On the Concept of "Leistung" in 19th Century Germany

by Abigail Mullin

On October 15th, the Institute of European Studies, Center for German and European Studies, and the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington were pleased to welcome Dr. Nina Verheyen from Germany’s Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI). Introduced by Professor Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, Verheyen discussed the concept of “Leistung” and work performance in 19th century Germany.

Verheyen began her talk by discussing the importance of work performance and culture within Germany. Unlike other societies where status is dictated by familial relations or a caste system, German societal rankings are influenced by work culture. This so-called “Achieving Society” (Verheyen here makes reference to the 1961 book by scholar Davis McClelland) is believed to lead to economic growth. For many decades, this concept of “leistung” has driven accumulation of self-made wealth in Germany. Verheyen, however, deconstructed this notion by revealing that wealth is not self-made in a solitary work effort, but instead takes advantage of contributions from low-income workers, slaves, and women, that remain hidden throughout this historical narrative.

The lecture then shifted to focus on the historical context of this competitive, performance-oriented society based around “leistung.” Verheyen’s research demonstrates the shift in Germany from “leistung” as a personal, unique entity into a competitive one, which was quantified and compared to other workers. She tracked linguistic changes in the word “leistung” across different iterations of German history, and found that the word shifted in meaning from the Middle Ages, when it held a concept of reciprocity and obligation to others. During the 19th century, however, it became used in the context of competition and began to show up on state-sponsored school exams. In this way, “leistung” began to hold the connotation of humans as machines: always working towards output, and similar enough to directly compare their productivity.

Verheyen questioned the historical evolution that created the unique and particular connotations attached to the word “leistung” and its competitive nature within German culture. When concluding the broader questions of her research, Verheyen posited the question: why do people believe that work performance is a justification to create a “fair” hierarchy in society?

During a Q&A session with the audience, Verheyen discussed more linguistic differences and translations of other German words related to “leistung.” She also answered questions about the counterculture movements in Germany in the 1960’s and 1970’s and rebellion against traditional, standardized work culture (like Fordism or Taylorism). Verheyen elaborated that, in fact, counter-culture movements viewed “leistung” in a broader sense as an expression of social competence, creativity, and emotions.