The Search for National Identity in Abstractions from Historical Images: A German Example

By Glowa, Josef K. | Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Search for National Identity in Abstractions from Historical Images: A German Example


Glowa, Josef K., Comparative Civilizations Review


Germans today often feel ill at ease with the term "Nation," due largely to its frequent association with the terms "Volk" and "Reich" during the time from 1871 until the end of World War II. However, the idea of a German "national identity" is a nuanced one with a complex history.

This paper examines how German-speaking authors of the 16th century reflected on national identity in their works by providing rhetorical ammunition for the development of specific national stereotypes. As an illustration of this search for national identity in abstractions from historical images, the focus will be on imagery of the German from Roman antiquity to the 20th century. This sort of 'imagery/abstraction' approach would be applicable to any search for national identity, East or West.

The study of national stereotypes is the subject of many recent publications that examine the notion of "national character" by applying the insights of image studies or "imagology," a comparisi specialization that deals with theories of public image and "image making."1

German humanists were very much preoccupied with "image-making," and this paper will explore the origin of some images that were crucial in fleshing out German national sentiments in the course of the 16th century. I will examine a broadsheet, literary, and other textual sources that were either used or written by early modern German authors in their quest for specific characteristics that would give credence to the idea of a German nation, differing and unique from their neighbors.

German writers and artists mobilized the rhetoric of national character to favorably compete with the high standards set by ancient Rome and the thriving city-states of Renaissance Italy, whose writers and artists validated their own works by emphasizing roots in ancient Rome. Although the humanists' obsession with the question for German identity has been noted, it has never been thoroughly explored in one of the most important sources, the works of Johann Fischart (1546- 1590).3 Late 16th century Strasbourg, where Fischart spent most of his writing career, was the perfect place to fuse literary, religious, and political debates on Germany's place in history and amidst that of her neighbors. Echos of these debates can be found in many of Fischart's works. This makes him an excellent case to study the imaginings or Vorstellungsbilder that gave birth to "national-typological fictions"4 championed by humanists such as Conrad Celtis (1459-1508), Jakob Wimpheling (1450-1528), and Sebastian Franck (1499- c. 1543).

Of all noted writers in German, Johann Fischart is one of the least read and studied, although he is referred to as the most important figure in German literature in the 16th century. His major work is the Geschichtklitterung, sometimes considered a free translation of Fran?ois Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel (1534). It was first published in 1575, followed by subsequent editions, each modified and enlarged, in 1582 and in 1590. Today the Geschichtklitterung is acknowledged as a literaryhistorical monument, and some critics, when reading Fischart's innovative prose, are reminded of the most experimental writers of the 20th century, from James Joyce to the German Arno Schmidt.

Wilhelmenian Germany was a time of the most intense preoccupation with Fischart's works. This preoccupation was quite lopsided, as most scholars viewed this Alsatian author primarily as an exponent of the German national character represented in the culture wars between France and Germany. It is no coincidence that Fischart's works were rediscovered by the scholar Karl Hartwig Gregor von Meusebach (1781-1847), when the rise of Romantic idealism prompted authors to search the past for the literary heritage of the Volk.

It is of note that Meusebach was a close friend of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who supported Meusebach's editorial efforts. In the Grimm's brothers' pursuit of "authentic" German folklore they realized the potential value Fischart' s works in the service of the ideal of a German nation-state. …

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