‘Something Magical in the Name of Prussia…’ British Perceptions of German Nation Building in the 1860s

  • James Retallack
Part of the New Perspectives in German Studies book series (NPG)


In 1816, the Göttingen historian Arnold Heeren described the new German Confederation as the most peaceable territorial unit in Europe. He wrote: ‘He who knows history cannot doubt that the rise of a single, unconstrained monarchy in Germany would soon prove to be the grave of liberty in Europe. ‘1 In 1859, at the dawn of Germany’s unification era, a newspaper published not far from Gottingen gave voice to much the same particularist sentiment. It declared that the typical German

wants his own customs at home, his own traditions in his towns, and his own law in his own country. These customs, these traditions, and this law have become deeply rooted over many centuries in the soil of the individual tribes [Stämme]; they have reached their zenith in the dynasties and constitutions [that exist today]. History, in its bloody course, has erected boundary walls whose levelling could be accomplished only through a kind of biblical flood, a destruction of everything that exists, in which the rights of the German tribes would be trampled as quickly as would the rights of the princes.2

As Abigail Green has recently argued in her important book, Fatherlands,3 an awareness of cultural difference and respect for local distinctiveness within Germany were important and hitherto neglected aspects of small-state patriotism in the mid-19th century.


Occu Pation Military Occupation Inly Identi British Foreign German Tribe 
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  1. 1.
    Cited in Jonas Fliiter, ‘Btmdesrecht und deutsche Frage. Ki9nig Johanns und Beusts Vorstellungen zur Reform des Deutschen Bundes,’ in Verein fiir sachsische Landesgeschichte e.V. (ed.), Konig Johann von Sachsen 1801/1854–1873 (Dresden 2000), pp. 53–60, here p. 53.Google Scholar
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    Abigail Green, Fatherlands. State-Building and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Cambridge 2001). See also her essay in this volume.Google Scholar
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    See also Manfred Hanisch, ‘Nationalisierung der Dynastien oder Monarchisierung der Nation? Zum Verhältnis von Monarchie und Nation in Deutschland im 19. Jahrhundert’, in Adolf M. Birke and Lothar Kettenacker (eds), Burgertum, Add und Monarchie (Miinchen 1989), pp. 71–91.Google Scholar
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    Typical of this mindset was a report in November 1858 documenting the new freedoms of press and association allowed under the current election campaign in Prussia: The elections ‘appear to be going on very satisfactorily’, the British chargé d’affaires in Berlin reported to the Foreign Secretary in London: ‘By this I mean that men of moderate views will probably be elected […) The whole thing appears to have got into a steady constitutional course’; Augustus Paget to the Earl of Malmesbury, 18 November 1858, cited in Frank Lorenz Mtiller, Britain and the German Question. Perceptions of Nationalism and Political Reform, 1830–1863 (London 2001), p. 165.Google Scholar
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    Discussed in more detail in James Retallack, “‘Why Cari t a Saxon be More Like a Prussian?” Regional Identities and the Birth of Modem Political Culture in Germany, 1866–67’, Canadian Journal of History, 32 (1997), pp. 26–55. See also Richard Dietrich, ‘Preuf3en als Besatzungsmacht im Kdnigreich Sachsen 1866–1868’, Jahrbuch für die Geschichte Mittel- und Ostdeutschlands, 5 (1956), pp. 273–93.Google Scholar
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    See the various contributions in James Retallack (ed.), Saxony in German History: Culture, Society, and Politics, 1830–1933 (Ann Arbor 2000), pts. 2 and 3. See also Siegfried Weichlein, Nation und Region. Integrationsprozesse im Bismarckreich (Düsseldorf 2004).Google Scholar
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2005

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  • James Retallack

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