- Unintended Affinities: Nineteenth-Century German and Polish Historians on the Holy Roman Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by Adam Kożuchowski
The Holy Roman Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were large early modern states which each disappeared off the map of Europe around the same time: the Commonwealth ceased to exist after the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, while the Holy Roman Empire dissolved in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. Adam Kożuchowski's new book explores the parallel golden ages and demises of these states through the eyes of 19th-century Polish and German historians. As these historians attempted to make sense of the particularities of their respective states' decline, they nonetheless employed "analogous traits" (3) of historical analysis. Yet a major critical tension lay at the heart of their work: as these historians celebrated their nations' past triumphs, they simultaneously sought the reasons for their untimely disappearance.
Kożuchowski structures his analysis around four primary temporal comparisons: the prehistoric birth of the nation, its glorious early modern expansion, a decline and fall, and the possibility of its rebirth. In their examinations of the prehistorical period, the historians sought to establish the "prestige" (27) of an ancient genealogy that might justify a state's renewed existence in the present. Because a nation was understood to be a living organism where "the nucleus of the nation's whole" (29) already existed, the prehistoric version must contain all the nation's defects and future possibilities.
German and Polish historians believed their prehistories were "unpolluted by foreign elements" (55). The expansion of states in the late medieval and early modern periods (thanks to the union of Poland and Lithuania, and the Holy Roman Empire's acquisition of territories in southern Europe and Burgundy) presented historians with a new historical paradox: expansion brought a state glory, but weakened its internal cohesion and unity, leaving historians uncertain as to how to evaluate the merits of imperial expansion.
The Reformation and Post-Reformation period proved particularly difficult for interpretation. The Reformation allowed both states to develop an "individual path" (92) from other European nations. The Protestant Reformation was the Holy Roman Empire's unique contribution to world history, but the attendant rise of religious plurality weakened the Empire's unity, as the nobility were permitted to pursue independent religious trajectories in their own territories. Protestant celebrations of the Reformation "dominated" German historiography, although the position remained "defensive" (96). Similarly, Polish historians celebrated the Commonwealth's expansion of religious tolerance [End Page 257] after the Reformation as an "extension of the rights of the individual" (99). But this tolerance provoked a decentralization that proved fatal. Thus the historians pointed to the same historical moments as evidence of both strength and weakness. Kożuchowski argues that historians linked a state's fall to one "unfulfilled ideal," a flaw from its zenith that could help to explain its eventual decline: the lack of "national unity" in the Empire, and the lack of "political efficiency" in the Commonwealth (113).
Kożuchowski's final chapter examines the possibility of "national reconstruction" (145) after a state's dissolution. He argues that the Germans were less traumatized than the Poles about the loss of their state, and idealized the early modern period less. Despite his thesis of similarities between German and Polish historians, and despite the commonalities of these historians' tropes, the differences between national historians grew stronger as the 19th century progressed. The achievement of a united Germany in 1871 allowed German historians to perceive the dissolution of the Empire more positively, as it ultimately proved to produce greater unity among Germans.
Kożuchowski challenges the usefulness of interpreting these histories as primarily nationalist. He argues that the frequency of the word's appearance often obscures a "multiplicity of contemporary political sentiments" (163) and does not automatically grant analytic clarity. His book covers a century of thought and multiple schools of historiography that wrote in a plurality of political modes. This point is well...