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  • Place and Politics: Local Identity, Civic Culture, and German Nationalism in North Germany during the Revolutionary Era
  • James M. Brophy
Place and Politics: Local Identity, Civic Culture, and German Nationalism in North Germany during the Revolutionary Era. By Katherine Aaslestad (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005. xiii plus 384 pp.).

Katherine Aaslestad's fine study on Hamburg's civic identity supplements a growing corpus of studies that re-examines the transformation of political culture during the revolutionary era. As with recent work by Michael Rowe on the Rhineland, Karen Hagemann on Prussia, Robert Beachy on Leipzig, and Ute Planert on south Germany, Aaslestad views local and regional identities as the primary frames of reference for interpreting the German nation's political landscape. By moving beyond Imperial Germany's myth of a "national awakening" in 1813, this newer scholarship accentuates regional political differences, whose fluidity and variety of allegiances bore little resemblance to subsequent political unions. During the Napoleonic era, Aaslestad argues, Hamburg shed its civic-minded patriotism and fashioned a new ethos of economic liberalism and regional solidarity to ensure political survival and commercial prosperity. Using an impressive array of social, economic, and political sources, Aaslestad examines how Hamburg's eighteenth-century civic republicanism evolved into a regional political identity of 'North Germany,' which enabled Bremen, Lübeck, and Hamburg to redefine their Hanseatic mercantilism as part of a larger German identity. Although "the malleability of local identity" persisted throughout the nineteenth century, Aaslestad locates the decisive shift in Hamburg's civic identity during the revolutionary era (319).

To assess the impact of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era on Hamburg, Aaslestad first examines the city's pre-revolutionary political culture. The [End Page 453] opening chapters consequently examine the city's republican ideals, which included self-governance, the rule of law, and rights-bearing citizenship. Above all, the author stresses the communitarian ethos that framed this political culture. Civic republicanism placed the commonweal before individual needs and embraced an ethos of collective responsibility, thus dovetailing individual and community interests. Avowedly anti-aristocratic, the city espoused the moral virtues of thrift, sobriety, and hard work as a path to social harmony. A wide array of charities and societies tended to social needs, thus exemplifying the Enlightenment ideal of autonomous individuals ameliorating society through associative principles. A vibrant print culture of weeklies, journals, newspapers, and broadsheets inculcated these civic ideals to an impressively broad range of readers. Although published opinion is not public opinion, the extensive array of patriotic literature suggests that the city's populace endorsed such attitudes and values.

The 1790s, Aaslestad argues, brought change on political and cultural fronts. Politically, the city participated in the European-wide reception of the French Revolution. Its public sphere articulated initial enthusiasm for the revolution's constitutional ideals, though it mostly used France as a foil to endorse its own moderate republicanism. Over the course of the 1790s, however, good will toward France evolved into disillusionment, a mood strengthened by the flocks of émigrés nesting in Hamburg. Culturally, the decade witnessed a drastic shift in social attitudes. Hamburg prospered in this decade—profiting handsomely from trade with both France and England—and this affluence fostered forms of luxury, ostentation, and conspicuous consumption that contemporaries regarded as an egoistic threat to traditional values. Faced with its own incroyables, Hamburg citizens and publicists raised the alarm of cultural decline. But Aaslestad substantiates this discourse of decadence by examining changes in associational life; rational, civic-minded sociability generally yielded to one of pleasure devoid of public purpose. Swept into the consumption revolution of the Atlantic world, Hamburg's new modes of consumption undermined traditional civic attitudes. New patterns of public conduct emerged, marking a shift from communitarian patriotism to laissez-faire individualism. For Aaslestad, the consumer revolution is as important as the French revolution when explaining the shift in civic identity in the 1790s.

If 'affluenza' eroded the city's communitarian ideals, the Napoleonic era dramatically redefined Hamburg's political identity. Its policy of neutrality, Aaslestad writes, "pleased no one and offended all"—France, Britain, and the Holy Roman Empire (217). In an attempt to protect its profitable status of neutrality, Hamburg initially...


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