Rainer Kipper. Der Germanenmythos im deutschen Kaiserreich: Formen und Funktionen historischer Selbstthematisierung. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002. 394 pp. ISBN 978-3-525-35570-1.
Reviewed by Tuska Benes (History Department, University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-German (June, 2004)
Cultures of Memory and the Germanic Past
Cultures of Memory and the Germanic Past
Did a passion for the past compromise German conceptions of nationhood in the Kaiserreich? A peculiar concern for origins and shared historical descent has often been blamed for a rigid and exclusive definition of German nationhood. As Rainer Kipper rightly argues, however, there is no necessary correlation between an active historical memory and a model of community that demands ethnic or racial continuity. Images of Siegfried, Arminius, and the primeval German forests could serve a wide range of ethical, political, and social agendas. In fact, the longevity and appeal of the Germanic myth speaks to its remarkable fluidity as a polyvalent system of historical self-description.
Germanenmythos analyzes this complex culture of memory from the Italian humanists who revived Tacitus in 1472 to the eve of World War I. After a brief retrospective, most attention is devoted to the transformation of the myth in the Second Empire. The author analyzes seventy-six historical novels from the period, as well as sundry letters, reviews, and academic publications. The literary commemoration of the Germanic past, he asserts, acquired new currency as the middle classes tried to stabilize the fragile identity of the nation-state. Popular novels such as Gustav Freytag's Die Ahnen (1872) offered a symbolic venue in which the diverse constituencies of the Kaiserreich found common ground. Only a distant and malleable past could absorb the competing and often divergent interests of the population.
Within this context, the book aims to explain the emergence of a specifically voelkisch veneration of the Germanic past. Why did an ethnic, quasi-biological definition of the German Volk come to dominate a culture of memory that once celebrated the virtues and freedoms of the northern forest? Kipper dates the onset of the Germanic myth to an early modern attempt to break with the political and religious legacy of Rome; through the Enlightenment the Germanen represented a bastion against moral corruption. His guiding question, however, lends a conventional touch to early nineteenth-century figures, such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Ernst Moritz Arndt. According to Kipper, this pair unleashed the first stirrings of "voelkisch" thought, sparking a progressive descent into "aggressive ideology" (p. 57) and a "materialization of the Germanic image" (p. 73). This trajectory is familiar and arguably anachronistic, and Kipper wisely complicates his contextualization of the myth after the Reichsgruendung.
More convincing is the transition Kipper traces from a national-liberal view of the Germanic past to a more directly voelkisch perspective in the early years of the Kaiserreich. At the heart of Germanenmythos lie four case studies of popular historical novels, each representing one of the Empire's main political milieus. The tribulations of a royal Vandal family in Gustav Freytag's Die Ahnen, for example, supposedly captured the author's faith in the progressive historical mission of the bourgeoisie. Freytag embraced an older, liberal view of the constitutional state and an idealist conception of nationhood. By contrast, the historical pessimism of Felix Dahn's Ein Kampf um Rom (1876) encouraged a "voelkisch avant-garde" who feared the dangers of ethnic mixing (p. 135). Two further case studies explore the ultramontane-Catholic and monarchic-conservative reception of the Germanic myth. At times, Kipper's literary analysis succumbs to repetition and likens a catalogue of images. Yet his productive melding of history and literature, even his discussion of the Germanic myth's "structural" and "functional typologies" illuminates an important process of national identity formation (pp. 202ff).
The most valuable contribution of the book is Kipper's insistence on the diversity of imperial cultures of memory. Literary portrayals of the Germanic past reveal a society engaged in a "secular Kulturkampf surrounding historical issues" (p. 356). As Kipper notes, voices of voelkisch radicals remained in the minority until 1914. And regional distinctions within the new Reich could often be elided with reference to the social and cultural diversity of the Germanic tribes. Nevertheless, to attract a popular audience and build consensus among readers historical novels had to appeal to a notion of "Ethnos." Kipper concludes that there was "no alternative" to "voelkisch remembrance" in the Kaiserreich (p. 181). The most inclusive definitions of nationhood cited biology as the common denominator uniting the German Volk.
The final section of monograph details three moments in the full-blown voelkisch culture of memory that emerged in the 1890s. Kipper shows the demise of a progressive national-liberal relationship to the past in the Bayreuth circle around H. S. Chamberlain, among political anthropologists, and in the Austrian occult theorists Guido von List and Joerg Lanz von Liebenfels. These figures solidified a view of Germanic prehistory that emphasized race, ethnic conflict, and cultural survival. All those tendencies that erupted after 1933, Kipper concludes, could be found in the Kaiserreich, even if the struggle to define the Germanic past had not yet been lost.
Kipper never addresses the Sonderweg thesis by name, although his treatment of the imperial period begs the question. How did the German invention of tradition compare to the historical memories of neighboring peoples? How did the public sphere of literary production and reception intersect with state initiatives? Similarly, Kipper repeatedly advises his readers that the Germanic myth was only one, and not the most prominent, of several cultures of memory in the nineteenth century. What propelled some authors and academics to seek a foundation for German nationhood in the Germanic tribes, and others in classical antiquity or the Hohenzollern monarchy? These questions remain open. But the remarkable breadth of Kipper's skillful analysis provides a rich foundation for further cultural histories of the Germanic myth.
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Tuska Benes. Review of Kipper, Rainer, Der Germanenmythos im deutschen Kaiserreich: Formen und Funktionen historischer Selbstthematisierung.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.