State forged in war and peace

Germany's Two Unifications
May 20, 2005

For a nation to have to fight for unification once may be regarded as a misfortune; to require unifying twice looks like carelessness. It is not strictly true that Germany is the only nation-state to have been unified twice, as the editors of this thought-provoking volume of essays claim.

Since the Roman Empire, several European states, including France, Italy and Poland, have been through cycles of unification followed by disintegration.

Germany is, however, unique in having experienced national unification twice in little more than a century. It was possible for a family to live through both events in three or even two generations. For example, Karl Hugo von Weizsacker, who won an Iron Cross in the Franco-Prussian War and became a leading Swabian politician in Imperial Germany, was the grandfather of Richard von Weizsacker, President of the Federal Republic when Germany was reunified in 1990. The writer Ernst Junger, born 14 years after the first unification, was still able to record his reactions to the second.

Germany's Two Unifications seeks to compare the two events. The contributors - British, German and US historians, political scientists and literary scholars - examine parallels and contrasts between 1870-71 and 1989-90. The result is a unique academic collaboration to address a unique historical phenomenon.

The most obvious difference between the two unifications is the fact that Bismarck needed three wars between 1862 and 1871 to unite Germany, costing nearly a million lives in all, whereas in 1989-90 the German Democratic Republic disappeared from the map of Europe without a shot being fired.

Again, the first was achieved against the strong wishes of many Germans and even some of the German-speaking states, whereas the second enjoyed overwhelming popular support in both East and West Germany. Expectations also varied between the two. The first was the long-awaited culmination of a deliberate policy, in stark contrast to the suddenness of the second, which took both the leaders and the people by surprise.

This approach informs several of the studies in the present volume. The two editors, John Breuilly and Ronald Speirs, subject the concept of national unification to critical scrutiny. They conclude that "unification is a process rather than an event", too complex for generalisations. The diverse experience of the first unification was quickly assimilated into a dominant narrative of progress, whereas the second unification has yet to produce a consensus. That very disparity of interpretation is seen as a sign of political maturity, in contrast to the artificial uniformity of Bismarck's Reich. Toleration of historical pluralism, paradoxically, is a surer path to genuine national unity than the imposition of a singular narrative.

Johannes Paulmann tackles Germany's double unification using the key notion of "territoriality". Against those who agree with the philosopher Helmuth Plessner that Germany was a "belated nation", Paulmann argues with Charles Maier that the formation of the German Reich in 1871 was "right on time" for the emergence of a new form of nationalism based on territoriality. The reunification of 1990, by contrast, recapitulated the territorial model after globalisation had rendered it obsolete. Thus the period since 1990 has witnessed a structural crisis in Germany and the European states for which it had served as a paradigm.

However, Paulmann judges the second reunification to have been more successful than the first in promoting international stability. Whereas the first unification upset, in Disraeli's view, the balance of power in Europe, the new Germany promoted the integration of Eastern Europe into the looser framework of the European Union.

Laurence McFalls, a political scientist, compares German and European unifications in the light of Machiavelli's claim that all foundations of states are initially illegitimate, and Max Weber's tripartite concept of legitimacy, which he himself applied to Imperial Germany. The collapse of the GDR and the "democratic deficit" of the EU offer alternative case studies of the problem of legitimation, on which McFalls has illuminating observations, but he does not come to a definite conclusion.

A very different comparative perspective, in a more literary idiom, is offered by two Germanists: Stephen Brockmann, who contrasts the cultural critiques of the two unifications, and Rolf Parr, who writes about their various symbols and discourses. Brockmann sees parallels between the devastating critiques of Bismarck's Reich by Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacob Burckhardt and Richard Wagner, and those of the Federal Republic after reunification. Among the latter, however, writers of the left, such as Gunter Grass, differ fundamentally in the trajectory of their critiques from those of the right, such as Karl Heinz Bohrer, the editor of the influential journal Merkur . Grass saw the echoes of 1871 in 1989-90 as profoundly sinister, whereas Bohrer's key essay explained "why we are not a nation - and why we should become one". Alone among the contributors to this collection, Parr uses visual images - combining Kohl and Bismarck, for example - to illuminate the process of "normalisation" that accompanied both unifications.

The remaining 12 essays examine only one or other of the two nation-building processes, and I shall mention only a few of the most suggestive. Among the political historians, Breuilly's "Nationalism and the first unification" is a masterly study of the complex dialectical relationship between the competing nationalist movements and the Prussian state. He concludes with a useful typology of historiographical models of German nationalism in this period.

The chief obstacle to nationalism was not the internationalism of liberals or socialists, but the forces of conservatism, or rather of particularism.

Abigail Green, another historian, emphasises - in her analysis of German federalism in 1871 - the survival of the smaller German monarchies within the new empire - by contrast with the centralised system adopted by Italy.

This, she shows, "explains why it proved easier to make Germans than it was to make Italians". Erwin Fink, in his specialised paper on Bavaria, demonstrates how the Patriots' Party evolved from its original anti-Prussian political Catholicism into a bastion of the federal Reich and a forerunner of the modern European people's parties. James Retallack contributes a valuable account, based mainly on the reports of British diplomats at the court of Saxony, which demonstrates just how reluctant the people of one important German state were to embrace Prussian hegemony under the guise of modernity.

Intellectual and literary historians are most struck by the speed with which disillusionment set in after the first unification. Helmut Walser Smith finds a gulf between the dominant Protestant national consciousness and that of Catholic and Jewish "outsiders". The failure to integrate these subcultures forced them to develop a more critical kind of allegiance to the Reich. Elystan Griffiths, in her paper on Gustav Freytag, Friedrich Spielhagen and Paul Heyse, reinforces this point by charting the disillusionment of three emblematic authors with the provincial idyll that still persisted from the era of Weimar classicism. Instead, a metropolitan, anti-idealist style took over, influenced by French naturalism. Consciously or not, all later cultural critics are indebted to Nietzsche and his progeny.

By contrast, the intellectual ferment that preceded and followed the second unification in 1990s Germany was seen abroad, not entirely without justification, as provincial. Mary Fulbrook, who examines the role of nationalism, concludes that its role was not causal, but that it provided an idiom in which West German politicians could appeal to the East German demos. Nationalist sentiments left the intellectual elites on both sides of the Berlin Wall bewildered and often angry. Corey Ross dismisses the Historikerstreit ("historians' debate") of the mid-1980s about German national identity, which did little to prepare Germans for the actual nationhood that was thrust upon them in 1989. Michael Butler suggests that most of the fears that exercised writers on both sides of the Berlin Wall have not been realised.

I am not quite so sanguine. Though Grass continues to this day to rail against the "annexation" of the GDR, it is in some ways the Federal Republic that, in the sphere of consciousness, has been colonised by the historical amnesia that characterised communist ideology. A growing proportion of young Germans know little or nothing of the Holocaust. And the unedifying resurgence of anti-Americanism - an unforeseen by-product of reunification that is nowhere addressed in this volume - as a kind of ersatz nationalism is a reminder that Germany's double unification has bequeathed plenty of unfinished business.

Daniel Johnson has written widely on German history and culture. His essay "Who needs a 'new history of German literature'?" appears in the May issue of The New Criterion .

Germany's Two Unifications: Anticipations, Experiences, Responses

Editor - Ronald Speirs and John Breuilly
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 340
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 1 4039 4653 1

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