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Tracing the origins of the German nation

View of Nuremberg from the North with Sebalder and Lorenzer Forests, 1515, by Erhard Etzlaub © akg-images



Tracing the origins of the German nation

Discussed in this essay:

Germany: A Nation in Its Time: Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500–2000, by Helmut Walser Smith. Liveright. 608 pages. $39.95.

Culture in Nazi Germany, by Michael H. Kater. Yale University Press. 472 pages. $35.

Hitler’s Third Reich continues to fascinate us for a reason. The swift descent of a highly civilized nation into barbarism remains a terrifying mystery. One temptation, which was common in West Germany in the 1950s, is to dismiss the Nazi era as a freakish accident, a monstrous aberration brought on by one demonic leader. Another is to try to see the period as a symptom of a deep cultural, spiritual, and political malaise that began many centuries before.

The latter idea of a specifically German disease was much influenced by William Montgomery McGovern’s book published in 1941, the title of which explains itself: From Luther to Hitler: The History of Fascist-Nazi Political Philosophy. Another famous work that encouraged this notion was On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, written in 1833 by the eminent poet Heinrich Heine. In this long essay, Heine warned that Teutonic savagery, lurking under the surface since ancient times, would one day be unleashed in all its fury, followed by “a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world’s history.” Unlike McGovern, Heine didn’t blame Luther, though he saw “all the virtues and all the faults of the Germans” collected in the religious reformer. Heine believed that without the restraining influence of Christianity, the innate warrior spirit of his native country, with its vengeful Nordic gods, would set off “the German thunderbolt,” like some ghastly reenactment of the Nibelungenlied. (The irony of Heine’s position was that the purported Christian restraints were loosened by precisely the kind of secular, socialist revolts in the mid-nineteenth century that he welcomed, albeit with some ambivalence.)

Of course, Heine could no more look into the future than anyone else. It would be a mistake to read his text as an explanation of German history, or to see continuities where they don’t exist. Like all histories, the story of the Germans is more a matter of “one damned thing after another,” as Arnold Toynbee put it, than a cogent narrative where everything can be neatly explained. Indeed, until quite recently it wasn’t even clear who the Germans were or what their country was. Even after Germany became a unified empire in 1871, under Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia, many people of German origin, language, and culture lived outside its boundaries, from the Baltic states to Transylvania.

In his absorbing and enlightening new book, Germany: A Nation in Its Time: Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500–2000, the historian Helmut Walser Smith makes a convincing case that nations undergo so many complex changes that it is nonsense to assume that any particular period—including Hitler’s Third Reich—is wholly determined by the past, let alone a very distant past. By examining maps, poems, monuments, religious movements, and accounts of often bloody events, Smith suggests that Germany went through numerous discrete phases, which do not add up to anything one could catch in a cliché like “the German spirit,” Volksgeist, let alone a German sickness. “Put simply,” he writes, “there was no transhistorical concept of the German nation. There was only a nation in its time.”

Smith’s book is a fine contribution to the endlessly intriguing question of how national identities take shape. Smith draws a distinction between the German nation on the one hand—which in his view begins to develop in the sixteenth century—and German nationalism, an “explicitly political ideology that conceived of self and country as one,” on the other. He believes that

the conception of the German nation—not the ideology of German nationalism—is the larger story, with the longer history. In chronological terms, German nationalism had a later beginning; it has gone through an extremely devastating middle phase; and, as is defined here, it may yet have an end.

In Smith’s view, the sense of being German, before a distinct national state existed, had roots at different times in cultural or linguistic elements: poetry, song, philosophical ideas, historic monuments, and a romantic view of rural customs and folklore. Later, from the second half of the nineteenth century, it turned toward a Prussian military spirit of sacrifice, and under Hitler to the concept of race. Smith argues that German nationalism resulted not from a long history of belligerence, but from a sense of failure and humiliation going back no further than Napoleon’s conquests. A little less plausible is his claim that “radical nationalism” only emerged with Hitler’s rise.

The Battle of Nations at Leipzig, 1813 © akg-images

Long before there was such a thing as Germany, in 98 ad, Tacitus described the Germanic tribes as decent, freedom-loving people who were somewhat lacking in the civilized graces of the Romans. In 1457–58, a papal legate named Enea Silvio Piccolomini wrote a treatise entitled Germania, the first time in the postclassical era, Smith writes, that “an author actually explicated Germany as a space and described the cities within it.” His picture of the Germans stressed their placid nature, as well as their aversion to following leaders. He did not anticipate any tribal bellicosity. In fact, this image of peaceful folks living east of the Rhine persisted into Heine’s lifetime. Smith quotes from an early-nineteenth-century travel account, De l’Allemagne, by Madame de Staël, where the author remarks that the “martial spirit and love of fatherland, both sources of the sacrifice of self, hardly exist for contemporary Germans.”

Rather than throwing thunderbolts at other countries, people living in German lands suffered horribly from calamitous invasions. In the late sixteenth century, about sixteen million people lived in the German areas of the Holy Roman Empire. Nuremberg and Cologne, among other cities in the region, were centers of humanist learning, literature, and art. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) laid waste to large parts of the empire; at least five million people died of famine, disease, and mass murder. The German lands were a ruin, physically and culturally. It took a century for the population to return to its prewar level.

In 1799, French Revolutionary troops marched across the Rhine. As soldiers had during the Thirty Years’ War, they plundered the land, with devastating consequences for its inhabitants. By 1806, having defeated the Russian and Austrian armies at Austerlitz, and the kingdom of Prussia at Jena, Napoleon had destroyed the Holy Roman Empire and come to rule great chunks of it, including the ancient cities of Cologne, Aachen, and Düsseldorf, where Heine was born.

Smith points out that most Germans were resigned to French rule; some even welcomed it. Many German intellectuals had admired the French Revolution, and Napoleonic governance brought reforms that expanded civil liberties; Jews were emancipated for the first time in German history (whether this was popular among Germans is a different matter). Before Napoleon’s conquest, few Germans thought of themselves as members of a German nation anyway. They were subjects of princes and dukes, many of whom fought on Napoleon’s side against the Holy Roman Empire. The Germany that emerged from the French wars was roughly carved up into Catholic Bavaria, mostly Protestant Prussia, and a number of more or less pro-French principalities. Spread out among these divided lands were liberals, aristocratic reactionaries, monarchists, revolutionaries, and men who dreamed of revanche and glory. But despite their various persuasions, many Germans believed that only a unified state could stand up to larger powers. The question was what that state would look like.

The story of how Germans acquired a sense of national belonging, and how this morphed into political German nationalism, is the most interesting part of Smith’s book. He tries to differentiate between cultural nationhood and political nationalism. The difficulty with this thesis is that the two forces overlapped so much, in such troubling ways, that the distinction begins to lose its meaning.

Under the old order, a person living in German lands was not necessarily a German speaker; there were many people who spoke Polish, or another tongue. But in the late eighteenth century, as German literature flourished, led by figures such as Goethe and Schiller, more and more people began to associate the language with a sense of collective identity. When Thomas Mann, living in exile in California during the 1940s, claimed that “Germany is where I am,” this was taken by some as a sign of extreme arrogance. What he meant was that he was a carrier of German culture, wherever he happened to be. He was tapping into a post-eighteenth-century notion of German nationhood. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the philosopher of German idealism, whose ideas were later extolled by extreme nationalists, including the Nazis, put it this way in his 1808 Addresses to the German Nation: “Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature itself, long before any human art begins.”

France, too, tried to forge a standard language for all its citizens, but the goal was to strengthen the French Republic, whose political ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity were held to be universal. Fichte, along with the philosopher and critic Johann Gottfried Herder and other proponents of the German “nation of poets and thinkers,” did not think German values—Volksgeist, a bond allegedly forged by nature itselfwere universal at all; they were unique to the German Volk, not necessarily better or worse than the values of others, just different. Unable to match French military might, German national feeling turned inward, to a Romantic idea of spiritual belonging, tied to a love of German poems and songs, and the beauty of the native soil. In Smith’s words: “Poetry, not politics, was the source of this new conception; sound, not sight, its primary sense; and the vernacular German, not geography, its principal idiom.”

Quite right. But it then seems an oversight to leave out German music, especially of the Classical and the Romantic periods. There is hardly a mention in Smith’s book of Bach or Beethoven, nor even of Wagner, whose music and ideas played a vital part in shaping German consciousness. Wagner personified Heine’s ambivalences and warnings: a revolutionary in his youth, a nationalist later, he invoked the pantheon of Nordic gods in his music and a hatred of French rationalism and “parasitic” Jews in his writing. Wagner was only six years old in 1819 when an eruption of violence against Jews started in Bavaria and spread to towns and cities all over Germany: stores were smashed and looted, people were beaten and killed. It was in Wagner’s lifetime that Romantic notions about the Volksgeist and the cult of blood and soil curdled into the kind of racism that would one day lead to genocide. For this idea of Germany, which in Smith’s distinction might be described as part of cultural nationhood, played a significant role in the way political nationalism in Germany would unfold.

Smith traces the origins of German political nationalism to 1813, when Napoleon was on the run and the Prussians took up arms against him. Afterward, the Prussian state, which had been militarized in the eighteenth century by Frederick the Great, would go on to swallow up the rest of Germany. The nation of poets and thinkers was gradually transformed into one that extolled sacrifice on the battlefield as the highest ideal. Though Smith skips Beethoven and Wagner, he does quote from an 1813 song by the “soldier-poet” Theodor Körner, “Song of Vengeance”:

Drink yourselves satiated with blood!
And when they whimper on their knees,
And tremble screaming for pardon,
Do not cave to sympathy’s cowardly voice,
Stab into them without mercy!

Körner’s vengeance was directed at the French. Its venom illustrates what can happen when nationalism is born of humiliation. Even thinkers and poets whose intentions had been quite pacific, such as Fichte, the writer Clemens Brentano, and the well-known architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, joined in the growing mood of Prussian nationalism. They all met weekly in Berlin at the German Table Society, where discussions, in Smith’s words, often “descended, briefly if ominously, into anti-Semitism, reminding us that the birth of German nationalism was from the beginning tied in complex ways to anti-Jewish sentiment.”

But these men were paragons of liberal tolerance compared with the Prussian historian Heinrich von Treitschke, who coined the phrase “Jews are our misfortune.” Writing in the late nineteenth century, under the shadow of social Darwinism, Treitschke wrote:

In the unhappy clash between races inspired by fierce mutual enmity, the bloodstained savagery of a quick war of annihilation is more humane, less revolting, than the specious clemency of sloth, which keeps the vanquished in a state of brute beasts.

This was ominous, to be sure, and would not have been out of place in Julius Streicher’s Nazi propaganda tabloid, Der Stürmer. But the idea that only the fittest nations survive was in the air not only in Prussia, but in many parts of Europe, and beyond. It would be a mistake to draw a straight line from the stirrings of Prussian nationalism to the Holocaust. In fact, after the Napoleonic Wars, the first half of the nineteenth century was largely peaceful, despite Prussian dominance in a German customs union, and despite agitation among Francophobic, anti-Semitic student fraternities. The Biedermeier period, between 1815 and 1848, was marked by a growing interest in arts and crafts that stressed homely comforts and love of nature, though it did sometimes idealize rural nostalgia at the expense of wicked city life, which was associated with liberals and Jews. Gothic fantasies about Teutonic knights were part of the Romantic imagination, but liberalism was still a powerful counterforce to militant chauvinism.

In 1848, revolts and rebellions against aristocratic autocracy arose all over Europe, including in Germany. Alas, the democratic revolution failed, in Berlin as well as in Vienna, the two centers of Germanic political power. The German national identity became more and more confused: revolution was followed by counterrevolution; liberals fought with radicals; some advocated for a German federation, some a centrally governed nation-state. A more or less liberal assembly in Frankfurt had plenty of high ideals but was incapable of uniting the nation. A plan to form a union of German states under Prussian leadership clashed with Austria’s goal of constituting a multiethnic, multinational German Confederation.

In the end, Prussia won the struggle. In 1871, Otto von Bismarck, as the first imperial chancellor, unified the German nation under the Prussian King Wilhelm I. It was Bismarck’s political genius that allowed him to reconcile most liberals with the monarchy, and the Catholic south with the Protestant north. He did this after defeating France, Denmark, and Austria in a quick succession of wars. Bismarck had stated his position clearly several years earlier: “The great questions of the time will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood.”

Iron and blood was not a formula for democratic harmony in Europe. But Smith does not see Bismarck’s push to grow the empire as a precursor to the two great wars in the twentieth century. “Hitler’s Germany,” Smith writes, “was to a significant degree structured by the fallout of the First World War, along with the preparation for the Second.” This is true up to a point. Defeat and the harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, combined with mass unemployment and propaganda of resentment, constituted a poisonous brew. But there was more ideological continuity between Wilhelmine Germany and the Third Reich than Smith allows, something that goes to the heart of modern German identity. Political nationalism was deeply infected by a racial concept of nationhood. Bismarck was partly culpable, since his authoritarian politics, which stunted the growth of a democratic civic identity, made it easier for the infection to thrive. In the vacuum, the idea of shared bloodlines grew more prominent. And when blood became the defining issue, anti-Semitism followed.

The question Smith fails to ask is why, at a time when anti-Semitism was endemic throughout Europe, it became the dominant ideology only in Germany. The Dreyfus affair took place in France, where illiberal, mostly Catholic, reactionaries had not accepted the republican values of the French Revolution and were almost invariably anti-Semitic. Like their counterparts in Germany, they too extolled blood and soil. Nevertheless, the France of republican citizens prevailed—that is, until the Vichy regime was helped into power by the Nazi invasion. Racism existed everywhere, but the French identity was political more than tribal. And so was that of the British, which was born of a political union with Scotland in 1707. Germanness, or Deutschtum, was a cultural concept that became political, but not in a liberal or democratic way, and already by the late nineteenth century it contained a dangerous stream of radical anti-Semitic nationalism.

Much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of Wilhelm II (“Kaiser Bill”), who ruled from 1888 to 1918. Wilhelm II bore a large responsibility for World War I, and he despised the French republican idea of citizenship just as much as he despised British and American concepts of national belonging. Influenced by racist thinkers such as Arthur de Gobineau, who was French, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who was born in England, the kaiser believed in racial purity. In his view, the French were “negroid,” and the British “thoroughly infected” with Jews. In those mongrel nations, he sneered, citizenship could be bought.

Not all Germans shared these views, and there was nothing inevitable about the success of National Socialism. But older ideas about racial purity and the uniquely German Volksgeist were ready to be exploited. Smith pays less attention to these ideological roots of Nazism than he might have. He spends many eloquent pages on the Holocaust, but gives little sense of the extent to which it was the horrible culmination of terrible ideas and events that preceded it. As Smith himself points out in his chapter about the Prussian emergence, German nationalism was tied to anti-Jewish sentiment from the beginning. One need not go back to Luther to look for ideological origins, but a closer inspection of late-nineteenth-century ideas might have thrown more light on the matter.

Though there is much to admire in Smith’s history, he is least sure-footed when discussing the twentieth century. The role of culture in the rise of Hitler’s Reich gets rather short shrift. How the Nazis distorted the German language and German artistic traditions is particularly interesting, because it had a huge effect on the way Germans chose to think of themselves after the war, with results that are still visible. Fortunately, another recent book, Michael H. Kater’s Culture in Nazi Germany, fills in some of the gaps.

Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and other high officials in charge of cultural affairs tried their best to forge a new Nazi culture, one that celebrated the racist concept of the Herrenvolk, in which an Aryan master race controlled the government. Kater makes a convincing case that this was a failure. Except for one or two operas (Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at a pinch) and Leni Riefenstahl’s technically brilliant “documentaries,” most artifacts of the Nazi period consist of frothy escapism or racist kitsch. Hitler’s own tastes ran to light operetta music or sentimental nineteenth-century paintings of farmers tilling the soil, the kind of thing Smith describes so well in earlier periods of German history. Official high culture had to fall back on the classics: Beethoven, Bruckner, and of course, for ideological more than aesthetic reasons, Wagner. Bach’s organ music was seen as the pinnacle of Germanic artistic expression.

The overall impression one gets from Kater’s thorough examination of movies, music, journalism, literature, and visual art under Hitler is that, apart from outright propaganda—often racist works in the style of Soviet socialist realism—the arts were largely vulgarized, mediocre varieties of older German traditions: Classicism, Romanticism, Biedermeier, and so on. Kater concludes that, “from the point of view of culture alone,” Hitler was less noxious than Stalin. The Soviet dictator, he says, was crueler in his treatment of individual artists. In the Soviet Union, nobody was safe. Stalin turned even esteemed artists, like Shostakovich, into groveling sycophants.

There can of course be no question about Stalin’s brutality. But it is worth remembering that Shostakovich produced far greater music under Stalin than any composer managed under Hitler. And Sergei Eisenstein could still make a film of genius in 1944 (Ivan the Terrible), when all the German studios could produce was more or less odious pap.

Kater is more convincing in his description of the ways in which postwar art was influenced by the past. The problem for Germans after the war—and for artists and intellectuals in particular—was that their culture and traditions were so contaminated by Nazi propaganda and aesthetics that German identity had to be reinvented once again. In East Germany, this problem was taken care of by Communist propaganda: the German Democratic Republic was officially on the side of the antifascists. In the West, it took at least a generation before people could seriously break with years of denial: the syrupy “Heimat” films of the late 1940s to early 1970s, though stripped of anti-Semitism, could easily have been made during the Third Reich. It was up to such writers as Günter Grass (himself not immune to denial) and Hans Magnus Enzensberger to draw the Nazi poison from the German language. In the visual arts, Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer tried to come to grips with the recent past, sometimes by fetishizing not only Nazi imagery but older symbols of the Volksgeist such as dark German forests. Directors such as Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder did the same in film.

Smith claims that he sensed the birth of a decent German identity, patriotic without belligerence, proud without racist chauvinism, conscious of the past without wallowing in guilt, when Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup. He wasn’t the only person to see hope in German flags being waved in a friendly spirit. Modern German democracy, despite being tested in recent years by the rise of far-right politics—currently threatening many other countries as well—is indeed something to celebrate. And there is a great deal in German culture to treasure. But we might also remember that it took the nation of Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, and Schiller more than fifty years after Heine’s death to build a monument—against considerable resistance—to the Jewish poet.

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July 2020