German History: 1770-1866

German History

Sheehan, James J.  German History, 1770-1866.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1989.


Sheehan provides a survey of German history from the end of the Holy Roman Empire to the eve of German unification, exploring themes of culture, society, economics, and politics.

Author’s Main Arguments:  

“German history from the middle of the eighteenth century until 1866 must be,” Sheehan writes, “the history of the Germans’ various efforts to master their political, social, and cultural worlds, the history of their separate achievements and defeats, institutions, and innovations” (7).  This is one of Sheehan’s three main themes that run throughout his book. He divides the story he is telling (or more accurately, stories) into sections, arranged chronologically, with each section broken down into chapters, each devoted to a specific sphere: politics, society, or culture.

The tale opens on the eve of the French Revolution in a weakening Holy Roman Empire.  This is an important scene because Sheehan tries to convey the order of life before the nation or state.  Unlike nations and states, Sheehan says, the Holy Roman Empire did not command total sovereignty over its land or its variety of peoples.  Nor did it insist upon unquestioning allegiance.  “Its goal was not to clarify and dominate but rather to order and balance fragmented institutions and multiple loyalties.” (14).  This fragmentation is central to Sheehan’s book, reminding us that the Reich contained a vast number of languages, cultures, and political loyalties.  We also shouldn’t forget the religious and confessional divides that were prominent in these German lands.  “Most Germans remained locked in their insular worlds – or were forced to wander in desperate search of a world in which they might find a place.” (73).   Two of the main contributors of this isolation were the difficulty of travel and the “backwardness” of the communication systems.  Sheehan utilizes the tools of social history to try to recreate everyday life for people (Alltagsgeschichte).

The second and third themes of the book are as follows:  “This time period must also be the history of the emerging questions about Germany’s collective identity and its future as a national community.  Finally, it must be the history of the multitude of answers to this question which Germans formulated and sought to act upon” (7).  In other words, it is important to remember that it can be misleading (and sometimes difficult) to speak of a “German” history during this time period because “Germany” did not exist as a single political, cultural, or even lingual entity.

Throughout the work, Sheehan cautions readers to not see this story (or amalgamation of stories) as leading up to the creation of a German nation.  At each of the major signposts that German historians have traditionally labeled as “progress towards unification” (the Confederation of the Rhine, the German Confederation, the Revolutions of 1848), Sheehan attempts to show that each of these developments were not inevitable; he then deftly shows how (and more importantly why) particular events developed in the ways they did.  In other words, Sheehan is granting contingency to the history of “Germany” during this period.

For example – the role of the French Revolution, and subsequently Napoleon’s expansion into central and eastern Europe is usually portrayed as having a “liberating” effect on the German lands, Sheehan recounts, freeing the people from local forms of antiquated Herrschaft, which then allowed for political reform and consolidation.  The reality is much more complicated, Sheehan asserts.  In many cases, France may have been the ally or even the instrument of political reform, but in many other cases, German reformers tried to emulate France politically so they could defeat them militarily.  Ultimately, though, the end was that by 1815, the hundreds of German principalities had become consolidated into a German Confederation consisting of 16 large states (the largest of which were the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Empire) and 23 smaller states (387-88).

The next big turn would be trying to settle “the German Question” with either a “small Germany” or “large Germany.” In other words, would all German lands be incorporated (including the Austrian Empire), or would it be the core of the previous Holy Roman Empire?  Related to this debate was also the debate surrounding the political & economic reform of Germany.  These debates came to a head during the European Revolutions of 1848 – which in Germany manifested itself as liberals convening a Frankfurt Parliament, which sought to create a constitution that would grant the King (Frederick William IV of Prussia) his power (instead of divine right).  This failed and resulted in the “German Question” being answered by the “blood and iron” policies of aristocratic politicians like Otto von Bismarck, which called for a “small Germany,” run by Prussia.  Sheehan’s book ends in 1866, with the outbreak of the Prusso-Austrian war.

To conclude, Sheehan’s book reveals the multiple developments (bureaucratic and participatory institutions, economic expansion that increased industrial and agricultural productivity, and the rise in print culture that helped develop new ideas in philosophy, literature, and religion) all led to a transformation of the rule and procedures of everyday life and to an erosion of traditional values and institutions.  This did not mean that the powerful nation-state of a “Small Germany” was the only inevitable result, though (for instance the consolidation of the smaller principalities into firmer states after Napoleon could have made it more difficult to consolidate further into a single nation).  However, throughout the 900 pages, Sheehan shows why Prussia ultimately won and led the Germans to forced unification in 1871.


For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, German History | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “German History: 1770-1866

  1. tammygirl2

    I so enjoyed this.

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