Romanticism and Revolt
For a long time many Germans justified and even glorified German disunity with the claim that the destiny of the Germans was to be the Greeks of the modern world—a nation composed of many states but constituting a single glorious civilization. Was not the great variety of political forms, even the struggles between the states, the secret of Greek richness and vitality in all fields?
To the very end of the eighteenth century, and indeed beyond it, the finest spirits of Germany took pride in being free of any feelings of exclusive German nationalism, to the point of ridiculing such in-bred sentiments. They considered themselves the spokesmen of humanity writing in the German language. According to Schiller it was the mark of a true German not to be solely and exclusively German, and not to be obsessed by politics, bur to live the life of the spirit. The historic myth of Germany was not that of a national state, but of the Roman Empire of the German Nation. As such it embodied the tradition of a universal empire whose values, obligations and interests transcended that of territorial Germany. Theoretically at least, the Germans were not the sole and undisputed sovereigns of that empire: if in some vague way other nations were under its suzerainty, they were also, in however nebulous and undefined a way, entitled to have a say in its destinies. In theory, a French king or a Spanish prince or anyone else could submit himself as candidate for the imperial throne. It was nor as Germans that the Habsburgs of Austria came into semi-hereditary possession of the imperial crown. They would certainly not have identified themselves as such. As late as the early nineteenth century, even so ardent a patriot and keen a reformer as Stein was prepared to call on Britain and other states to guarantee the integrity of the German empire and to share in the control of its destinies.
One stumbling-block on the way to unity was of course the division of Germany into Catholics and Protestants. The other was the special position occupied by the two most powerful component of the German empire, Austria and Prussia, which had spread their dominion over non-German territories, and had for generations conducted policies which had nothing to do with authentic German interests.
There were other important factors which made the Germans an apolitical nation. Most of the little states were so small and altogether so ludicrous—with their lilliputian armies, their aping of Versailles and their parish-pump absolutism—that they could hardly inspire pride or even respect in the more courageous and stronger spirits, or claim their talents for the running of the government. Hence political alienation.
If politics and patriotism could not claim the devotion and energies of the educated classes, things of the spirit could and did. This was the reason for the baffling contrast between the parochial character of a large part of German political and economic life, and the wealth, breadth and daring of their spiritual preoccupations and the universality of their intellectual interests. This dichotomy also had deep spiritual roots. Luther bequeathed to the German people the Pauline tradition, which Puts great emphasis upon the inner light and the life of the spirit. He is free who feels inwardly redeemed and free, even if he is a slave in the world; and a king or magnate in the world remains a slave if he is in bondage in his heart. While leading to introspection and thus calculated to give depth and intensity to the inner self—as it did in the case of pietism—this is a doctrine which, by deprecating the external world as irrelevant, may end by sanctioning it as it is, and bowing to the evil and tyranny in it.
Just at the moment when a spiiitual-cultural renaissance of extraordinary diversity and splendour was placing the German nation in the forefront of civilization the political disintegration of Germany became complete. In the wars between Frederick the Great and Austria, the last shred of a German community of interests had been torn to pieces. Then came the French Revolution, which for a while won the heart of every enlightened person in Germany, deepening the alienation of the intellectuals from their own states and governments. It is enough to quote only one case, that of Fichte, the future prophet of German nationalism. In the first years of the French Revolution Fichte was praying for the triumph of Revolutionary France over the troops of the German princes, and soliciting the post of a French professor at the University of Strasbourg in order to be able to win German youth over to the ideals of the French Revolution. He professed to feel a total stranger in his country of birth. The fatherland of the enlightened man was the country which at a given moment was in the vanguard of progress. The face of the free man was turned towards the light of the sun; and France was at that moment humanity's column of fire. In Germany, Fichte claimed, the current of events was such that within a few years not a free thought would be left.
The Napoleonic conquest of Germany, far from upsetting the German intellectuals, rather evoked deep admiration for the strongman, the new Alexander, who to Hegel was the World Spirit on horseback. The rulers of Germany fell over each other to submit humbly to the French conqueror, in the hope of winning some morsel from him.