Book Review: "Enlightened Nationalism - The Transformation of Prussian Political Culture, 1806-1848"

by Constantin von Hoffmeister

Michael Levinger's brilliant study "Enlightened Nationalism" explores the Prussian reform movement in the wake of the revolutionary fervor that spread throughout Europe in the wake of Napoleon's wars of conquest and "liberation." In contrast to the Revolution in France, the Prussian reform movement did not want to destroy the old (not "ancient") regime in order to construct a new one. Instead, it tried to reshape existing institutions by trying to infuse revolutionary and egalitarian ideals into their frameworks. The Prussian reform movement was essentially about a synthesis out of which - ideally- was to stem a new form of government: a Republican Monarchy (or a Monarchical Republic). Concretely put: the Prussian leaders tried to unite a rationalized monarchy (meaning, from above and for the people) with a politically active nation (meaning, from below and for the king and fatherland - this desired status was to be triggered by the education of the people - "Volkserziehung").

It is quite clear that the German bourgeois nationalists (as compared to the stiff upper-lipped noble/aristocratic ones) were catering for the masses, much like the Jacobins did in France (except that the former were a tad bit less radical than the latter). Naturally, the ultimate question arises (like the pro-verbial phoenix from the ashes of Bonaparte's creatively deconstructive work of rubble and dust): were these nationalists fighting (struggling, worming themselves into a paternalistic frenzy within society's boundaries) for Prussia or Greater Germany? Undoubtedly, PAX GERMANIA was their ultimate goal - a pan-Germanic super-state that Barbarossa could feel safe to ride back into. This is how certain Teutonic nationalists viewed this Nuova Germania: an organic macrocosm (the "Volk") - composed of a variety of microcosms (individuals). As Arminius-admirer Johann Gottlieb Fichte so succinctly stated (in one of his famous popular addresses to the German nation), "Freedom to them meant just this: remaining Germans and continuing to settle their own affairs, independently and in accordance with the original spirit of their race, going on with their development in accordance with the same spirit, and propagating this independence in their posterity." This quote implies that the new (divinely conceived) ideal of nationalism tried to establish a bond between various ages of German history that were considered glorious in their own temporal spheres.

Ethnic identity politics was the name of the game for some of the more racially-minded nationalists. Gymnastic enthusiast Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (the founder of the "Turnerschaft") said, "The purer the 'Volk,' the better; the more mixed, the more it resembles a horde. ... The founding day of the universal monarchy will be the final moment of humanity." Besides the fact that this statement is ominously prophetic (it could be uttered today, in protest against globalization/Americanization - in revolt against the global Coca-Cola cabal), it sums up the notion that it is essentially a race that makes a nation, not the other way around (as some misguided souls might believe). Racial purity, for Jahn and other ethnic particularists, was a vital prerequisite for the formation of a strong German nation. Without a strong ethnic base within the nation, they argued, there could be no true social cohesion, thereby endangering the prospect of organic unity. It seems obvious that the term "organic unity" denotes a biological creature - the "Volk" as a physical manifestation of the spirit of God (this notion parroting the Prussian party line that Christianity exalted above all other social constructs). The spirit of God is manifold - hence, the need for a multitude of different nations and races is a universal one (this is in accordance with Prussian philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's notion that the various nationalities are spiritual entities, emanating from the essence of all phenomena, the eternal one - God).

Naturally, the "Jewish question" popped up as well. Anti-semitism, as politicized prejudice, has been around as long as the Jews themselves have been. It was no different in Prussia. A large number of Germans viewed Jewry as an alien body in their midst. As a state within a state, Jewry was considered to be a threat to the integrity of the "Volk." Like a virus, Jewry was thought to be attacking the healthy body politic and thereby undermining its organic and social cohesion. Some nationalists were more virulent (outspoken) about the "Jewish question" than others. For example, Jakob Friedrich Fries argued that, even though Judaism itself was a "people's disease," war was not to be declared "on the Jews, our brothers, but on Jewry." This statement, of course, is in line with the aforementioned romantic belief that a "Volk" is an organism in itself - hence, the need to keep the organism healthy (pure). Jews (as individuals) were able to be assimilated, while Jewry (as a system) was to be stamped out at all costs - the former to be integrated in the homogeneous whole, the latter to be wiped out (like a disease). Most nationalists agreed to the best solution (according to their perception) to the "Jewish question": emancipation and the granting of equal rights. This was in accordance with their belief that only the eradication of juridicial distinctions would support the formation of a common public spirit among the people.

It is not difficult to notice that the German nationalists were acutely aware of their mission. Triggered by an external threat (the French invasion and subsequent occupation), nationalist fervor in Germany turned out to be the wakeful manifestation of a previously sleeping giant (the occidental dragon). With practiced rhetoric and organizational brilliance, the German nationalists were able to gather their "Volk" into realizing its own intrinsic value in the grand scheme of things (in the spiritual order of God's creations). As in all things predestined, Germany was to enter a truly religious consciousness - only to fall from grace not long after. Enlightened nationalism produced a legacy of political and public reforms (most notably, in the fields of education and administration) that put Prussia in its rightful place as a European power to be reckoned with. The empire that sprung out of it was worthy of its title but not to last the advancing tide of modernization run amok.