wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Jacob Talmon

Romanticism and Revolt

Fichte's flaming addresses to the German nation contain a violent condemnation of the characterlessness and cowardly selfishness displayed by the Germans under the blows administered by Napoleon, and a stirring call for a return to the true, authentic German self. On closer scrutiny this turns out to be an apotheosis of deep human spirituality and str€ength of character, as opposed to a political listlessness and aimless drift. Fichte does not refer to any glorious martial traditions or to deeds of conquest in the German past. In fact, he says in so many words that the Germans, being a mature nation of spiritual depth, would not stoop so low as to compete with other nations—the British, the French, the Spaniards—in the subjugation of other races, in the exploitation of primitive tribes or in the scramble for wealth and power. Their destiny was to serve as an example of devotion to values that are the pride of the human race, to create and uphold them with a fierce, self-denying tenacity.

By being truly German Fichte also meant being authentically creative—that is, in obedience to a primary irresistible impulse, and not by way of deliberate contrivance. The Germans were the creative, the original race among the European nations, the Urvolk, because they were the only great nation in Europe to have kept their original language. The British, French, Italians and Spaniards had taken over a language from another people and turned it into a kind of jargon; as imitators they lacked immediacy and originality, and could at best produce variations on the original creative achievements of others. In this rhapsody on the Urvolk and Ursprache Fichte took leave of his earlier rationalist and mechanistic modes of thought. The Ursprache was something unique that was mysteriously there, a datum of nature. This contains the pregnant suggestion that spiritual content is predetermined by some natural, ineluctable forces.

The peacemakers at Vienna, as we have seen, had no use for any Volkstum ideology. The governments of the different German states invoked local, not national, traditions to buttress the principle of dynastic legitimacy, and the German Bund created in 1815 was to be a league of German states, and not the political-juridical framework of a united German nation.

Such a setback to the hopes of national unity at the hands of the guardians of the monarchical order was calculated to revive liberal and even radical opposition. The issue of revolution became central. As in the case of Italy, abstract logic pointed to a republic. There was ultimately no middle position between dynastic legitimacy and popular sovereignty. Once legitimacy was denied on constitutional grounds, the right of separate states to exist at all would inevitably be rejected on national grounds. If there was a single German nation with a right to determine its fate, and if no king had a divine right to dispose of the destinies of his subjects, the constitutional liberal became a nationalist, and the nationalist was driven to become a democratic republican.