German Nationalism Discussion and Results

German Nationalism

Johann Gottfried Herder locates the origins of nationalism in nature. According to his perspective, the planet’s natural geographical evolution gave rise to different groups of “peoples” who developed their own customs in isolation from other nation-based identities. He identifies a nation as a “natural state” with a “character” of its own. If the state is well governed, then whoever rules it will cultivate it according to its own natural laws.

Besides nature, from which national character springs over a period of thousands of years, there is language that gives one a national identity. Herder declares language to be the heart of the people. Without it, he argues convincingly, there is no way for a nation to express its culture.

Above all, Herder’s conception of nationalism calls for the peaceful co-existence of nations under the guise of mutual respect for their individual characteristics, culture, and language. At the time of its publication in 1784, it was a version of nationalism, called “cultural nationalism,” that called for the acknowledgement of a strong German national identity as well as respect towards other, foreign national identities, without privileging one over the other. In that regard, it is quite distant from the negative characteristics one tends to associate with the term “nationalism” in this day and age – particularly the version of nationalism that came to be privileged in the 20th century in Germany.

Herder’s tolerant views on nationalism were firmly rooted in the thinking of the German Enlightenment. His thinking coincided with the slow development of tolerance towards religious minorities in the German states.

While this initially had more to do with economic and social considerations, Herder’s views on the subject endowed cultural nationalism with a moral, humanistic quality: “As God tolerates all the different languages in the world, so should a ruler not only tolerate but honor the various languages of his peoples.”

It is interesting to note that Herder composed these words three years after Joseph II’s 1781 Edict of Toleration. This Edict would give the majority of non-Catholics the right to practice their religion in Germany.

Thus, it is not hard to see Herder’s thoughts on nationalism as being firmly rooted in the progressive intellectual zeitgeist of the late 18th century.

The rise of education and literacy throughout the German Enlightenment helped cement the conception of a German national identity; by the end of the 18th century, nearly all books published in the German states were in the German language. Before, the vast majority of books had been published in Latin, and could thus only be read by the educated minority. The new views towards education and accessibility of ideas ensured a wider reading public for new ideas, such as those of Herder.

Herder’s conception of cultural nationalism was in some ways a reaction to the earlier predominance of French language and culture in the German states.

His idea was that every nation was an organic cultural community, a Volk, and should thus be judged on its own terms, rather than those of some other nation (in this case, France.) at the same time, Herder proclaimed his admiration of the French Revolution early on, as did many other German intellectuals.

Yet the progressive conception of nationalism that Herder espoused was to be marred by Germany’s continual conflicts with France throughout the first half of the 19th century.

These continual conflicts would eventually give rise to a more reactionary strain of nationalism. The evolution of German nationalism in the 19th century, rooted in a hatred of Napoleon by the masses, gave rise to fanaticism, which could be seen in every realm of the social, cultural, and political sphere – from the apocalyptic ranting of Fichte to Schleiermacher’s conviction that the German Volk were the creation of God and should be thus treated as their Maker.

Another barrier to the development of a unified German national identity in the 19th century was a strong sense of regionalism and patriotism on the local level. This was particularly true in the southern German states, which had benefited enormously from Germany’s re-ordering by the Napoleonic forces.

This resulted in many conflicts between nationalists (who typically belonged to the larger German states) and regionalists (who typically belonged to the smaller, southern German states.)

Perhaps the biggest impact on the development of nationalism in Germany was the occupation of all of Germany west of the Rhine by France between the years of 1794 and 1814. France’s occupation would leave long-lasting affects upon the German judicial, legal, and administrative systems, and cause on-going disputes between the two nations long after France’s occupation came to an end.

The year 1813 marked a turning point in Germany’s ongoing battles with France, with the former finally beginning to emerge victorious in battles against Napoleon, beginning at Leipzig. As a result of the Congress of Vienna, the German Confederation (Deutscher Bund) was established as a replacement for the Holy Roman Empire, which France’s domination had effectively destroyed. The German Enlightenment could now continue to develop outside of French influence.

It was thanks largely to the achievements of Goethe and Schiller, as well as a host of other notable Enlightenment figures, that Germany was to emerge as the nation of “poets and thinkers.”

But it also stalled the development of a uniquely German nationalism, in that many educated Germans and leading intellectuals welcomed the French Revolution – at least prior to their domination by Napoleon.

Even during the German lands’ domination by the French, Hegel and other prominent German intellectuals wrote admiringly of Napoleon. In this respect, there were certainly two different views of nationalism during Herder’s life and the decades to follow. Whereas the intellectual protagonists of the Enlightenment encouraged the German people to locate freedom and national identity within themselves, thus advocating personal development over what they perceived to be a vain conception of nationalism, a more extreme view was espoused by leading politicians of the era – namely, the supremacy of German culture uber alles.

Herder’s conception of the Volk was to eventually become co-terminus with that of the state. This would give rise to an even more virulent form of German nationalism. Such a transition, from a progressive cultural nationalism that called for a doing-away of the old guard and furthering the cause of the Volk’s constitutional liberties, to a conservative force bent on maintaining the status quo and oppressing minorities and dissident voices, would come to the forefront in the Prussian Germany of 1871 – and have detrimental effects on the subsequent development of German national identity in the century to come.


Blackbourn, David, History of Germany: 1780-1918, the Long Nineteenth Century, 2nd edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Fulbrook, Mary, a Concise History of Germany, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2004.

Kitchen, Martin, a History of Modern Germany: 1800-2000. Malden, MA: Blackwell

Publishing, 2006.

Modern History Sourcebook,

Fulbrook, Mary, a Concise History of Germany, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 87.

Herder, Johann Gottfried, “Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind,” in the Modern History Sourcebook,

Fulbrook 2004, 88.

Fulbrook 2004, 90.

Fulbrook 2004, 93.

Kitchen, Martin, a History of Modern Germany: 1800-2000 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 57.

Kitchen 2006, 57.

Kitchen 2006, 58.

Fulbrook 2004, 94-103.

Fulbrook 2004, 1.

Blackbourn, David, History of Germany: 1780-1918, the Long Nineteenth Century, 2nd edition (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 37-38.

Kitchen 2006, 128.

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