World Politics

Research Article

Modernization in Historical Perspective: The Case of Imperial Germany

Sheri E. Bermana1*

a1 Professor of Politics at Princeton University.


In recent years historical research on Imperial Germany has called into question traditional interpretations of this case at the same time that political science research on the “third wave” has transformed the study of political development. This article argues that combining the insights of these two literatures offers benefits to both. For historians, the exercise provides a fresh perspective on the purported distinctiveness of Imperial Germany's political system and the relationship between its economic and political development. For political scientists, the German case has important lessons to teach about the role of structure versus agency in driving political liberalization, the time frame necessary for genuine political development to occur, and the role of war and the nature of the international system as wild cards in changing the outcome of the game. Most interestingly, perhaps, it also shows that a weak version of modernization theory holds true, namely, that it is not possible over the long term for a simple authoritarian regime to maintain control over an increasingly economically developed society.

Sheri E. Berman is Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University. The author of The Social Democratic Moment: Ideas and Politics in the Making of Interwar Europe (1998), she is currently working on a book entitled, “The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Ideological Dynamics of the Twentieth Century” it explores the origins of and the relationships between the great ideologies of the last century.

* I would like to thank Jeff Herbst, Andrew Janos, Jeffrey Kopstein, Michael Bernhard, three anonymous World Politics reviewers, and Gideon Rose for helpful comments on this article.