• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Way to the Wall

German History, 1770-1866

(The Oxford History of Modern Europe), by James J. Sheehan
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 969 pp., $64.00

Bismarck, The White Revolutionary, Vol. I, 1815-1871, Vol. II, 1871-1898

by Lothar Gall, translated by J.A. Underwood
Unwin Hyman, Vol. II, 288 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Bürgertum in Deutschland

by Lothar Gall
Siedler Verlag, 640 pp., DM58

Die Deutschen in ihrem Jahrhundert 1890-1990

by Christian Graf von Krockow
Rowohlt, 549 pp., DM46

Letters to Freya, 1939-1945

by Helmuth James von Moltke, edited and translated by Beate Ruhm von Oppen
Knopf, 412 pp., $24.95

At the end of his impressive biography of Bismarck, which was first published in Germany in 1980, Lothar Gall notes that it was during the period in which the chancellor dominated the political scene that Germany acquired its historical identity. This, he makes clear, has had unfortunate results:

The nation’s self-awareness still seems to be determined by the external configuration of the Reich as founded in 1871. Modes of behaviour, institutions, the way in which parties and groups see themselves and the terms in which social relations of all kinds are conceived still seem to be largely influenced by the traditions of Bismarck’s Reich, albeit in various refractions. Academic history is still focused primarily upon this period—even, in many instances today, in a peculiarly impassioned manner. Despite its often vigorous attempts at detachment, it is only rarely able, after a prolonged struggle, to bring itself to declare the period historically closed.

A striking illustration of this was seen after the Berlin Wall came down on November 9 of last year. When Helmut Kohl issued his now famous Ten-Point Program, the term that he used for his ultimate goal was the “reunification” of Germany, which all too plainly evoked the memory of 1871. In a notable article in Der Spiegel, Günter Grass immediately objected to the use of this term, arguing that it implied a return to attitudes and ambitions that could not be tolerated in a Germany that had just witnessed the first peaceful and successful democratic revolution in its history. That this had much effect upon people who still regard Bismarck as, next to Luther, Germany’s greatest man is doubtful. The authors of the books under review here would, however, be largely in agreement with Grass.


James J. Sheehan begins his important contribution to the Oxford History of Modern Europe by defining, as the essential character of the German past and the German present, its “diversity and discontinuity, richness and fragmentation, fecundity and fluidity.” Historically, he points out, what we call Germany is neither a fixed entity nor a state nor a clearly designated landscape. It has had many shapes and many histories,

histories that led Germans toward and away from one another, at once encouraging them to act together and making such common action virtually impossible.

This explains why German intellectuals are so constantly preoccupied with the national identity, which they never seem to be able to define to their own satisfaction, why German poets either bemoan the physical and moral fragmentation of their country, as Hölderlin did in his novel Hyperion, or make legends out of such rare demonstrations of unity as “the days of 1914,” and why German historians wrangle so interminably over the continuities and discontinuities in their past and present.

For the non-German chronicler this presents a formidable challenge, but Sheehan has risen to it successfully, in a book that will certainly become the standard account of German history from the end of the eighteenth century, when the only bond between the German states, aside from language, was the Holy Roman Empire, until the Prussian victory over Austria at Königgrätz in 1866, which opened the way to the political unification of all non-Austrian Germany five years later. Its distinctive features are the even-handedness of its political chapters, where Sheehan tells us a great deal about the lesser states, which is not usual in a general history, and studiously avoids following the tradition, set by Heinrich von Treitschke, of seeing everything from the Prussian perspective. The book is also notable for the attention it gives to the changing nature of the social order, to classes and elites, and to economic growth and its effects, and, finally, the emphasis on the German mind and the emergence of what Sheehan calls a literary culture. There are perceptive treatments of such standard subjects as the German enlightenment, or Aufklärung, the romantic movement, and the first stirrings of nationalism. The sections devoted to the nineteenth century have splendid chapters on the cultural establishment and its critics, the growth of participatory politics, and the fashions, manners, and values of bürgerliche culture.

At the end of the eighteenth century, where Sheehan begins his story, the political disunity of the German states seemed part of the natural order, sanctioned by the Westphalia settlement of 1648, which equated “German liberties” with territorial atomization, and supported by the self-absorption of the princes and the political inertness of the mass of the people. In 1793, when some German governments began to fear that the revolution in France might inspire imitation in Germany, Adolf Freiherr von Knigge, author of a famous treatise on manners and social conduct but also an astute political observer, wrote an article to explain why these concerns were groundless. He asserted confidently that the German governments were not harsh enough to provoke rebellion by a populace “grown accustomed to a certain degree of poverty and domination,” and that the prevailing fragmentation of the land would render any rising ineffective even if it did occur. In addition, there was no German equivalent of the Third Estate that had energized the revolution in France, for what passed for a Third Estate in Germany was composed largely of bureaucrats, court officials, contractors, lawyers, and physicians, and other persons who were committed to the existing order. Finally, the common people were more sensible, more suffused with “a reasonable religiosity,” less likely to be led astray by “adventurous spirits,” and less spoiled by the “corruptions of enlightenment”—the last a shrewd comment, for, in truth, the Aufklärung had been restricted in scope in Germany and had had more moral and less political content than in the West.

Sheehan points out that it did not seem to occur to Knigge that the French Revolution might become militant and invade Germany and that, when it did, it would bring many changes with it. This, of course, is what happened, with the result that centralizing tendencies already characteristic of the internal administration of some of the German states were now extended, with French encouragement, to the map of Germany in general, as imperial fiefdoms and ecclesiastical holdings and other petty states were absorbed by their larger neighbors. By the end of the Napoleonic period, the number of German states, over two hundred and fifty in the eighteenth century, had been greatly reduced, and some of them significantly modernized by French administrative practices. More important perhaps was the fact that during the years of French domination and the struggle for liberation a sense of national identity was born. Its origins lay in the prerevolutionary period, when writers like Herder and Lessing strove to create a truly national literature and did so, not least of all, as Sheehan notes, by “contrast[ing] the authenticity and depth of their language and values with the shallow artificiality of French culture and its admirers among the court aristocracy.”

During the revolutionary and Napoleonic period, this struggle of cultures became more intense, and some writers began to politicize it and to dream of a future united Germany. Friedrich Ernst Schleiermacher wrote to Friedrich Schlegel that his

greatest wish after liberation [was] for one true German Empire, powerfully representing the entire German folk and territory to the outside world, while internally allowing the various Länder and their princes a great deal of freedom to develop and rule according to their own particular needs.

Ernst Moritz Arndt devised a scheme for a single monarchical state with its own army, laws, and representative institutions.

These products of the literary imagination did not impress the peacemakers who gathered in Vienna in 1814 and 1815. In the interests of the European balance of power, they left Germany divided between the two great monarchies of Austria and Prussia, the kingdoms of Saxony, Hanover, Württemberg, and Bavaria, the grand duchies of Baden and Hesse, the free cities of Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, and Frankfurt, and twenty-seven other assorted principalities and duchies, bound together in a German Confederation, which performed a more symbolic than practical function. This disappointed advocates of more effective national cohesion, and one of them, Wilhelm von Humboldt, said in 1815:

It will never be possible to stop Germany from wanting to be One state and One nation; the inclination, if not towards unity, at least towards some kind of association remains…in every heart and mind.

In the years of general political reaction that followed the Vienna Congress, this prediction was borne out, as the national idea was taken up by returning war veterans and university students, and the growing number of people in the political public who began to call themselves liberals and think of themselves as standing for progress, movement, and the forces of history, and as representing the true interests of the German Volk. The 1830s and 1840s saw the creation of networks of reform-minded leaders and rudimentary political parties; and these were galvanized by the social and economic problems of the 1840s and encouraged by the march of liberalism abroad, in Switzerland and in France and elsewhere, to try to achieve both political liberties and national unity by revolution. That they did not succeed was not owing, as has often been said, to innate passivity or failure of will. Once more the problem lay in the fragmentation of the land. Sheehan writes:

Many Germans were ready and willing to act politically, even at considerable risk, but they could not find ways of channelling their acivities into organizations powerful enough to win decisive victories over the existing order. Political debates about goals and strategies, social conflicts, religious and regional differences fractured popular forces into competing groups. Moreover, these divisions coexisted with, and were often reinforced by, the divisions created by diverse patterns of political life within the various states.

Rudolf Haym, the biographer of Hegel, spoke of the decade of the 1850s that followed as a period “which has learned to renounce poetic illusions and romantic confusions,” and “sees itself surrounded by unresolved contradictions and complicated practical tasks.” It was no coincidence that in the 1850s, when the term Realpolitik was invented to describe the politics of a new breed of statesmen, many of the young idealists of 1848 turned from politics to business, that the performance of the economy became, as Harold James has written, “crucial to Germans’ view of themselves,”1 and that Gustav Freytag’s novel Debit and Credit became a runaway best seller. Politics now reverted to such people as Felix zu Schwarzenberg, the Austrian premier who suppressed the Hungarian Revolution, and Cavour and Bismarck, practical men who saw in the weakening of the international system after 1848 opportunities which, if seized, would increase their own power and that of the state they served, and who possessed the skills appropriate to a new age of blood and iron. German politics now became increasingly polarized, and ineluctably the clash of arms between Austria and Prussia drew on.

  1. 1

    Harold James, A German Identity, 1770–1990 (Routledge, 1989), p. 216.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print