Enlightened Nationalism

Levinger

Levinger, Matthew.  Enlightened Nationalism: the Transformation of Prussian Political Culture, 1806-1848.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Levinger’s book explores how conservatives and reformers alike tried to define Prussian, and perhaps German, identity in the face of pressure from France as well as unrest from within.  The story of these four decades that emerges from Levinger’s work is not one of strong disagreement and infighting.  Instead, consensus exemplifies the overall mood; both reformers and reactionaries held political harmony as the goal of any development.  There were three main reasons for the perceived need for harmony: the ideals of the Enlightenment, French aggression, and the absence of a single nation state (228-229).

Levinger shows that the terms “conservative” and “reformer” may be too simple to describe the forces that were trying to stabilize Prussia after Napoleon’s conquest and later ousting.  He shows that all aristocrats were not necessarily against representative assemblies, nor were all reformers against the monarchy.  In fact, the goal of both sides was political harmony through “Enlightened nationalism,” which would allow a peaceful coexistence of nation and monarchy (229).  One would assume that such a coexistence would require dramatic compromise on the part of both conservatives and liberal reformers.  But Levinger shows that both sides envisioned a rationalized monarchy that coexisted with an Enlightened, educated populace.  In this sense, nationalism was not anti-monarchy, because the Enlightened nation was to be organized for the king, not against him (229).  Indeed, what both sides strived for was an “enlightened nationalism,” where nationalism referred to the Prussian leadership’s plan to mobilize the whole population, and enlightened refers to an emphasis on Bildung and state rationalization as a means to that end.  Dedication to this Enlightenment Bildung is an important part of Levinger’s book, and he demonstrates that both reformers and reactionaries were dedicated to the establishment of an Erziehungsstaat.

The presence of the French forces also plays a vital role in Levinger’s story.  For, when one was under foreign rule, one had to speak of national interests, not just the selfish interests of one’s own estate (94).  The political leaders wanted to invigorate the people against the French, but didn’t want to give up the traditional hierarchies.  This forced both the monarchy and the landed aristocrats to confront the notion of nationalism – and what form German nationalism should take.

Methodologically, he explores political discourse and its implications, showing that “words have consequences” (93), and sometimes unintended ones at that.   As the aristocracy campaigned for civic freedoms and Bildung to achieve their own goals, these ideals spread to other estates where they worked against the supremacy of the aristocracy.  Moreover, Levinger reveals the direct interaction of discourse and action by showing how the discourses of the Enlightenment ideals limited the actions that political actors could potentially take.  For example, the Enlightenment ideal of harmony would not allow serious reformers to undertake radical action, which would create chaos (225).

Ultimately, the liberal revolutions of 1848 failed because the understanding of the German “nation” was too contested and therefore could not stand against a united, conservative will.  But I wonder how much of a failure 1848 could be, in Levinger’s terms, if both sides had the same goal (rational monarchy & enlightened populace), because, as he states, in 1848, Wilhelm II decreed a constitution, and Prussia became a constitutional monarchy.

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

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