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The Russian Revolution in German Historiography after 1945

La révolution russe dans l’historiographie allemande après 1945
Matthias Stadelmann
p. 57-78


The article traces the paths of West German historiography on the Russian Revolution during the post‑war period. After the great caesura of 1945, German historiography on Russia had to venture into new beginnings beyond national‑socialist paradigms of perception. Historians then concentrated on political activities, perspectives of development of a constitutional monarchy in Russia and the destructive force of Bolshevism. The general turn to social history brought about a paradigm shift in the interpretation of 1917. Scholars now problematized the seemingly deficient structures of “Old Russia” and changed their perspective from state and politics to the needs and interests of society. This led to the insight that the Bolsheviks could carry out their coup only due to considerable support by the masses. Mostly the attitudes towards the bolshevist concern were rather sympathetic; sometimes the pendulum swung even to a Marxist‑Leninist self‑positioning, which never was the result of an influence by East German historiography, but came from a widespread “progressive” mood among younger generations in West Germany. Towards the end of the 1980s, however, the fascinating appeal of the Soviet Union had tapered off. As a result, German historians chose among two different paths—overall descriptions and evaluations of the revolutionary event on the one hand and experiments in cultural‑historical approaches on the other. Novel grand narratives of 1917 did not arise out of that; whether comparative and longue durée approaches lead to a revival of innovative research on 1917 is—even in the anniversary year of 2017—not yet conceivable.

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Interim: the Russian revolution in German historiography between 1945 and 1968
New beginnings in the late 1960s
Social history pluralism
Culture, periphery, nations

First lines

1917 ranks among the most described years of Russian history. Irrevocably and in a far‑reaching way the year of the two revolutions saw significant upheavals of state, economy, culture and society in Russia, and it mightily influenced regions soon coming under the territorial and administrative umbrella of the USSR as well as countries outside the Soviet empire. In particular the October revolution was branded as a decisive caesura in modern history. How did historiography in Germany analyse Russia’s 1917? This article traces the paths of West‑German historiography on the Russian revolution during the post‑war period. Historical preconditions and peculiarities described below coined this particular way and ask for explanations. East‑German historiography is excluded, because it followed the path of Soviet research on 1917 and was very much engaged in unveiling “bourgeois falsifications.” It had no influence on West‑German historiography at all.

Was (or is) there something like a “nat...

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Electronic reference

Matthias Stadelmann, « The Russian Revolution in German Historiography after 1945 », Cahiers du monde russe [Online], 58/1-2 | 2017, Online since 01 January 2019, Connection on 23 February 2018. URL :

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Matthias Stadelmann

University of Erlangen‑Nuremberg, Department of History,

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