Sunday, April 21, 2013

Central Europe in the Nineteenth Century

One can best understand the complex interplay between Germany’s cultural history and its political history by recalling that Germany first became a modern united nation-state in 1871. For almost a thousand years, German territory had not been a single governmental unit: it was a collection of small kingdoms and independent cities, each with its own ruler and laws. The whole area did share a common governmental structure inasmuch as it was all, at least at certain times, part of the Holy Roman Empire; but that provided no meaningful political unity, first because the Empire was weak in terms of the control it could exert on the local territories (the emperor more often pleaded for cooperation from the local aristocrats rather than dictating terms to them), and second because the Empire included other territories which were neither culturally German nor in any other way German. The Empire ended at the hands of Napoleon in 1806.

Lacking political or governmental unity, the area shared cultural unity. Indeed, the cultural unity was perhaps stronger and more valued precisely because of the absence of a common nation-state. Culture was one of the common bonds uniting the territory, and so Germany was then, and is now, noted for the great value which it placed and places upon cultural matters.

In the wake of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna sought to create a political structure for all of Europe, a structure which would lead to greater stability and better chances of peace. While the Congress of Vienna did indeed create a century of peace - interrupted only by two small wars, one of which would last only a few weeks (between Prussia and Austria in 1866), and the other (the Franco-Prussia War of 1871) lasted approximately six months - it failed to create a united German nation-state. Metternich, the Austrian diplomat who organized the Congress of Vienna, was a royalist, and suspicious of nationalism. Metternich thought that subjects owed allegiance to the monarch, not to the nation; nationalism’s emphasis on cultural identity seemed too close to democracy.

Germans - we may speak of ‘Germans’ and ‘Germany’ prior to 1871, remembering that it was a cultural and not a political identification - were in fact used to some degree of democracy, but only at local levels: primarily town councils. The Burschenschaften - fraternities at universities - were sources of nationalist sentiment, as were many poets. The seeds of the desire for national unity had been planted when the various Germanic states worked together to throw off the yoke of Napoleonic oppression. Historian Herbert Schädelbach writes:

In 1831, Germany consisted of thirty-nine separate states (including four free cities), which since 1815 had been united in the 'German Confederation' (Deutscher Bund): it existed as a nation only in the cultural sense. Constitutionally, the German Confederation was a very loose federal structure; its political character was determined by the double hegemony of Prussia and Austria, in which, however, Austria was dominant. The policy of Restoration followed in those years is still linked, even today, with the name of Prince Metternich, who in external policy too sought to make it the basis of the first European peace-system through the ‘Holy Alliance’ of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and later most of the European monarchies. Prussia had not yet become a constitutional monarchy: it was a military and bureaucratic state, centrally ruled by the royal cabinet, and without political participation by the bourgeoisie, except at the communal level. The character of internal politics was determined by the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, through which the states of the Confederation attempted to repress all democratic and national aspirations by such measures as banning the Burschenschaften (student associations), persecuting 'demagogues’, censoring the press, and so on. Numerous intellectuals were persecuted (for example, the ‘Göttingen Seven’) and driven into exile (Georg Büchner, Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Börne, Karl Marx, and others). ‘Democracy’ and 'nation' were the political themes of a politically immature bourgeoisie, which had been mobilized to resist Napoleon in the so-called Wars of Liberation essentially by the promise of national unification and democratic reforms.

The political and cultural nature of nationalism changed over the decades. Prior to 1815, its goal was to overthrow Napoleon and free the territories occupied by his armies. From then until the middle of the century, it took on a ‘liberal' or ‘leftist' tone - recalling, however, how greatly those two words have changed their meaning in the last century or two - inasmuch as they were linked to democracy, the desire for a written constitution, and limitations on the power of the monarchy. By the end of the century, nationalism became - if not ‘conservative' or ‘rightist' - a reactionary movement, a defense of the governmental status quo.

In 1848 there occurred a bourgeoisie revolution, which in Germany resulted in the defeat of the national and democratic forces. In 1849, the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, declined the German Imperial crown which was offered to him by the first German Parliament, meeting in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt: to him it seemed ‘tainted with the carrion-stench of the Revolution’. The most important political cause of the ‘defeat of the bourgeoisie Estate' was the incompatibility of the goal of national unity with the real configuration of power in Europe, which was in turn determined essentially by the political weakness of the German bourgeoisie: it was not emancipated or united enough to be able to realize the democratic demands on a national scale.

In play here are slightly differing concepts of nationalism, and the changing definitions of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ - so it was that the notion of a German Empire was proposed in 1849 as a liberal nationalist concept, and rejected by the royalists; by the end of the century, the monarchy would be heartily endorsing nationalism, and the liberals rejecting it.