The Birth of a German Nation

Map of Germany
The German nation as it is today. Lonely Planet-LonelyPlanet Images @gettyimages.de

Apart from being two nations for a while, Germany as a nation is relatively young - historically speaking. Well, our modern concept of “nation” as a nation-state is pretty new too, compared to social or ethnic concepts of grouping people or other conceptions of “nation.” Even though there was a geographical term called “Germany,” there was no such state in the beginning.

Up until the very early 19th century, the territories that make up the Germany we know today (as well as further territories) were subsumed within the Holy Roman Empire.

Even though the German name of the empire speaks of German nation (“Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation” - Holy Roman Empire of German Nation), it cannot be labeled as a nation in reference to what we call a nation today. The empire rather was quite a loose multi-ethnic compilation of different territories, ruled by different authorities, though nominally under the control of one emperor. But the Holy Roman Empire technically ended with the victory of Napoleon Bonaparte over the Prussian troops in 1806.

 

The French Role Model

As the people living in the German territories were quite late to the “nation game,” there was a certain drive among some leaders and groups to form a nation-state of their own. At the same time, many structures and institutions in the separate German regions were reformed after the French model. In the end, almost all territories except Austria were modernized and the feudal constitution was turned into civil law.

This situation under the circumstance of French occupation gave birth to a strong German nationalism that manifested in numerous different forms. Especially Prussia quickly turned into a state built on notions of nationalism. It transpired that the opposition against the occupation, a common enemy for all people, fostered rapid change in people’s thought processes.

Patriotic organizations sparked all over the territories, sometimes resulting in violent uprisings, but definitely creating a large movement of nationalist propaganda.

 

Napoleon: From Hero to Zero

In surprising promptness, the people in the German regions changed their mind about the occupation and furthermore: about Napoleon. When the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, most of its inhabitants didn’t really care about it – emphasizing that the empire can’t be viewed as a modern state nation, that is among many other things set up on the common appreciation of the people living in it (even though the truth in this statement could be debated for our latest societies). And though many people were welcoming Napoleon as he made his way through the Holy Roman Empire, only a few years later, they cheered upon his defeat in Russia.

But in the aftermath of the victory of Prussia, Great Britain, Austria, Sweden, and Russia over Napoleon in 1814, hopes of a German nation should not be fulfilled. As a larger restructuring of central Europe was not in the interest of many of the allies, the German territories remained a loose constellation. For a few decades, the drive for “freedom,” or a nation, was upstaged and the central parts of the German territories returned to absolutism.

Nationalists were quieted down and interestingly enough, this time, was the most peaceful period younger European history had seen so far.

 

The Birth of a Nation

But even in these peaceful times, several occurrences, such as extreme poverty, created unrest amongst the people. In their sorrow, many returned to the hopes for a nation, as a symbol for a better future. The notions of a “German People” ("Volk") and a “German Fatherland” ("Vaterland") had sunken into the common consciousness of the population but lived mostly as an ideal that could, if at all, be found in Prussia. Together with a growing literacy (and the simultaneously growing possibility to read), an increasing divide between the authorities and the people could be witnessed. The 1840’s brought the reinvigoration of nationalist organizations, a major economic crisis gave the decisive push towards the revolution.

The years following the German Revolution of 1848/1849 did not produce the German nation-state, as numerous people within the territories had hoped in vain. Instead, more conflicts and wars cropped up all over Europe. But it was the developments that led up towards the revolutionary period that sparked the idea of a German Nation. A development, that quickly headed towards two world wars.