Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

Start Over

The Germanisten congresses of 1846 and 1847

  • AssociationsLanguage interestGerman
  • Cultural Field:
  • Author:
    Netzer, Katinka
  • Text:

    Some 200 men assembled in Frankfurt in September 1846 to discuss German law, German language and German history. Among them were famous personalities (such as the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and Ludwig Uhland), renowned scholars, librarians and teachers. They all shared a common self-understanding as Germanisten: scholars of German culture and traditions. The congress in Frankfurt, with its follow-up in Lübeck the following year, were both the start and the culmination of this new academic discipline: Neither before nor afterwards would Germanistik have such a broad scholarly appeal and political importance as in those years leading up to the 1848 revolution.

    The notion of Germanist had in the preceding years undergone a semantic shift. It had been initially used in jurisprudence to denote a preoccupation with native (rather than Roman) law. The first to use it in this sense had been Hermann Conring, founder of German legal history, in his De origine juris germanici (1643); usage became sporadic after that, but from the 1830s onwards came to be applied in the modern sense, and included representatives of German philology.

    A much more inclusive notion of a Germanist field of scholarship was heralded in 1846 when Ludwig Reyscher, legal scholar from Tübingen, first issued a call for a Congress of Germanists. The invitation was addressed to “Men devoted to the cultivation of German law, German history and language”. This broad definition of the discipline as comprising historians, linguists and legal scholars, i.e.  three specialisms, met with some response in the late 1840s but proved untenable, and fissioned back into its constituent components. In later years, Germanistik came to apply exclusively to German philology, the study of language and literature; and the academic consolidation even of this more narrowly-defined discipline was slow and hesitant.

    hat Germanistik experienced a once-off flourish in the run-up to 1848 was as much a matter of politics as of academic developments. Germanists thought of their discipline as a politically involved branch of scholarship, highlighting everything German, and dedicating their energies to the German nation, its past and its culture, in order to understand its present and future needs and requirements.

    Such German scholarship was born from the unsettled years of the anti-Napoleonic Wars of Liberation and the subsequent re-drawing of the map of Restoration Europe. Under French hegemony, the Holy Roman Empire had come to an anticlimactic end, leaving only territorial diffraction and mini-state dynasticism behind. Germanists had found a response to this predicament: an essence of German identity was to be distilled from the study of German culture and history, and could provide a foundation for a reborn nation. Scholarly interest in the German past had the political function to legitimize and rationalize a civic nation-state hitherto unrealized in Germany.

    The Germanists thus saw themselves as, broadly speaking, political actors. Matters came to a head when the contentious issue of Schleswig-Holstein (governed by Denmark, but felt to be part of the German cultural and national sphere) was debated. Reyscher wanted to force his colleagues into a vote. In the ensuing controversy, Jacob Grimm, who chaired the proceedings, called upon delegates to observe the distinction between politics and scholarship and to restrict themselves to the latter; but the distinction was seen differently by different scholars. If the majority decided to refrain from a general vote on the issue, this should not be seen as a dismissal of politics, but rather as a gesture of mistrust to the use of voting as a decision-making instrument. Whereas voting was seen as a part of institutional politics using the procedures of parliaments, a gathering of scholars could not use those means to reach decisions, the implementation of which they lacked the means to enforce. Scholars could thus claim free speech on political topics while rejecting democratic decision-making in political matters; they saw their main task to counsel those who were in political control, and accordingly moved in their debates from topical issues to underlying principles.

    But Germanists were, nonetheless, political activists in the national movement of their time: they were all dedicated to the nation's unity. The political ideals of the pre-1848 national movement were reflected in their scholarly positions, and the themes of their debate were not so much independently discovered as that they were taken from the political agenda of the times.

    The claim to conduct political reflection on a scholarly basis (or, conversely, to extend scholarship into political domain) is already apparent in the Germanists’ debate on the Schleswig-Holstein issue. They adduced arguments from legal and intellectual history to support the German claims on these duchies north of the Elbe – an issue which united all hues and shades of German nationalism and which was therefore all the more vehemently propagated. Central to the argument was the posited existence of a German Kulturnation, to which, so the Germanists argued, the Elbe Duchies belonged as much as all other member states of the German Confederation; historical, linguistic and religious ties could then be invoked to justify political unity. Moreover, this culturalist line of reasoning was complemented by a more ethnic-essentialist one: that of the Stammeszugehörigkeit or “tribal affiliation”, which traced the population back to ancient German(ic) tribes settled in the region.

    Such national attitudes run through the entire proceedings like a red thread: the aim was German unity. This ideal was part of the very formula of Germanistik as the scholarly study of German-ness, above and beyond the petty states and political divisions; it expressed itself in the concept of nationality which was formulated during these congresses. To make up for the lack of a unified nation-state (something which already bespeaks the self-image as a “belated nation”, whose development towards constitutional unity had been arrested), a national community was postulated in cultural and ethnic terms. Hence the repeated recourse taken to Germanic antiquity; hence the invocation of the “tribal” roots of, and connections between, the various German lands, still reflected in manners and customs, speech, literature and the arts.

    With this creation of the concept of a German nation, the Germanists played a central role in the nation-formation processes of the nineteenth century, and represent an academic element in that process which Benedict Anderson has traced in his Imagined Communities. In their constant thematization of the central question “what is German?”, the Germanists offered the culturalist blueprint of a Kulturnation awaiting social and political embodiment as a Staatsnation.

    The German diaspora was co-opted into this endeavour. German emigrants (who had settled abroad, especially in America, in great numbers in the preceding decades) were seen as an object of solidarity; their ties to the German fatherland deserved fostering. This led to a series of proposals for the maintenance of German identity abroad, where German emigrants should be offered German education, books and libraries, thus to ensure their continued identification with the German Kulturnation. A continued German citizenship should keep the option of their re-migration open. And political reforms within the German lands were necessary so that a lack of civil rights should not provide a motivation to emigrate to the New World.

    There was, then, a legal-reformist thrust to the Congresses as well: German jurisprudential unification. The systematization of the legal system across all German lands was a key demand among nationalists as an important step towards German unification. Nativist feelings played into this: to render the legal system properly German (as opposed to Roman law) and, as such, turn it into a nation-building force. A debate was sparked amongst the legal scholars present, where Germanisten (in this restricted sense: proponents of native German law) faced Romanisten (those more inclined to Roman law, which others decried as alien and anti-national). Jurisprudence, then, was not an abstract academic endeavour but enmeshed in the social and political issues of the day. A concrete manifestation was the issue of trial by jury, which was advanced by the Germanisten as a step towards civic involvement in the instruments of state, enhancing popular trust in justice  and government, replacing secret, written trials by oral, public ones, and aiding a shift from a police state to the rule of law.

    Most Germanists were historicists through and through. They were looking for a common-national past which would legitimize a common-national future. The Middle Ages in particular were seen as a glorious, exemplary era of unity; it is in this light that we should understand Jacob Grimm’s opening statement at the Lübeck session that the Congresses reminded him of medieval court sessions.  This recourse to the past (obviously in reply to present frustrations) had been in the air for some decades. The French Revolution had provoked an anti-Enlightenment backlash; the accelerated abolition of the old legal and constitutional order inspired collective apprehensions and, thence, a collective nostalgia for an idealized past as opposed to an unsettled present.

    The importance of the Congresses lies in their impact on German nation-formation. They belong in a series of national congregations and festivals (like gymnastics meetings and choral festivals)  that were popular in the run-up to 1848. With those non-academic gatherings they share their structural ordering and programme ritual, involving joint singing of patriotic songs and a festive entrance cortege into the host city. On certain occasions, the “national” colours (black, red and gold) were displayed, flags and heraldic symbols used for decoration, ceremonial receptions by civic authorities took place. All this created publicity, in the root sense of that term, in that it dedicated, suffused and proclaimed a public space. Press coverage broadcast the events to all German readers, and the public portion of the programme created an interface between the citizenry and the delegates. In a Habermassian sense one might say that in this public sphere, the middle classes become an audience which is a part of public power structures rather than its subject.

    In the history of science, the Congresses (where the fledgeling discipline of Germanistik first manifested itself as an independent branch of scholarship) were important for the creation of professional-academic networks. Such networks had mainly been held together, initially, by letter-correspondence, but the Congresses represent a move towards non-mediated and institutionalized contacts.  Greater significance lies, however, in the fact that the academic-professional network overlapped to a significant extent with the network of those nationalist activists who met in the context of the Germanistik Congresses. The Congresses' protagonists were involved in the more significant political events of the pre-1848 years. Those involved in the 1837 protests of the "Seven Göttingen Professors" against arbitrary government; agitators on the Schleswig Holstein issue; prominent delegates in the 1848 Frankfurt parliament: among all of these we find the names of delegates in the 1846-47 Congresses, who in many other cases were also members of in regional or Estate Assemblies and/or wrote political pamphlets.

    The participating Germanists,  most of whom had professorial appointments,  enjoyed great social prestige, which added lustre to their deliberations and added prestige to their  public commitment to a unified Germany, at a time when this was still aspirational. They strongly influenced the agenda, then, for the Parliament that was to meet in Frankfurt in 1848, especially with regard to the Schleswig-Holstein issue. Programmatic parliamentary speeches on that topic were often held by men who had also discussed it in the Germanistik Congresses.

    The proceedings of Frankfurt 1846 and Lübeck 1847 are an interface between the intellectual and popular national movements in Germany. Popular aspects are mainly found in the setting of the congress, the sessions themselves were more academic. The transmission of the academic rationalized national ideal to the Frankfurt Parliament foundered in the events of 1848-49, but the shadow of the Germanisten around Grimm reaches into German politics beyond the mid-century.

    Word Count: 1932

  • Notes:

    The following participants at the Germanistenversammlungen (in 1846, in 1847, or both) were also present as parliamentary delegates in the 1848 Nationalversammlung in Frankfurt:  Albrecht (1847); Beseler (1846, 1847); Christ (1846, 1847); Dahlmann (1846, 1847); Deecke (1847); Esmarch (1847); Fallati (1847); Gervinus (1846, 1847); Grimm (Jacob) (1846, 1847); v.d. Hagen (1846); Hildebrand (1846); Jaup (1846, 1847); Jürgens (1846); Luntzell (1847); Michelsen (1846, 1847); Mittermaier (1846, 1847); Hermann (1846); v. Raumer (1846); Rößler (1846); Schmidt (1846, 1847); Schubert (1846, 1847); Schultz (1846, 1847); Stenzel (1846, 1847); Sternberg (1846); Thöl  (1847); Uhland (1846); Waitz (1847); Welcker (1846); Wippermann (1846, 1847); Wurm (1846, 1847); Zais (1846).

    short URL to this web page: http://show.ernie.uva.nl/germanisten

    Word Count: 71

  • Article version:
  • DOI:
  • Erler, Adalbert (1971). “Germanisten”, in Erler, Adalbert; Kaufmann, E. (eds.) (1971). Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte (Berlin: Erich Schmidt), 1: 1582-1584

    Fohrmann, Jürgen; Vosskamp, Wilhelm (eds.) (1992). Wissenschaft und Nation. Studien zur Entstehungsgeschichte der deutschen Literaturwissenschaft (München: n.pub.)

    Fohrmann, Jürgen; Vosskamp, Wilhelm (eds.) (1994). Wissenschaftsgeschichte der Germanistik im 19. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart: Metzler)

    Fürbeth, Frank; Krügel, Pierre; Metzner, Ernst Erich (eds.) ; et al. (1999). Zur Geschichte und Problematik der Nationalphilologien in Europa: 150 Jahre erste Germanistenversammlung in Frankfurt am Main, 1846-1996 (Tübingen: Niemeyer)

    Müller, Jörg Jochen (ed.) (1974). Germanistik und deutsche Nation, 1806-1848: Zur Konstitution bürgerlichen Bewußtseins (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler)

    Netzer, Katinka (2006). Wissenschaft aus nationaler Sehnsucht: Verhandlungen der Germanisten 1846 und 1847 (Heidelberg: Winter)

  • Creative Commons License
    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Netzer, Katinka, 2020. "The Germanisten congresses of 1846 and 1847", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 16-07-2020, consulted 15-10-2021.