Germany, Idea of

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GERMANY, IDEA OF. The idea of Germany as a single ethnic and linguistic entity was created by German humanists around 1500. The form "German" (deutsch) was in common medieval use, usually as an adjective, rarely as a noun. The term "German lands" designated the post-Carolingian duchies of Bavaria, Swabia, Franconia, Saxony, and soon other lands as well. As a plural its medieval meaning was the community of German-speaking peoples as distinct from Romance-speakers (especially the French). As a singular term was needed, "Alemannia," "Germania," and "Theutonia," for which no vernacular equivalent existed, were used interchangeably. During the fifteenth century a new collective term appeared, "the German nation," which was borrowed from academic and ecclesiastical usage to designate the community of the German lands that bore the Roman imperium. The two terms merged in a title, "the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" (das Heilige Römische Reich deutscher Nation), first recorded in 1492. Their duality expressed the collaborative regime captured in the common sixteenth-century formula, Kaiser und Reich, 'emperor and empire', which distinguished between the monarch and the imperial Estates. In popular usage the terms could be interchangeable, as when Saxons heading westward said that they were going "into the empire." The terms "nation" and "fatherland" in both German and Latin could be used for a native city, district, or region, so that one could speak of the city of Basel as a "fatherland" and of a Swabian or Westphalian "nation."

"Germany" as an idea was created by the humanists around 1500. The key event in its genesis was Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini's (13801459) discovery at Hersfeld Abbey of a unique manuscript of Tacitus' Germania. It was brought to Rome by 1455 and printed in Latin at Venice in 1470 and Nuremberg in 1473. Its publication sparked the interest around 1500 in the deeper German past among an entire generation of German writers. Those figures who shared and nourished this interest included such leading humanists as Conrad Celtis (14591508) and Jakob Wimpheling (14501528), each of whom wrote a work entitled Germania (published in 1500 and 1501 respectively), and the Alsatian Beatus Rhenanus (14851547).

A single "Germany" (Germania) is therefore a humanist creation, and its vernacular equivalent (Deutschland) was fixed by the polemical writings of the noble humanist Ulrich von Hutten (14881523), who gave a new, political edge to the term that played an important role in the Reformation movement. From this time onward, "Germany" became a term current in both Latin and German. What and where this Germany was remained a topic for debate, however, and the geographer and cartographer Matthias Quad (15571613) concluded that "there is no country in all of Christendom which embraces so many lands under one name" (Sheehan, p. 40).

Between 1600 and 1800, the idea of the Holy Roman Empire began to be filled with the meaning of "Germany." The process advanced in two stages. In the first, seventeenth-century, stage the Protestant jurist Hermann Conring (16061681) stripped away the empire's claim to be a continuation of the ancient Roman Empire, contending that the Roman and Holy Roman empires had no common history. Meanwhile, he and other Protestant jurists denied the sacrality, the holiness, of the empire and searched for secular, utilitarian sources of its legitimacy that did not depend on the Catholicity of the monarch. Cartographers accepted and spread the new usage, which was supported by secular and utilitarian tendencies in philosophy, political thought, and jurisprudence. Once the confessional schism had been formally regulated by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Protestants in particular were free to examine the legal strengths and weaknesses of the polity, the Catholic loyalty of its monarch notwithstanding. The imperial chancellery at Vienna continued, for good reasons, to use the old formulae, less because of the monarch's piety than because the unity of the emperor's hereditary landsAustria, Bohemia, and Hungaryconsisted solely in their common ruler and his official Roman Catholic religion.

In the second, eighteenth-century, stage, cartographers and others accepted a new usage: "German Empire" in the place of "Holy Roman Empire." This shift expressed acknowledgment of a historical fact, the empire's loss since the fifteenth century of most of its non-German subjectsFrench, Italian, Dutch, and Slavic. While the empire as a whole had become an overwhelming German polity, the Habsburg Monarchy's lands retained their ethnic and linguistic diversity under a weakly articulated state.

Astute foreigners noted that the Germans were becoming more like one another. Baron de Montesquieu's comment about the German love of liberty inherited from the forests of ancient Teutonia and Madame de Stäel's about "the energy of their personal beliefs" attest to the growth of an estimate of the Germans far different from the old Italian and French prejudices concerning Germans' drunkenness, crudity, and belligerence. Still, the bewildering variety of the German lands and their pasts tempted both foreigners and Germans themselves to greatly exaggerate the unity of German "national" culture. Most of the important misuses of German histories in modern times have arisen from a desire to intensify or to frustrate a greater sense of German unity and nationhood.

Looking back on the empire of his youth, Goethe put this verse into the mouth of a student named Frosch, a carouser in Auerbach's Cellar at Leipzig (Faust, Part I): "The dear old Holy Roman Empire, lads, / What keeps its carcass going?" ("Das liebe heil'ge Röm'sche Reich, / Wie hält's nur noch zusammen?") A German historian recently provided this pithy answer: "In the beginning was Napoleon."

See also Holy Roman Empire .


Alter, Peter. The German Question and Europe: A History. London and New York, 2000.

Gagliardo, John G. Reich and Nation. The Holy Roman Empire as Idea and Reality, 17631806. Bloomington, Ind., 1980.

Sheehan, James J. "What Is German History? Reflections on the Role of the Nation in German History and Historiography." Journal of Modern History 53 (1981): 123.

Strauss, Gerald. Sixteenth-Century Germany: Its Topography and Topographers. Madison, Wis., 1959.

Thomas A. Brady, Jr.