A university professor and former president of the Social Science Research Center Berlin (2001–2007), Kocka is a major figure in the new Social History, especially as represented by the Bielefeld School. He has focused his research on the history of employees in large German and American businesses, and on the history of European bourgeoisie. He gained his PhD from the Free University of Berlin in 1968.
From 1992 to 1996 Kocka was the founding director and is to date a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam. Since 2008 he is vice president of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
Kocka was a leader of the Bielefeld School of the "new social history', and recalls how the historiographical movement introduced a vast range of new topics: In the 1960s and 1970s, "social history" caught the imagination of a young generation of historians. It became a central concept – and a rallying point – of historiographic revisionism. It meant many things at the same time. It gave priority to the study of particular kinds of phenomena, such as classes and movements, urbanization and industrialization, family and education, work and leisure, mobility, inequality, conflicts and revolutions. It stressed structures and processes over actors and events. It emphasized analytical approaches close to the social sciences rather than by the traditional methods of historical hermeneutics. Frequently social historians sympathized with the causes (as they saw them) of the little people, of the underdog, of popular movements, or of the working class. Social history was both demanded and rejected as a vigorous revisionist alternative to the more established ways of historiography, in which the reconstruction of politics and ideas, the history of events and hermeneutic methods traditionally dominated.
Kocka participated in the German Historikerstreit in the late 1980s, alongside Jürgen Habermas in opposition to Ernst Nolte, and supported the Sonderweg explanation of a unique path of German history. In an essay entitled "Hitler Should Not Be Repressed By Stalin and Pol Pot" first published in Die Zeit newspaper on 26 September 1986, Kocka contended against Nolte that the Holocaust was indeed a "singular" event because it had been committed by an advanced Western nation, and argued that Nolte's comparisons of the Holocaust with similar mass killings in Pol Pot's Cambodia, Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, and Idi Amin's Uganda were invalid because of the backward nature of those societies. Kocka went on to criticize Nolte's view of the Holocaust as "a not altogether incomprehensible reaction to the prior threat of annihilation, as whose potential or real victims Hitler and the National Socialists allegedly were justified in seeing themselves". Kocka wrote that
"The real causes of anti-Semitism in Germany are to be found neither in Russia nor the World Jewish Congress. And how can one, in light of the facts, interpret the National Socialist annihilation of the Jews as a somewhat logical, if premature, means of defense against the threats of annihilation coming from the Soviet Union, with which Germany had made a pact in 1939, and which it then subsequently attacked? Here the sober historical inquiry into real historical connections, into causes, and consequences, and about real motives and their conditions would suffice to protect the writer and the reader from abstruse speculative interpretations. Nolte fails to ask such questions. If a past "that is capable of being agreed on" can be gained by intellectual gymnastics of this sort, then we should renounce it."
In response to the geographical theories of Michael Stürmer, Kocka argued that "Geography is not destiny" Kocka wrote that both Switzerland and Poland were also "lands in the middle", and yet neither country went in the same authoritarian direction as Germany
- Kocka J., "Entrepreneurs and Management in German Industrialization," in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, vol. 7, pt. 1, ed. P. Mathias and M. M. Postan ( Cambridge, England, 1978), 492-589, 709-27, 769-77. Originally published as Unternehmer in der deutschen Industrialisierung (Göttingen, 1975).
- Kocka J., White Collar Workers in America 1890-1940. A Social Political History in International Perspective (London-Beverly Hills: SAGE, 1980).
- Kocka J., "Capitalism and Bureaucracy in German Industrialization before 1914," Economic History Review, 2nd series, 33 (1981): 453-468.
- Kocka J., "Class Formation, Interest Articulation and Public Policy: the Origins of the German White Collar Class in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries," in Organizing Interests in Western Europe: pluralism, corporatism, and the transformation of politics, ed. S. Berger (Cambridge, England, 1988), 63-81.
- Kocka J., "Problems of Working-Class Formation in Germany: The Early Years, 1800-1875," in Working-Class Formation. Nineteenth- Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States
- Kocka, Jürgen & A. Mitchell, eds. (1993). Bourgeois Society in Nineteenth-century Europe.
- Kocka J., and A. Mitchell, eds., Bourgeois Society in Nineteenth Century Europe ( Oxford, 1993).
- Kocka J., "New Trends in Labour Movement Historiography: A German Perspective," International Review of Social History 42 (1997): 67-78.
- Kocka J., "Asymmetrical Historical Comparison: the Case of the German 'Sonderweg'," History and Theory 38 (1999): 40-51.
- Kocka, Jürgen. (1999) Industrial Culture and Bourgeois Society. Business, Labor, and Bureaucracy in Modern Germany. (New York: Berghahn Books) online
- Kocka, Jürgen. "Civil Society: Some remarks on the career of a concept," in: E. Ben-Rafael, Y. Sternberg (eds.): Comparing Modernities, pp. 141–148.
- Kocka, Jurgen. "Losses, Gains and Opportunities: Social History Today," Journal of Social History, Volume 37, Number 1, Fall 2003, pp. 21–28 doi:10.1353/jsh.2003.0146
- Kocka, Jurgen. "Capitalism. A Short History," Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016.
- Kocka J., "Industrielles Management: Konzeptionen und Modelle in Deutschland vor 1914," Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 61 (1969): 332-72
- Kocka J., Unternehmensverwaltung und Angestelltenschaft am Beispiel Siemens 1847-1914. Zum Verhältnis von Kapitalismus und Bürokratie in der deutschen Industrialisierung (Stuttgart, 1969).
- Kocka J., "Sozialgeschichte - Strukturgeschichte - Gesellschaftsgeschichte," Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 15 (1975): 1-42.
- Kocka J., Klassengesellschaft im Krieg. Deutsche Sozialgeschichte 1914- 1918 [ Facing Total War. German Society 1914-1918 (2nd ed., Göttingen, 1978).
- Kocka J., et al., Familie und soziale Plazierung (Opladen, 1980).
- Kocka J., Die Angestellten in der deutschen Geschichte 1850-1980: Vom Privatbeamten zum angestellten Arbeitnehmer (Göttingen, 1981).
- Kocka J., ed., Arbeiter und Bürger im 19. Jahrhundert. Varianten ihres Verhältnisses im europaltaäischen Vergleich (Munich, 1986).
- Kocka J., Arbeitsverhältnisse und Arbeiterexistenzen. Grundlagen der Klassenbildung im 19. Jahrhundert (Bonn, 1990).
- Kocka J., Weder Stand noch Klasse. Unterschichten um 1800 (Bonn, 1990).
- Kocka J., ed., Bürger und Bürgerlichkeit im 19. Jahrhundert (Göttingen, 1987).
- Kocka J., and U. Frevert, eds., Bürgertum im 19. Jahrhundert. Deutschland im europäischen Vergleich, (3 vols. Munich, 1988); rev. ed.: Kocka J., ed., Bürgertum im 19. Jahrhundert, (3 vols. Göttingen, 1995).
- Jürgen Kocka, Industrial Culture and Bourgeois Society: Business, Labor, and Bureaucracy in Modern Germany, 1800-1918 (New York: Berghahn Books, 1999) pp. 275–97, at p. 276
- Kocka, Jürgen "Hitler Should Not Be Repressed By Stalin and Pol Pot" pages 85–92 from Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, 1993 pages 86-87
- Kocka, Jürgen "Hitler Should Not Be Repressed By Stalin and Pol Pot" pages 85–92 from Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, 1993 p. 87
- Kocka, Jürgen "Hitler Should Not Be Repressed By Stalin and Pol Pot" pages 85–92 from Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, 1993 p. 88
- Kocka, Jürgen "Hitler Should Not Be Repressed by Stalin and Pol Pot" pp. 85–92 from Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993
- Ritter G. A., The New Social History in the Federal Republic of Germany (London, 1991).