Sunday, February 19, 2017

CastleTalk: Achtung Deutsch! The German Unification of 1871 and National Pride

The proclamation of the German Emperor by A. von Werner
Did you know that 146 years, one month and one day ago, Germany became Germany? Yep, "Germany" is actually a pretty new creation. The unification of Germany into a politically and administratively integrated nation state occurred on January 18, 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors at the Château de Versailles in France, cause, you know, the Germans really had to rub it in that they had won the Franco-German war. Almost 150 years and two rather well-known (world) wars on, this German still doesn't feel particularly German - and would never use the word 'proud' to describe it. But then again, the Germans' relation to their nationality has always been quite an odd one to begin with...

When you proclaim a nation state, it's quite handy to have a head of state. Problem was in 1871, that not even King Wilhelm I of Prussia was a particularly big fan of becoming the Kaiser fearing that the new title was artificial and overshadowed his title as Prussian ruler. If at all, he wanted to become "Emperor of Germany" but while there was now a Germany, the idea of having anything more than a German Emperor (instead of "of Germany") wasn't something the (South-)Germans could bear. In the end, Otto von Bismarck proclaimed Wilhelm as Deutscher Kaiser and that's what the title of the German head of state remained until the abolishment of the monarchy in 1918/1919.

The German language has brought about many great words: Weltschmerz, Kummerspeck and Kleinstaaterei. Literally meaning "small-state-ery", the latter one describes Germany for most of its history: Many small states speaking variations of the same language. While the highpoint was sometime during the times of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, which consisted of about an estimated 350 to 400 states, the German Empire was made up of 'only' four kingdoms, six grand duchies, five duchies (six before 1876), seven principalities, three free Hanseatic cities and one imperial territory.

Needless to say that most Germans didn't feel particularly German but instead remained what they were: Prussians, Bavarians, Saxons, Frisians, or whatever tiny place they came from. "Germany, Germany above all else" - an often misinterpreted line from the Deutschlandlied, the third stanza of which is the national anthem, actually describes the most important goal of 19th-century German liberal revolutionaries: A unified Germany which would overcome loyalties to the local kingdoms, principalities, duchies and palatines - or Kleinstaaterei - of then-fragmented Germany.

I'm not entirely sure how it was during the following years and the Third Reich. Germans certainly felt like they were above everyone else, after all they considered themselves to be the "master race", however, it seems that many still felt a strong association to their home region as well. I mean, what is German anyway? Put a Bavarian, a Berliner and a person from the Rhineland in one room and you will find that they probably can't even understand each other when they speak their native dialects. And a Bavarian and an Austrian will probably have more in common in terms of traditions and such than a Bavarian and a person from Hamburg.

One thing the years of the Third Reich certainly did was do away with most Germans feeling proud of being exactly that. If you would ask around, the fact of being German alone doesn't make me or any of my friends and family proud. Don't get me wrong, I like Germany, our culture, the mostly efficient ways things work here, the people - well, most of them anyway. However, I would not call it pride, more a sense of affection to the place I was born and bred and the things that make it what it is. Frankly, I think my association to my home region is stronger than to me being German. Yet, despite everything I dislike about Germany, it will always be home. It's the place where nobody looks at me weird when I rather turn up ten minutes early than one minute late.

Maybe that's pride for others? I have never once in my life - when there wasn't a football (or soccer for you Americans) match going on - carried a German flag or have shown any symbol of association with the national colours of my country. When I was a child, you thought people were weird when they had German flag hanging in their garden. If it was a flag of the federal state you are living in, it was totally fine - just not the German one. Being "proud" and "patriotic" were things associated with the Third Reich and its murderous nationalism. There were a few years inbetween, when Germans became less tense about it. It started with the World Cup in Germany in 2006 and ended with changing political climate seen all over the world today. 

In 2017, people who would vote for right-wing parties are the ones carrying German flags. You could even say they have won the Deutungshoheit - another one of the great German words meaning prerogative of interpretation - back. Or maybe most Germans have held it with Arthur Schopenhauer all along? "The cheapest sort of pride is national pride; for if a man is proud of his own nation, it argues that he has no qualities of his own of which he can be proud; otherwise he would not have recourse to those which he shares with so many millions of his fellowmen. The man who is endowed with important personal qualities will be only too ready to see clearly in what respects his own nation falls short, since their failings will be constantly before his eyes. But every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud adopts, as a last resource, pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and glad to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority." Pretty strong statement but it indeed holds a very valid truth.

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