Monday, 12 November 2007

Making Germans

Austria was defeated by Prussia in 1866. German unification is generally taken as being in 1871. David Blackbourn points out that 1871 was not the end point, but really the beginning of Prussian efforts to create a nation of Germany. He refers to Massimo d’Azeglio, an Italian nationalist who said of Italy “We have made Italy, now we have to make the Italians.” What had been created was a location for the idea of Germany, in the form of what Blackbourn calls a “sovereign, territorially defined national state, with a constitution, a parliament and a German chancellor.”

Prussia was 60% of the territory and population of the new Germany. The German emperor was the former king of Prussia and the Prussian prime minister took up the role of chancellor. The Prussian army “effectively became the German army.”

Unity brought such things as the rule of law, legal accountability of ministers, commercial codes and unified currency. These are all institutions that are essential to efficient functioning of the modern state. Blackbourn points out though that there were problems such as the threat of authoritarianism from Bismarck as a political and military “strong man”, opportunities for corruption during the implementation of administrative rule, general political uncertainty and looming economic crises. However, everyone in the new Germany spoke the same language so that was a good starting point, even if opponents simply used the language to insult each other.

Blackbourn sees the 1870s as crucial in modern German history – a decade of consolidation, where relationships between German provinces were formalised, administrative functions such as national railways and other bureaucracies established and industries important for economic development set up. Other historians have painted a less positive picture, one which he describes as “marked by abiding Prusso-German authoritarianism and deep internal fissures accentuated by the deliberate playing up of ‘friend-foe’ distinctions.”

Trying to understand the process of German unification and the making of Germans is important to me as I write about the Jaeckels in Germany. I’m trying to get a sense of how a small business owning family, part of an emerging middle-class, would respond to a Prussian administration. For the purposes of my story I need to take the perspective of historians who saw conflict in this top-down unification. I particularly like the idea of this “deliberate playing up of ‘friend-foe’ distinctions.” I can see how that would play nicely alongside well-established town rivalries and interactions.

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