View Full Version : Pipe Dreams of the "Reich": Romanticizing Nationalism in Germany

Saturday, September 4th, 2004, 10:50 PM
PIPE-DREAMS OF THE “REICH”: Romanticizing Nationalism in Germany

by Constantin von Hoffmeister

“This is the sort of modernity that made us ill, - we grew sick on lazy peace, cowardly compromise, the whole virtuous filth of the modern Yes and No.”
-- Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Antichrist”

After the defeat of the Napoleonic Empire, most Central European nations embarked on a quest for sovereignty and freedom (from foreign oppressors). This quest most often manifested itself in a pathological glorification of one’s own people, disregarding the fact that the propagators of this new kind of nationalism implied that it was merely a common language that constituted one’s nation – thereby completely disregarding or ignoring the ethnic bonds various nations shared with each other (for example, Germany and France – both once ruled by one emperor, Charlemagne or Karl). This kind of silliness certainly contributed a large amount of artificially created (stirred up by self-proclaimed elitists within the respective nations) hostility between once mutually tolerant European neighbors. One could argue that the fratricidal war of 1914-1918 was a direct result of the various European states’ unchaining themselves from Napoleon’s benevolent yoke.

As Michael Stuermer writes in “The German Empire,” “Altogether, the political and social revolutions of 1848 and the industrial revolution had challenged the old established order of state and society” (23). Obviously, this statement implies – quite correctly – that the so-called “revolutionary” (“reactionary” would be a more adequate term, meaning that the “new nationalists” tried to feed off the ideological chaos that was unleashed by the French Revolution with its guillotine-terror) nationalist movement in the German states was essentially nothing more than a destructive outbreak of jingoistic emotions – fuelled by the fires of perceived resentment against “stronger” and more unified neighbors (such as France or Austria-Hungary). Naturally, one has to keep in mind that “the shockwaves of the French Revolution and Napoleon” (Stuermer 23) were the initial trigger moments in that all-pervasive European rebellion against the established natural order of things (the term “natural” connoting “traditional”).

Matthew Levinger argues in “Enlightened Nationalism” that “numerous historians have observed that bourgeois popular nationalism in nineteenth-century Germany strongly emphasized the importance of collective solidarity within the nation” (100). This quote sums up the quite ludicrous notion that such an abstract concept as “collective solidarity” even existed in a group that defined its cohesiveness on a purely linguistic base. One has to keep in mind that language (as a concept) is flexible and far from concrete – some German dialects, such as “plattdeutsch” in the far north, could even be considered closer to Dutch than High German. Basing a feeling (intellectually concocted, no doubt) of mutual affection between members of the same “nation” on their linguistic affinities seems therefore a bit far-fetched.

Considering that most Germans were of the lower or middle classes of society, it is not surprising that the Prussian King decided to ignore the ignoble nationalist rants made at the Frankfurt Assembly in 1848. After all, how could society not suffer with the implementation of the revolutionaries’ demands? European life had already deteriorated enough through a series of bloody battles whose outcome was nothing less than a complete re-organization of the continent in favor of the petty (nationalist) forces that Napoleon (who triggered the martial campaigns in first place) tried to dismantle by becoming undisputed ruler of Central Europe. If the Prussian King had acquiesced and accepted the arrogant demands of the petty rabble in Frankfurt, he would have opened the door to all kinds of (essentially proto-Bolshevist) measures that would have been implemented to undermine the divine authority of the crown and the blessed rule of the various estates.

One of the measures that most (romantically inclined) nationalists in Germany wanted to see installed was the equalization of all people in the German-speaking realm under the autocratic rule of self-proclaimed “representatives” of the people (in a parliament where the will of the people was supposed to be represented). A prime example of this egalitarian madness is Friedrich Ludwig Jahn’s “Turner Gesellschaft.” Levinger argues that this movement “was intended to function as a public spectacle, as a festival that would constitute the nation as a fraternity of equals” (107). It goes without saying that Jahn’s pipe-dream was just that – a dream, or maybe even a vision of megalomaniacal proportions (reflecting Jahn’s own aspirations, meaning his inflated sense of self-identification with the ideal [both physically and mentally] “German,” onto an entire people – in this case, the German “Volk,” an organism that was supposed to be cohesive and like-minded).

Stuermer exposes the lyrics of Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s poem, “Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles” (“Germany, Germany above all”), for what they really were – namely, “pure German idealism: the idea that Germany, an open and just society lubricated by Riesling [a fine wine, really], full of song and beautiful German womanhood, should reign supreme over the 38 or so sovereignties loosely united in the German Confederation…” (16) What Stuermer forgets to mention is that this kind of “German idealism” was the ideal breeding ground for an inverted sense of nationhood – the notion that the people, allegedly “equal” and ecstatic in an alcohol-fuelled paradise, would happily cooperate in any task that was set before them. In contrast, the traditional notion of a nation was based on the ideal of a “universal hierarchy,” meaning that people essentially were NOT equal, and that they therefore deserved to be put in their naturally assigned place (by birth).

Levinger argues that the world view of the romantic nationalists was deeply entrenched in irrational religious fervor. He states that “rather than articulating secular ideals, they presented an expressly Christian – and specifically Protestant pietist – vision of the national community” (98). This, of course, coincides with the argument that the German nationalists were – in essence – nothing more than illusionists, obsessed with an imagined “grande” idea and encouraged by their own pre-conceived notions of Levantine spirituality. It is therefore quite obvious that the nationalists’ aspirations were diametrically opposed to the welfare of the people as a whole. One cannot blame the nationalists for this faux pas, however, since their belief system must have been rather deeply engrained. Hence, one could argue that their failings were unintentional ones since they were indoctrinated by society itself to believe that Christianity is ideologically compatible with the German (or European) character.

On the other hand, Stuermer states that throughout “Europe the reaction to Napoleon’s conquest was to be the rise of modern nationalism as a means to reconstitute society and to give expression to popular forces” (15). One must wonder what exactly was “modern” about the rise of nationalism in Germany when one reviews the backward nature of the revolutionaries’ outlook. The propagation of an alien religion (Christianity, essentially a desert religion) certainly does not seem to be an adequate asset of modernity. This kind of mentality breeds nothing but a reversal in the role that civilization is usually ascribed to (an arbiter of progress). If the romantic nationalists thought that the wholesale introduction of religious fervor would breed sentimental sentiments regarding one’s “Volk,” they might have been right, considering that the masses in Germany actually DID subscribe to the religion that worships a (probably fictitious) man nailed to a stick. It is only in hindsight that it becomes apparent that this kind of nationalism was paving a one-way path to spiritual (in the indigenous/European sense) annihilation, and therefore the soul of the “Volk” was lured into a limbo of passive acceptance (of the status quo).

According to Levinger, “popular nationalism was an overwhelmingly urban phenomenon” (100). This shows that the adherents of the nationalist ideology were hardly in the position to speak for the German people as a whole. After all, how could urban admonishers (as the nationalists undoubtedly were) be in the position to speak for the majority that dwelt in the countryside? The true/qualified propagandists of “blood and soil” could only have been the ones that were agriculturally involved, but this segment of society did not bother with the intellectual gymnastics that the “educated” town-dwelling nationalists were preoccupied with.

It is safe to assume that the nationalist movement in Germany was nothing more than an outbreak of the same kind of radical elements that the European powers had such problems in dealing with after Robespierre cut off all those heads (of the French elite). One does not need to take a huge leap in trying to imagine what the world would look like today if the nationalists would not have succeeded in implementing their mad desire for “home rule.” As Stuermer says, “Both the French Revolution and the ‘wars of liberation,’ as the uprising against Napoleon was called, gave a boost to revolutionary idealism” (15). It is certainly fitting that Stuermer puts the “wars of liberation” in quotation marks since the term itself exudes a significant amount of irony. The real liberator of Europe was Napoleon, in the sense that he tried to unite the continent and therefore make it indefinitely stronger and eventually more just (with the ruthless implementation of the Napoleonic Code). The “revolutionary idealists,” however, were nothing but a band of rascals that tried to cash in on the results of the failed experiment of the once glorious French Emperor.


Levinger, Matthew. “Enlightened Nationalism.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Stuermer, Michael. “The German Empire.” New York: Random House, 2000.

Gorm the Old
Sunday, September 5th, 2004, 07:17 PM
Excuuuuuuuuse me, but the "once glorious" French Emperor was, at at least as a military commander, a dismal failure who, by failing to take account of the geographical and climatological aspects of the land, managed to lose 89% of his army in ONE campaign.

Sunday, September 5th, 2004, 08:05 PM
Excuuuuuuuuse me, but the "once glorious" French Emperor was, at at least as a military commander, a dismal failure who, by failing to take account of the geographical and climatological aspects of the land, managed to lose 89% of his army in ONE campaign.
That is exactly why I used the expression "ONCE glorious."


Monday, September 6th, 2004, 01:41 PM
Good article ogenoct, quite an interesting reading. :)

Monday, September 6th, 2004, 09:24 PM
Good article ogenoct, quite an interesting reading. :)
Thanks for the compliment. I wrote that piece in university last year.


Friday, September 10th, 2004, 08:26 PM
An interesting read. By the way, what is your major Constatin?

Sunday, September 12th, 2004, 02:12 PM
what is your major Constatin?
I am working on my Master's in Political Science at the University of New Orleans. But I am currently taking some time off, working for my parents' Indo-German company in Bombay.