Fatherlands: State-Building and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Fatherlands: State-Building and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Germany – Book Review

Andrew Donson

By Abigail Green (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xi plus 386 pp.).

The 1850s and 1860s are arguably the least researched decades in the history of modern Germany. It has not aided our understanding that the scant monographic work on the period usually frames its investigations around the failure of the 1848 revolution to modernize central Europe and establish a nation with liberal political institutions. This approach, which emphasizes the growth of repressive state policing and the preservation of conservative monarchies, earned the German states in the 1850s and 1860s the label of reactionary. Historians have long recognized the importance of the period for economic modernization but have assumed that political modernization did not keep pace.

Abigail Green persuasively revises this thesis in her authoritative, meticulously researched, and well argued monograph on state formation in nineteenth-century Saxony, Hanover, and Wurttemberg. By shifting the emphasis away from Prussia and focusing her compamtive analysis on the period of the 1850s and 1860s, she demonstrates how the mid-sized German states sought support from their citizens in policies involving railway construction, an official press, primary and secondary schooling, and cultural institutions like museums and historical societies. Most historians of state formation emphasize that these modern developments tended to forge national identities; Green shows that in Central Europe they in fact cultivated strong particularist identities as well. She draws upon Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of invented traditions to show that the notion that the inhabitants of these states were distinct from the Prussians and other Germans was a consequence of the modernizing policies of these three states.

In contrast to the simplistic interpretation that the post-1848 governments were purely reactionary, Green argues that the monarchs consciously reinforced their legitimacy through the creation of a particularist state culture in which the people participated. The ceremonies of German monarchs had been private in the early nineteenth century, but the desire to nurture the monarchies’ popular appeal in the wake of the revolutions led the kings to introduce more pageantry and pomp and to make royal ceremony more accessible to the public. With mass participation now made possible by the railroad, the monarchs increasingly organized state festivities that involved processions, public cheering, and flag waving. In sponsoring historical societies–in theory independent representatives of public opinion, but in practice financially dependent on the states–the states controlled a popular mouthpiece that advanced their particularist agendas and bolstered the legitimacy of their dynasties. By making public royal art collections in the new state museums, the monarchs accomplished this goal as well: They drew the people closer to the institutions of the state and showcased their generosity. States also forged particularist cultures among their citizens, with varying success, by encouraging them to finance the building of state monuments through voluntary donations. In Wurttemberg, perhaps the most successful method of creating a regional identity was the monarchy’s appropriation of the Cannstatter Volkfest. Special trains brought tens of thousands of people to this agricultural carnival, whose central event was the prize-awarding ceremony by King Wilhelm (now known by the folksy title, “the Farmer King”).

Another way the states advanced their particularist aims was to abandon their earlier policies of secrecy and to more vigorously try to control and influence public opinion. The states sometimes did this bluntly by printing their own newspapers or forcing editors of semi-official newspapers to take a pro-government stance. In contrast to research on Prussia and Bavaria, Green presents strong evidence that these government and semi-official newspapers were in fact very popular. Even more effective was the states’ requirement that many independent and semi-official newspapers publish anonymous articles written by their new press offices. As with the sponsorship of the historical societies, this practice created the illusion that pro-government opinion originated in the public. Though Green recognizes the difficulty in measuring the influence of schools on public opinion, she suggests that all three states muted the radicalism of teachers after 1848 by raising their pay and standardizing the curriculum. In Saxony and Wurttemberg, the new emphasis in the public elementary schools on the Realien (history, geography, and natural studies), which replaced the more conservative catechism, fostered particular patriotism and served as a source of popular legitimacy for these states.

In addition to these cultural policies, Green argues that the particular interests of these states fundamentally shaped the construction of the railways. This thesis challenges the view that the primary effect of Germany’s railway network was the creation of an interstate market that cultivated German nationalism and economic liberalism. In fact, the mid-sized states spent enormous financial and political capital to prevent the neighboring states’ railways from encroaching on their territories and stealing their markets. The states directed railway construction to proceed primarily from hubs in the state capitals outward to the border towns. Construction of rail lines from these border towns to cities in neighboring states met significant resistance because it siphoned off state revenue and made the inhabitants on the periphery less dependent on their own state. The design of railways intentionally hampered communication with cities in neighboring states that were sometimes geographically closer and consequently tied the periphery regions more firmly to the new cultural centers in the state capitals.

The author rightly recognizes that many practices and developments described in the book created a German national identity as well: Railways indeed linked the various states, citizens did build national monuments, and the Kaiser also used the pomp and ceremony to advertise his imperial role. But the author’s arguments, which she develops with far more subtlety and complexity than I can here, suggest that in the nineteenth-century German nationalism was in fact weaker than generally thought and that national politics were of less interest and importance to Germans than particularist politics. The book unfortunately did not address how regional dialects might have reinforced these particular identities. Its densely detailed paragraphs (some stretching over several pages) and its lack of an appendix listing the dynasties make it a hard read for undergraduates. But these are minor omissions. For scholars interested in nationalism, regionalism, state formation, or nineteenth-century Germany, this book is indispensable.

Andrew Donson

Marquette University

COPYRIGHT 2003 Journal of Social History

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