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Retracing the Sattelzeit: Thoughts on the Historiography of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras

  • George S. Williamson (a1)

The era of the French Revolution and the Napoleon Wars left a deep mark not only on political, social, and cultural life in German-speaking Europe, but also on German academic historiography as it emerged over the course of the nineteenth century. Both before and after the formation of the Kaiserreich, professional historians like Leopold von Ranke, Johann Gustav Droysen, Heinrich von Sybel, and Heinrich von Treitschke sought in their scholarship to justify Prussia's leadership role in Germany, and the French revolutionary and Napoleonic years figured centrally in this effort. For Friedrich Meinecke, writing in the Wilhelmine years, a remembrance of this era was crucial if Germany was to retain its intellectual and moral bearings: “One thing is clear: the survival and continuity of German intellectual life is somehow related to the events between 1807 and 1815—the liberation of Germany from foreign rule, and the transformation of Prussia, her most powerful state, into a freer, more national political entity.” In Das Zeitalter der deutschen Erhebung (1906), Meinecke related the process by which the formerly apolitical, individualistic musings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte were given practical, political implementation in the reforms of Karl vom Stein, Karl von Hardenberg, and Gerhard von Scharnhorst, and then in the Wars of Liberation: “By descending to the state, the spirit not only preserved its own endangered existence as well as that of the state, it secured a reservoir of moral and psychological wealth, a wellspring of creative power for later generations.”

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1 On academic history, see Iggers, Georg, The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of History from Herder to the Present (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1968); on Borussian approaches to this era, especially the Wars of Liberation, see Hagemann, Karen, Revisiting Prussia's Wars against Napoleon: History, Culture, and Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 293300.

2 Meinecke, Friedrich, The Age of German Liberation, 1795–1815, trans. Paret, Peter and Fischer, Helmuth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 2.

3 Ibid., 3.

4 Rosenberg, Hans, Bureaucracy, Aristocracy, and Autocracy: The Prussian Experience, 1660–1815 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), 202–28. In an essay devoted to Rosenberg's influence on the Sonderweg argument, William W. Hagen writes, “Of all arguments deriving the preconditions and triumph—though not the identity—of Nazism from the structures and dynamics of Prussian history, this was the most influential.” See Hagen, , “Descent of the Sonderweg: Hans Rosenberg's History of Old-Regime Prussia,” Central European History (CEH) 24, no. 1 (1991): 2425. Hagen locates Rosenberg's arguments in their historical context while highlighting some of their shortcomings.

5 Wehler, Hans-Ulrich, The German Empire, 1871–1918, trans. Traynor, Kim (Leamington Spa: Berg, 1985), 914. Wehler's later, more extensive confrontation with the reform era is discussed later.

6 This term is from Geyer, Michael and Jarausch, Konrad H., “The Future of the German Past: Transatlantic Reflections for the 1990s,” CEH 22, no. 3/4 (1989): 232.

7 Droz, Jacques, review of Epstein, Klaus, The Genesis of German Conservatism, in CEH 2, no. 2 (1969): 180.

8 Walker, Mack, “Napoleonic Germany and the Hometown Communities,” CEH 2, no. 2 (1969): 99113.

9 Gray, Marion W., “Schroetter, Schön, and Society: Aristocratic Liberalism versus Middle-Class Liberalism in Prussia, 1808,” CEH 6, no. 1 (1973): 6082.

10 Koselleck, Reinhart, “Einleitung,” Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, vol. 1 (A-D), ed. Brunner, Otto, Conze, Werner, and Koselleck, Reinhart (Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1972), xv.

11 Fulda, Daniel, “Sattelzeit. Karriere und Problematik eines kulturwissenschaftlichen Zentralbegriffs,” in Sattelzeit: Historiographiegeschichtliche Revisionen, ed. Décultot, Elsabeth and Fulda, Daniel (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 23.

12 Koselleck, Reinhart, Preußen zwischen Reform und Revolution: Allgemeines Landrecht, Verwaltung und soziale Bewegung von 1791 bis 1848 (Stuttgart: Klett, 1967), 160.

13 Wegert, Karl, “The Genesis of Youthful Radicalism: Hesse-Nassau, 1806–19,” CEH 10, no. 3 (1977): 183205.

14 Hagen, William W., “The Partitions of Poland and the Crisis of the Old Regime in Prussia, 1772–1806,” CEH 9, no. 2 (1976): 115–28; also see idem, Germans, Poles, and Jews: The Nationality Conflict in the Prussian East, 1772–1914 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

15 Hagen, William W., “The Junkers’ Faithless Servants: Peasant Insubordination and the Breakdown of Serfdom in Brandenburg-Prussia, 1763–1811,” in The German Peasantry: Conflict and Community in Rural Society from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries, ed. Evans, Richard J. and Lee, W. R. (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 71101; idem, Ordinary Prussians: Brandenburg Junkers and Villagers, 1500–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

16 Hertz, Deborah, “Intermarriage in the Berlin Salons,” CEH 16, no. 4 (1983): 343.

17 Blanning noted that “modern Germany has usually been deemed to begin in 1815, so the period which immediately preceded the Vienna settlement has been studied with a view to what it started.” This situation was reflected, in fact, in most of the major surveys of German history at this time. See Blanning, T. C. W., “The French Revolution and the Modernization of Germany,” CEH 22, no. 2 (1989): 109–29. The volumes under discussion were Nipperdey, Thomas, Deutsche Geschichte 1800–1866, vol. 1: Bürgerwelt und starker Staat (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1983) and Wehler, Hans-Ulrich, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, vol. 1 (1700–1815), vol. 2 (1815–1848/49) (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1987).

18 Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte, 11, cited in Blanning, “French Revolution,” 110.

19 Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, 1:397.

20 Ibid., 1:380–96.

21 See Barbara C. Anderson, “State-Building and Bureacracy in Early-Nineteenth-Century Nassau,” and Lee, Loyd E., “Baden between Revolutions: State-Building and Citizenship, 1800–1848,” CEH 24, no. 2/3 (1991): 222–47, 248–67; both were part of a symposium on “State-Building in the Third Germany.” A later article that fits squarely in this context is McNeely, Ian F., “Hegel's Württemberg Commentary: Intellectuals and the Construction of Civil Society in Revolutionary-Napoleonic Germany,” CEH 37, no. 3 (2004): 345–64.

22 “If modernity began for the Germans with Napoleon,” Blanning asked, “why was he followed by a surge of cultural manifestations which appear more medieval than modern?” See Blanning, “French Revolution,” 118. Blanning revisited these topics in The Romantic Revolution (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010).

23 Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, 1:545.

24 Blanning, “French Revolution,” 127.

25 The special issue grew out of the conference “German Histories: Challenges in Theory, Practice, and Technique,” which was held at the University of Chicago in early October 1989, but the essays were heavily revised in light of subsequent developments.

26 On this point, see Geyer and Jarausch, “The Future of the German Past,” 232–41.

27 This was less the case in Germany given the division of history faculties into modern (neuere) history and contemporary (neueste) history, which effectively meant the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

28 Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Pantheon, 1971); idem, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Hurley, Robert (New York: Pantheon, 1978).

29 Hull, Isabel V., Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany, 1700–1815 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996); see also idem, Feminist and Gender History Through the Literary Looking Glass: German Historography in Postmodern Times,” CEH 22, no. 3/4 (1989): 279300.

30 Hagemann, Karen, “Of ‘Manly Valor’ and ‘German Honor’: Nation, War, and Masculinity in the Age of the Prussian Uprising against Napoleon,” CEH 30, no. 2 (1997): 187220; idem, “Mannlicher Muth und Teutsche Ehre”: Nation, Militär und Geschlecht zur Zeit der Antinapoleonischen Kriege Preußens (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2002).

31 Aaslestad, Katherine, Place and Politics: Local Identity, Civic Culture, and German Nationalism in North Germany during the Revolutionary Era (Leiden: Brill, 2005); Planert, Ute, Der Mythos vom Befreiungskrieg: Frankreichs Kriege und der deutsche Süden: Alltag, Wahrnehmung, Deutung, 1792–1841 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2007).

32 Rowe, Michael, “France, Prussia, or Germany? The Napoleonic Wars and Shifting Allegiances in the Rhineland,” CEH 39, no. 4 (2006): 580610.

33 Hagemann, Karen, “Occupation, Mobilization, and Politics: The Anti-Napoleonic Wars in Prussian Experience, Memory, and Historiography,” CEH 39, no. 4 (2006): 580610; idem, Revisiting Prussia's Wars against Napoleon; on Napoleonic memory, see also Aaslestad, Katherine, “Remembering and Forgetting: The Local and the Nation in Hamburg's Commemoration of the Wars of Liberation,” CEH 38, no. 3 (2005): 384416.

34 Vick, Brian E., The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). In a recent article in CEH, Scott Berg emphasized Metternichian Austria's relative success (when compared to Prussia) at encouraging Protestant-Catholic comity. See Berg, Scott, “‘The Lord Has Done Great Things for Us’: The 1817 Reformation Celebrations and the End of the Counter-Reformation in the Habsburg Lands,” CEH 49, no. 1 (2016): 6992.

35 Siemann, Wolfram, Metternich: Stratege und Visionär. Eine Biographie (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2016). For a similar argument, see Williamson, George S., “‘Thought is in itself a dangerous operation’: The Campaign Against ‘Revolutionary Machinations’ in Germany, 1819–1828,” German Studies Review 38, no. 2 (2015): 285306.

36 Over the past decades, Germanists specializing in the so-called Goethezeit have produced a wide range of works relevant for historians of this era. See, e.g., Purdy, Daniel, The Tyranny of Elegance: Consumer Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Goethe (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998); Wurst, Karin, Fabricating Pleasure: Fashion, Entertainment, and Cultural Consumption in Germany, 1780–1830 (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2005); Tautz, Birgit, Translating the World: Toward a New History of German Literature Around 1800 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017); Zhang, Chunjie, Transculturality and German Discourse in the Age of European Colonialism (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017).

37 Mettele, Gisela, Weltbürgertum, oder, Gottesreich: Die Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine als globale Gemeinschaft 1727–1857 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009); Planert, Mythos vom Befreiungskriege, 336–82; Crane, Susan, “Holy Alliances. Creating Religious Communities after the Napoleonic Wars,” in Die Gegenwart Gottes in der modernen Gesellschaft. Transzendenz und religiöse Vergemeinschaftung in Deutschland, ed. Geyer, Michael and Hölscher, Lucian (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2006), 3759.

38 See, e.g., Lowe, Lisa, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 139–49.

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