Fatherlands. Building and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Green, Abigail
386 p.
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Maiken Umbach, Gonville and Caius College

Ever since the invention of modern history writing, the emergence of the nation-state has been a phenomenon at the heart of historical inquiry. Whether they treat nationalism as a cause or a consequence of nation-state formation, as a symptom of socio-economic modernization or a mobilisation of collective memories: studies seeking to explain the appeal of nationalism by far outnumber those on anti-nationalist forces. Even fewer and far between are those that have asked the obverse question: what was the appeal of particularism? Abigail Green’s highly original book provides some much needed and long-overdue answers to this question. In nineteenth-century Germany, she argues, there was more to particularism than the conservative defence of the status quo. The decades between Napoleon’s reorganisation of Germany and the kleindeutsch unification, which form the basis of her study, witnessed a process of internal modernisation in many German states, which made them viable focal points for progressive patriotism. Green concentrates on the three kingdoms of Hanover, Saxony, and Württemberg, and thereby moves beyond the assumption that anti-Prussian sentiment in this period was primarily a confessional issue. It is well known that Catholic states, most notably Bavaria, watched the Prussian-led drive towards unification with a good deal of scepticism. Hanover, Saxony, and Württemberg, however, had Protestant rulers and predominantly Protestant populations, and thus no confessional motive for opposing Prusso-centric nationalism. The particularist identities at the heart of Green’s study are secular. Dynastic allegiance, cultural achievement and (with the exception of Hanover) a tradition of progressive constitutionalism proved powerful stimulants of individual-state consciousness.

In six thematic chapters, Green analyses areas of policy-making that were designed foster this sense of allegiance, providing an alternative to the prospect of national unification before 1871, and a basis for particularist identities afterwards. The areas include education, infrastructure investment (notably railways) and policies directly concerned with the state’s public image: the popularisation of monarchy, state-sponsorship of culture and various forms of political propaganda. Her aim is to establish typical patterns, i.e. to emphasise what these three states had in common, not what set them apart. While levels of economic development differed sharply between densely populated and industrious Saxony and the rural and sparsely populated Hanover (with Württemberg occupying some in-between position), all three can be classified, broadly speaking, as the same type of state: constitutional monarchies with a relatively expansive territory and populations of around two million each. The ‘Third Germany’ comprised many other polities, too – notably many smaller states, some of which, such as the Free Hanseatic cities of Hamburg and Bremen, had republican constitutions. Yet Green argues, with some justification, that the examples she singles out for investigation typify the most powerful type of state in non-Prussian Germany - with the exception of course of Catholic Bavaria, which has already been subject to intensive historical research. Her choice of case studies, in other words, is motivated primarily by size and power political status.

This choice has the advantage that the states in question generated enough official political documents to allow the historian to arrive meaningful conclusions by relying on the tried and tested methods of traditional political historiography. Green’s study is based on a thorough analysis of the holdings of three government archives (which are almost complete for this period for Saxony and Württemberg, and slightly patchier in Hanover). These are read in conjunction with published material from the period, notably newspapers. The picture she derives from these sources is one of a concerted state-building effort on this intermediary level, which resembled nation-building in this period in its aims and methods. Both combined backward-looking and progressive motifs.

The first thematic investigation focuses on dynastic loyalties. While their importance for individual-state identity was nothing new, after 1815, monarchical rule could no longer be taken for granted, and thus had to be redefined. As traditional monarchic attributes came to be associated with the constitution and the people, the figure of the monarch was invested with more ‘personal’ virtues, such as gentleness, benevolence and warmth. The monarchy’s public marketing (for example on royal tours) reached new heights, amounting to what Green calls “a democratisation of royal ceremony” (p. 91). This perhaps overstates the difference with preceding periods, notably, in terms of spectacle, with classical absolutism, and in terms of the virtues projected, with the ideal of princely paternalism and its sentimental language which characterised Enlightenment styles of rule in Germany. Yet Green’s observations do point to important structural similarities between developments in the ‘Third Germany’ and the history of the two Prussian ‘Williams’.

The next chapter turns to state-sponsored cultural activities. The individual states’ main policy goal was to infuse their often disparate mix of old and new territories in the post-Napoleonic era with a sense of shared identity. To this end, governments supported the celebration of their states’ cultural achievements by sponsoring historical associations, museums (royal art collections were now opened to the public and housed in spectacular new buildings) and popular festivals, which were invested with patriotic overtones. Yet these initiatives, Green admits, remained ad hoc, operated on a tiny budget and did not amount to a concerted cultural policy – unlike, for example, in contemporary Bavaria. More dramatic changes can be observed in the field of political propaganda in the print media. Here the relaxation of the tight press censorship of the pre-revolutionary decades and veritable explosion of local newspapers in the 1850s and ‘60s called for a modern-style news management. Hanover, Saxony, and, to a lesser extent, Württemberg, rose to the challenge. Driven by a complex mix of domestic and foreign political concerns, these governments attempted to shape the political opinion in positive ways, by supplying information to favoured papers and helping to boost their circulation especially amongst state employees. The main target of these efforts was the population in the countryside, often regarded as a passive conservative majority yet to be mobilised. The new media society - newspapers now reached about half the male adult population - was partly a result of successful educational reform, to which Green devotes another chapter. Here, too, efforts peaked after the 1848 revolutions: the educational improvements achieved in the primary schools of Saxony, Württemberg and Hanover often outshone the better-known accomplishments in Prussia. Green highlights how the more practical subjects categorised as ‘Realien’ came to be seen as means of fostering particularist patriotism and boosting popular legitimacy.

Perhaps the most unusual of the thematic chapters, however, is that on communications. According to Green, two factors were crucial for economic nation-building in nineteenth-century Germany: the Zollverein (customs union) and the railways. The recent literature on the former (some of which Green ignores) shows that, contrary to older orthodoxies, the Zollverein had no discernible impact on patterns of growth and investment. This makes the real topic of this chapter, the railways, even more important. They were crucial to industrial development. Green also shows, however, that they had less of an equalising effect on the national level than one might assume. Railway construction tended to polarise economic differences between predominantly industrial, predominantly artisanal and predominantly agricultural areas – both within the states concerned, and in Germany as a whole, thus strengthening a sense of particularist identities. Individual state governments were the key agents who financed the bulk of railway construction in Germany, and the railway lines expressed their political agendas. For example, only one line linked the Habsburg territories and Prussia, yet numerous connections existed between Austrian and her political allies Saxony and Bavaria (p. 239). Paradoxically, this particularism helped rather than hinder nation-building: unlike the French railways, the German network was polycentric, and fewer regions were bypassed altogether than anywhere else in Europe. Moreover, the states’ involvement in railway building – traditionally a pet project of German liberals – created an important area of consensus between conservative state governments and their progressive critics. And last but not least, the railways also helped promote the states’ efforts at propaganda analysed in previous chapters, by transporting new audiences to state-sponsored parades, festivals, and museums.

The timing of these initiatives is significant. According to Green’s account, the most dramatic changes occurred in those ‘Restoration’ decades of 1850s and 1860s which historians have tended to dismiss as stagnant and conservative. From its second incarnation in 1850/1 until its collapse in 1866, the German Confederation witnessed an unspectacular yet wide-ranging modernization process, which had important effects well beyond 1871. While scholars such as Siemann and Wehler already went some way toward revising the stagnant image of these decades, they focused on the ‘involuntary’ modernisation effects of reactionary policies, such as the extension of non-governmental co-operation over domestic policy in the ‘Polizeiverein’. Green, by contrast, looks at positive efforts at modern state-building in these decades - even if her analysis of the motivation for change related principally to the lessons of 1848, and might thus be dubbed ‘defensive modernization’.

Green’s findings explain why particularism’s appeal can not be reduced to political nostalgia. Moreover, and even more importantly, she helps us to understand that individual-state development, while fostering particularist identities, was by no means the opposite of nationalism. When states built railways, they lay the foundations for their regions full inclusion in the emerging nation. When states founded cultural institutions and reformed curricula to celebrate the many fatherlands of Germany, this also entailed a wider diffusion of national awareness. Each state was different. Yet the difference was conceptualised as a variation of the whole – Germany – not as an alternative to it. This quality is what makes the German understanding of federalism so remarkable, and continues to inspire heated political debates in our own age of devolution and European regionalism. The mutually reinforcing coexistence of the particular and the national was a defining feature of German political culture well before the outset of Green’s study, as she now shows us, the rise of popular nationalism did little to change that. Her findings are therefore of far wider significance than her own scholarly modesty suggests to the uninitiated reader. In the 1990s, the work of Celia Applegate and Alon Confino revolutionised our understanding of the relationship between localist and national sentiments. Heimat, they suggested, mediated between the abstract category of the nation and the tangible experience of one’s immediate social and geographical surroundings. Green shows us that this plot can be extended from the realm of cultural history into political history. Even though competition from the nationalist movement may have been one factor that prompted individual states to embark upon more proactive modernisation policies, ultimately, these policies not only did not prevent national integration, but actually promoted it. In Germany, it seems, successful nation-building was a product of successful state-building in many fatherlands.

Maiken Umbach: Rezension zu: : Fatherlands. Building and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge  2001 , in: H-Soz-Kult, 09.03.2002, <>.
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