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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 374-375
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A German Life in the Age of Revolution:
Joseph Görres, 1776-1848
A German Life in the Age of Revolution: Joseph Görres, 1776-1848. By Jon Vanden Heuvel. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 2001. Pp. xxvii, 408. $69.95.)
A biography of Joseph Görres has been long needed; to write one, however, is a risky undertaking. As a consequence, most historians have approached this many-sided personality and his multi-faceted, difficult œuvre primarily through editions and investigations of particular aspects. In bold strokes, Vanden Heuvel presents a well-organized biography, integrating an immense body of pertinent literature and published and archival sources. Görres' metamorphoses are brought together in a triad, organized around successive new, yet always astonishingly consistent, appearances on the political stage. After 1790, the young Görres, influenced by the climate of the Enlightenment, became active in journalism first as a republican. He welcomed the French Revolution and its cosmopolitanism, but saw it through the lenses of the German idealist, Immanuel Kant. By 1814-1818 the eloquent publisher of the Rheinischer Merkur had turned his back on the Revolution, recalling the medieval, religious traditions of German history. Now he turned himself into the champion of national rebirth against the military despot Napoleon, who was draping a historically-rooted Europe in the abstract, antireligious garments of the Revolution. Implacable persecution by Prussia, which could not bear his quite moderate criticism and his petition for a constitution, forced Görres to flee to Frankfurt, Strasbourg, and Aarau (in Switzerland). The journalistic and political activity that was actually historically significant, however, Görres developed in a third phase, in 1827-1848, when King Ludwig I appointed him Professor of History at the University of Munich. Especially with his Athanasius (1838), with his periodical Eos (1828-1832), and with the Historisch-politische Blätter (1838 ff.) Görres, who had already (1824-1826) served as co-publisher of the Strasbourg periodical Katholik, became the representative of "confessional politics." In the intervals, however, Görres' life was repeatedly characterized by periods of political withdrawal, but restless scholarly activity. Its best-known fruit, Christian Mysticism (1837-1842), with its supernaturalism, constituted an important foundation for his visionary hopes of grounding politics upon a moral, religious basis, in which he also saw a legacy of history.
Vanden Heuvel depicts the process of Görres' inner development synoptically on the basis of selected writings and letters. Beyond that, he embeds this [End Page 374] life broadly and knowledgeably in the intellectual, political, and social structures of the revolutionary period and the Vormärz (a period that has, to be sure, been better researched than Henry Kissinger, in his foreword, supposes). Görres' character, his fearlessness, his integrity, is depicted with empathy. Scholarly comparisons and analogies illustrate important turning points: at first Görres put his trust in the state, until 1800 in the form of a virtuous Republic, and then through 1819, in the form of the Old-German ideal. After 1819, and then again after 1826, it was the Church that became for him the guarantor of freedom and the common weal (p. 254). With characteristic tenacity he appealed to the power of the people; and while his republican and patriotic appeals sounded without echo, with his invocation of religious feeling he aroused a mass political movement (pp. 344 f.).
Such insights, however, should have dissuaded the author from stamping Görres as a political theologian, from terming him, in his third phase, "reactionary" (p. 353) or "arch-conservative." Görres was no determinist proclaiming the existing European social order eternally valid (pp. 303, 363), instrumentalizing religion for national or—in its 'ultramontane' form—anti-revolutionary ends (pp. 274, 339 f). He did, after all, point out to Ludwig I that God himself expected "free self-determination" from human beings (Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 14, p. 106). Adherence to morality, to the common good, to "propriety" ["Sitte"] is for Görres...