- The Nation as a Local Metaphor: Württemberg, Imperial Germany and National Memory, 1871–1918
Since the middle of the 1980s the history of bourgeois society ( bürgerliche Gesellschaft) has motivated some of the most innovative research on Imperial Germany. Following the completion of numerous research projects and monographs in both German and English the material outlines of bourgeois life have been well drawn. We are well informed about how they lived—their politics, local organizations and family structure—but less so about how they thought, about issues of bourgeois subjectivity and identity. Alon Confino’s new book investigates bourgeois subjectivity by focusing on one of its most salient aspects, the formation of a national cultural identity. In his study of the “Heimat idea” in Imperial Germany, we revisit the topic of nationalism through the lens of local history and via the concept of collective memory. Confino’s contribution to Bürgertumsforschung analyzes how the bourgeoisie shaped German national identity in their own image, the vehicle of which was the “Heimat idea”, a way of imagining the nation in terms of the local.
Drawing on the work of Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, Pierre Nora and Amos Funkenstein, Confino explores “the ways people turn national”(xii), focusing on how Germans “internalized the nation-state by transforming it into a local experience”(50). This was accomplished by the creation of a “common denominator between their intimate local place and the abstract national world”(xii). This “common denominator” was the “Heimat idea”, the imagining of the nation via local idioms which “transformed the nation into an everyday life experience”(xii). The “Heimat idea” was “a visual image of the nation that represented interchangeably the locality, the region and the nation”(9). According to Confino, this “invented” tradition which arose in the context of [End Page 223] the rise of popular politics and the beginnings of the tourist industry between 1890 and 1914 was the dominant form through which Germans imagined their national community.
Confino’s study addresses two forms of “local-national memory”(11); the analysis of these two forms gives the book its structure and chronology. The first section covers the invention of Sedan Day, a yearly celebration of military victory over France during the Franco-Prussian War, as a national holiday. Created by local bourgeois notables, this holiday “represented the nation in a setting of localism”(39). Confino defines Sedan Day as a form of national imagining connected to the social formation of German liberalism between 1870 and 1890. In their blatant rescripting of local history, liberal notables fashioned conceptions of nationhood and profiled themselves as national educators, as spokesmen for the emerging nation state. As Confino claims, these celebrations were exclusive, elitist and ultimately unable to garner a truly popular following. Sedan Day, a celebration of the national conducted in a local idiom, addressed political and social issues that “became obsolete” with the rise of popular politics after 1890. As the Sedan Day celebrations declined, what Confino calls the “Heimat idea” rose to prominence, a new way of imagining the intersections, or mutual embeddedness, of the national and the local.
The second half of the book presents a rich analysis of the “Heimat idea”, as Confino traces its formation through the production of local histories ( Heimatbücher), local cultural museums ( Heimatmuseen) and the groups and associations of the Heimat movement. He analyzes the concept of Heimat as a new way of seeing and thinking about history and historical change that was anti-scientific, anti-professional, popular and based on emotion and the authenticity of personal experience. “By making the Heimat memory into a social mode of action through books, museums, organizations, and associations, and, not least, through changing the meaning of the word Heimat” from a representation of the local to an image of the national, he writes, “Heimatlers formed a bourgeois social milieu of memory”(157). This second section contains the book’s greatest strengths, its most compelling arguments and its claim to originality...