German History in Modern Times: Four Lives of a Nation


Hagen, William W.  German History in Modern Times:  Four Lives of a Nation.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.


Hagen’s work is meant to be a survey of German history from the Holy Roman Empire until the present.  It addresses the question of nationality, which is central to modern German history.  Additionally, the book is arranged more thematically than chronologically, thus perhaps avoiding a teleological impression of German history as leading to the foundation of a German nation in 1871.

Summary & Author’s Main Arguments:

Throughout the text, Hagen confronts a question that rests at the core of modern German history:  can one speak of a “German history” before a single entity known as “Germany” ever existed?  Indeed, this is a pertinent question for all historians.  Hagen concludes that one can actually speak of four German nations throughout history (which may stand in contrast to the book’s subtitle “Four lives of a Nation” which hints that he’s studying four epochs of the same nation).  His categorization of these four nations is also different than past historians’ categorization of the Germans’ past.

The first nation is the era of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and runs right up to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.  Hagen stops this period before the official end of the Holy Roman Empire because he feels that the French Revolution actually caused a new surge of self-understanding among the German peoples that predated the HRE’s official end in 1806.  Despite his assertion that the HRE was not a national monarchy (like that of England or France), Hagen justifies considering the HRE as one of Germany’s four national lives by claiming that “Premodern nations were political communities, not ethnic-linguistic or populist” as would define later, “modern” nation states (19).  Moreover, the polycentric entity came to called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and this expression of consciousness by the German peoples that they were living in a political nation is enough to justify considering this a “German nation.”

The second nation spans the years from 1789 to 1914.  Interestingly enough, this chronology glosses over several dates that historians have considered important in the formation of the German nation:  1806 – the end of the HRE and the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine, 1815 – the defeat of Napoleon, the consolidation of German principalities and the forging of the German Confederation, and perhaps most importantly, 1871 – the forging of the German Reich, the supposed “answer” to the German Question.  This, Hagen argues, signifies that the multiplicity of German peoples (and their ideas of what constituted “Germanness”) did not simply converge into one national identity in the face of Napoleon, nor by consolidating into the German Confederation (which was still dominated by the Prussian and Austrian monarchies), nor was it settled by the kleindeutsch that resulted in the first “official” German nation in 1871.  All saw nationalism as “the political mobilization and enfranchisement of the whole people (however defined) on the premise (however fictive) of their kinship through language, culture, and history,” and that nationalism was “the most indispensable and potentially the strongest, if also most explosive, social cement” (95).  But the question remained:  whose nationalism should ultimately prevail?  This “nation,” then, was one characterized by a multitude of “competing German nationalisms” (including conservative monarchists, social democrats, and Marxist working party movements).

The third “national life” consisted of an age of chaos, war, dictatorship and genocide (1914-1945).  During this stage, Germans are pitted in wars against each other and against most of the world.  Both the German Reich and imperial Austria-Hungary vanish as the harbingers of German national identity, thus revealing the inadequacy of the solution to the German question forged back in 1871.  Democratic republics are installed into the two largest German nations, but these fail and the world witnesses a resurgence of something resembling the Holy Roman Empire (a confederation of all German lands in Europe under one rule: Hitler).  This epoch ends in shattered identities and political maps that no longer showed “Germany” on them.  This national life, Hagen argues, shows that any story of German history cannot be a teleological one of nationalism’s triumph, but instead depicts a nationalism that destroyed all collective identities that previous Germans had pieced together.

The fourth nation is one of where a single German identity is impossible (even in name), for two German nations existed (three, if one includes Austria, which Hagen does).  1945-1989 was a period in which outside nations forced (or at least strongly pressured) particular identities onto a people who felt they had no nation of their own (which was official true, particularly in the years directly following the end of WWII).  East and West Germany were at first governed directly by the Allied Victors, and only as time went on were they able to assume more political sovereignty. German Austrians were forced to take on an identity that refuted Hitler’s National Socialism, which so many had welcomed with the Anschluss of 1938.

Hagen ends by suggesting the emergence of a new, fifth German nation: a (re)united Germany, beginning in 1990 (but, still separate from Austria, which, up until this point played a vital role in Hagen’s book – one wonders his thoughts on the fact that “the Germans” remain in two nations: Austria, and the Federal Republic of Germany – or would he argue that the Fed. Republic is now “the” German nation, the seat of German identity, while Austria has now produced a specific “Austrian” identity that trumps any ties to a larger “German” one?)

Concluding Comments & Questions:

Hagen’s work effectively steers readers away from a traditional national history of Germany, though questioning the concept of nation remains central to the study.  In fact, by questioning “nation” and offering a new understanding of the concept, I feel that Hagen makes good on his word to reveal a new understanding of the German past.   He avoids forcing our modern concept of “nation” onto the past peoples, and is therefore able to recreate four “nations” as they were viewed by their contemporaries.

In this sense, Hagen places a fair emphasis on the importance of consciousness, or awareness, in history.  What a people thinks it is, is more important than our technical definitions and classification system of today.  Through this realization, Hagen is able to explain why and how local identities (instead of national ones) remained prevalent through most of German history.  “Identities reflected local neighborhoods and dynasties, and political loyalties were dynastic, not ethnic” (36-39).   He also adds that “National identities remained in the realm of culture.”  This shows that in different spheres of life, different notions of identities and nationalism can reign simultaneously.

On a historiographical note, Hagen’s work resembles Sheehan’s German History, in that it 1) places emphasis on the multitude of German identities that existed at any given time; 2) constantly reminds readers of the contingency of historical processes.  Both Hagen and Sheehan caution readers against viewing German history as going inevitably towards unification in 1871, or towards National Socialist genocide of the Third Reich.  Though, they have to balance this need to show contingency with the need to explain why these processes produced the outcome that they did.

And lastly, Hagen situates himself against the notion of a Sonderweg.  A couple of points on the structure of the book:  Hagen doesn’t cite anything throughout the book which can be a little annoying, because it makes it hard to refute or confirm what he’s said.  Also, the inclusion of a large number of visual images is a strength of the book.


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

Categories: Book Review, German History | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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