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  • Wettkampf der Nationen: Konstructionen einer deutschen Ehrgemeinschaft an der Wende vom Mittelalter zur Neuzeit
  • Geoffrey Dipple
Caspar Hirschi . Wettkampf der Nationen: Konstructionen einer deutschen Ehrgemeinschaft an der Wende vom Mittelalter zur Neuzeit. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2005. 558 pp. index. bibl. €48. ISBN: 3-89244-936-8.

Noting the often virulent manifestations of nationalism which have arisen since the end of the Cold War, Caspar Hirschi opens this book by asking whether the roots of the modern nation, and with it modern nationalism, run deeper than recent research in the social sciences suggests. In response to scholars such as Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Terence Ranger, who have described the nation as a child of the modern world, he identifies nation-building as a long-term, discontinuous process beginning in the Middle Ages. He argues further that the Renaissance humanists, especially those in Germany, exercised an enduring influence on the development of the rhetoric of the modern state and, consequently, on the process of nation-building in Europe. In this sense, at least, the Renaissance qualifies as an ancestor of modernity.

Hirschi traces the foundations for the humanists' concept of the nation to medieval changes in meaning of the classical concepts of patria and natio. The former was employed by monarchs of the High Middle Ages to emphasize the primary loyalty of subjects, particularly the elites in feudal society, to the sovereign, and thereby encouraged the social horizontality necessary to the establishment of the nation. The politicization of the latter concept Hirschi associates not so much with its usage at the universities as at church councils during the conciliar epoch, especially the Council of Constance. These councils contributed to the growing gravamina directed against the papal curia, which subsequently developed into a more general criticism of Rome in the German lands, a criticism fed by Habsburg propaganda in the reigns of Frederick III and Maximilian I. German anticurialism and criticism of Rome grew into a more general criticism of Italy in response to the identification by Italian humanists of Germany and the Germans with barbarism. In the process, the German humanists transformed the bipolar vision of their Italian counterparts, who regarded Italy as an island of civilization in a sea of barbarity, into a multipolar vision of competing nations striving for dignity and [End Page 1241] honor against a multitude of similar communities. They turned accusations of barbarism on their French and Italian neighbors and called for the protection of Germany's pristine values against corroding foreign influences.

The humanist discourse on the nation remained relatively uniform during the reign of Maximilian I, but disintegrated as a result of the imperial election of 1517, with its threat of foreign candidates and feared loss of the imperial office, and the Reformation, which tore apart the ranks of the humanists. Already during the election campaign Habsburg propaganda began portraying the princes rather than the emperor as the defenders of German liberties. As the confessional divide was politicized Protestant propagandists combined this portrayal of the princes with the humanist criticism of Rome. Catholic propagandists responded with attacks on Luther as a new barbarian threat to German civilization, which was now again identified closely with Rome. Although the activities of the humanists did not provide a sufficient basis for cohesion in the empire during the confessional age, they did lay the foundation for later secular discourse on the nation, and Hirschi closes the book with a reflection on the humanists' legacy in subsequent manifestations of German nationalism.

This is an ambitious book, and the breadth of subject matter covered is impressive. In spite of this breadth, Hirschi remains focused on his thesis and the outlines of his argument are clear. Hirschi's style is also clear and compelling, and the book is an enjoyable read even for those whose mother tongue is not German. It brings a fresh and welcome perspective, not only to the discussion of the development of modern nationalism, but also to the relationship between the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the confessional age.

Geoffrey Dipple
Augustana College


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pp. 1241-1242
Launched on MUSE
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Archive Status
Archived 2009
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