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date: 28 July 2021

Abstract and Keywords

The beginnings of German national identity were not political but rather cultural. Already in the eighteenth century, Germans had begun to react against the intellectual domination of the French Enlightenment and against the idea of a purely rational and universal definition of human nature. Instead, German thinkers began to develop the idea that humanity consists of different peoples (in German, Volk, people or folk) who share a common language, culture, and history. This idea was picked up on and carried forward by the Romantic movement, which emphasized emotion and particularity as opposed to the reason and universality of the Enlightenment.

Against this backdrop of growing German cultural self-identity, the military and political humiliation of the crushing Prussian defeat at Jena by Napoleon in 1806 flashed like a bolt of lightning. Prussia was forced to surrender all of its territory west of the Elbe River, and Napoleon even occupied Berlin. This defeat led to reforms of the feudal system in Prussia in 1807, not wholly unlike the changes in Japan after the Meiji Restoration. It also inspired one of the most important statements of German nationalism, a series of lectures delivered in Berlin in 1807–1808 by the most important German philosopher of the time, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814).

Despite his success as an academic philosopher, Fichte’s best-known work derived from a series of lectures inspired by the nationalist awakening he experienced as a result of Napoleon’s defeat and occupation of Prussia, the leading German state. He gave the lectures, entitled Addresses to the German Nation (1807), to raise morale and inspire patriotism among Germans.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation (1807–1808), trans. R. F. Jones and G. H. Turnbull. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (1979): 3–4, 12–13, 15, 131, 132, 135–36, 138, 143–44, 145, 146–47, 151, 153, 223–24, 264, 266, 268.

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