Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 128-129
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Patriotic Women and the National Imagination in Dynastic Germany 1813-1916
Staging Philanthropy: Patriotic Women and the National Imagination in Dynastic Germany 1813-1916. By Jean H. Quataert (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2001) 317 pp. $62.50
Staging Philanthropy is a book with an ambitious agenda. Among the interrelated topics that Quataert addresses are the political history of nineteenth-century Germany, the shaping of nations and nationalism, and women's social and political agency. She employs methods taken from anthropology and cultural and gender studies. Two main themes are central to the work: the role of gendered actions and images in creating and representing the nation and the importance of dynastic patronage for the unfolding of nationalism. Quataert's book contains many intriguing insights, not least the idea that two such seemingly unrelated themes could be woven together so closely. At times, though, one does wonder if the author is stretching her thesis beyond what her empirical evidence will allow.
Quataert considers her topics via a study of the patriotic (vaterländisch) women's associations, first founded to tend to the wounded during the uprising against Napoleonic rule in 1813. Such associations, the author asserts, gave women a specific, gendered role to play in the development of national identity. Both patrons of, and models for, this role were female members of Germany's ruling dynasties. Contemporaries referred to them with a neologism, unknown in the eighteenth century—the Landesmutter (the mother of her country), a phrase first used in association with Prussia's famous anti-Napoleonic Queen Luise.
The author shows how the women's associations turned to organized charitable work after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, confronting the mass poverty of pre-1850 Central Europe. They were, she suggests, a vehicle for popular conservative politics during and after the revolution of 1848. The wars of German unification brought patriotic women's associations back to caring for wounded soldiers. During the German empire, such groups expanded their membership enormously—reaching 800,000 on the eve of World War I—and developed a bureaucratic organizational structure. Patriotic women's' associations were the basis of the German Red Cross; they helped to professionalize nursing; and they were integrated into the imperial governments' colonial ventures in Africa and Asia and in its preparations for a great European war. Quataert describes patriotic women's associations throughout the century, as propagating a gender-dichotomized nationalism that portrayed a national body formed by the contrast between heroic, warring men and loving, caring women. They consistently did so under the patronage of female royalty and aristocrats, thus tying nationalism to Germany's traditional, dynastic power elites.
The author's own evidence, however, sometimes undermines the dichotomized gender characteristics of her thesis. People also turned to the king, the Landesvater, for charitable assistance. Men involved in charitable work were described with the same caring language as used for [End Page 128] women (52-53, 155). Comparing militaristic German veterans' groups of 1890 with German nurses' anguished memoirs of World War I to show differing gendered attitudes toward armed conflict ignores the effect of total war on both men's and women's perceptions (248-249). Curiously, for all her interest in gender dichotomies, the author does not consider the implications of her account for the well-known feminist thesis that the development of nationalist, liberal, and democratic ideas in the wake of the French Revolution marginalized women and excluded them from political life.
At times, Quataert exaggerates the importance of her material. Prussian government gifts to the fifty or so couples celebrating their golden wedding anniversary each year are mentioned as a state-building initiative similar to social insurance or compulsory education legislation (173). Declining, or even nonexistent, associations receive a lengthy and detailed analysis (52-53, 228-230). A "full blown gender crisis in conservative circles" turns out to be a dozen articles in the conservative daily, the Kreuz-Zeitung, most of whose authors agreed on...