Fritz Stern argues that the best way to describe the character of Imperial Germany after 1878 is "illiberal", which describes the German commitment in mind and policy against any further concession to democracy. Stern argues that from Bismarck to the end of World War II, German society embraced the impulse toward totalitarianism that this illiberal stance fostered. He also examines the efforts of German scholars to explain the phenomenon of Nazism, the attempt of the German people to come to terms with their past, and the failure of illiberalism in the 1950s.
Ruminations on the onus of modern German history. Columbia University historian Stern tries to evoke such nebulous and unquantifiable phenomena as the "self-image of the German Burgher" and the Vulgaridealismus of the Second Reich; he sees in the prevalent 19th century deprecation of political life and the exaltation of Kultur by the intelligentsia a dangerous symptom of civic irresponsibility which paved the way for the perversions of the Nazis - an insight borrowed from Leonard Krieger's The German Idea of Freedom (1957). The Failure of Illiberalism is a collection of disparate essays written over the last dozen years; suggestive rather than rigorously analytical, they go after nuance ("the less tangible elements of milieu"), atmosphere, and character. Sketches of Gerson Bleichroder, Bismarck's Jewish banker, and Bethmann Hollweg, the Hamlet-like Chancellor who floundered into World War I, are psychologically astute, though the mantle of tragic grandeur which Stern tries on Bethmann is a poor fit. Like his mentor, the French historian Elie Halevy, Stern rejects the distinction between domestic and foreign politics and offers a damning critique of Bismarck's pernicious impact on the evolution of political parties. Striving for a totality of vision, he draws freely on literature for his broad but sometimes platitudinous characterizations of German society - e.g., the umbrella label "illiberalism" seems especially namby-pamby. The book presupposes a thorough familiarity with the historiography of modern Germany; it supplies some footnotes, shadings and modulations, more synthetic than original. (Kirkus Reviews)