Central European History

Research Article

Rethinking the Role of Artisans in Modern German Development

Hal Hansen

Since so much of what distinguishes Germany's social-economic development from that of other advanced capitalist societies derives from the prominence of the handicrafts (Handwerk) and their institutional legacy, it is regrettable that artisan sightings have become so rare in recent central European scholarship. It is especially so because disparaging postwar historiographic portrayals of “backward” late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century artisans leave us without a way to understand the emergence of a prosperous Mittelstand of small and medium-sized craft producers in the postwar years. Moreover, inasmuch as the existence of a vibrant, legally distinct class of handicraft firms constitutes one of the most striking features of the modern German political economy, we need an account of how it evolved and why. Furthermore, without this, we have no way to explain several other distinctive “peculiarities” of German institutional arrangements: an educational system that directs a majority of young Germans to practically oriented, work-based apprenticeships supplemented by part-time schooling instead of academically oriented, full-time secondary schools; a labor market that effectively professionalized all occupations and limited the creation of mere “jobs”; and a training system that, as it diffused from the craft to the industrial and service sectors, reinforced Germany's historic manufacturing preference for producing diversified, high-quality goods and services. In short, no history of modern German economic, social, or political development can afford to dispense with artisans or their institutions.


I thank the following organizations for their support of the research from which this essay emerged: the Woodrow Wilson and Spenser foundations, the Social Science Research Council, the Berlin Program, Harvard's Center for European Studies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I would also like to thank David Mitch, Louis Galambos, and the members of the Washington Area Economic History Seminar for their comments on an earlier draft, along with those of two thoughtful anonymous reviewers for this journal.