In a largely agrarian society, people’s private fortunes hung on the bounty or meagerness of grain and other harvests. Dearth meant hunger, high food prices, and shrunken purchases of urban manufactures, spreading agrarian crisis into the towns. For landlords, it meant rents in arrears. Meager crop yields could squeeze state tax receipts, churchly tithes, and feudal dues. Repeated harvest failure, though rare in peacetime, spelled starvation and death for the weak. In a world of villages and small towns remote from the few long-distance trade routes, salvation through agricultural imports at affordable prices was usually an illusory hope.
Before the late eighteenth century few people, even of the educated and propertied classes, aimed – or dared – to project their minds beyond the categories of Christian orthodoxy, folk mythology, and the romances of popular literature. Identities were mostly intensely local, tied to religion, social rank, occupation, sex and gender, kinship and age group. That one, by language or custom, was “German” entailed few, if any, consequences, especially in view of marked differences – spurring rivalries and reciprocal deprecation – among religious confessions, regional dialects, habits of dress, and social customs. Political loyalties were dynastic, not ethnic. Love of country was love of one’s narrow historical-geographical homeland [Heimat], amplified sometimes by patriotic enthusiasm for one’s ruling dynasty or authority.
Thoughts of cumulative mastery of nature through empiricist and experimental science had hardly entranced even savants’ minds, which gravitated instead to philosophies founded on logical necessity. For most people, ancient usage and authority – such as that of the indestructible Aristotle – were the surest guides. Mysteries were better plumbed by clergymen or adepts of folk magic. Fate, though inscrutable, was often thought appeasable. Without God’s grace [Gnade], body and soul would disappear into the abyss.
Such, in brief, was life deep into the eighteenth century. It was a multifarious German world, but the aspirations and values that ruled it were in no way self-consciously national. It was not a peculiarity of the Germans that, when the age of nationalism began to dawn after 1789, there was no easy answer to the question that the revolutionary musician Richard Wagner posed in his 1865 essay, “What is German?” For Wagner, as for most modern nationalists throughout the world, national identity proved to be a self-exalting version of national history, bathed in universal significance and invested with a redemptive meaning that, in the pre-modern world, had belonged to religion alone.