16. August 2015

History, Fiction, and Germany by Brent O. Peterson

What’s German? Who’s a German? What makes h. to be German? If you’d ask anyone on the street here, you would get an answer according to passport, to official nationality. Many will say: »Legally I could turn German, but I don’t, as I would loose my traditional nationality.« Even I myself only »became« German, when a clever state officer in Böblingen found out back in 1975, that I’m German by birth and therefore do not loose my Austrian nationality when »accepting« to be German.
The Proclamation of the German Empire on January 18, 1871 in Versailles. Painting by Anton von Werner,
third version, sole surviving the Word Wars.
   This however is the new, the current, official view of being German. There’s a classical view, a inner aspect, a feeling, academic, »nationalistic«, of what it means to be German. This »substancial« view has dominated the past two centuries. Today it’s gone, like logarithms to calculate triangles or typewriters to compose letters. Just like carbon paper, deep, persistent national feelings are gone forever, at least here. Nationalism may reappear temporarily with football (soccer), but, say, German Italians in Munic may still be torn between Bayern München and Juventus Torino, and switch according to opportunity. You are happy, hopefully, where you are – or else you might try to get there –, and you don’t think about, who you are. Especially as you change all along, while your passport stays the same, at least under normal conditions.
   We all sit in a partially occupied train compartment: The ones inside are a strong group of insiders, defending their space with newspapers and stuff lying around, the ones outside on the train’s corridor are aliens, until they too conquer a place inside the compartment. But: trains here don’t have compartments any more, they mostly are »Großraumwagen«, open space wagons …
   Anyway, I’m both Austrian and German. As Austrian I’m always full of hope – looking into the past (»Ein Österreicher blickt immer hoffnungsvoll – in die Vergangenheit.«) –, as German I’m angry at politics; or just as old man?
   Coming back to history.
   Brent Petersons’s book (»History, Fiction, and Germany, Writing the Nineteenth-Century Nation«, ISBN 0-8143-3200-5) of 2005 looks at an interesting aspect of German-ness: How did it come about? Germany was probably the last European »nation« to come together into a common state, to become national, nationalistic. Fascism, as extreme nationalism, had its worst excesses in Germany, though fascism kept alive in Spain until about 1980. The idea is still here, like in Italian fascist parties. You see, I’m not a historian, I just look.
   Peterson’s idea is that nations form virtually, like a myth, grow like a tree by natural facts, but they are trimmed as well (or mostly?) by influential interests and people. Nation building is a fictional and a historical process. He looks at fiction first.
   In the »Introduction: How Prussian Heroes Came to Dominate Germany’s National Narrative«, Peterson starts out with a big bang. Very clever, very effective. (Especially, as many people won’t read more than the initial chapters of a book anyway.)
Peterson points out a number of hefty alterations of the historic thruth in the picture – you can read it here, thanks to Google books. His book contains a black and white version of this famous painting, but of course I immediately activated my color printer. The picture, the scene is quite impressive, and that’s the idea.
   Peterson, instead of just scolding Werner, starts to ponder, to think. It’s fascianting how his view of history stays open for variations, for unconventional thoughts, for the forces in the back of reality, be they historical truths or fictional »buildings«, literary, artistic, political.
   As Austrian I at first missed the view to the German part that was Austria, but later on found this aspect well covered in his book too. My father was Prussian, born in Königsberg, I was born in Brünn, Moravia, both in modern reality long gone places. My mother’s family was definitely Austrian, grandfather having been born in Wilten, now part of Innsbruck, Tirol. All his life he had been a »Großdeutscher«, favoring a common state of Germany and Austria. »Hitler has stolen us the idea«, he once said. You can read my grandfather’s interesting memoirs (in German naturally) here. The father of my father had been a protestant preacher. His life’s book may be less interesting, even a bit boring today, but shows just the other side of Germaneness. And personally I favor places with multiple people, living together in peace, like South Tyrol. My key to this is described in an article of 1994.
   There are many more interesting aspects addressed by Peterson, like the German public interest in history in the 19th century, the love of stories, fiction, and not only of Grimm’s Märchen. I could add die Gartenlaube or Ganghofer, but I’ll do that some other time … – PS. Peterson writes about the Gartenlaube (pergola) a while later as well, page 72.
   I’m looking forward to the rest of the book. Will there be parallels to the feelings of the modern US nation?

See also my http://blogabissl.blogspot.de/2015/01/neil-macgregors-germany.html

Permalink to here: http://blogabissl.blogspot.com/2015/08/history-fiction-and-germany-by-brent-o.html

– Franz Kugler’s The History of Frederick the Great – see p 106 in Peterson’s book, can be found and seen at http://friedrich.uni-trier.de/de/kugler/228/ – Page 228 with Menzel’s illustration of Frederick with Voltaire in Sanssouci, as mentioned.

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