Idealization and romance of struggle thesis

Nationalism was a global trend by the time the Great War broke out. Each nation state developed its own national identity via the use of myths, symbols, and ideology that ranged from ethnic solidarity to political values. Nationalism in Germany became especially potent after the Franco-Prussian War, during which Bismarck wielded his political and military prowess in formidable ways. Crucial to winning the war campaign was a sense of national pride and identity, which Otto von Bismarck promoted through an idealized unity between disparate religious and cultural groups within the various German-speaking states. In addition to promoting a sense of regional identity, Bismarck also championed the vision of an epic, legendary, heroic German state grounded in a sense of power and prestige. Also characteristic to German nationalism was a sense of pride in the act of struggle itself, another point that Bismarck promoted through his speeches. German nationalism had been fomenting long before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, but by the time war broke out, the features of German nationalism included taking joy in the sense of struggle that militarism entails, an idealized vision of a unified German nation, and the symbolic unification of Catholic and Protestant groups under the banner of the German nation.

In one of his most overtly nationalistic speeches, delivered in 1895, Otto von Bismarck proclaimed, “In Germany, struggles have existed always … Life is a struggle everywhere in nature … No struggle, no life!”[footnoteRef:1] The idealization and romance of struggle became a cornerstone of German nationalism, even though there are no clear historical precedents for Bismarck’s philosophy. Certainly the chancellor is correct in pointing out the ubiquity of struggles in daily life, but there had never before been a sense that the disparate Germanic peoples had cause to struggle together. Furthermore, the concepts of self-sacrifice and struggle became essential and critical components of German nationalistic character. There had to be some means by which Bismarck could inspire his followers to remain loyal to the state, and that means was via the creation of a national character based on self-sacrifice and struggle. Victory during several tense wars against formidable foes during the 19th century provided the proof that German nationalism was worth fighting for, worth struggling for, and worth the self-sacrifices it might take to defend geographic boundaries. [1: Otto von Bismark: Nationalist Speech. April 1, 1895. Retrieved online:]

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Key to understanding the sudden embrace of the concept of struggle was Germany’s tense relationship with Austria. It was crucial to create a purpose of struggling against a Germanic neighbor. Bismarck mitigated any potential tension in the Prussian empire the overt welcoming of Catholic states like Bavaria into the German embrace. Bismarck was a skilled enough strategist to understand that forging a German national identity that included both Catholics and Protestants would make it harder for Catholic neighboring enemies to rally their own people against a perceived foe. Religion could no longer be the cause for war, and likewise, religion was not going to be the sole characteristic of the new German nation-state. The utter lack of religious ideology in Bismarck’s own testimony highlights the low value placed on religion in the formation of the German nationalist identity. Instead, struggle between Catholic and Protestant became rebranded as the struggle between the people of Germany and her neighbors. In the Proclamation of Empire, Bismarck iterated the need for the people to start identifying with each other as sources of mutual protection against aggressors, “within boundaries which afford the fatherland a security against renewed French aggression which has been lost for centuries.”[footnoteRef:2] [2: The Imperial Proclamation, January 18, 1871]

The unification of Germany likewise depended on proving that the nation was not defined by Protestantism but by something else, which is why the Catholic regions of Germany were able to ally themselves more with Bismarck’s imperial vision than with Austria’s. Even the theme of power that was endemic to Bismarck’s ideology was not the only characteristic of German nationalism. Bismarck never made is sound like the German empire was lusty for power, and yet power was precisely the characteristic that helped ordinary German people rally under the banner of the new nation. Prior to this point, German states had no real sense of unity and pride given the lack of centralized power that could prove its merits and provide the populace with enough fear and suspicion of its neighbors. With the ideology of “struggle” also came the ideology of power. German field marshal and army chief Helmuth von Moltke noted that the “hegemony of Germany” helped to frighten off the Austrians also that the “establishment of power” was the ultimate goal of war, not self-aggrandizement or mere territorial acquisition.[footnoteRef:3] By framing their mission as being benevolent, nationalism was almost a ruse to present the empire as the great protector of the people. Moreover, German nationalists engaged the people in a systematic campaign of identity construction-based fundamentally on the human need for safety and security. With its military victories in the Franco-Prussian and Austro-Prussian wars, German nationalists were certainly in the position of reflecting on its place in the world and its newfound power. Gleaming with self-respect, German nationalists knew that the only means by which power could be secured and maintained was through a nationalist spirit that valued power over all other things including religious ideology. [3: Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke: 1866]

German nationalism depended on the subtle erasure of religious ideology from nationalist identity construction. Religion remained a moral imperative in the German consciousness, but was not officially iterated as the core component of German national identity in any of Bismarck’s main speeches or in any of those that belonged to key political or military strategists. Ironically, one of the major differences between German identity and that of many of its neighbors including Austria happened to be religious in nature and remained so even during the peak of the nationalist movements that swept through Central Europe. Nationalism helped create the means by which to draw imaginary cultural boundaries between places like Austria and Bavaria, based on political rather than religious ideology. It was no longer theology that defined one’s religious identity, but geo-political boundaries. Even if not based on theology itself, the religious differences became cultural ones and culture naturally translates itself into nationalism. Without the ability to hide behind religion as a cause for resentment and hatred of one’s neighbors, Germans needed unique reasons, and those reasons included perceived threats to German unity and autonomy. In other words, German nationalism was characterized as much by what they struggled against as what they were fighting for.

Therefore, German nationalists needed a way to manufacture a German unified “culture” that could be distinguished even from Austrian culture, which was nevertheless Germanic. In fact, there was a thin line between Bavarian and Austrian cultural elements that became clearer by the time the Second World War began. Nationalism in Germany was therefore characterized by a newfound belief in unification as a social, ethical, and moral ideal. The seeds of pan-Germanism that blossomed during the Second World War, which gave rise to racist ideologies, had been planted before World War One.

Moreover, the differentiation between Germany and Austria became a central issue in the struggle for hegemony and regional domination. Bismarck stated, “I wish only to express my conviction that, in the not too distant future, we shall have to fight for our existence against Austria and that it is not within our power to avoid that, since the course of events in Germany has no other solution.”[footnoteRef:4] It was not that Bismarck perceived his fellow German speakers as threats, but the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire at his side. Austrian nationalism was also Germanic in tone and yet pitted itself against German nationalism in crucial ways. In a speech to the Frankfurt Assembly, Johann Gustav Droysen stated, “The German question is not a constitutional question, but a question of power; and the Prussian monarchy is now wholly German, while that of Austria cannot be.”[footnoteRef:5] There seemed to be opposing viewpoints among Germanic peoples in both Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian empire; with many viewing pan-Germanism as the ideal of ethnic hegemony and others viewing nationalism as being divorced from the linguistic and historical connections linking the German peoples in both these imperial blocs. Germany nationalism had become a “mass phenomenon” since relatively early in the 19th century, in both its ethnic and its regional distinctions. It became increasingly possible to use nationalist sentiments to forge a distinct German identity vis-a-vis Austrian based almost entirely on the differences between Prussian and Austro-Hungarian interests.[footnoteRef:6] The latter remained astutely concerned with neighbors in Bohemia and other Slavic lands; the former with France. [4: Otto von Bismarck: Letter to Minister von Manteuffel, 1856] [5: Johann Gustav Droysen: Speech to the Frankfurt Assembly, 1848] [6: Hagen, Schultze. The Course of German Nationalism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 64,.]

Since its inception German nationalism was largely oppositional in nature. The Napoleonic Wars made it apparent that the only means by which to prevent perceived enemies from achieving hegemony was to design a hegemonic power of one’s own. The most effective means by which to define and defend national borders in the 19th and 20th century was via the principle of nationalism. It became politically trendy to manufacture a secular identity that transcended religious and even ethnic alliances, particularly given the fact that new political powers in the 19th century no longer relied on religion as a motive for political allegiance. Bismarck achieved the goal of German nationalism by defining its key characteristics as being strength in unity, backed by the power of a militaristic state. “Only, in every fight where the national question arises, there must be a rallying point. For us, this is the empire … as it is.”[footnoteRef:7] The empire became the center point of German national identity, whereas there had never before been such an identity before. [7: Otto von Bismark: Nationalist Speech. April 1, 1895. Retrieved online:]

German nationalism sprouted after the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars of the 19th century, and nationalism blossomed under Bismarck. As German hegemony under the Prussian dictate threatened to undermine the delicate balance of power in Central Europe, it became necessary to define the differences between the Germanic cultures of the unified states versus those of Austria, without reverting to the old model of using religion as the calling card. Bismarck successfully built a German national character on three key features: the romance of unity, the importance of transcending the Protestant-Catholic divide, and the potency of power in helping the ordinary proletariat feel comfortable and secure knowing that their secular imperial government had its best interests at stake. German nationalism corroded into Nazism only a few decades later, but it is still easy to see how the ideologies of power and perceived threats helped to foment the racist tensions brewing in post-war Germany.


Bismarck, Otto von. The Imperial Proclamation, January 18, 1871

Otto von Bismarck: Letter to Minister von Manteuffel, 1856

Otto von Bismark: Nationalist Speech. April 1, 1895. Retrieved online:

Johann Gustav Droysen: Speech to the Frankfurt Assembly, 1848

Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke: 1866

Schultze, Hagen. The Course of German Nationalism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Smith, Helmut Walser. German Nationalism and Religious Conflict. (Princeton University Press, 2014).

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