For Love of the Fatherland

The Concept of the Nation in the Eighteenth Century

(Last modified Febuary 2000)

As early as the 18th century, texts on national themes were published in German in considerable numbers, including dramas about Arminius and the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest and other heroic epics, odes to the fatherland and soldiers' songs, pamphlets, broadsheets, sermons and letters about the Seven Years War. With these texts, the German speaking educated classes created an early discourse about the fatherland, a discourse which can be traced in the pages of a periodical first published in 1724, the first "Patriotische Zeitschrift" ("Patriotic Magazine"). With the appearance of numerous pamphlets during the Seven Years War, this discourse intensified and subsequently acquired a theoretical foundation a few years after the war's end in the "national spirit" (Nationalgeist) debate, ultimately reaching its peak with the advent of the Sturm and Drang movement in literature.

The visions of a unified and powerful Germany discussed in this study replaced traditional patriotic sensibilities for the German Reich around the year 1765. Although these visions did not yet include the concept of a nation-state and lacked general support in the population, the images of self and of the enemy inherent in this elite discourse were of great consequence for the development of German nationalism. The sporadic but repeated delimitation of an as yet nonexistent "German" nation vis-a-vis external (in particular French) enemies and internal (i.e., those who violated the code of bourgeois virtues) foes of the fatherland, as a modern articulation of the experience of difference, formed the foundation for early constructions of collective fantasies of identity.

Integrating sources and methods from historiography and the study of literature, Hans-Martin Blitz has written a comprehensive reconstruction of this 18th century discourse and opened up new perspectives on the hitherto overlooked interplay of aggressive and democratic elements. Scholarship on these questions has to date failed to do justice to the ambivalence of these early constructions of community, for while research on the nation conducted in the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on nationalization, research on patriotism has, since the nineteen-sixties, consistently and just as one-sidedly emphasized the de-nationalization processes of the Enlightenment. Looking back at the 18th century, in contrast, provides substantial evidence in support of a different perspective: modern nationalism, even in its earliest forms, is a Janus-faced phenomenon. This reassessment also feeds increasing doubts about absolutizing the contention that German nationalism had its beginnings in the so-called German Wars of Liberation (1813-1815).