Sunday, October 16, 2011

Germany and Paradigms of Society

This is potentially for a textbox in the philosophy chapter called "Living Together in Society."

The history of Germany these last two hundred years is an excellent example of how the self-understanding of a society can change dramatically in a rather short period of time.  If we turn back to the year 1800, what we now call Germany was part of a collection of around 300 relatively independent states spread out over present day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, etc (the Holy Roman Empire).

The almost one city countries of Luxembourg and Lichtenstein in Europe are left overs from that period.  Interestingly, even today the German cities of Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen have a somewhat independent "city-state" status that no other German cities have.  These small states are artifacts of an age when rule was very much localized and city-oriented under kings and king-like rulers.

Who ruled what was more a matter of inheritance and marriage than a bounded area of land.  For example, the king of England in the 1700s and early 1800s was also the ruler of Hanover in Germany.  Governance thus was less about where a place was as who its ruler was.  Marriage was a way of unifying kingdoms.  Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-96) was German, as is the current ruling family of England.

Meanwhile, in 1800 there were other forces going on in the world that were also working in Germany.  Both France and America had seen revolutions that strongly pushed the right of the "common man" to govern himself (literally) without kings in charge, a fairly new idea in history, even if the Greeks had briefly explored it a couple millennia ago. At this same time, the German Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) apparently invented the word "nationalism" and argued that a people's identity grows best out of its geography and language (not its rulers).  He urged people living in the Holy Roman Empire to stop speaking French and speak their more natural language: German.

Herder's fairly innocuous ideas on history had an immense impact on German history through others who built on his ideas.  Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) made his Addresses to the German Nation in which he pointedly made it clear that the French and the Jews were not German and did not belong.  They did not trace their ancestry and language to the Germanic peoples mentioned as far back as the second century in the Roman historian Tacitus.  Of course, those tribes had long since moved on. What we are seeing here is the invention of the German "nation" as a social construct.

The Brothers Grimm began to write down German folk tales that were meant to reveal authentic German identity.  This was the era of Romanticism (see chap. 14), and in part it played itself out in Germany with music like that of Richard Wagner (1813-83), who celebrated an idealized (i.e., socially constructed) German past.  Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) spoke of a zeitgeist, a "spirit of the age" that can reach a critical mass when a people comes to determine its place in history (see chap. 15). These forces climaxed of course in Adolf Hitler's (1889-1945) attempt to reunify all the areas he believed were German into a single people, as well as to expunge these lands of those he did not consider to be truly German.

The period since Hitler has of course been a rocky one for Germany.  After World War 2, Germany was divided into two countries, east and west, with the east under the control of communist Russia as part of what was called the "Soviet Union."  Two quite different understandings of society pervaded east and west.  The west adopted the democratic structures of the West and prospered.  The east adopted a modified version of Karl Marx's (1818-83) understanding of history (see chap. 15), where the end goal of society is for all property to be held in common.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the two parts were reunified in 1990.  All of Germany is now a democracy and one of the key players in the European Union, a collection of a couple dozen countries in Europe. Nevertheless, this situation is no doubt creating a new sense of identity for Germany, complicated not only by the fragments of so many different earlier perspectives but by a massive immigration from the east that will soon take over the population of the country.


Dennis Baugh said...

Very insightful post. Thanks. I've been living in Berlin for the past year and a half, so really enjoy learning more about German history. My wife is working at the US Embassy on a three year tour. Your blog is one that I read continually.

Ken Schenck said...

Glad someone is interested ;-) I wasn't sure if my German forays were of any interest at all to people back home.

It's been really hard for me to get around this "Schloss in every town" thing. I think I'm finally catching on my third time around...

Alles Gute for you and your wife!

John C. Gardner said...

My wife and I both read the German history. Keep up the good work this is impressive.