A Call for Nationalism

During the Enlightenment period there was a surge of nationalism in regions where there had been little unity before. Johann Gottfried von Herder, a German philosopher, presents nationalism as a people who, as well as being bound together geographically, are culturally, linguistically, and historically linked ((Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind)). In 1784, when Gottfried Von Herder published his work interpreting nationalism, Germany as we know it today was made up of many different small territories, the most prominent of these being Prussia. It’s possible then that this segmented area was the reason Gottfried von Herder was advocating so strongly for nationalism. It’s difficult to feel pride in your nation if you’re not entirely sure of what nation you’re a part of. France was another  inspiration for the sudden support for nationalism. Gottfried von Herder specifically mentions in his writings that France was able to achieve a united state by forcing all of its citizens to speak French, which in turn connected the people ((Materials for the philosophy of the History of Mankind)). He infers that a common language is key to establishing a culture and a nation.


Gottfried von Herder was not born into wealth; he was raised by poor parents and had the good fortune of being able to study under famous philosophers such as Immanuel Kant ((Encyclopedia Britannica)). Seeing how he started as a peasant, I have to wonder if Gottfried von Herder saw the rise of the Third Estate in France and drew the connection between this revolution and a surge of nationalism in France. Did Gottfried von Herder’s economic status lead him to endorse nationalism so heavily?

Overall, Gottfried von Herder was one of many philosophers during the Enlightenment period who advocated for nationalism in a state. His country, education, and economic status were all influences to him as well as potential reasons that he believed so wholeheartedly in nationalism.


The Beginnings of German Nationalism

The Romantic period following the Enlightenment and the French Revolution was characterized by a push back against the rational reasoning championed by many Enlightenment thinkers. Johann Gottlieb Fichte tried to inspire his fellow Germans with his “Addresses to the German Nation” in 1806. He wrote “those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself” ((Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Thirteenth Address, Addresses to the German Nation, ed. George A. Kelly (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1968), pp. 190­91,193­94,197­98.)) which highlights his argument that the bonds of language and culture are stronger than political boundaries or forced occupation. This is a similar argument that Paul Halsall makes in his introduction to Johann Gottfried von Herder’s “Materials for the Philosophy of Mankind” where he states that most nations are developed around a single language and that new peoples are incorporated in by being forced to speak that central language as well ((Johann Gottfried von Herder, Materials for the Philosophy of Mankind, 1784.)).

Johann Gottlieb Fichte was a German philosopher who lived from 1762 until 1814, meaning that he lived through much of the Enlightenment thought and ideals being put into place in the American Revolution and the French Revolution. He wrote his “Addresses to the German Nation” in 1806 when the French, under Napoleon, occupied Germany. This event likely inspired him to write these nationalistic pieces and to go on to be considered one of the fathers of German nationalism. He criticized Napoleon’s use of religious conflict to divide the German nation-states and his use of German soldiers in his army. Fichte wrote in an inflammatory manner, intended to educate the German people about the tactics that the French were using to divide the nation-states and to inspire a sense of belonging to something larger than their individual village.

Fichte was able to use historical context and the feelings of people living in an occupied territory to make an emotional argument for nationalism and for uniting as a larger German people. Both Fichte and von Herder highlighted the importance of language to creating a cohesive nation-state, which was important as this is one of first times when a nation-state becomes a realistic concept, and is no longer separated into solely a political state or an ethnic or cultural nation.

In conclusion, did Napoleon’s conquest of these areas accelerate the unification of Germany? In other words, is being occupied the most effective method to get people to come together by uniting against a common enemy?

German Nationalism

Philosophers and authors Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried von Herder both had very similar ideas on what it meant to be a nation and what it meant for a group of humans living in a defined area to become a nation. In order to become a nation they all had to identify themselves similarly. Both of these authors came out of a turbulent time for Germany, Fitche was writing in 1806 and von Herder was in 1784. This time period in Europe can be recognized by the nations that began to form, no longer was Europe divided into many different municipalities scattered about.
The French Revolution began just five years after von Herder wrote his Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind. As von Herder watched the years of turmoil leading up to the French Revolution, as he watched the people of France become a single body working towards a single goal he theorized the importance of nations but more importantly nationalism. He saw that a group of people who have been defined by nature, whether it be language, terrestrial setting, or race, could gain a sense of purpose when they become proud of their sense of belonging to a nation. To relate this idea to popular culture all that one has to do is look at the Super Bowl and its super fans. These people get a sense of belonging when they watch their teams accomplish great acts and support them in any way they can find, whether it be building a giant Seahawks logo on their front lawn or getting the “Patriots, Super Bowl XLIX Champions” tattooed on their chest a week before the game is even played. Meanwhile a team also benefits from such fanaticism because it bolsters their morale and provides support for their purpose. This is the exact same way that nationalism works for a nation, the people are proud to be part of their nation so they support their nation, in return, with this support, the nation can accomplish great things, which creates more pride.
Fichte followed up von Herder’s ideas 22 years later, after the French Revolution had ended but just at the beginning of Napoleon’s conquests into Germany. Fichte was now looking at a united country of France, one that had found its nationalism and was proud to be. Napoleon had occupied many of the small insignificant Germanic townships and cities with ease and forced Fichte to see the importance of a nation, both from the self defense perspective and for the over all efficiency of a territory. He argues that “Thus was the German nation placed-sufficiently united within itself by a common language and a common way of thinking, and sharply enough severed from the other peoples-in the middle of Europe, as a wall to divide races not akin ….” (Fichte), meaning that there was a clear “German Nation”. An area defined by nature, language and common culture that significantly enough that it should become a single nation, a single nation which the people recognize and take pride in. Fichte proclaims that “German states, whose separate existence was in itself contrary to all nature and reason” (Fichte), he is clearly stating an obvious importance in the states of Germany to cease to be divided. If the nation-states were to cease to be divided then, as a nation, the Germans could become more than what they were. Both of these men helped to define the meaning of nationalism and they truly helped to show its power in the formation and longevity of nations.

German Nationalism

German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder lived during the 18th century, contributing much to the philosophy of history. Inspired by the Enlightenment, he thought rationally about the correlation between human events and history. In one of his more known works, Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, he laid the foundation for German nationalism. As western Europe began its nationalist movement, people living in central Europe (today Germany) had a difficult time grasping with the idea of a collective group under one nation. Since hundreds of people speaking different languages and having different customs lived in the region, von Herder argued that Nature brings groups of people together which eventually establishes a sense of national identity. His worked is targeted at future activists who believed in a need for establishing a nation. He believes, “active human powers are the springs of human history, and, as man originates from and in one race, so his body, education, and mode of thinking are genetic” (Halsall). Because of this, a group of individuals will establish a national identity.

Similar to von Herder, Johann Gottlieb Fichte hailed from Germany and is considered by some to be one of the Fathers of German Nationalism. Inspired by Immanuel Kant, Fichte dedicated his work to understand the mystery of human consciousness and a need to establish German nationalism. In his, Addresses to the German Nation, he states, “Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole” (Fichte). Since this bond exists between man, a national identity needed to be establish to incorporate all who lived in a region who shared similar ideals.


Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Thirteenth Address, Addresses to the Gerrnan Nation, ed. George A. Kelly (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1968), pp. 190­91,193­94,197­98.


Nationalism within “Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind”

In German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder’s piece, “Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind” he provided other German thinkers with the knowledge and ability to be able to think and identify with nationalism for themselves. For most European countries, it was easier to understand nationalism with the similarities between people within their state, but for Germany, it was comprised of, “Peoples of different religions, languages, and traditions lived interspersed with each other under a huge variety of states and semi-states – empires, kingdoms, dukedoms, and independent cities.” (Halsall 1).
In the writing, it is discussed what the ideas for nationalism are. Nationalism can be understood as a similarity or “national character” between people within a given defined boundary. People can identify more closely with someone that looks, speaks, and acts with the same tendencies as them, rather than someone that comes in from another country and speaks an entirely different language.

Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind

Johann Gottfried von Herder was a German philosopher associated with the Enlightenment. He wrote the article, “Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind” in 1784, and he discussed the idea of nationalism. Paul Halsall provided an introduction to this article. There have been different types of nationalism, such as cultural pride, …right to self-government, and …national superiority” (Halsall 1)

He established the central ideas of nationalism, which are that people can be defined as having a “common history, language, and tradition” and that a nation “has a unique claim to be considered a legitimate political basis for sovereignty” (Halsall 1). In general, the people of nations do not necessarily consider themselves as members of a given nation. They are more aware that they belong to a smaller group, such a family or a town whereas nationalism is in a broader sense.

For France, the concept of nationalism was difficult because most residents of France did not speak French. Ultimately, a French national identity was created by having all people learn to speak French. For French thinkers, an nationalistic France was not complicated because France had been established as a united state. However, for German thinkers, the idea of nationalism was more difficult because heterogenous groups of people were interspersed. For example, people had different religions, languages, and traditions. THe idea of nationalism can be created throughout language because “to deprive a people of its speech is to deprive it of its one eternal good” (Halsall 2).

How do you think that the United States establishes its own sense of nationalism and how does this compare to the idea of nationalism in France during the French Revolution?