The destiny of the German Volk was to achieve self-consciousness through the state – ideally, the national state. Reason, power, and communal emotion would combine to forge a national life, unlike others elsewhere, expressive of the genius of the whole people and its individual constituents. This was the vision of post-liberal, though not necessarily anti-liberal, communitarian German nationalism which, like all modern nationalisms, preserves an element of the mysticism that had earlier inspired civilizations resting on religious self-understanding.
Yet, as subsequent history has shown, the nation-state is much more than an idea or a source of identity. It is the main stage on which humanity – which Kant likened to “crooked timber” – has enacted its projects of modernity. The drama enacted on this stage in the period 1914-1945 proved calamitous. But, at the end of the period 1648-1815, the actors in the twentieth-century tragedy had not yet entered the anteroom of history. Their ideological dress had not been cut, and their scripts had not been written. Instead, as the documents assembled here show, the years of the French Revolution and Napoleon witnessed in Germany – famously in Prussia, but also in the states gathered in the French-dominated Confederation of the Rhine, especially Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg – beneficial reforms of state and society. Confronting and in many ways creatively responding to the challenges of the post-1789 European scene were the essential ideas presented here: defense of historic rights and interests, Enlightenment rationalism and statist realism, enthusiasm for “liberty, equality, fraternity,” and imaginings of German unity.
William W. Hagen