German Nationalism, From Revolution to Illiberalism

The tradition of German nationalism had come a long way from the liberal rhetoric of freedom during the revolutionary period.
Henry Mead, Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, German history, German nationalism, Prussian School of History, Otto von Bismarck, Johannes Gustav Droysen, Heinrich von Sybel, German expansionism, Germany anti-Semitism history

Flag of the Kingdom of Prussia © Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / Shutterstock

It is often noted that 19th-century nationalism owed much to the rise of academic history. As historians have observed, studies in national development provided materials for later and cruder claims of fascist cultural supremacy. For instance, Leopold von Ranke and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel represented different versions of such narratives. The former traced a conceptual movement in large patterns of events; its ideological consequences were various, but one aspect was the justification of the Prussian state. The latter urged rigorous attention to historical evidence but suggested that in such detail a pattern of providence could be found.


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Ranke’s method, adopted by a generation of historians, was that of a conservative liberal of the Restoration period, envisaging a balance of European power. By mid-century, however, new historians had taken a Prussian-centered national narrative to a new level of conviction, combining elements of Hegel’s statist teleology with Ranke’s evidence-based method. In the German revolution of 1848, the rhetoric of liberty and nationhood was confused, and the goals of a constitutional monarchy and a united Germany seemed united under one banner.

Yet within a short time, the revolution failed, and a conservative mood descended. Subsequently, the liberal spirit of nationalism was replaced by a Bismarckian argument for nationalist militarism and expansionism. Academic writing was touched by this sequence of events.

A Historical Method

Prior to 1848, academic historians were already sketching accounts of providential German unification and expansion. The writers of the Prussian School of History were former students of Ranke and Hegel. They wrote at first in a liberal register. Johannes Gustav Droysen began his career as a classicist, coining the term “Hellenism.” His 1833 life of Alexander the Great launched his academic career. A popular volume, its account of the Macedonian marshaling of Greek culture into a powerful empire was read as a pattern for Prussia’s future role.

Droysen’s historical work became overtly political with his 1842-43 “Lectures on the Wars of Liberation,” a record of Prussian popular resistance against foreign invaders. A member of the Frankfurt parliament during the 1848 revolution, he witnessed the failure of its liberal and nationalist aspirations. The crisis came when members voted to fight for the regions of Schleswig-Holstein against the claims of Denmark. It was clear, on Prussia’s withdrawal of support, that the parliament was impotent without the northern state’s backing, and by 1849 Frederick William IV was secure enough to reject liberal proposals.

Since 1840, Droysen had taught at Keil University in the disputed region. His account, “The Policy of Denmark towards the Duchies of Schleswig-Holstein,” lent support to nationalist calls for the defense of Germany’s territory. In a similar spirit, in 1851 he published a life of Count Yorck von Wartenburg, the general whose decision to change sides was a turning point in the war with Napoleon. The historical stage was set for a renewal of this national self-assertion. Otto von Bismarck, the prime minister of Prussia and the founder and first chancellor of the German Empire, no doubt saw the usefulness of such narratives when formulating his foreign policy in the early 1860s.

Droysen took pains with his lecture series on the historical method, hoping to provide a philosophical basis for the discipline. The lectures were published only in 1937, but in 1858, he circulated a precis, theGrundriss der Historik,” translated as “Outline of the Principles of History,” which describes history as theodicy, forming an organic pattern of growth. The method was Rankean, but drew explicitly on Hegel in its emphasis on the direction and progression of history. Going beyond Ranke’s hints at the runic import of recorded facts, Droysen pointed directly to signs of development, specifically toward a Prussian state.

This commitment was clear in his major work, “The History of Prussian Politics,” which he began having taken a chair at Jena in 1851. Through the period of the Prussian wars on Austria and France until his death in 1884, Droysen completed 14 volumes that traced the growth of the Prussian monarchy to the year 1756.     

From French Revolution to German Empire

Heinrich von Sybel made his name with a history of the first crusade written with Rankean documentary rigor. Yet he already had a political aim, undercutting romantic medievalism in his commitment to a liberal future. In 1848, he too attended the Frankfurt parliament, and similarly transferred his nationalist faith toward Prussian statism over time. Despite this allegiance to the “polar star” of the north, he took a chair at Munich on Ranke’s recommendation, leading Prince Maximilian’s new Bavarian Historical Commission and founding the Historische Zeitschrift (Historical Journal).

His debt to Ranke did not preclude a shift in tone. A celebrated 1856 address on historiography demurred at the excessive pursuit of objectivity. His major work of these years, the “History of the French Revolution,” was a Burkean warning against the destructive effects of Jacobinism. Using archives in Paris, Sybel mounted a scholarly assault on France’s role in recent European history. He effectively downgraded the revolution to a by-product of historical providence centering on Prussia. The French historiographer Antoine Guillard described it as “an attack not only on the Revolution but on the mind and history of France.”

In this view, the French Revolution indeed signaled the end of the old order, but it was merely one of three such events, the others being the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and the destruction of Poland. This wider break with feudalism and the rise of a modernity that would be encapsulated in a unified Germany under Prussia. French pride at the assertion of popular sovereignty and human rights was undercut and German nationhood celebrated.

Taking a chair in Bonn in 1861, the historian was now also a politician, sitting in the 1860s and 1870s in the Prussian Diet and the Constituent Reichstag of the North German Confederation. Bismarck saw Sybel’s value and made him director of Prussian archives in 1875, where he worked on his last major work, “The Founding of the German Empire by William I.” This overtly politicized work of history gave a Bismarckian slant to events leading up to 1871. Some, noting William I’s ambivalence about his chancellor’s maneuverings, joked the phrase “by” should have read “despite.”

The work lacked life and bore the weight of a propagandistic tome; later its political slant worked to its author’s disadvantage as the focus on Bismarck over William I offended the new kaiser, and Sybel was banished from the state archives in 1890. He died five years later, having completed his last volume. Sybel, though wary of democracy as a step toward Bonapartism and a believer in Prussia’s power, was also a believer in a Burkean pluralism, whereby power was best distributed among social groups under the protection of the state. Toward the end of the 19th century, a more virulent language of racial homogeneity and expansionism came to the fore.

Racial Theory

The boldest publicist of the Prussian School, whose messages most clearly herald the racialized nationalism of the 20th century, was Heinrich von Treitschke. Born in Saxony with Czech roots, Treitschke began his career as a Privatdozent in Leipzig, but his conviction in Berlin’s destiny to rule was out of place there, and he returned to take university posts in Prussia. His earliest publications included patriotic poems, while his 1859 dissertation on “the science of society” made a strong case for the state as necessary and primeval, without need for a contract with its citizens. Prussia provided a nucleus for a German state forming according to historical destiny.

Treitschke’s path exemplified the historians’ trajectory away from liberalism. As his writing gained influence, his distance from Ranke was clear. When sending a copy of his polemical essays to his father in 1865 he noted: “That bloodless objectivity which does not say on which side is the narrator’s heart is the exact opposite of the true historical sense. Judgment is free, even to the author.” His essays, often biographical studies or political arguments, grew more fervently nationalistic. The smaller German states should submit to annexation; colonial growth was a natural expression of a vital new power.

This set a tone for German expansionism from the 1860s onward. Treitschke too was politically active, sitting in the Reichstag in 1871 as a member of the new National Liberal party and welcoming the culture war against Catholics isolated in the new Kleindeutschland. In 1874, he was invited to take the chair in history in Berlin; Ranke was ushered from his post to make room for Treitschke, whom he deemed disapprovingly a publicist, not a historian. Yet student fraternities preferred their new teacher, the court made him official historiographer of Prussia in 1886, and his academic standing was reinforced by his editorship of Historische Zeitschrift after Sybel’s death in 1895.

Treitschke’s “History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century” was a colorful and lively work; keyed into the public mood, it impressed foreign readers including the British historian G.P. Gooch, who compared it to Macaulay’s “History of England” in style and vigor. “Both vibrate with their authors’ personality,” Gooch wrote in 1913, not seeing the full legacy of the Prussian School. As Treitschke gained influence in polemical attacks on socialists and Jews, his arguments converged with forms of social Darwinism and a racialized politics. In 1879, a long review essay in the Preussische Jahrbucher, the right-wing journal he edited from 1866 to 1889, concluded with an anti-Semitic polemic. He claimed that fundamental differences between Jews and Christians in Germany could not be resolved, and that the Jews had “assumed too large a space in our life.”

These passages were later republished in the pamphlet, “A Word About Our Jews,” which reached a wider audience and sparked the Berlin Anti-Semitism Conflict, a two-year spate of protest and violence against the Jewish population. Treitschke’s anti-Semitic pronouncements coincided with those of Adolf Stöcker, then a court preacher to William I, who created the Christian Social Workers’ Party in 1878 to draw laborers away from socialism. Between them, Treitschke and Stöcker gave a new clerical, political and academic respectability to anti-Semitism from the 1880s onward.

Such theories were not far removed from the biological variants of similar ideas, for example in Ernst Haeckel’s monism of the same period, suggestive of an ethnic and eugenic, as much as an Idealist or Christian, idea of providence. It was Treitschke who coined the phrase “The Jews are our misfortune,” repeated ad nauseam in the Nazi period, and most recently adapted as “Israel is our misfortune” by the far-right party Die Rechte (The Right) in the European Parliament elections of 2019. The tradition of German nationalism had come a long way from the liberal rhetoric of freedom during the revolutionary period.

*[Research for this article was supported by a European Research Council Starting Grant (TAU17149) “Between the Times: Embattled Temporalities and Political Imagination in Interwar Europe.”]

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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