Academic journal article German Quarterly

Von Luther zu Bismarck: Kulturkampf und nationale Identitat bei Theodor Fontane, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer und Gerhart Hauptmann

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Von Luther zu Bismarck: Kulturkampf und nationale Identitat bei Theodor Fontane, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer und Gerhart Hauptmann

Article excerpt

Sprengel, Peter. Von Luther zu Bismarck: Kulturkampf and rationale Identitat bei Theodor Fontane, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and Gerhart Hauptmann. Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 1999. 119pp. DM 34.00.

Von Luther zu Bismarck proceeds from two unremarkable, but nevertheless important premises, first, that we know too little about the evolution and content of German identity, both in the Wilhelmine era and afterwards and, second, that we can learn useful things about Germany by reading "the nation's" literature. Our lack of detailed knowledge about the nation before Bismarck is no less striking, but this is a book of more paradigmatic than global ambitions. Its information illustrates where others would try to define.

Nobody should fault a work's limited scope, especially if the undertaking provides a useful model for further research and synthesis, and Sprengel hints at inferences that one could make from his small sample. At one level he convincingly brings together three authors not normally considered members of a single category: Theodor Fontane, the skeptical Prussian realist, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, a Swiss writer of pan-Germanic ideals, and Gerhart Hauptmann, the supposedly humanistic representative of naturalism. At another level, while providing close readings of selected texts, Sprengel seems to be more interested in showing how literary history can shed light on political issues. Although the book concentrates on three authors' persistent use of motifs from the Kulturkampf, long after anti-Catholicism had ceased to matter to Bismarck, Sprengel apparently wants to argue that we would learn more about the questions that trouble a society by reading novels, poems, and plays than by studying an era's newspapers or its political history. What the pope did and stood for may have stopped troubling politicians after 1880, but, according to Sprengel's reading of the literary record, Luther and the papacy structured debate over what it meant to be German until well into the twentieth century. Again, the thesis sounds plausible, but even the most obvious proposition demands both a careful marshaling of evidence and a clear line of reasoning. Sprengel's shortcomings lie in arguments he refuses to make explicit and in conclusions he neglects to draw. This short book's two chapters might have formed the core of something larger, but they fail to measure up to the demands Sprengel implicitly places on them.

The book starts well enough with a brief introduction devoted to explaining what Sprengel calls the "Legitimationsdefizit" (9) in imperial Germany, and he attempts to give his account current interest by linking the Kulturkampf to a present-day German bureaucracy's inability to deal with a Muslim teacher whose head scarf brought more than private beliefs into the classroom. …

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