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  • Popular Culture and the Public Sphere in the Rhineland 1800–1850
  • Albert J. Schmidt
Popular Culture and the Public Sphere in the Rhineland 1800–1850. By James M. Brophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xvi plus 365 pp. $99).

Writing social history, especially the ‘bottom up’ kind employed by Brophy, is currently fashionable,1 often providing readers with new takes on old topics. This essay on Rhineland popular culture is first-rate ‘bottoms up’ history despite the author’s allowing methodology on occasion to eclipse the new light that he sheds on his story, the revolutions of 1848.

Brophy proposes looking at Vormärz Rhineland, which after the Vienna settlement in 1815 became a province of eastward-looking and absolutist Prussia. His thesis is that the late forties uprisings had popular no less than bourgeois roots. An underclass (the public sphere) almost unconsciously dabbling in political ideas is key. Brophy traces this political baptism to such pastimes as public reading, singing, carnival, the usage of public space (festivals, planting liberty trees), and tavern and market talk. Each became a vehicle for the formation of political opinion, generally expressive of discontent with the regime. Not surprisingly, popular disapproval also peaked in more conventional ways—in citizen clashes with the gendarmerie and in the contentious relations between a largely Catholic populace and their Church and the Protestant regime. In searching for popular antecedents to 1848 Brophy embraces even art, most notably a painting by one Johann Petr Hansenclever entitled The Newspaper Readers: Tavern Scene, 1835. This piece shows workers—one reading and three others listening and presumably discussing what they have just heard. Their diverse reactions are eerily reflected by splashes of light, chiaroscuro effects, in the [End Page 518] dimly-lit barroom. No bourgeois conspirators, just interested plain folks! Brophy obviously regards this as a centerpiece in his production: he has embedded it in both the text (p. 3) and featured it on the dust jacket.

It is essential to note that Brophy aims at more in this work than a new slant on Vormärz. His real target is Jügen Habermas, whose bourgeois-centric analysis, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), stands in contradiction to Brophy’s own popular emphasis.

This study of opinion formation shows the degree of depth and breadth with which ordinary Rhinelanders acquired partisan views between Napoleon and the Revolution of 1848. Popular culture, we have seen, offered a low road to political communications. Civil society’s crowded marketplace of ideas and alternative political views reached ordinary men and women in ways that bear little resemblance to the Habermasian public sphere. For Habermas and subsequent generations of scholars,the public sphere is first and foremost a cultural real of elite letters and privileged social spaces that transformed private citizens into a reasoning, disinterested public. Through press and associational life, the middle class envisioned itself as a ‘public,’ an entity larger than the sum of atomistic individuals, which exerted its opinion on state affairs

(Brophy, p. 300).

Besides illuminating Vormärz and German politics Brophy sheds light on American immigration history: those critically analyzed popular phenomena like reading, singing, and carnival splendidly reveal a people many of whom left Germany (Rhineland and otherwise) for America both during Vormärz and afterwards.

Brophy is, moreover, superb in his treatment of religion, principally Catholicism and the Church which exerted great influence in the lives of Rhenish Germans. The author’s exploration of the troubles between the Protestant/Prussian State and the Church—especially, those in Cologne between the state and the archbishop—foreshadows the Kulturkampf conflict which engulfed Bismarckian Germany decades later.

In summary, this is well researched and written—except for occasional flights into verbosity and jargon—grounded in archival, popular, and printed sources, as well as numerous secondary works. The popular sources which the author has used emit an endless stream of anecdotes which enliven the text. The index is carefully formed, and a map of the Rhineland in 1832 further assists the reader in setting limits to the Rhineland and serving as a guide to its towns.

Albert J. Schmidt
Quinnipiac College of Law and The George Washington University




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pp. 518-519
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