Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Origins of the Modern German Nation-State

As a territorial nation-state, Germany is one of the youngest countries in Europe. Germanic culture and language go back thousands of years in history, but it was only in 1871 that the independent kingdoms and city-states were formally joined together in a political process. German unification had been discussed since the time of Napoleon - and even earlier - but a number of obstacles prevented it from happening. One question was about whether there would be a Großdeutch or a Kleindeutsch unification - a 'Greater Germany' including Austria, or a 'Little-German' Empire without it.

The earliest hopes for German unification came from the political left, but it would finally be accomplished by the political right. Historian Herbert Schnädelbach writes:

The subsequent foundation, by Bismarck in 1871 and under Prussian leadership, of a 'Little-German' Empire (that is, one which excluded the Germans of Austria) was preceded by a long period of reaction to 1848, marked by the imposed constitution of 1850 in Prussia and neo-absolutism in Austria, and by the period of what Prussian official history described as 'wars of unification' - the conflicts with Denmark (1864), with Austria and its allied South German states (1866) and with France (1870-1). As a result, Bismarck was able to have the Prussian King proclaimed as German Emperor in Versailles and without participation by the bourgeoisie. German unity was not established in the sense of the political demands of the years before 1848. The German national state was a result of a policy imposed from above, a policy, in Bismarck's words, of 'blood and iron', and this was also one reason for the rejection by many intellectuals of this solution of the national question. For the most part, the bourgeoisie made its peace with this 'Little-German' or Prussian Empire, which represented, constitutionally speaking, a compromise between absolute monarchy and the principle of popular sovereignty: the Imperial constitution was more democratic in several respects than the constitutions of the German Confederation, for instance in regard to universal suffrage.

The uneasy cooperation from the political left ended with World War One, and the Prussian monarchy was no longer in charge of the Empire, which then became a republic. As the left tolerated the Empire until 1918, the right tolerated the Weimar Republic until 1933. This internal tension was exploited by Hitler and the Nazis, who were neither traditional imperial conservatives nor Weimar-style leftists. Detested by both the right and the left, Hitler promised enough to both sides: "German nationalism" to the right, "Worker Socialism" to the left. The official name of the party reveals this insincere and internally contradictory set of parallel promises: "the National Socialist German Workers Party" - notice how 'national' and 'German' alternate with 'socialist' and 'worker' - a stew of rightist and leftist vocabulary. Both sides thought that perhaps uneasy cooperation would again be the best path. Both sides came quickly to understand that they had been duped - but too late.

Hitler's government ruthlessly stamped out any sense of a private sphere. In any meaningful sense, there were, after 1933, no private schools or private medical practices. The government either owned or extensively regulated industrial and banking enterprises. The freedoms which had been preserved under uncomfortable compromises - the imperial era and the Weimar era - were gone.