Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

PREFACE

If we wish to study the origins of modern German political thought, the 1790s deserve our closest attention. The reaction to the French Revolution, which took place during this decade, led to the formation of three antithetical political traditions in Germany: liberalism, conservatism, and romanticism. Each of these traditions has played a central role in the development of modern German political thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The task of this book is to determine the genesis and context of these traditions and to provide an analysis of their fundamental political ideals. It gives a survey of the major political thinkers and movements of the 1790s. Each chapter considers one or more of the central figures of this decade, the genesis of their political theory, their reaction to the French Revolution, and the importance of politics for their thought in general.

By concentrating on a single formative decade, I hope to give a more thorough account of these political traditions than has been possible with broader surveys. The study of any important historical period requires what Fritz Valjavec has called "Mut zum Detail." Only by focusing in depth on individual thinkers can we escape superficial generalizations and clichés.

A new study of the 1790s requires, I hope, little apology. There has not been any thorough study of this decade in English. The only major study of German political theory after the French Revolution is Reinhold Aris's History of Political Thought in Germany, 1789-1815 ( London, 1936), but this work is marred by prejudices, is very superficial philosophically, and is out of date. Klaus Epstein's Genesis of German Conservatism ( Princeton, 1966), while crucial for an understanding of this period, covers only some of the more important conservative thinkers. G. P. Gooch's Germany and the French Revolution ( London, 1920), although a useful survey of the various reactions to the French Revolution, provides only a superficial account of the political theories. George Kelly's brilliant study of the origins of Hegelianism, Idealism, Politics, and History ( Cambridge, 1969), has a much too narrow approach to its subject, focusing on a few major philosophers. He sees only the cloud-covered peaks, ignoring the whole

-vii-

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