The defeat of Russia in the Crimean War (1853–1856) convinced the newly enthroned Alexander II (r. 1855–1881) of the need for fundamental reforms in his country. The first institution he tackled was serfdom, and his Emancipation Edict (1861) ostensibly freed peasants from their bondage to the landowning aristocracy. Although the edict affected some 50 million serfs, it was not fully implemented. Peasants were not given land titles per se; the land was turned over to the control of local communities (mirs), which then allocated parcels to individual serfs. Moreover, they were forced to make annual payments to the government in the form of loans that would compensate the former landowners; the loan amounts were often higher than the dues aristocrats had demanded before emancipation.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte
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.
Otto von Bismarck
After the fall of Napoleon in 1815, Germany was still divided into thirty-eight German states, the most important of which were Austria and Prussia. Until midcentury, memories of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars would make the rulers of German states more concerned with preventing revolution than with achieving unity. In 1848, though, revolution again swept Europe, representatives from German states met in the Frankfurt Parliament, and hope was once more kindled that Germany could be united. The powers of the old states had only been temporarily eclipsed, however, and eventually they reasserted themselves and the dreams of German unity via the Frankfurt Parliament evaporated.
With this new setback, nationalists increasingly came to embrace what was called the Kleindeutsch (or small German) solution, deciding that, if they waited to unify all Germans, German national unification would never occur. Hence, they were willing to accept a less-than-total unification led by Prussia, the largest essentially German state.
Prussia, under the leadership of the brilliant but domineering Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), succeeded in unifying Germany. Bismarck was the prime minister of Prussia from 1862 to 1871 and then of the united Germany until 1890. He engineered the unification of non-Austrian Germans in the German Reich (or empire) by 1871, but he did so at the expense of many of the liberal hopes of German nationalists.
By extremely adroit maneuvering and a willingness to use force, he involved Prussia in three wars (with Denmark, Austria, and France) that resulted in German unification under the Prussian king, who was crowned the German Kaiser, or emperor, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris in 1871. In the passage excerpted here from his 1899 Memoirs, Bismarck presents a dynastic understanding of German identity that required unification from above. Bismarck defined the issue as an encounter between German subnational identities and the task of German state building.
Otto von Bismarck, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman, 2 vols., trans. A. J. Butler (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1899), 1:318–25.
The prime architect of Russia’s railroad and industrial expansion in the late nineteenth century was Sergei Witte (1849–1915). Witte traced his ancestry on his father’s side to Dutch immigrants, but the family had worked its way up in Russian society. Sergei’s father held the rank of a midlevel bureaucrat in Russia and had married into a noble and well-connected Russian family. Sergei earned a degree from Novorossiiskii University and wanted to pursue a career in mathematics, but he lacked the resources to do so. Oddly, for someone with his family connections, he took a job as a cashier at a ticket window, but by dint of work and a genius for detail, he worked his way up to head the Department of Railways in 1889. His adept handling of the railroad, along with his proven managerial skills, ultimately led to his appointment as minister of communications (1892) and minister of finance (1892–1903).
In 1899, Minister of Finance Witte wrote a “secret memorandum” on economic strategy to Tsar Nikolas II, outlining his program of industrialization. The reading that follows comprises excerpts from this official memo to the tsar. This memo is particularly revealing and interesting because the goals and methods proposed for industrialization are connected with national power rather than with individual prosperity and freedom. In order to achieve industrialization, Witte also advocated governmental planning, protective tariffs, and reliance on foreign creditors and loans. Some scholars have suggested that his policy was merely a new expression of state power and centralization in Imperial Russia; others have contended that Witte’s proposals foreshadowed the development of the massive “five-year plans” devised in later years by the Soviets.
Sergei Witte, Report of The Minister of Finance to His Majesty on The Necessity of Formulating And Thereafter Steadfastly Adhering to a Definite Program of a Commercial And Industrial Policy of The Empire (Extremely Secret). In T. H. Von Laue, “A Secret Memorandum of Sergei Witte on the Industrialization of Imperial Russia,” Journal of Modern History, 26, no. 1 (March 1954): 60–74. Copyright © The University of Chicago Press.
Lajos Kossuth was a Hungarian political leader and lawyer. Born in 1802, he was a key participant in the Magyar nationalist movement. As the editor of a newspaper in Pest, he gained renown for advocating for an end to Hungary’s political and economic subordination to Austria, as well as widespread liberal reforms. His nationalism promoted the interests of Magyars over Slavonic Hungarians, a position which ultimately cost him his job, and contributed to the collapse of Hungary, after its 1848 revolution. During this revolution he was appointed to the Hungarian government and became Regent-President of the Kingdom of Hungary. With the collapse of the Hungarian government, in 1849, Kossuth fled the country and continued his struggle for full Hungarian independence from abroad. In this speech he warns of the mounting danger of Slavic separatism to the Hungarian nationalist movement.
From W. H. Stiles, Austria in 1848–49. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1852, II, p. 384–94.
The novelist Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828–1889) believed that even the emancipation of serfs was insufficient to reform Russian society, since its authoritarian and patriarchal institutions had rendered it unequal and backward by every measure. An educated elite had emerged in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century, and this group felt alienated both from the larger culture and the traditions of Russian society. Chernyshevsky advocated a top-to-bottom restructuring of Russian society, and he was particularly drawn to the idea of liberating women from their subordination within the Russian family. Arrested on largely fabricated charges in 1862 and awaiting trial in St. Petersburg, Chernyshevsky produced his last significant and most influential work, the novel What Is to Be Done? In early 1864, he was convicted of subversion, and he spent the next eighteen years in prison or in exile in eastern Siberia. What Is to Be Done? offers a fascinating portrait of intelligent young people attempting to reform a society that seemed in desperate need of change.
Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done?, trans. Michael R. Katz (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 278–279, 280–281, 283–284.