Magazine, Vol. 2: Nationalism

Nationalism in Modern History

“With the Thirty Years’ War, a constant reflection about the question what makes a modern state began –how is it organised and what can it do for the wellbeing of its citizens.”

Interview with Prof. Dr Marie-Thérèse Mourey


Anyone who deals with the German nation state will inevitably encounter the well-known phrase: “In the beginning was Napoleon”. However, before Germany enters the crucial phase of its national history, it exists in the form of a peculiar political construct: the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. In a conversation with 42 Magazine, Prof. Mourey explains how this empire differs from the nations that emerge during the nineteenth century and discusses whether it is a precursor of the modern nation state.


Prof. Dr. Mourey – Do you think the terms “nationalism” and “nation” can be applied to the phase of history you are most interested in?

The term “nation” can be applied to the Early Modern Age, the period between the Middle Ages and the French Revolution, but not as it is commonly used today. “Nationalism” can be used with the utmost caution and only in particular contexts.

What does the word “nation” refer to in the term “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”?

The meaning of the term “nation” has changed over time. Originally, the term “nation” referred to the so-called nationes: corporations of emigrated students at universities and academies. They set up groups based on lingual, cultural and geographical similarities. At medieval universities, students were assigned and registered according to their “nation”; derived from contemporary France, there were Picard, Norman and Gallic nations, for example. The councils produced a notable case where “nations” were founded on shared attributes to prevent the superiority of the Italian prelates. The term “German Nation” in “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” specifically starts to appear at the end of the 15th century. The first references can be found between 1470 and 1475. The term was then officially established in a recess at Cologne’s Imperial Diet in 1512. This legal action determined that from then on, the Empire was Roman because it was heir to the Roman Empire and Holy because it was Christian.


“‘Territorial fragmentation’ is a term that keeps coming up in reference to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation precisely because the Empire was divided into so many individual states.”


The term “German Nation” already included regions that still belong to Germany today – Bavaria and Swabia for example – but it also included Bohemia, which now belongs to the Czech Republic, parts of Hungary and also Silesia, which has been part of Poland since World War II. So it becomes clear that the term “nation” refers to the affiliation with a community determined by a common language, artistic and cultural acts as well as customs and conventions, maybe even ethnicity. And finally, the term “German Nation” refers to the region of the Holy Roman Empire and its citizens. You should keep in mind that the term “nation” is not identical with the political and governmental nations that emerged during the time of Napoleon and during the 19th century.

Were there political motives for the name “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”? And why did the term emerge right at the turn of the sixteenth century?

Because it was the result of a long-lasting endeavour to consolidate imperial power. It happened in the course of a longstanding conflict with the pontifical power, which was itself divided at the time. During this phase when there were two popes – one in Rome and one in Avignon – the Empire faced political realignment. Add to that the conquest of Constantinople, the capital of the East Roman Empire, by the Ottomans in 1453. And when Martin Luther appears on the scene at the beginning of the 16th century, a trial of strength begins: one between central and regional power but also one between the Emperor and the Pope. Traditionally, the Pope claimed sovereignty over the Emperor. Luther contended this claim, which had been justified by a document from the Donation of Constantine but ultimately turned out to be a fraud. So now Luther was able to demand the restoration of power to the Emperor and the end of the Pope’s tutelage.

What is the difference between “nationalism” and “patriotism” and which term is more applicable to the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”?

Patriotism is defined as the attachment to a community that is not necessarily a state. The Germans know the difference between homeland and fatherland very well. The fatherland is something closer to a political unit with certain values, a social organisation and a jurisdiction. The homeland on the other hand is the country you were born in and stay connected to, although regional, intellectual and denominational affiliations play into that as well. To me, the term patriotism seems fit to describe the various affiliations of states within the anything but unified Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. “Territorial fragmentation” is a term that keeps coming up in reference to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation precisely because the Empire was divided into so many individual states. When you want to distinguish the Empire from other states within Europe, from France, Poland or Russia, you can use the word “nationalism”, but with caveats and only in certain cases.

How did the political construction of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation differ from the kingdom of France?

I have already talked about the territorial fragmentation of the Empire. But there is another term that is often used to describe the peculiarity of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. It was coined by 17th century lawyer Samuel von Pufendorf, who described it as an irregular and monstrous state. The term “monstrous” is not a moral judgement in this case. It reflects the fact that the Empire did not match any of the categories or political compositions that had been used since the time of Aristotle. It was an outlier. Broadly speaking, the Empire resembled a confederation of states. There was an excessive amount of states, all with very different political values and varying significance. It was made up of very large states like the free state Bavaria but also small principalities that no longer exist. These were called “Duodezfürstentum” – in reference to a very small book format. There were also very important free cities like Hamburg and Augsburg. And then there were the so-called “Stände”, political entities that often acted as a counterweight to the prince or the central power. This confederation of states was defined by a strong particularism. A particularism that went hand in hand with a strong dislike of any tutelage of even remotely centralistic nature, which led to many negotiations. When it comes to cultural diversity, decentralisation and territorial fragmentation can be regarded as a stroke of luck. Because every political territory had developed its own forms of expression, there was a real variety in the literature, music, painting etc. of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

And what was the other side of that coin?

With regard to administrative and economic efficiency, the lack of unity was a problem, of course. Just think about the number of customs station you had to pass to go from one territory to another, the difficulties of collecting taxes or the lack of standardised measuring units or common currency. In France, Napoleon understood quickly that these things put a stop to a country’s modernisation effort and economic development. This form of diversity also had disastrous consequences from a military standpoint. There could be no common defence policy if there was no common finance policy. And so the negotiations between the Emperor and the individual princes, several of whom had converted to Protestantism, proved very difficult. But by now the Ottomans had become a serious threat. They had done fatal damage in Vienna and Hungary, first in the middle of the 16th century, around 1523-25 and then in 1663 and 1683 when they stood in front of the gates of Vienna and forced the Emperor to flee. We should also not forget the expansion attempts made under King Ludwig XIV. He successfully reconquered some of the cities in Alsace. In time, the lack of unification led to talks about a common finance policy that paved the way for defensive and later offensive warfare. You need an army to go to war, but you need financial means for an army and in turn, you need a functional administration to gain the financial means. There was a chain reaction towards modernisation, especially around the time of Friedrich II. of Prussia.

Were there any other political differences?

Yes. For example, you have to take into account that the Holy German Empire of the German Nation was not a hereditary but an elective monarchy. The Emperor was chosen by seven prince-electors, a system that was determined by Karl IV. in the Golden Bull of 1356. The problem was that when the Bull issued, all the princes had still been Catholic. But during the Reformation, several of them had converted to Protestantism. The fact that the Empire was an elective monarchy heightened the risk of political instability and became one of the reasons for the Thirty Years’ War. The “Stände” (classes) of Bohemia had originally elected Ferdinand of Hapsburg but then dethroned him to elect the prince-elector of Palatinate instead. He in turn could have elected the Emperor and thus toppled the majority within the Empire. That was the cause of the Thirty Years’ War. So advantages and disadvantages can be determined quite precisely. On the Empire’s side, there was a strong fragmentation and a huge amount of inequality between the individual members. That was the source of great cultural riches but also resulted in many economic, financial and administrative weaknesses.

And what about the kingdom of France?

There was a stronger centralisation in France, which demanded that everyone had to submit to one king, one faith and one law. There was little consideration for local peculiarities. The Emperor may have had the sovereignty over political institutions in theory. But in practice, his power was very limited and very contested. After the Reformation, the abdication of Karl V and finally the Thirty Years’ War, the Emperor’s power had decreased significantly. After the war, the estimation of the Emperor actually went up again – and then came the dissolution of the Empire in 1806. This revitalisation of imperial power became absolutistic. “Absolutism” is a term that is often used to describe the reign of Ludwig XIV. In many ways, Leopold I also tried to restore the estimation of the Emperor through his politics. Financially, administratively and linguistically, the kingdom of France became centralised much earlier. A permanent army was founded in the Thirty Years’ War. This long-term strategy was consistently enforced in France and the process of centralisation began much earlier.

You have already talked about the threat that the Ottomans posed and mentioned the necessity to unite in the face of this threat. Would you say that “nationalism” and “national identity” always involve hostility and distrust of an adjacent nation?

The case I described concerned hostility towards the Ottomans – non-Christians, infidels. That is why some of the alliances within the Empire can be described as opportunistic. These alliances were born out of necessity, out of an awareness of the threat that a possible defeat against a Muslim – and from a Christian perspective, inferior – people would pose. The alliance between Franz I. and the Turkish sultan Suleiman complicated the matter because naturally, the Hapsburgs were his enemies. That a Christian ruler should join forces with a Muslim against another Christian ruler really shocked his contemporaries. So there was a shift during that time, concerning religious or denominational identities that are not yet national in the modern sense of the word. Furthermore, they are defined by a political pragmatism with the goal to enforce its power and distinguish itself from others.

Has nationalism replaced religion as a belief system or has religion rather been in service of nationalism throughout history?

That’s a wide-ranging question. We are talking about a time when religious convictions were all-encompassing. Despite all internal disagreements, Europe defended a common position against a threat that had universally been identified as Muslim. You can see a natural connection between a common religious faith and an affiliation with a German nation in the 17th century – even if politics had in practice detached itself from religious principles. Let’s go a bit further, to the 18th century, and look at the example of Maria-Theresia of Austria who was very Catholic, bigoted in fact. This resulted in governing problems in the face of the Ottoman threat. She opposed decisions that would have led to a modernisation of the state and made the lives of the people who were not acting morally enough in her opinion miserable. She was against the secularisation of society. In the 19th century, after the fall of Napoleon, the restoration began in Europe and with it, a part of German history that is known as “the alliance of throne and altar”. During this time, politics used religion as a prop to restore the moral order that had been toppled by the liberal ideals of the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. In the Third Reich, Christianity became an object of disgusting absorption when the “German Christians” claimed that Jesus had not been a Jew but an Arian, that he had been the first glorious German. They claimed that Christianity was German. Today, there are many intellectuals and thinkers who see nationalism as a question of faith, in the sense that it is faith in an ideal. Although of course faith in a nation is immanent, as opposed to faith in a god.

In how far can you compare the Thirty Years’ War with modern wars? Had there been martial conflicts before or had it been a time of peace?

It had not been a time of peace. There had always been conflicts. But they had been comparatively limited in terms of location and length although they had also been pretty severe. What stood out about the Thirty Years’ War was its duration. But also the fact that only a few regions remained unaffected. Vienna was under siege and Bavaria had been hit hard, to name only two examples. But first and foremost, it was a war in which foreign forces fought on German ground and I think that was the crucial circumstance which turned an event into a war that affected all of Germany.

“In the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the Thirty Years’ War showed the necessity of strong political power. That means the need for an assertive administration, good finances and a strong army. These conclusions were easy to draw but hard to implement.”


Of course this war was stylised as a great German war afterwards. Mythifications like this were especially common in the 19th and 20th century. I’m thinking of Günther Grass who writes about the question how authors can deal with the legacy of the great wars of the 20th century in his book Das Treffen von Telgte. He chose the preparations for peace around 1647 as a historical starting point. Of course he had his part in stylising the whole thing as a German war. Some stories about the Thirty Years’ War are unverified. There was definitely a lot of destruction but the claim that two thirds of the population were eliminated seems like an exaggeration to me, more so because there was no reliable census back then. Surveys of that kind were only introduced after the Thirty Years’ War to close this particular gap. But it is true that it was a very long and very gruesome war in which German territories were not spared. It is generally regarded as the last religious war and the first modern war at the same time. As I said, the cause of it was that the “Stände” of Bohemia had dethroned the rightful ruler to elect a new one. That one had been Catholic, this one was a Calvinist. Besides, the Catholic, Ferdinand of Hapsburg, had revoked his concessions to the Calvinists. He had banned services in their churches. So it is important to show that, even if we try to separate religion and politics in the 21st century, the two were almost congruent in the 16th and 17th century.

… because religious power was political power.

Precisely, and the Catholic rulers thought they had a right to force their religion and their faith on their subjects by the grace of God. But I don’t think this war can be compared to later ones, apart from its identity-establishing influence which came later anyway. This identitarian legacy didn’t make itself felt during the wars of the 18th century. There had been wars in the 18th century, between Friedrich II. and Maria Theresia, Poland and Russia, etc., but this period was only rediscovered by impressionist authors in World War I. They highlighted the parallels between the Thirty Years’ War and World War I. Because back then, foreign forces fought on German ground for the first time, maybe not the US or Japan, but Denmark, Spain and France intervened. And like World War I, the Thirty Years’ War also resulted in a crisis of consciousness with a nationalist edge.

An important difference between the two wars may have been that mercenaries were still deployed in the Thirty Years’ War…

Yes, exactly. In France, that changed with the revolution. In the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the Thirty Years’ War showed the necessity of strong political power. That means the need for an assertive administration, good finances and a strong army. These conclusions were easy to draw but hard to implement. Friedrich I. of Prussia (1701 – 13) did not implement it as well as his son Friedrich-Wilhelm I. (1713 – 40) who founded a permanent army in the form of the famous “lange Kerls”. His own son, Friedrich II, became the beneficiary of these actions and got to make use of this army. But actually, with the Thirty Years’ War, so with the second half of the 17th century, a constant reflection about the question what makes a modern state began; how is it organised and what can it do for the wellbeing of its citizens. Even if the last point was not really essential. The goal was to preserve a strong political force and the state needed an appropriate finance politic to do that.

Is German federalism a result of the territorial fragmentation that was, as you said, so characteristic of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation?

German federalism is not necessarily a direct result of that but there is a certain continuity between the two. Federalism is a logical answer to the loose confederation of states of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation: It’s the same basic strive to find a balance between a central force and local particularities, even if the problem is not as severe today as it once was. There were 360 states then. How many countries are there today?

Not as many…

Not as many, yes. Of course, the ratio between central and local forces has changed and is now legally determined. This relationship between the government and federal states has become a sort of democratic liberalism. But it seems to me that the Germans still have a hard time with transregional policies and you can see what that means for European politics: it becomes just a bit harder. So I believe that historically, federalism is a logical consequence, but I wouldn’t call it legacy.


Interview & Translation: Leo Rasch


Prof. Dr. Marie-Thérèse Mourey, Université Paris Sorbonne