When Napoleon invaded Germany, it had not yet acquired a national identity. The country was a hodgepodge of kingdoms and principalities. Napoleon and the ideas of the French Revolution transformed the country and its culture. In reducing radically the number of independent states within Germany, Napoleon streamlined governance and prepared the country for nationhood and unity. His introduction of his law code also abolished the hundreds of judicial systems that then were operative. Many admired him for the introduction of the ideals of liberty and equality, such as Beethoven.
The tide turned, not only because of French troops occupying German territory and French governance, but also because of Napoleon’s ambition to set himself up as emperor. This clearly contradicted the ideals of liberty and equality. Beethoven turned against Napoleon. Nationalism awoke in a country that had known allegiance only to a principality or, more broadly, to cosmopolitan culture. The fervor led to a blossoming of literature and music. It also led to the formation of armed units, manned by volunteers from all classes – formerly the bourgeoisie had no part in armed defense -. Ultimately, the defeat of Napoleon in Russia ushered in a coalition of armies under a capable general, von Blücher, of peasant stock, not an aristocrat, as in the past. Together with the English commander, the Duke of Wellington, these combined forces defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. There are interesting accounts of the campaign – also Goethe commented – by the German aide to Bluecher and to Wellington and other major figures in the war of liberation.
Napoleon’s reorganization was a prod to German reformers. They realized the time had come to transform the moribund social structure. Their reforms – Freiherr von Stein was prominent in these difficult and time-consuming efforts – might be regarded as essential steps to the formation of the modern Germany we know. This, despite the resolute efforts after Napoleon’s defeat, to reintroduce the old system of absolute control over the populace.
Poets, students, and liberals of diverse professions banded to together to protest. Heinrich Heine, one of the greatest poets of all times, wrote in defense of liberty, then had to flee to France to save his own freedom and life. The Brothers Grimm resigned as professors at one of the most prestigious universities rather than signing an oath that means their acquiescence to the abolition of the constitution of the principality of Hannover.
Course materials will illustrate the transformation of Germany in the wake of the French Revolution, particularly the transformation that Napoleon initiated and that, in the long run, profoundly changed Germany’s identity as a nation.
Texts: Hauff, Wilhelm, Das Bild des Kaisers (Reclam edition)
Queen Louise of Prussia’s Appeal to her People and similar documents