Academic journal article Trames

Thomas Abbt's Vom Tode Fur das Vaterland (1761) and the French Debates on Monarchical Patriotism

Academic journal article Trames

Thomas Abbt's Vom Tode Fur das Vaterland (1761) and the French Debates on Monarchical Patriotism

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

At the height of the Seven Years War (1761) when Frederick the Great's Prussia was facing military defeat, a small treatise entitled Vom Tode fur das Vaterland (On Dying for the Fatherland) was published in Berlin. In this treatise Thomas Abbt (1738-1766), the twenty-two-year-old mathematics tutor of the Prussian University of Frankfurt/Oder, invited Prussians to commit the ultimate civic act--to die for the fatherland. He presented a series of arguments to demonstrate that modern monarchies in general and Prussia in particular deserved such a sacrifice and that monarchical subjects were capable of it. In Abbt's vision, Prussia was to experience substantial moral rebirth, if the readiness for such sacrifices really emerged within its populace.

Abbt's treatise is generally appreciated as a central text of eighteenth-century German patriotism. Particularly during the last quarter of century it has been the focus of historical interest. The main issue of controversy is whether Abbt's text exemplifies Enlightenment ideas or points to substantially new ideological developments. The scholars of the 1980s emphasised its fundamentally universalistic, individualistic and rational analysis of patriotism. They presented Abbt as a typical 'bourgeois' thinker, one of the first Germans to voice the enlightened demands of social emancipation and political participation (see e.g. Vierhaus 1980, Bodeker 1981, Prignitz 1981, Batscha 1989, cf. also Redekop 2000). Recently a number of commentators have challenged this view and started to draw attention to the particularistic, collectivistic and emotional elements in Abbt's argument. Assuming that these features are uncharacteristic of mainstream Enlightenment political philosophy and typical of 'nationalistic' political theory instead, these commentators have disputed Abbt's status as an 'enlightened patriot'. Some scholars have suggested that the new Sturm und Drang or pre-Romantic ideas are manifest in Abbt's ground-breakingly 'nationalistic' treatise (see e.g. Burgdorf 2000). Others have more tentatively begun to stress the 'instability' of the individualistic Enlightenment ideal of patriotism. Abbt's text, according to them, exemplifies this instability, as the collective entity (fatherland) has fully submerged the individual there. This way the Enlightenment discourse of patriotism has been identified as the breeding-ground of the emerging nationalism (Herrmann 1996, Hellmuth 1998, Blitz 2000).

These different modern interpretations have generally taken little interest in the contemporary philosophical context of Abbt's treatise. Yet such a contextualisation is indispensable for reconstructing his philosophical argument with the necessary precision and for establishing the original aspects of his work. In particular, the wider European context of Vom Tode fur das Vaterland has received almost no attention. The aim of the present article is to begin to remedy this shortcoming. I shall show that Abbt's treatise is to be seen as a contribution to pan-European debates on monarchical patriotism. It proposed a distinctive type of political reform programme within these debates, and with a view specifically to Prussia. These debates were re-launched in France in the 1750s and thus I shall set Abbt's ideas against the French ideas in particular. Thereby we shall also gain a new perspective on its status as an 'enlightened' or 'nationalistic' treatise and may even begin to see a distinctive way to transcend this putative dichotomy altogether.

There were two general topics in the French and European debates on monarchical patriotism that Abbt picked up in particular in Vom Tode fur das Vaterland. The first concerned the legacy of Machiavelli in modern monarchical politics. Following Frederick the Great's own commitment to 'anti-Machiavellian monarchy,' Abbt argued that modern absolute monarchy, in which the king upheld the rule of law by his enlightened will was a legitimate state form and thus qualified as a 'fatherland. …

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