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Lecture notes (week two): Forging the German Nation

Lecture 1

PowerPoint Nationalism lecture

Johann Gottfried von Herder: Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, 1784

Perhaps the most successful political philosophy of the modern era has been nationalism. Nationalism has taken on many forms - calls for cultural pride, liberal-nationalist assertions of the right to self-government, and chauvinistic claims of national superiority. In the 20th century, nationalist rhetoric has been used by right-wing fascist movements, but also Marxist 'national liberation' movements.

The central claims of nationalism are that: first the 'people' in politics are best understood as a defined and bounded group with a common history, language and tradition; and, second, that a 'nation' has a unique claim to be considered a legitimate political basis for sovereignty - greater than older bases such as 'empire', 'dynastic right' or 'theocracy.

The great task of nationalists has always been to define what they mean by a given 'nation'. People are not 'naturally' aware that they belong to a nation in the sense that they might be aware they belong to a family, clan, village, town, or locality. In almost every case, nationalists envisage much broader boundaries, and have gone to considerable trouble to construct and defend these boundaries with particular interpretations of history.

The origins of nationalism are manifold. The political philosophy of Rousseau, widely disseminated during the French Revolutionary era, inisted that the 'people' were the basis of sovereignty as a way to challenge older divine right theories. For French thinkers, however, the 'nation' was relatively unproblematic: France had a centuries-long history as a united state. [In fact, the situation in France was not so simple - in 1789, most inhabitants of France did not speak French, but some other language such as Breton, Occitan, or other patois unintelligible to the French speakers of the north. French national identity was created by simply incorporating such people into France, and making them all speak French - in Brittany, for instance, local Celtic names were banned.]

For German thinkers, the situation was much less clear. Between the united western proto-nations of France, England, and Spain, and the Russian Empire, most of Europe made no sense whatsoever in terms of 'nations'. Peoples of different religions, languages, and traditions lived interspersed with each other under a huge variety of states and semi-states - empires, kingdoms, dukedoms, and independent cities. It is here that Johann Gottfried von Herder played such a vital foundational role. His Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind laid the intellectual foundations for the claims of romantic philosophy that the nation was all. Although his theories were soon picked up by German political activists, he was inspired to consider these issues because, as a resident of a German city in Latvia (many cities of Eastern Europe were German-speaking, even when the local rural population spoke a Slavic or Baltic language), he reflected on the value of local Lettish culture, and the problems of its suppression by international cosmopolitan culture.

Nature has sketched with mountain ranges which she fashioned and with streams which she caused to flow from them the rough but substantial outline of the whole history of man ... One height produced nations of hunters, thus supporting and rendering necessary a savage state; another, more extended and mild, afforded a field to shepherd peoples and supplied them with tame animals; a third made agriculture easy and needful; while a fourth led to fishing and navigation and at length to trade. The structure of the earth, in its natural variety and diversity, rendered all such distinguishing conditions inescapable ... Seas, mountain ranges and rivers are the most natural boundaries not only of lands but also of peoples, customs, languages and empires, and they have been, even in the greatest revolutions in human affairs, the directing lines or limits of world history. If otherwise mountains had arisen, rivers flowed, or coasts trended, then how very different would mankind have scattered over this tilting place of nations...

Nature brings forth families; the most natural state therefore is also one people, with a national character of its own. For thousands of years this character preserves itself within the people and, if the native princes concern themselves with it, it can be cultivated in the most natural way: for a people is as much a plant of nature as is a family, except that it has more branches. Nothing therefore seems more contradictory to the true end of governments than the endless expansion of states, the wild confusion of races and nations under one sceptre. An empire made up of a hundred peoples and 120 provinces which have been forced together is a monstrosity, not a state-body.

What is the supreme law which we note in all great historical events? In my opinion, it is this: that, in every part of our earth, all possible development is determined in part by the position and the necessities of the locality, in part by circumstances and the opportunities of the age, and in part by the inborn and self-nourishing character of the peoples ... . All events in the human sphere, like all productions of nature, are decreed solely by time, locality, and national character, in short by the coordination of all the forces of life in their most positive individuality.

Active human powers are the springs of human history, and, as man originates from and in one race, so his body, education, and mode of thinking are genetic. Hence that striking national character, which, deeply imprinted on the most ancient peoples, is unequivocally displayed in all their operations on the earth. As the mineral water derives its component parts, its operative power, and its flavour from the soil through which it flows, so the ancient character of peoples arose from the family features, the climate, the way of life and education, the early actions and employments, that were peculiar to them. The manners of the fathers took deep root and became the internal prototype of the descendants. The mode of thinking of the Jews, which is best known to us from their writings and actions, may serve as an example: both in the land of their fathers and in the midst of other nations they remain as they were, and even when mixed with other peoples they may be distinguished for some generations onward. It was and is the same with all other peoples of antiquity---Egyptians, Chinese, Arabs, Hindus, etc. The more secluded they lived, nay frequently the more they were oppressed, the more their character was confirmed, so that, if every one of these nations had remained in its place, the earth might have been regarded as a garden where in one plot one human national plant, in another, another, bloomed in its proper form and nature, where in this corner one kind of national animal, in that, another, pursued its course according to its instincts and character....

Has a people anything dearer than the speech of its fathers? In its speech resides its whole thought-domain, its tradition, history, religion, and basis of life, all its heart and soul. To deprive a people of its speech is to deprive it of its one eternal good.... As God tolerates all the different languages in the world, so also should a ruler not only tolerate but honour the various languages of his peoples.... The best culture of a people cannot be expressed through a foreign language; it thrives on the soil of a nation most beautifully, and, I may say, it thrives only by means of the nation's inherited and inheritable dialect. With language is created the heart of a people; and is it not a high concern, amongst so many peoples---Hungarians, Slavs, Rumanians, etc.---to plant seeds of well-being for the far future and in the way that is dearest and most appropriate to them? . . .

The savage who loves himself, his wife, and his child with quiet joy and glows with limited activity for his tribe as for his own life is, it seems to me, a more genuine being than that cultured shade who is enchanted by the shadow of his whole species.... In his poor hut, the former finds room for every stranger, receives him as a brother with impartial good humor and never asks whence he came. The inundated heart of the idle cosmopolitan is a home for no one....

No greater injury can be inflicted on a nation than to be robbed of her national character, the peculiarity of her spirit and her language. Reflect on this and you will perceive our irreparable loss. Look about you in Germany for the character of the nation, for their own particular cast of thought, for their own peculiar vein of speech; where are they? Read Tacitus; there you will find their character: "The tribes of Germany, who never degrade themselves by mingling with others, form a peculiar, unadulterated, original nation, which is its own archetype. Even their physical development is universally uniform, despite the large numbers of the people," and so forth. Now look about you and say: "The tribes of Germany have been degraded by mingling with others; they have sacrificed their natural disposition in protracted intellectual servitude; and, since they have, in contrast to others, imitated a tyrannical prototype for a long time, they are, among all the nations of Europe, the least true to themselves.''. . .

If Germany were only guided by the forces of the age, by the leading strings of her own culture, our intellectual disposition would doubtless be poor and restricted; but it would be true to our own soil, fashioned upon its own model, and not so misshapen and cast down....


Johann Gottlieb Fichte: To the German Nation, 1806

Johann Gottlieb Fichte was a German philosopher, a reformer and a supporter of the French Revolution and its ideals. But when France, under Napoleon, took control of Germany along with much of the rest of Europe, he rethought his position and made a series of Addresses to the German Nation (1806), in French-occupied Berlin, soon after the catastrophic Battle of Jena.

The first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole. Such a whole, if it wishes to absorb and mingle with itself any other people of different descent and language, cannot do so without itself becoming confused, in the beginning at any rate, and violently disturbing the even progress of its culture. From this internal boundary, which is drawn by the spiritual nature of man himself, the marking of the external boundary by dwelling place results as a consequence; and in the natural view of things it is not because men dwell between certain mountains and rivers that they are a people, but, on the contrary, men dwell together-and, if their luck has so arranged it, are protected by rivers and mountains-because they were a people already by a law of nature which is much higher.

Thus was the German nation placed-sufficiently united within itself by a common language and a common way of thinking, and sharply enough severed from the other peoples-in the middle of Europe, as a wall to divide races not akin ....

That things should remain thus did not suit the selfishness of foreign countries, whose calculations did not look more than one moment ahead. They found German bravery useful in waging their wars and German hands useful to snatch the booty from their rivals. A means had to be found to attain this end, and foreign cunning won an easy victory over German ingenuousness and lack of suspicion. It was foreign countries which first made use of the division of mind produced by religious disputes in Germany -- Germany, which presented on a small scale the features of Christian Europe as a whole -- foreign countries, I say, made use of these disputes to break up the close inner unity of Germany into separate and disconnected parts....

. . . They knew how to present each of these separate states that had thus arisen in the lap of the one nation -- which had no enemy except those foreign countries themselves, and no concern except the common one of setting itself with united strength against their seductive craft and cunning -- foreign countries, I say, knew how to present each of these states to the others as a natural enemy, against which each state must be perpetually on its guard. On the other hand, they knew how to make themselves appear to the German states as natural allies against the danger threatening them from their own countrymen-as allies with whom alone they would themselves stand or fall, and whose enterprises they must in turn support with all their might. It was only because of this artificial bond that all the disputes which might arise about any matter whatever in the Old World or the New became disputes of the German races in their relation to each other. Every war, no matter what its cause, had to be fought out on German soil and with German blood; every disturbance of the balance had to be adjusted in that nation to which the whole fountainhead of such relationships was unknown; and the German states, whose separate existence was in itself contrary to all nature and reason, were compelled, in order that they might count for something, to act as makeweights to the chief forces in the scale of the European equilibrium, whose movement they followed blindly and without any will of their own. Just as in many states abroad the citizens are designated as belonging to this or that foreign party, or voting for this or that foreign alliance, but no name is found for those who belong to the party of their own country, so it was with the Germans; for long enough they belonged only to some foreign party or other, and one seldom came across a man who supported the party of the Germans and was of the opinion that this country ought to make an alliance with itself.

Now, at last, let us be bold enough to look at the deceptive vision of a universal monarchy, which people are beginning to hold up for public veneration in place of that equilibrium which for some time has been growing more and more preposterous, and let us perceive how hateful and contrary to reason that vision is. Spiritual nature was able to present the essence of humanity in extremely diverse gradations in individuals and in individuality as a whole, in peoples. Only when each people, left to itself, develops and forms itself in accordance with its own peculiar quality, and only when in every people each individual develops himself in accordance with that common quality, as well as in accordance with his own peculiar quality-then, and then only, does the manifestation of divinity appear in its true mirror as it ought to be; and only a man who either entirely lacks the notion of the rule of law and divine order, or else is an obdurate enemy thereto, could take upon himself to want to interfere with that law, which is the highest law in the spiritual world! Only in the invisible qualities of nations, which are hidden from their own eyes-qualities as the means whereby these nations remain in touch with the source of original life-only therein is to be found the guarantee of their present and future worth, virtue, and merit. If these qualities are dulled by admixture and worn away by friction, the flatness that results will bring about a separation from spiritual nature, and this in its turn will cause all men to be fused together in their uniform and collective destruction.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Thirteenth Address, Addresses to the Gerrnan Nation, ed. George A. Kelly (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1968), pp. 19091,19394,19798.


Johann Gottlieb Fichte: Address To The German Nation, 1807

Love that is truly love, and not a mere transitory lust, never clings to what is transient; only in the eternal does it awaken and become kindled, and there alone does it rest. Man is not able to love even himself unless he conceives himself as eternal; apart from that he cannot even respect, much less approve, of himself. Still less can he love anything outside himself without taking it up into the eternity of his faith and of his soul and binding it thereto. He who does not first regard himself as eternal has in him no love of any kind, and, moreover, cannot love a fatherland, a thing which for him does not exist. He who regards his invisible life as eternal, but not his visible life as similarly eternal, may perhaps have a heaven and therein a fatherland, but here below he has no fatherland, for this, too, is regarded only in the image of eternity---eternity visible and made sensuous, and for this reason also he is unable to love his fatherland. If none has been handed down to such a man, he is to be pitied. But he to whom a fatherland has been handed down, and in whose soul heaven and earth, visible and invisible meet and mingle, and thus, and only thus, create a true and enduring heaven---such a man fights to the last drop of his blood to hand on the precious possession unimpaired to his posterity.

Hence, the noble-minded man will be active and effective, and will sacrifice himself for his people. Life merely as such, the mere continuance of changing existence, has in any case never had any value for him, he has wished for it only as the source of what is permanent. But this permanence is promised to him only by the continuous and independent existence of his nation. In order to save his nation he must be ready even to die that it may live, and that he may live in it the only life for which he has ever wished.

So it has always been, although it has not always been expressed in such general terms and so clearly as we express it here. What inspired the men of noble mind among the Romans, whose frame of mind and way of thinking still live and breathe among us in their works of art, to struggles and sacrifices, to patience and endurance for the fatherland? They themselves express it often and distinctly. It was their firm belief in the eternal continuance of their Roma, and their confident expectation that they themselves would eternally continue to live in this eternity in the stream of time. In so far as this belief was well-founded, and they themselves would have comprehended it if they had been entirely clear in their own minds, it did not deceive them. To this very day there still lives in our midst what was truly eternal in their eternal Roma. . . .

In this belief in our earliest common forefathers, the original stock of the new culture, the Germans, as the Romans called them, bravely resisted the oncoming world dominion of the Romans. Did they not have before their eyes the greater brilliance of the Roman provinces next to them and the more refined enjoyments in those provinces, to say nothing of laws and judges= seats and lictors= axes and fasces in superfluity? Were not the Romans willing enough to let them share in all these blessings? In the case of several of their own princes, who did no more than intimate that war against such benefactors of mankind was rebellion, did they not experience proofs of the belauded Roman clemency? To those who submitted the Romans gave marks of distinction in the form of kingly titles, high commands in their armies, and Roman fillets; and if they were driven out by their countrymen, did not the Romans provide for them a place of refuge and a means of subsistence in their colonies? Had they no appreciation of the advantages of Roman civilization, of the superior organization of their armies, in which even Arminius did not disdain to learn the trade of war? Their descendants, as soon as they could do so without losing their freedom, even assimilated Roman culture, so far as this was possible without losing their individuality.

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. All those blessings which the Romans offered them meant slavery to them because then they would have to become something that was not German, they would have to become half-Roman. They assumed as a matter of course that every man would rather die than become half a Roman, and that a true German could only want to live in order to be, and to remain, just a German and to bring up his children as Germans.

They did not all die; they did not see slavery; they bequeathed freedom to their children. It is their unyielding resistance which the whole modern world has to thank for being what it now is. Had the Romans succeeded in bringing them also under the yoke and in destroying them as a nation, which the Romans did in every case, the whole development of the human race would have taken a different course, a course that one cannot think would have been more satisfactory. It is they whom we must thank---we, the immediate heirs of their soil, their language, and their way of thinking---for being Germans still, for being still borne along on the stream of original and independent life. It is they whom we must thank for everything that we have been as a nation since those days, and to them we shall be indebted for everything that we shall be in the future, unless things come to an end with us now and the last drop of blood inherited from them has dried up in our veins. To them the other branches of the race, whom we now look upon as foreigners, but who by descent from them are our brothers, are indebted for their very existence. When our ancestors triumphed over Roma the eternal, not one of all these peoples was in existence, but the possibility of their existence in the future was won for them in the same fight. . . .


Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, trans. R. F. Jones & G. H. Turnbull (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922), pp. 136-138, 143-145.


Max Schneckenburger: The Watch on The Rhine, 1870

This was a favorite song of the German soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Note the anti-French bias.

A VOICE resounds like thunder-peal,
'Mid dashing waves and clang of steel:
The Rhine, the Rhine, the German Rhine!
Who guards to-day my stream divine?
Chorus: Dear Fatherland, no danger thine;
Firm stand thy sons to watch the Rhine!

They stand, a hundred thousand strong
Quick to avenge their country's wrong;
With filial love their bosoms swell,
They'll guard the sacred landmark well!
Chorus: Dear Fatherland, no danger thine;
Firm stand thy sons to watch the Rhine!

The dead of an heroic race
From heaven look down and meet this gaze;
He swears with dauntless heart, "O Rhine,
Be German as this breast of mine!"
Chorus: Dear Fatherland, no danger thine;
Firm stand thy sons to watch the Rhine!

While flows one drop of German blood,
Or sword remains to guard thy flood,
While rifle rests in patriot hand,
No foe shall tread thy sacred strand!
Chorus: Dear Fatherland, no danger thine;
Firm stand thy sons to watch the Rhine!

Our oath resounds, the river flows,
In golden light our banner glows;
Our hearts will guard thy stream divine:
The Rhine, the Rhine, the German Rhine!
Chorus: Dear Fatherland, no danger thine;
Firm stand thy sons to watch the Rhine!


Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, 14 Vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VII: Germany, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, pp. 249-250.


Ernst Moritz Arndt: The German Fatherland

WHERE is the German's fatherland?
The Prussian land? The Swabian land?
Where Rhine the vine-clad mountain laves?
Where skims the gull the Baltic waves?
Ah, no, no, no!
His fatherland 's not bounded so!

Where is the German's fatherland?
Bavarian land? or Stygian land?
Where sturdy peasants plough the plain?
Where mountain-sons bright metal gain?
Ah, no, no, no!
His fatherland's not bounded so!

Where is the German's fatherland?
The Saxon hills? The Zuyder strand?
Where sweep wild winds the sandy shores
Where loud the rolling Danube roars?
Ah, no, no, no!
His fatherland's not bounded so!

Where is the German's fatherland?
Then name, then name the mighty land!
The Austrian land in fight renowned?
The Kaiser's land with honours crowned?
Ah, no, no, no!
His fatherland's not bounded so!

Where is the German's fatherland?
Then name, then name the mighty land!
The land of Hofer? land of Tell?
This land I know, and love it well;
But, no, no, no!
His fatherland 's not bounded so!

Where is the German's fatherland?
Is his the pieced and parcelled land
Where pirate-princes rule? A gem
Torn from the empire's diadem?
Ah, no, no, no!
Such is no German's fatherland.

Where is the German's fatherland?
Then name, oh, name the mighty land!
Wherever is heard the German tongue,
And German hymns to God are sung!
This is the land, thy Hermann's land;
This, German, is thy fatherland.

This is the German's fatherland,
Where faith is in the plighted hand,
Where truth lives in each eye of blue,
And every heart is staunch and true.
This is the land, the honest land,
The honest German's fatherland.

This is the land, the one true land,
O God, to aid be thou at hand!
And fire each heart, and nerve each arm,
To shield our German homes from harm,
To shield the land, the one true land,
One Deutschland and one fatherland!



From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, 14 Vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VII: Germany, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, pp. 276-278.

[Sorry that the images have not come out!]

The Prussian flag, featuring the Hohenzollern dynastic eagle. The Reich war flag, incorporating the 1813 iron cross.


The current national flag of the Federal Republic, 1949- . The German Democratic’s state flag (1949-90).

The black-red-and-gold flag originated in the uniforms of the Luetzow Freikorps units which fought in the wars of national liberation against Napoleon in 1813 under the Prussian Major Adolf von Luetzow. Their uniforms consisted of black jackets, red lapels and gold buttons. The culmination of this campaign was the Battle of Nations at Leipzig in October 1813, a defeat from which l’Empéreur never fully recovered. In 1815 students who had served in the unit founded a nationalist fraternity – or Burschenschaft –at Jena, adopting the same colours, and two years later, on the anniversary of the battle, 500 students and some professors paraded to the nearby Wartburg castle carrying similar flags, calling for freedom and a united Kaiserreich. But the black-red-and-gold only became fully institutionalised in 1832 at the Hambach Festival, where 30,000 demonstrators paraded the new flag, calling for national unification. During the 1848 interlude of the Frankfurt Parliament, an abortive attempt at a constitutional monarchy following the revolutions which swept Europe in the spring, the flag was decreed as the official national flag. Black-red-and-gold came to stand for a liberal version of German nationalism, much detested by the conservative right, especially in Prussia. It re-emerged in 1919 under the Weimar Republic, only to be replaced by the National Socialist swastika in 1933, and then again in 1949 became the national flag of both the Federal Republic (West Germany) and German Democratic Republic (East Germany), although the latter later added a state emblem of hammer, wheatsheaves and dividers in the centre.


Imperial German flag, 1867 and 1871-1919. National Socialist party swastika flag, 1933-45.

The black-red-and-white originated from Prussian colours of black and white, coupled with the white and red of the old Hanseatic League’s flags, under the North German Confederation of 1867 after the defeat of Austria the previous year. In 1871 it became the Reich flag, but was replaced under Weimar. Although not revived under the Third Reich except for military insignia, the National Socialist swastika not insignificantly chose the same colour-scheme as the old Imperial flag. The swastika is currently banned throughout Germany (understandably!), and the Imperial war flag, which has become a rallying-point for many on the far right, has also been proscribed in several states.