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GE11: History and Identity in Germany, 1750 to the Present

This paper will be available in the academic year 23-24.

“It is characteristic of the Germans”, Nietzsche remarked in 1886, “that the question 'what is German?' never dies out among them”. GE11 surveys the many different answers to this question that German thinkers and writers, including Nietzsche himself, produced since the middle of the eighteenth century. It examines how new conceptions of “what is German” were forged in a series of often heated debates about the nature and purpose of history in general and German history in particular. The paper’s premise is that the question of German national identity was intimately tied up with the question “what is history?” and with more specific questions about the German past: What was the course of German history? Would it deliver the German nation to a pre-eminent position in Europe and indeed the world? What were the decisive moments of this national history, the ones that defined the “Germanness” or Deutschtum of the Germans? How should such moments be individually remembered and officially commemorated?

It is easy to see why German intellectuals thought differently about these issues before and after 1945. Delineating the ways in which an earlier, positively conceived German “special path” towards national unity and global hegemony turned into its opposite after World War II and the Holocaust is more complicated. Even the post-war narrative of a fateful German Sonderweg culminating in the horrors of the Third Reich, paradoxically, preserved certain notions of German uniqueness and universal significance. We will investigate the extent to which both narratives relied on mythological elements and how the latter facilitated their public acceptance. GE12 is primarily concerned with these interpretative and imaginative aspects of German historical writing, that is, with the creative transformation of certain events (“facts”) into collectively shared beliefs about the nation’s destiny. Among other things, it asks why myths of historical destiny as well as cultural and racial unity were so central to the formation of a German national identity.

Section A introduces the major German-speaking contributions to Geschichtsphilosophie or the philosophy of history, from Immanuel Kant to Oswald Spengler and beyond. It looks at the most famous and influential attempts to determine the meaning of history and the specific role of the German people in the world-historical process. One of its central themes is the emergence of a radically new “historicized” vision of the world: Every social and political institution, every religious belief-system and philosophical idea, Leopold von Ranke, the leader of this historicizing revolution, argued, was a product of its time and thus had to be understood in its own, historically contingent terms. Many scholars consider historicism (Historismus) the greatest cultural and intellectual achievement of modern German thought.

One of the more peculiar aspects of German national identity in the period 1750-1945 was the belief that there existed a special affinity or bond between modern Germans and Ancient Greeks. Section B examines this attachment to the Greek past (Grecophilia or philhellenism) as a German cultural obsession with decidedly political implications, from the veneration of Athenian art in the Weimarer Klassik to the Nazi instrumentalization of Spartan militarism and eugenics. The sources for this section include artworks, archaeological findings, films (e.g. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, 1938), and the architectural models for Albert Speer’s neo-classical re-imagining of Berlin. We will also visit to the Archaeological Museum in the Classics Faculty to take a closer look at the sculptures that so enthused Winckelmann and Goethe.

Mythological accounts of past achievements (or victimization) are a central part of every country’s national identity. In Section C, we look at three distinctive German historical myths: the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest (9 AD) as a defence of Ancient Germanic independence from Rome; the invention of the Gothic style as an expression of German medieval spirituality and “earnestness”; the transformation of the Protestant Reformation into a specifically German “deed” (Tat) with world-historical consequences. When and how were the leader of the Germanic armies, Herman Hermann the Cheruscan (17 BC – 21 AD), the medieval Emperor Frederick I (1122-1190), and Luther turned into national heroes? What agendas did their mythification and commemoration serve? How did the collective memories of them change over time? Is there a place for national myths in contemporary Germany?

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, German intellectual such as J.G. Herder began to conceive of the very diverse German-speaking inhabitants of the Holy Roman Empire as belonging to a single, unified nation or Volk. In the absence of a German nation-state, they argued that the German people were united not politically, but culturally: by their language and literature, their shared past, their customs and traditions, as well as certain innate characteristics such as loyalty (Treue) and bravery (Mut). Section D traces the transformation of this early cultural and still expansive conception of the Volk into a more aggressively xenophobic and racist nationalism in the second half of the nineteenth century, when a group of völkisch thinkers developed notions of ethnic purity and Aryan supremacy that later informed the racial ideology and genocidal policies of the Third Reich.

Up to 1945, German intellectuals described their country’s “special path” to modernity in overwhelmingly positive, indeed congratulatory terms. After the end of World War II, they gradually came to re-assess this narrative and embarked on the long, arduous process of critical self-inspection known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Section E looks at the various factors that delayed Vergangenheitsbewältigung in West Germany and that largely prevented it in the GDR. We will concentrate on the acrimonious debates among historians, social scientists, and philosophers about the origins of the Third Reich, the meaning of Hitler, the singularity of Auschwitz, German victimhood, and the appropriate forms of commemorating German guilt. These debates seemed to subside in the last 20 years, as working through the Nazi past became a state-sanctioned project, but they resurfaced with a vengeance in the recent controversy over the comparability of the Holocaust and (German) colonial crimes.

GE11 offers the opportunity to study a wide range of texts and artefacts that are of political and social rather than purely cultural significance. It is a foray into the realm of ideas (the “German mind”, if you will), but its aim is to show how these ideas became ideologies and how they shaped German politics and society since 1750. It allows you to explore one of the most fascinating – and fateful – periods of German history from a different angle. We assume no prior knowledge of history, merely an interest in the intellectual debates that formed and transformed German national consciousness and made the country what it is now.   




The German Conception of History (I): From Kant to Ranke

The German Conception of History (II): From Nietzsche to Meinecke



1. The Rise of Philhellenism (Winckelmann and Humboldt)

2. The Dark Side of Hellas: Nietzsche, Burckhardt and the Revaluation of Greek Antiquity

3. Philhellenism and Nazism: Art and Ideology



1. The Gothic Revival and Romantic Medievalism

2. 'Hermann the German' and the rise of Teutomania in the 19th Century

3. The Nationalist Conscription of Luther and the Reformation



1. Fashioning the Volk: Fichte, Jahn, and Arndt

2. The völkisch movement: Lagarde, Langbehn, Chamberlain

3. Nazi ideology between völkisch nationalism and biological racism



1. Vergangenheitsbewältigung in the Federal Republic before 1989

2. Antifascism and the German Past in the German Democratic Republic 1949-89

3. Facing the German Past in a unified Germany, 1990-2021

Preparatory reading: 

S. Berger, Germany. Inventing the Nation (London, 2004)

O. Dann, Nation und Nationalismus in Deutschland, 1770-1990 (Munich, 1993)

A Bowie, German Philosophy. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2010)

Alexander Demandt, Philosophie der Geschichte: Von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Cologne, 2011), ch. 7-16

H de Berg and D Large (eds), Modern German Thought from Kant to Habermas: An Annotated German-Language Reader (Rochester, 2012)

Full reading list

Please see the GE11 reading list here.

Teaching and learning: 

Students choose four of the five sections on offer. They study two topics from each section. One supervision will be devoted to each topic. There will be lectures on all topics and all lectures are accompanied by extensive handouts.

Learning resources:

The Moodle site for GE11 can be found here. Students should email the paper coordinator for the enrollment password.


Examination from 2024: The coursework element will be released at the end of the Lent term. In the exam at the end of the year, you answer two questions, each from a different section. Past question papers can be seen on Moodle.  Students also have the option of preparing a dissertation of 10,000 words instead of sitting the exam (the Optional Dissertation).

Course Contacts: 
Dr Martin Ruehl