Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Arndt, Ernst Moritz

  • Historical background and contextLiterature (fictional prose/drama)Literature (poetry/verse)Text editionsGerman
  • Author:
    Leerssen, Joep
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  • Title:
    Arndt, Ernst Moritz
  • Text:

    Born 1769 on the (then Swedish) island of Rügen as the son of an erstwhile serf, Arndt studied theology at Greifswald and Jena. After extensive journeys around Europe, he was appointed at Greifswald. His history of serfdom in Pomerania and Rügen (Geschichte der Leibeigenschaft in Pommern und Rügen, 1803) established his fame as a champion of liberty. In these years, Napoleon’s imperial rise at the cost of the Holy Roman Empire and Prussia made Arndt an inveterate opponent of all that was French, and all that threatened the moral integrity of the German nation. His Geist der Zeit or “Spirit of the age”, of which the first instalment appeared in late 1805, placed him in the very forefront of German Romantic Nationalism and paved the way for Fichte’s Reden an die Deutsche Nation of 1808. Here, Arndt sought to establish the moral causes driving political events, castigated the spinelessness of the German princes in the face of French hegemonism, and called for a collective (“national”) moral revival as a necessary prerequisite for German political survival. His anti-Napoleonic invective was so vehement that he had to seek refuge in Sweden (1806-09), and ultimately in St Petersburg (1812-13), where he functioned as secretary to the Prussian statesman in exile, Baron vom Stein. Arndt was among the first Germans to celebrate the stalwart resistance of the Spanish and, later, the Russians, against Napoleon, holding them up as example to the Germans. During the wars of 1813, Arndt offered, not only a reflection of Napoleon’s Russian campaign (as Geist der Zeit vol. 3), but also a number of patriotic songs that have remained on the repertoire of nationalistic German poetry ever since, and of which the most famous, “Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland?” functioned as an unofficial national anthem for a while. This truly seminal song repeatedly, from stanza to stanza, asks the question which land should be called the German’s fatherland; each region between the North Sea and the Alps is mentioned, but in each instance the refrain proclaims that the true fatherland must be larger than that, ultimately to conclude that the German’s fatherland lies “wherever the German tongue is heard”.

    This song encapsulates the link which Arndt, practically the first among European intellectuals, made between language and state-territory. For him, language is not the ambience of human communication but a footprint on the map, a geopolitical area. In similar fashion, he would derive political claims on certain territories from the ethnicity of the tribes which in ancient times had inhabited them. This made him the harbinger both of German irredentism and of the “political philology” which flourished in the mid-to-late 19th century – and later. From 1813 until his death in 1860, Arndt would never cease to claim for a regenerated Germany the ancient (pre-1648) borders of the Holy Roman Empire, including Switzerland, Alsace-Lorraine and the Low Countries, as well as the Danish-controlled duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. His arguments always invoked the ancient tribal and medieval settlements of those areas and their Germanic linguistic substratum, and the moral imperative to redeem them from history’s flawed course by reintegration into a German whole. This geocultural argument – in essence mapping the borders of a projected Germany onto the language territory which he called “German”, including Flemish, Dutch and Frisian – was first made in Der Rhein, Teutschlands Strom, nicht Teutschlands Gränze (1813, “The Rhine, Germany’s River, not Germany’s Frontier”). It was reiterated during the Belgian crisis of 1830-31 and throughout later decades in repeated pamphlets and activist periodicals concerning Schleswig-Holstein (e.g. Germania: Die Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft der deutschen Nation (1851-52; edited by a Verein von Freunden des Volkes und Vaterlandes or “Society of Friends of the People and the Fatherland”).

    Arndt’s public standing was very high as a result of his dauntless anti-Napoleonic invective in the Geist der Zeit and his nationalist verse of 1813. He was given a professorship at the newly established university of Bonn in 1818, but soon ran afoul of the Restoration authorities, who suspected him of sympathizing with radical-nationalist students and gymnasts. Indeed Arndt was a populist rather than a straightforward reactionary-conservative: his German, anti-French chauvinism was accompanied by mistrust of the German princes who had failed to protect their subjects, and by the lingering bitterness of the popular servitude and aristocratic prerogatives of the ancien régime. This marks Arndt’s second influence: the combination of ethnic chauvinism on the one hand (he held that “hatred of France” was a moral imperative for every true German, and at times betrayed a visceral antisemitism and anti-Catholicism) and on the other hand a democratic belief in popular empowerment. The succeeding Vormärz generation (most notably Hoffmann von Fallersleben) was to inherit this combination of attitudes.

    Arndt’s prototypical nationalism – he may be said to embody all the aspects, from 1810 onwards, of cultural nationalism as we encounter it in the following generation – also meant that he urged, in the later volumes of Geist der Zeit, means to consolidate a sense of German identity among the populations of the German states. In some of these proposals he followed the Gymnast leader Friedrich Jahn; in others he shows a remarkable debt to nation-building instruments initially developed in Revolutionary France: national feasts and commemorations (e.g. of Luther, of the Battle of  Leipzig), the need for a national dress, etc. Such a “cultural transfer” across ideological and national divides is remarkable in this inveterate antirevolutionary and France-hater.

    By 1840, Arndt had matured into the moral conscience of German nationalism. When Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who had been educated in a Romantic spirit, mounted the Prussian throne, one of his first acts of government was to restore Arndt to his professorial dignity. In 1841 Arndt became rector of Bonn university. When he took a seat as delegate in the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848 (where he influentially continued to stress the historical inevitability that Germany include Schleswig, Holstein and the Low Countries, but wanted to exclude the Habsburg lands, tainted as they were with Catholicism and non-German ethnicities), he was given a standing ovation and vote of national gratitude. He died in Bonn in 1860, where a statue in his honour was erected in 1865.

    Word Count: 1027

  • Notes:

    A visualization of Arndt’s correspondence network is online at ERNiE under the “Letters” tab; or click here.

    Word Count: 18

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  • Article version:
  • DOI:
  • Krügel, Rudolf (1914). Der Begriff des Volksgeistes in Ernst Moritz Arndts Geschichtsanschauung (Langensalza: Beyer)

    Pundt, Alfred George (1935). Arndt and the nationalist awakening in Germany (New York, NY: Columbia UP)

    Schäfer, Karl-Heinz; Schawe, Josef (1971). Ernst Moritz Arndt: Ein bibliographisches Handbuch 1769-1969 (Bonn: Röhrscheid)

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    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): Leerssen, Joep, 2021. "Arndt, Ernst Moritz", 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 03-09-2021, consulted 23-09-2021.