’s research and expertise is evident in the sovereign and elegant quality of the presentation. The book is primarily devoted to the Wilhelmine period, and the early chapters stress the essentially conservative social function of philanthropy. Chapter 1 presents a broad sketch of the role of philanthropy in German society in the nineteenth century, characterizing this as a period both of “struggle for cultural and social dominance within the German states” between the aristocracy and rulers on the one hand and the bourgeoisie on the other (13), and of active collaboration between the conservative state and bourgeois philanthropists. Bourgeois giving expanded steadily as a tool for achieving social prominence and prestige, and by the early twentieth century both municipal governments and corporate sponsors began to play a role as well, as these institutions expanded their social and political functions. Chapter 2 treats the social function of endowments in higher education, showing that they were used to secure family financial security, to foster religious communities (and to discriminate, particularly against Jews), and to assist the needy children of bourgeois families (for example, orphans). Chapter 3 uses two case studies to show that “by the eve of the First World War a mixed economy of funding for public projects and institutions had emerged” in which donors and governments actively collaborated (87). With chapter 4 some of the subversive or progressive potentials of philanthropy—and the failure of its conservative purposes—become clearer. Chapter 4 examines the social-engineering project of affordable housing, focusing on three models: limited-dividend, for-profit projects; housing trusts; and housing cooperatives. The latter played an anomalous role in that they functioned as “schools of democracy” (107), since all shareholders (including women) could vote, and ultimately Social Democrats and city governments came to play a dominant role in many of them. Adam also stresses the abject failure of the project of reshaping working-class life through housing reform. Chapter 5 examines the case of Leipzig, and of philanthropy among women and Jews, to make the argument that “philanthropy contributed to the modernization and improvement of German society” (124). Chapter 6 presents an overview of developments from the outbreak of World War I to the reunification of Germany. Adam stresses the apparent paradox that while the growth of civil society is often understood to have been central to the emergence of democratic politics, the reverse relationship appears to have prevailed in Germany. Philanthropic giving was particularly well developed in authoritarian pre–World War II Germany—much more so than in Britain or the United States. And the democratic governments of the Weimar and postwar periods “either did not consider the place of philanthropy in German society or willfully destroyed it” (148). Inflation during and after World War I eviscerated many philanthropic foundations; a law of 1924 allowed the state to merge weakened foundations; and increasingly, public programs replaced the functions of philanthropy, so that by the 1970s—in about equal measures in East and West Germany—the “transition from a society in which philanthropy played a central role to a state-centered society” was virtually complete (150). Yet Adam warns against adopting a teleological interpretation in which public social and cultural programs are “modern” and private philanthropy is not. Instead, he favors a “dynamic” model in which the balance between public and private funding of social and cultural policy may fluctuate. The quarter-century since the rise of neoliberal policy would appear to support this analysis: the progressive withdrawal of the state from funding of public goods and from taxing high incomes has created an extraordinary new efflorescence of philanthropy (173). Adam’s conclusion is twofold: that Germany has not, in fact, historically been a “top-down,” state-dominated society; and that democracy and civil society are not necessarily linked (174). Some readers will find Adam’s claim regarding the originality of these conclusions excessive. The first line of the book promises a “radical reinterpretation of German history” (1), but the blurb on the back cover more realistically points out that the central argument presented here draws on the literature of “the past three decades.” In fact, there is a very extensive literature, dating from the 1980s (and by no means only in German), on the relationship between civil society and the state in modern Germany. That literature has long since established that the relationship between philanthropic organizations and the state was symbiotic and synergistic more than it was competitive and adversarial. Indeed, that kind of cooperative, mixed economic relationship continued into the 1920s and indeed the 1960s. And historians have long understood that many of the organizations of German civil society were anti-democratic, racist, and misogynistic. The strength of this book, nevertheless, is that it gives a rich account specifically of the development of philanthropic funding and funding models, combining both extensive financial data on philanthropy and empirically rich and illuminating case studies of individual institutions or sectors. Adam’s findings offer an important confirmation and extension of our understanding of the complex relationship between public and private social and cultural action in modern Germany. The book will be useful and of interest therefore even to those quite familiar with the literature on civil society more broadly. This is also a timely book, of course, because it offers us a reminder of some of the qualities and characteristics of a method of securing access to public goods to which many societies are increasingly returning. The relationship between civil society and the state in the mid-twenty-first century may yet resemble that of 1880 as much as that of 1980. Adam’s analysis of the class, confessional, and gender dynamics—and the relative ineffectuality—of philanthropy in that earlier period is a reminder of just how unfortunate this is. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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