Such were the words of Alexis de Tocqueville in his mocking evaluation of Prussia’s Civil Code (Allgemeines Landrecht). As its rudimentary principles, the code according to him is basically those of the French Revolution but its real stipulations conserved the German ethnicity. This ongoing pressure involving new and old in Prussia is the subject of Matthew Levinger’s profound study on the efforts of Prussian leaders as they try to invigorate the nation between their defeat by the French in 1806 and the Revolution of 1848.
While the rest of Western Europe (or the world for that matter) is developing in quite the same way, Prussia, the largest German estate of the 1st half of the 19th century, chose to embark on a special path of historical development or what is called as Sonderweg. It is because of this that most historians argue that the Germans lagged behind in modernizing their political institutions especially in that decisive historical moment in history. In Matthew Levinger’s book, he challenges the readers to rethink that general perception regarding Prussia’s history.
His studies show that a profound and irre¬versible political transformation (enlightenment) occurred in Prussia beginning in the Napoleonic era—right after the humiliating rout of the famed Prussian army by Napoleon’s forces (Levinger, p. 227). In the brink of annihilation, a group of Prussian leaders decided to mobilize the populace by uniting a rationalized monarchy and a politically active “nation”. They saw this mobilization as something that would make the monarchial estate stronger.
Truly enough it enhanced the power of the monarchy, but it inhibited the formation of an effervescent parliamentary system of rule. In Levinger’s urge to understand why Germany chose a disastrous turn by embracing National Socialism between 1933 and 1945 ignited his interest in history and thereby writing this book. Like most works regarding German history, this book also has its roots in exile, but Levinger approaches the problem quite indirectly as he has only viewed the effects of exile remotely.
Parts I and II of the book discusses about the concept of “nation” and part III shows how this concept came to play. Many questions and answers will arise from reading it. For one, the book does not only present answers to the question about what kind of country Prussia was but shows us the current state of living for most Germans during that time as well. The book gives us a reason to believe that even though this so-called “enlightened nationalism” was but a strand in Prussian political culture, it greatly influenced Prussian political evolution.
It also provides an exciting insight about the controversial question whether there was a distinctive German path modernization. Another main query that will be answered here is to what extent were the political resistances in Prussia during this era were shaped by ideological influences as opposed to material forces? And even though, the analysis in this book is only about Prussia, it can also give us a great deal of information in understanding the ensuing 19th c. Germany and how nationalism in the rest of the world evolved.
Moreover, it tells us about the products of “enlightened nationalism”—a mixed legacy of positive outcomes and ill-effects. In contrast to the French Revolution, the Prussian reform movement did not want to abolish the old government in order to create a new one for their ultimate goal which we can call Pax Germania. They only tried to reconstruct on hand organizations by trying to instill radical and democratic principles into their framework. They tried to unite rationalized monarchy (from above, and for the people) and a politically active people (from below and for the king and fatherland).
The enlightened nationalism brought about a legacy of political and public transformation in many aspects, most notably in education and administration. This key reinterpretation of Prussian history from the Napoleonic era to the Revolution of 1848 shows how modifications enthused by the enlightenment eventually forged an authoritarian political culture and a nation that later came to dominate Germany. The book’s well-documented insights do not only help us understand about Prussia but it also sheds new light on the birth of German nationalism—thus awaking a sleeping giant…only to fall from grace.