A.2. Previous History

A striking fact of the German state created in 1871 was its lack of religious unity, which was partly an outcome of the failed national centralization since the Thirty Years War. Whereas rulers in France, Russia, and England had strived toward, and nearly reached, religious homogeneity by siding with one church and persecuting other religions (often with great brutality), the Bismarckian empire contained about one third Catholics and two thirds mostly Lutheran Protestants.

To be sure, religion mattered less in 1871 than in previous centuries, but it still outlined deep cultural differences. The religious borders in Germany largely coincided with the lines of Roman civilization. A “Roman” part of Germany in the west and south can be distinguished from the lands that the Romans failed to control for long (the center, the north, and the old east – today part of Poland and Russia). The “Roman” part is predominantly Catholic and shares more with French culture than the others. Most non-Roman parts were Christianized and “colonized” only in the 8th and 9th centuries. Some of the eastern areas for centuries included Slavic settlements.

The German nation state of 1871-1945 looked back to the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne (ruled 768-814) as its first predecessor. But this state included almost all of today’s France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern Italy, Northern Spain, and Switzerland. Its center was in an area comprising the northeast of France, the south of Belgium, and the West of Germany. In 843 this too large state was partitioned into a western, central, and eastern unit among the three grandsons of Charlemagne. The middle empire was slowly absorbed by the eastern empire, which also expanded eastward and became a bulwark against invasions of Hungarians and Mongolians. The eastern empire called itself Holy Roman Empire (later adding: of the German Nation). It claimed successorship to the glorious Roman Empire and supported the idea of spiritual and secular power in one empire.

But no national conception existed until much later. The word French in the ninth century still meant a Germanic tribe (the Franks), and “deutsch” (German) was not yet used at all. Moreover, in its long history (843-1806) this first “German Empire” was never united. Its medieval emperors were wandering rulers with a limited bureaucracy and even more limited power. They constantly tried to stay on top of rivaling centers and dynasties, struggled with the Pope, and sought to mediate in numerous conflicts between cities and territorial states within their realm. A hereditary monarchy did not take hold, and the selection of the German emperor by the seven (later ten) electors (privileged princes and archbishops) became dependent upon the size of a candidate’s armies and foreign bribes. The house of Habsburg, the Austrian dynasty, became most successful at claiming the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor for their own family members, but internal and external powers always collaborated when the Habsburgs tried to impose tighter unity on the Holy Roman Empire.

The Reformation, started in central Germany, added religious fanaticism to the existing political and cultural divisions and inspired over a century of internal warfare. It ultimately brought more power to the territorial lords at the expense of the central authority. When it seemed possible during the Thirty Years War that Catholic Austria might crush the Reformation and conquer the whole of the empire in order to build up a more homogeneous state, Sweden, Denmark, and France intervened and revived the already defeated Lutheran states in the empire. The result was a catastrophe that left the German lands devastated and weak. The population declined in many areas by 40%, a loss comparable to the devastating plague epidemic of 1348-49.

The chaos of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War arrived at a time when the main European trade routes had moved west of the Rhine to the Atlantic coast (Spain, Portugal, Flanders, the Netherlands, France, England). Germany faced economic decline, worsened by the notorious rivalry of the small princes. Recovery after 1648 took a long time. Austria, profiting from a weakening of the Ottoman Empire, which had conquered most of the Balkan peninsula since the fifteenth century, did better than most other German states. Prussia, though a poor state, emerged as one of the smaller “great” powers in the eighteenth century through a thrifty state policy and the buildup of a well-trained and disciplined army.

While a united German statehood remained unattainable until 1871, a cultural notion of “Germanness” arose already centuries earlier. Much as the Reformation divided Germany, Luther, a genius of language, helped the consolidation and codification of a supra-regional German language. In the eighteenth century, the German speech area started producing a rich culture that compares well with the best phases of the older Italian, French, and English cultures. Germany became a center of music after 1720 (J. S. Bach and his sons, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert) and developed a powerful and poetic literature after 1770 (Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Hölderlin, and many others). Together with music and literature, philosophy (Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer) made the German speech area a foremost center of European culture. Even in the absence of unified statehood, one could call Germany around 1800 the “country of poets and thinkers” (“Land der Dichter und Denker”). At least in the heads of the literate elites, whether Catholic or Protestant, a notion of Germany did exist by 1800.

Go on to A.3.