By Michael Sauter
In the last lecture we discussed the transition from the Old Regime to a modern world that is becoming increasingly recognizable to us. Before the French Revolution and Napoleon’s arrival we see societies made up of orders and based on legal inequality, with an emphasis on privileges and differences based on birth. By 1815, when Napoleon meets his ultimate defeat, that world is gone, replaced by equality before the law and, as I also discussed last time, less complicated political borders. One of the changes that also makes this new world more recognizable to us is the arrival of nationalism. Although we all know nationalism when we see it, let me offer a working definition for the purposes of this discussion. Nationalism is, in a few words, the identification of the nation as the fundamental unit of social and political organization. We can see nationalism at work in France July 14, 1789, when the nation became the foundation of a new form of politics. The energies that the nation unleashed toppled regimes across Europe and ushered in this new age. The most famous example of these energies was the levee en masse, which was a national draft. For the first time a European army was made up of masses of conscripts, rather than small professional armies, and these conscripts fought because they wanted to, not because they were forced to.
Today, I would like to set up this emergence of nationalism as a backdrop for understanding the emergence of Germany. We saw last time how Germany and other European countries reacted to Napoleon, reorganizing and resisting the French occupation until the bitter end, when allied troops finally entered Paris. We also saw, however, how complicated the situation was in Germany, as some regions in Germany used Napoleon’s arrival to enlarge their own territories at their neighbors’ expense. One famous example of this was Prussia, which in the Peace of Basle in 1795, swallowed many smaller neighbors, while also agreeing to French annexation of territories to the left of the Rhine.
The situation is no less complex when it comes to German reactions to the French Revolution and Napoleon. To put it in a word, the thing to remember about these German reactions is diversity. Initially, many Germans were in favor of the Revolution, seeing it as a justified reaction to the monarchy’s mismanagement. Some Germans took this notion a little further, advocating Revolutionary reform in Germany. Other Germans were against the Revolution from the beginning. Whatever their disposition toward the French Revolution most Germans agreed that it would be best were it to stay over there. The belief that it should stay over there became even firmer, when the Revolution turned violent and aggressive in 1792. Many Germans felt betrayed by the Revolution and they saw Napoleon’s coup in 1799 as a hopeful moment, a moment when sanity might return to France. They were disappointed, of course, as Napoleon’s further exportation of the French Revolution brought war, destruction, and heavy taxation to Germany. Based on what I said in the last lecture, you can see not only why there was ultimately a negative reaction to Napoleon but also why it was so deep.
Now I want to bring together the problem of the reaction in Germany with the problem of nationalism. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods in France encouraged the development of a German national consciousness. This process has two important aspects. First, Germans began to discover themselves as a group both in opposition to France and independently. This was important because it provided the foundation for the later agitation for a German nation-state, about which I will say more in a later lecture. Second, this self-discovery by Germans also allowed others to see Germany in a new light. By 1800, for the first time other Europeans began to see Germany as more than just a vague region on the map and recognized Germany as an important cultural zone, a place whose thought and art had to be taken seriously.
Let us try to understand these broad processes concretely. Much of the initial German enthusiasm for both the French Revolution and then Napoleon dissipated when the costs started to add up. It was true that Napoleonic reforms in the north and west of Germany brought significant advantages to many people. (German Jews were, for example, completely emancipated from Old Regime restrictions on their lives.) But these advantages were largely long-term, as they brought future economic development. The short-term problems were, however, rooted in immediate costs, and these were very great. For example, in the two years after France defeated Prussia at the battle of Jena in 1805, the French state extracted from Germany approximately 600 million francs. If we subtract the costs of the campaign itself, the French made a 350 million franc profit on their invasion. To give you an idea for how much wealth this represented at the time: 350 million francs equaled half of France’s total state income in 1807. When you add to this number the destruction of the wars, the conscription of German men into the French army, and the plundering of German cultural treasures, it becomes easy to see why between 1807 and 1812 the German populace tended toward sullenness and anger at French occupation. When the final break with France did come, the moment was invested with almost a decade of pent-up hatreds and grievances.
German writers of the period helped to focus much of this anger against the French occupation by exploiting the public sphere. You may have heard this term public sphere before, but let me give you an idea of what the term means. The eighteenth-century public sphere had two aspects. One was the development of a print market, that is there were people who wanted to read things and there were authors willing and able to produce them. The other is the development of what we call sociability, that is the tendency of people to join together in organizations, such as private clubs, salons, academies, and Freemasonic lodges. Beginning already at the end of the seventeenth century in particularly in England, print and sociability eventually extended all across Europe.
Professional writing was still relatively new to the German scene. Only from about 1750 on can we talk about the emergence of a German public sphere, as a critical mass of readers and writers came together to read and discuss the latest events, both political and cultural. This rise of the German public sphere is, however, very rapid, as literally hundreds of writers appear over the next fifty years, putting in the process German letters on the map. This was an important cultural development, since unlike French, English, Spanish, or Italian, German was a relatively new literary language. Whereas these other languages had become literary vehicles, in some cases, centuries before, only during the eighteenth century did Germans purify their language. This included, among other things, establishing a clear grammar and inventing new words and concepts. For example, German very rapidly became the leading language of philosophy and aesthetics. You have probably heard of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is still considered one of the world’s most important philosophers. But you may not know that Germans invented the word aesthetic, and in so doing they opened up an entire realm of cultural production. Thus, before the French Revolution broke out, German had already come from out of nowhere to become one of the world’s premiere literary languages.
We should not, however, exaggerate the importance of this development. At most this new public sphere made up 5% of Germany’s population before 1789, so it was rather small. Magazine runs would number at most in the thousands. Nonetheless, this new sphere pointed the way to a different kind of politics, and this change bore fruit later. During the 1790s daily press circulation increased even more rapidly than it had before, numbering over 300,000 daily editions, with no fewer than 3 million readers. This change calls our attention to an important theme from the last lecture. Napoleon and the French Revolution brought change to Europe, but neither invented it. Many of the factors that would make the pace of change after 1789 so intense had long been in place.
I have been talking so far in terms of opposition and reaction, and it is important to realize that neither of these trends was new to Germany. The German cultural scene after 1750 in many ways already defined itself in opposition to French letters. Let us consider the small Duchy of Weimar, which became the cradle of what scholars now call “German Classicism,” that is the height of German literature. Duke Karl August and his mother Anna Amelia spent most of their duchy’s small revenues on cultural pursuits. Anna Amelia began the trend by inviting Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813), an important German critic and author, to be her son’s tutor. Wieland was especially noted for his journal Teutscher Merkur, an imitation of an even more famous Revolutionary journal, Mercure de France. After Karl August became the Duke himself, he followed the same pattern, surrounding himself with writers and artists. In 1775, for example, he invited a young Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) to join him in Weimar. Goethe entered the prince’s service in 1776 and worked for the Duke until his retirment in 1817.
Goethe is one of those historical figures who seems to stand above everyone else, so it is difficult to give a complete picture of him in a few words. What I want to do here is look at his attitudes toward the French Revolution and Napoleon. Goethe’s views toward the French Revolution mirrored that of many Germans. He was initially attracted to it, but as the Revolution turned violent and seemed to be run by the mob, he pulled away, mostly into his artistic pursuits. His views toward Napoleon, however, were different. He seems to have admired Napoleon personally, seeing him as a powerful individual, but he was always cool and distant toward the many changes that Napoleon was making. So even in someone as famous as Goethe, we find a microcosm of the contradictory reactions that Napoleon and the French Revolution inspired in Germany.
Goethe is also important, however, in this context for the people that his brilliance attracted to Weimar. In 1776, Goethe attracted Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) to Weimar. Herder is less famous than Goethe is outside Germany, but he is particularly important for understanding the process of what I will call creative reaction to France. Herder is considered by many to be the theorist of modern nationalism. During the 1770s and 80s he published a series of books that were critical of that traditional “enlightened” approach to the world. Under the influence of his teacher Johann Georg Hamann, Herder began to turn on enlightened rationalism, questioning the extent to which it could resolve all issues. He was particularly opposed to Voltaire (1694-1778), who he believed was arrogant and lacked any real feeling for culture. Instead, Herder turned to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), relying on his philosophy to search more deeply within people’s feelings for answers about human nature. After breaking away from a uniform notion of reason, Herder came to argue that language was the foundation of of all human experience. What this all meant was that each of Europe’s many peoples can only find true enlightenment in themselves and their cultures. If you want to find out what it is to be a German, you do not read French, you read German. The same went for Poles, Russians, Lithuanians, and every other people.
Let us consider another important personage that Goethe brought to Weimar, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805). Schiller came to the region to be a professor of philosophy at the nearby University of Jena, an appointment that Goethe had arranged. Goethe respected Schiller’s dramatic work greatly and brought him to Weimar to be part of this new intellectual community. Schiller’s work is notable for the way it turned on French literary models. Schiller redefined tragedy, for example, by emphasizing the individual’s difficult relationship to state and society. Whereas French drama in the eighteenth century had been concerned with love intrigues and philosophical debates, Schiller’s drama put the individual person’s feelings and conflicts on center stage. Along these lines, it is important to keep two things about Schiller in mind. First, he came from Wuerttemberg, one of the small duchies that did so well under Napoleon. The prince under whom Schiller lived during his youth was Karl Eugen, a nasty man who sold his subjects into the French military to pay for his extravagant lifestyle. Schiller never liked this prince, and he turned against Karl Eugen’s “French” court, because he had many mistresses and spent excessive amounts on money on entertainment. Second, Schiller found much inspiration for his work on Immanuel Kant’s writings. Although I can’t get into the details here, Schiller’s beliefs in freedom and the sanctity of the individual were rooted largely in his reading of Kantian philosophy.
I bring up Kant here because he encapsulates the divergence that we see between Germany and France at the time. Kant was the first person to emphasize the distinction in German between “Kultur” and “Zivilisation.” “Kultur” is roughly translated as culture in English, but it actually carries many more connotations. “Kultur” is deeper than culture, encompassing in German the sum total of any given people’s literature, art, and science. We can understand the distinction more clearly by looking at “Zivilisation.” Whereas “Kultur” was serious and deep for Kant, “Zivilisation” was merely fluff, nothing more than superficial banter. “Zivilisation” emphasized appearances over deeper realities, words over meanings. Although Kant was not quite as doctrinaire as some others would later be, in the German cultural context “Kultur” came to be identified with Germany and “Zivilisation” with France.
Before we leave Weimar and Goethe, let us consider another important aspect of this Duchy’s influence on German culture, the University of Jena. The Duchy of Weimar included Jena in its terriroty and during the 1790s its university became one of Germany’s leading institutions. The presence of Goethe, Herder, and Schiller attracted a host of bright young academics and writers to this university. The list of people who spent time there is a who’s who of German culture, including such people as the philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), and Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling (1775-1854), as well as writers such as the brothers Schlegel [Friedrich (1772-1829), August Wilhelm (1767-1845)], Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853), Clemens Brentano (1778-1842), Novalis (1772-1802), Friedrich Hoelderlin (1770-1843), and Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811). This collection of talent will be important later in this tale, but for right now you should keep in mind that these people represented the next generation of German intellectualls. Whereas Goethe, Schiller, and Herder had made their names in the 1770s and 1780s, the next generation would make its name after the French Revolution and especially under Napoleon.
With that, let me return to Napoleon for a moment. As we saw last time, Napoleon presented a mixed legacy to Europe. There was much to be happy about, and there was just as much to be unhappy about. What I have argued thus far, is that Germany’s sense of itself began to a large degree in a sense of opposition to France, which had already excercised a certain cultural hegemony over Germany. When that hegemony became political, it intensified this trend toward creating a sense of Germanness in opposition to Frenchness. This could lead Germans off in many directions. A very few went completely toward France, most eventually turned away. The young German writer Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769-1860) is a good example of the tensions in this world. After the French Revolution broke out he wrote, “that we owe an enormous amount to this wild and raging revolution, that it ignited a great sea of fire in the mind…It accelerated that process of intellectual ferment through which we had to go, as through our purgatory, if we wished to reach the heavenly gates of our new conditions.” After the ravages of war and occupation, Arndt changed his tune, however, writing, “I hate all the French without exception in the name of God and my people.”
Arndt shows us how volatile the situation had become in Germany. By 1806, there was a major surge in patriotism in Germany, particularly among the middle and the educated classes. This had already been apparent in Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s “Addresses to the German Nation,” (1807-8) a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Jena that extolled the virtues of German culture and decried everything that was French. This early response to France had many different variations. There were some reactions that was rooted in an older cosmopolitanism, that is the French were bad because they sought to suppress diversity. There were other reactions based on a Romantic interest in mythical German past. Fichte’s rants were an example of the latter variety. And then there were the belligerent war songs of Theodor Koerner (1791-1813) and Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), as well as the anti-French ravings of the playwright Heinrich von Kleist.
Against these harsh responses we must also, however, remember that there were some Germans who admired the French Revolution and especially Napoleon. The philosopher Hegel, for example, admired in particular Napoleon’s power, albeit from a distance. Much of his historical thought is an attempt to understand the power and glory of Napoleon as a general. Faced with Germany’s crushing defeat after 1805-06, Hegel had to find an explanation for this new phenomenon, and so he built an historical philosophy around this one man and the destruction he had wrought. In his “Lectures on the Philosophy of History,” Hegel referred to history as a slaughter-bench, and tried to explain all the blood and destruction through what he called Geist (Spirit), an abstract quantity that brought rationality and order to a chaotic situation.
Other great minds also admired Napoleon. Ludwig van Beethoven (1830) was in this club, although he later expressed his disillusionment with Napoleon’s authoritarianism. Goethe admired Napoleon as well, although from afar. He was fascinated by the power of the person, but he could have done without the war and destruction. (Goethe actually met Napoleon in 1808, when the Emperor summoned him for an audience in Erfurt, and he seems to have walked away with a deep respect for the Emperor’s personal power.)
Thus, on one level, we have a mixed bag. There were as many views of Napoleon and the French Revolution as there were Germans. It is also true, however, that there was a general trend away from things French and toward things German. I noted earlier that this trend began before the French Revolution and continued until well after it. Let me offer Goethe as one example of this trend, irrespective of what the thought about Napoleon. In 1770, Goethe traveled to Strasbourg to finish a degree in law. At that time Strasbourg was still a largely German town, and Goethe became particularly enamored of the city’s architecture, particularly of its cathedral. Goethe held up Strasbourg cathedral as a supreme example of gothic German architecture, that is he found original Germanness, whatever that may be, in this structure.
The instinct that Goethe demonstrated already in the 1760s to find Germany in a mythical past was also evident in the school of poets later identified as the Romantics. Many of the central figures in this Romantic movement are those young people that I listed earlier as having come to Jena. Tieck, the Schlegels, Kleist, Brentano. These young writers combined many of the themes that I have been discussing. They turned away from French models of writing and emphasized feelings over reason. They emphasized finding authentic Germanness in the medieval past, becoming enthusiasts of anything medieval. They had their counterparts in England, where writers such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850), William Blake (1757-1827), Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834), and Robert Southey (1774-1843) followed similar themes. For all these young people, the French Revolution was a great event, one to be celebrated, or despised, but it in most cases t led to a new understanding of the self.
We have been looking at the way Germans gained a sense of who they were through their experience with France. Now let us consider how the French came to understand the Germans during this period. Before the nineteenth century, the French did not think much of the Germans. To them Germans were a sleepy, amiable people and nothing much of significance happened in their country. Paris was, after all, the center of civilization and since Germany had no Paris, there wasn’t much to worry about. The person who did the most to change this view was, oddly enough, a product of Old Regime Paris. Germaine de Stael (1766-1817) was one of the brightest lights in an age already glittering with bright minds. She enjoyed extraordinary advantages, being the daughter of the great banker Jacques Necker (1732-1804). Necker had left Geneva in 1750 to go to Paris and made such a huge fortune that in 1776 the King of France made him Secretary of the Treasury. Necker’s wealth and power opened many doors for the young Germaine. She received an extraordinary education and entered salon life in Paris at the young age of 12. By 13 she had started her own group. At 20 she married a Swedish noble Baron de Stael-Holstein, which supposedly completed the family’s pursuit of a noble title.
In spite of her pedigree, however, de Stael was a passionate liberal. She read Rousseau and welcomed the French Revolution when it arrived, remaining a political liberal for her entire life. This got her into some trouble later, however, when Napoleon held his coup and de Stael refused to change her beliefs in accord with the new situation. She felt that Napoleon had betrayed the revolution and said so. This got her exiled from France and she left for Germany, which received her with open arms. During her travels there she met many of Germany’s literati and struck up friendships with Goethe, Schiller, and especially August Wilhelm Schlegel, whom she made tutor to her son. She settled in Germany around 1808 and by 1810 she completed a famous work De l’Allemagne, in which she described the virtues of German culture in general and praised the German Romantics in particular. Napoleon did not like the book and had it burned, because it compared French culture infavorably with German culture. It would not be published in French until three years later.
De l’Allemagne and Mdm de Stael would eventually make it back to Paris, where both would exert a profound influence on French notions of Germany. In fact, De l’Allemagne dominated French notions of Germany the rest of the nineteenth century. For the first time, a respected French writer had taken interest in German literature and many other French people would soon do so as well, leading ultimately to important changes in the French literary scene. Most important from our perspective was, however, as I have already noted, that de Stael’s work put Germany on the map, as it were. Germany was henceforth an important cultural zone, a sphere the deserved watching because its people were doing new and interesting things.
In some ways the changes I have traced in Germany and France were due to the Revolutionary and the Napoleonic period, in others they were due to internal forces that drove German and French politics, respectively. The point to keep in mind, however, for future lectures is that these early divisions between France and Germany would have consequences well into the twentieth century, for it was the inability of Germany and France to coexist peacefully--to respect and learn from each other, rather than to hate and kill each other—that would poison European politics for the next 150 years.