Erik Grimmer-Solem

Erik Grimmer-Solem

Associate Professor

Department of History

College of Social Studies

Wesleyan University

Middletown, CT 06459


egrimmer at




curriculum vitae

current projects



in the media


My primary research fields are modern German history, especially the German Empire (1871-1918), Prussia, the history of economic thought, and economic and social history. Most recently I have been working on the role of German economists in naval expansion and colonial empire before the First World War.

My first book, The Rise of Historical Economics and Social Reform in Germany, 1864-1894 (Oxford University Press, 2003), grew out of a doctoral dissertation that sought to fill in three historiographical gaps: the thought and milieu of the economist and social reformer Gustav Schmoller, the origins of German social reform, and the development of the social sciences in Bismarckian Germany. It was explicitly a work of revision in that it sought to correct a number of persistent misconceptions in the history of economic thought about Schmoller and the so-called “German Historical School.”

Questioning the rubric “German Historical School” associated with Schmoller, the book reveals the European context of his thought and the influence of empiricism, statistics, and advances in the natural sciences in his choice of methods. By exploring the social context in detail, the book demonstrates how the nexus of young scholars around Schmoller fundamentally reshaped German economics into a tool of social reform of direct relevance to the many “social questions” raised by rapid industrialization and urbanization in Germany in the 1860s, changes which culminated in the creation of the Association for Social Policy in 1873. Novel in these reform efforts was the idea that inequality and poverty were ills emerging from the division of labor which society had an obligation to remedy. Consequently, an awareness of the social implications of individual economic action emerged which proved remarkably useful for the development of social policy. While the dissemination of this reform message influenced public opinion and put social reform on the political agenda, the book shows that Schmoller and his colleagues nevertheless remained a beleaguered group subjected to persistent attack from all political directions. The investigation brings the fissures within German liberalism into sharp relief, revealing the persistence of a potent ideal of a classlessness that fundamentally shaped German social policy. More broadly, Schmoller and his colleagues initiated a program of research that proved remarkable fertile for the development not only of German sociology and economics after the 1890s, but the social sciences in Europe, America and Japan in the twentieth century. 

Since completing the book, my research and scholarship have moved in three broader directions: German imperialistic politics as this involved economists and other social scientists; the impact of interpretations of German history on Asian historiography, as well as the influence of Germany on Japanese higher education in the Meiji era; and the activity of the liberal statistician Ernst Engel and his influence on Prussian and German politics.

The first area seeks to extend my study of Schmoller and his colleagues into the realm of German imperialistic politics between 1897-1917, notably the politics of the High Sees Fleet and African colonization. This project will also analyze Schmoller’s role in shaping prewar public opinion, his involvement in wartime planning and strategy, as well as his enmeshment in a number of polemics during these years. Unlike the first book, which focused on the organization and execution of scholarship as it related to social reform, this second book project will explore the relationship between scholarship and advocacy, highlighting both the opportunities this offered entrepreneurial scholars and the many problems this created. It will analyze the extraordinary access that Schmoller and other economists had to senior civil servants and Chancellor von Bülow, as well as their growing estrangement from the German public. The book will not be restricting itself to Gustav Schmoller but will be including the leading German imperialist economists of the time, among them Lujo Brentano, Karl Bücher, Gustav Cohn, Johannes Conrad, Heinrich Dietzel, Christian Eckert, Ignaz Jastrow, G.F. Knapp, Wilhelm Lexis,  Karl Rathgen, Max Sering, Adolph Wagner and Sartorius von Waltershausen. This project is now well underway, and  three chapters of this book have been published: “Imperialist Socialism of the Chair: Gustav Schmoller and German Weltpolitik, 1897-1905”; “The Professors’ Africa: Economists, the Elections of 1907, and the Legitimation of German Imperialism”; and "Every True Friend of the Fatherland: Gustav Schmoller and the 'Jewish Question', 1916-17."  A fourth chapter on the role of location theory in German imperialist economic policy was presented at the conference "Social Policy Across Borders," and a fifth chapter on German geopolitics and political economy shortly before the First World War was presented at the 2012 annual conference of the Commission for the History of Economic Thought of the German Economics Association. The remaining chapters will soon be completed and the book will be published in 2014. One offshoot of this research is a long encyclopedia article on the German Colonial Empire published in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World.

The second major area of my recent scholarly activity has been the impact of the German Sonderweg thesis on the historiography of modern Japan and China, as well as the influence of Germany on Japanese higher education. I became interested in this topic as a consequence of his discovery of the close contacts between Japanese and German scholars in the social sciences before the First World War while doing archival research for my first book. Since the 1960s, American scholars of Meiji Japan have made use of those connections to posit a Japanese Sonderweg (special path) which draws on many of the same concepts and theories of its German counterpart and posits many of the same historical pathologies. On closer inspection, however, these arguments are tendentious and built on an edifice of scholarship that has since been called into question or is no longer tenable in unqualified form. With respect to China, my scholarship has explored the way current American policymakers and commentators have been prone to view a rising China in Wilhelmine terms, drawing explicit parallels between Britain’s strained relationship with Imperial Germany and the evolving relationship between the United States and China. Likewise, Chinese nationalism and domestic developments have been viewed through a lens strongly distorted by the German Sonderweg thesis. So far four articles on these topics have been completed: “German Social Science, Meiji Conservatism, and the Peculiarities of Japanese History”; "China's German Syndrome: Germany's Long Nineteenth Century and the Rise of China"; "Die preußische Bildungspolitik im Spannungsfeld des internationalen Kulturwettbewerbs: der Fall Japan (1868-1914)"; and longer review article entitled "National Identity in the Vanquished: German and Japanese Postwar Historiography from a Transnational Perspective." At this point it is unlikely that this project will develop into a third monograph.

Finally, there is my third major research project on Prussian statistics and liberal politics between roughly 1860 and 1882. More than the work on German imperialist politics, this new project extends and deepens a set of topics already discussed in the book: the statistician Ernst Engel, the development of the Prussian Statistical Bureau as a quasi-independent research center in the 1860s, and the influence of interpretations of official statistics published in the Journal of the Royal Prussian Statistical Bureau on the politics of social reform in Prussia. Engel, who was given extraordinary leeway by the liberal Prussian Minister of Interior von Schwerin as a condition of his appointment as director of the bureau in 1860, became a thorn in Bismarck’s side, frequently publishing articles calling into question government policy or drafts of legislation with the authority of statistics. Attempts by Bismarck to bring Engel to heel, to censor or put an end to the Journal were frustrated by the protection of Schwerin’s similarly-inclined successor, von Eulenburg. Not until 1882, when Engel published an article criticizing the government’s ignorance of industrial accidents, was he finally forced out of office. Research on this topic is at this point still in its infancy and will likely require a full year of archival research in Germany.