Rise of Nationalism and the Othering of Perceived Outsiders in Sixteenth-Century Germany

Germany was increasingly referred to in nationalistic terms during the Renaissance by using phrases such as ‘we Germans’, ‘all of Germany’, and ‘common German fatherland’, even though German nationalism remained largely cultural rather than political until the nineteenth century.[i] The growing nationalistic sentiment during early modern Germany created a romanticised vision of German heritage and its superiority. This was brought about by the rediscovery of the history of the Germanic people, Germania, written by the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (56 – 117 A.D.) in 98 A.D. It was first printed in Germany in 1473 in Nuremberg.[ii] Influenced by Tacitus, Ulrich von Hutten’s (1488-1523), Arminius consisted of a dialogue between Tacitus and commanding generals.[iii] In the dialogue, Hutten mythologises Arminius who led the Germanic tribes as the ‘liberator of Germany’ against Rome in 9 A.D.[iv] While disregarding the more derogatory observations, like lawlessness, ancient Germans were reinterpreted in terms of original nobility and natural morality.[v] It helped to create a sense of national pride of their German ancestors and created a common identity. This was in spite of the fact that there was no real common unity among the early Germanic tribes as described by Tacitus.[vi]

The anti-Roman sentiment was further fed by Germany’s long history with Rome who had regarded Germans as barbarians, including Italian Renaissance scholars such as Hermolaus Barbarus (1454-1493).[vii] This in turn induced a longing for pride at a time when Germans were stereotyped as drunkards and barbarous. As Conrad Celtis (1459-1508) explained, ‘writers […] ascribe to us drunkenness, cruelty, savagery and every other vice bordering on bestiality and excess.’[viii] Celtis, who died before 1517, combined reformation thought with German independence by calling upon Germans to rise against the corruption of the foreign papacy and to restore their honour and dignity, by stating: ‘The Emperor rules in the German lands, but the Roman shepherd alone enjoys the pasture. When will Germany regain her old strength and shake off the foreign yoke?’[ix] The desire for independence from Rome, in conjunction with Germany’s rich printing culture, can explain why the Reformation began and succeeded in the German lands.

A reinterpretation of the history of the early Germans allowed the German people to contrast their simple beginnings with the decadence of Rome.[x] The Reformation in Germany was incited by humanists, like Hutten, who wanted a unified German identity, which was in-turn driven by a desire to unite the nation and to purify the Church.[xi] Rome’s constant press for taxes reinforced this sentiment.[xii] For example, recalling the mythical glory of the ancient ‘German race,’ Celtis delivered an oration to the University of Inglostadt:

Assume, O men of Germany, that ancient spirit of yours, with which you so often confounded and the terrified Romans, and turn your eyes to the frontiers of Germany; collect together her torn and broken territories. Let us be ashamed, ashamed, I say, to have placed upon our nation the yoke of slavery, and to be praying tributes and taxes to foreign and barbarian kings. O free and powerful people, O noble and valiant race, plainly worthy of the Roman empire.[xiii]

Luther witnessed the corrupt indulgence of Rome first hand during his travels in 1510-11, including the sale of indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, which began in 1506.[xiv] As Martin Luther had stated in a pamphlet marking a clear break from the papacy, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility to the German Nation (An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, 1520): ‘How comes it that we Germans must put up with such robbery and such extortion of our property, at the hands of the pope? If the kingdom of France has prevented it, why do we Germans let them make such fools and apes of us?’[xv] While the sphere of Italian influence remained, it served to both fuel resentment and as a means for literary and artistic representation.[xvi]  In this way, the Protestant Reformation in Germany was as much about secular independence as it was spiritual.

The word ‘patriotism’ (derived from the Latin patria for fatherland) was used by humanists and referred to loyalty to governing institutions.[xvii] However, the term ‘nationalism’ goes beyond the definition of patriotism and is imbued with cultural and ethnic identity.[xviii] While using the term ‘nationalism’ in conjunction with pre-statehood sixteenth-century ‘Germany’ is contentious, a body of literature has argued against the orthodoxy that nationalism is exclusively a modern idea.[xix] When referring to early German nationalism, it is not to equate it with the idea of the modern  state but rather the beginnings of early national consciousness. To support this claim, John Hutchinson argued that nationalism is not just political but cultural and that ‘take the form of ethno-historical “revivals.”’[xx] Humanists imagined a common German identity based on shared ancestry and language. However, they also defined themselves in what they were not in their quest for independence from Rome. This is for all intense and purposes nationalism.[xxi] Early modern Germans maintained a strong regional identity in parallel with their patriotism for the Empire.[xxii] However, nationalists like Hutten, wanted local powers eliminated in favour of national unity.[xxiii]

Fear of the Other

The division and weakening of the empire in comparison to its neighbours led to its inhabitants turning against perceived outsiders and created a romanticised vision of German heritage and its superiority. This was even though the image of a united ancient German ‘race’ was meagre in comparison to their European counterparts.[xxiv] This national sentiment resulted in a sense of anti-foreignness.[xxv] It in turn created suspicion and derision of the ‘Other’ while increased bonding among kin in a united act of persecution.[xxvi]

Erhard Schöne, Turkish Atrocities in the Vienna Woods (c. 1530, coloured woodcut, 30.7 x 19.5cm, Museum Boijmans). https://www.boijmans.nl/en/collection/artworks/138803/turkish-atrocities-in-the-vienna-woods accessed 16 June 2021

Sixteenth-century Germany experienced the fear of Muslim Ottoman Turks with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the near capture of Vienna in 1529.[xxvii] The trepidation of the expanding Ottoman Empire can be viewed in the prints of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) who portrayed Ottoman Turks in scenes of the flagellation of Christ, the murder of Christians, and as infidels worshipping false idols.[xxviii] Turkish soldiers were also portrayed conducting the worst crimes thought imaginable, impaling and murdering children.[xxix] Tensions surrounding religious and foreign Others was also illustrated in the rise of persecutions faced by Jews within German lands. Between 1492-96, Jews were expelled from German cities, and again in 1596-8, which saw the largest expulsion of Jews from German cities during the Renaissance.[xxx] Martin Luther vehemently called for authorities to destroy Jewish homes, synagogues, and schools.  He also called for Jews to be made to work in the fields as serfs or to expel them from the Empire in his work, On the Jews and their Lies.[xxxi] Rumours and prints also abound of Jews sacrificing and draining the blood of Christian children.[xxxii] Jews, who were expelled from many German cities during the late-fifteenth century, could in some German cities such as Strasbourg enter during the day, but had to leave by night.[xxxiii] This gesture of tolerance could be at least in part due to the desire to convert them to Christianity.[xxxiv] However, such cordiality of other religions or ethnicities had been compared by the city’s residents as equal to the acceptance of witchcraft and heretics and therefore such mixing with ‘Others’ was frowned upon.[xxxv] As this demonstrates, tensions did not only exist within Christianity itself but all alternative belief systems which created conditions to further strengthen identity with common ilk. 

It also marked a period where large groups of people from the countryside started moving into cities and towns and with them brought fear of poor, diseased foreigners of questionable morality.[xxxvi] The continuous move of people searching for work in the cities increased during times of war and famine.[xxxvii] In some cities during the late-fifteenth century, such as Frankfurt am Main in 1488 and Augsburg in 1491, beggars and vagrants were made to wear identifying markers. This placed them in the category of other marginalised groups who had to similarly wear identifying markers such as Jews, lepers, and prostitutes.[xxxviii] However, during the sixteenth century, as vagrancy increased, it came to be a crime as it was perceived to be a threat to the stability of society. They would be arrested and found themselves beyond the walled-cities like other criminals.[xxxix]

The panic of the Other during this period was also reflected in the witch hunts. Germany was at the centre of the witch persecutions in early modern Europe. At least a third of the estimated individuals accused of witchcraft in Europe were derived from German-speaking lands. This equated to between 30,000 and 45,000 executions within the Germanic region.[xl] People accused of witchcraft were predominately the most marginalised members of society. It also sparked accusations of witches suspected of committing murder while transformed into wolves. [xli]  The infamous broadsheet about the execution of Peter Stubbe (d.1589), accused of transforming into a werewolf along with crimes of witchcraft, cannibalism and incest, epitomised the idea of the loner (lone wolf) lurking on the fringes of society. Similar to the female witch, the werewolf was also linked with the most socially marginalised members of society.[xlii] To read more about werewolves in German Renaissance society, click on the link below.


[i] Christopher B. Krebs, A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2011, p.106; Joachim Whaley, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire: Volume I: Maximilian I to the Peace of Westphalia, 1493-1648, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. xi, 17; Sandra Sider, Handbook to Life in Renaissance Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 9; Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 22.

[ii] Krebs, 2011, p. 17; Michael Hughes, Early Modern Germany, 1477-1806, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992, p. 20; Daniel Waley and Peter Denley, Later Medieval Europe, 1250-1520, New York: Routledge, 2013, p. 236; Peter S. Wells, The Battle that Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 32.

[iii] Ulrich von Hutten, Ulrich von Hutten’s Arminius: An English Translation with Analysis and Commentary, ed. trans. Richard Ernest Walker, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008, pp. 27.

[iv] Hutten, 2008, p. 27; Peter S. Wells, The Battle that Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 34.

[v] C. B. Krebs, ‘A Dangerous Book: The Reception of the Germania,’ in A. J. Woodman (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 105; Caspar Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p.170.

[vi] Krebs, 2011, pp. 19, 105. Also see, W. Bradford Smith ‘German Pagan Antiquity in Lutheran Historical Thought’, The Journal of the Historical Society, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 351-74.

[vii] Kurt Stadtwald, Roman Popes and German Patriots: Antipapalism in the Politics of the German Humanist Movement from Gregor Heimburg to Martin Luther, Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1996, p. 61; Krebs, 2009, p. 283; Gerald Strauss, Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century: City Politics and Life between Middle Ages and Modern Times, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976, pp. 73-4.

[viii] Conrad Celtis, ‘Oratio in Gymnasio in Ingelstadio publice recitata,’ in Leonard Forster (ed.), Selections from Conrad Celtis, 1459-1508, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948, p. 43.

[ix] Cited in Waley and Denley, 2013, p. 235; William Roscoe Estep, Renaissance and Reformation, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Company, 1986, p. 53; Larry Silver, ‘Germanic Patriotism in the Age of Dürer,’ in Dagmar Eichberger and Charles Zika (eds.), Dürer and his Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 40; Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 1.

[x] Krebs, 2009, p. 105.

[xi] De Lamar Jensen, Reformation Europe: Age of Reform and Revolution, Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992; Michael Stolleis, ‘Public Law and Patriotism in the Holy Roman Empire,’ in Max Reinhart (ed.), Infinite Boundaries: Order, Disorder, and Reorder in Early Modern German Culture, Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 1998, p. 15. See C. Scott Dixon, Protestants: A History from Wittenberg to Pennsylvania, 1517-1740, Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2010, p. 20.

[xii] Krebs, 2009, p. 283; Gerald Strauss (ed.), Manifestations of Discontent in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation: A Collection of Documents Selected, Translated, and Introduced by Gerald Strauss, Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 73-4.

[xiii] Celtis, 1948, p. 47.

[xiv] Stephen Füssel, Gutenberg and the Impact of Printing, trans. Douglas Martin, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005, pp. 164-5.

[xv] Martin Luther, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate 1520, trans. Charles Michael Jacobs, Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1947, p. 83.

[xvi] James Muldoon, Empire and Order: The Concept of Empire, 800–1800, Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, p. 115.

[xvii] Peter H. Wilson, The Holy Roman Empire 1495-1806, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 103; Aviel Roshwald, The Endurance of Nationalism: Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 4-5.

[xviii] Wilson, 2011, p. 103.

[xix] See for example, Hirschi, 2011, pp. 1, 8-9; Roshwald, 2006, p. 1; Len Scales, ‘Late Medieval Germany: An Under-Stated Nation?’ in Len Scales, Oliver Zimmer (eds.), Power and the Nation in European History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 168; Georg Schmidt, Geschichte des Alten Reiches. Staat und Nation in der Frühen Neuzeit, Munich: Beck, 1999.

[xx] John Hutchinson, ‘Cultural Nationalism,’ in John Breuilly (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 75.

[xxi] Roshwald, 2006, p. 5.

[xxii] Stolleis, 1998, p. 11.

[xxiii] Hajo Holborn, Ulrich von Hutten and the German Reformation, trans. Roland H. Bainton, New York: Harper & Row, 1965, pp. 106-7.

[xxiv] Pamela H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. 63.

[xxv] Hughes, 1992, p. 20.

[xxvi] Richard Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness, London: Routledge, 2003, pp. 26, 37.

[xxvii] Cunningham and Grell, 2000, pp. 1-2.

[xxviii] Larry Silver, ‘Europe’s Turkish Nemesis,’ in Barbara Fuchs and Emily Weissbourd (eds.) Representing Imperial Rivalry in Early Modern Mediterranean, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015, p. 60. See for example Albrecht Dürer, Christ Crowned with Thorns (c.1509, woodcut, 12.8 x 9.7 cm, London, British Museum), illustrated in Larry Silver, ‘East is East: Images of the Turkish nemesis in the Habsburg World,’ in James G. Harper (ed.), The Turk and Islam in the Western Eye, 1450-1750: Visual Imagery Before Orientalism, Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011, p. 191; Albrecht Dürer, The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (c.1497-98, woodcut, British Museum), illustrated in Silver, 2011, p. 194; Albrecht Dürer, Sea Monster and the Best with the Lamb’s Horns (c.1496-98, woodcut, British Museum), illustrated in Heather Madar, ‘Dürer’s Depictions of the Ottoman Turks: A Case for Early Modern Orientalism?’ in James G. Harper (ed.), The Turk and Islam in the Western Eye, 1450-1750: Visual Imagery Before Orientalism, Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011, p. 168. Among the Catholic clergy are turban wearing Turks worshipping a seven-headed hydra.

[xxix] See for example, Erhard Schöne, Turkish Atrocities in the Vienna Woods (c. 1530, coloured woodcut, 30.7 x 19.5cm, Museum Boijmans). https://www.boijmans.nl/en/collection/artworks/138803/turkish-atrocities-in-the-vienna-woods accessed 16 June 2021

[xxx] Gustav Pearlson, Twelve Centuries of Jewish Persecution: A Brief Outline of the Sufferings of the Hebrew Race in Christian Lands […] Hull: Vincent A. Kair & Son, 1927, p. 127.

[xxxi] Gary K. Waite, Heresy, Magic, and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2003, p. 81.

[xxxii] See for example ‘Ritual Murder of Sappenfeld’, title page of Ein hübsch new Lied/von zwei luden/vnd einem Kind/zu Sappenfelt newlich geschehen, cited in R. Po-chia Hsia, The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988, p. 60.

[xxxiii] Maria R. Boes, ‘Unwanted Travellers: The Tightening of City Borders in Early Modern Germany,’ in Thomas Betteridge (ed.), Borders and Travellers in Early Modern Europe, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007, p. 93; Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, trans. Raymond Rosenthal, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 39. Prior to this they were segregated into ghettos, sometimes for their own protection.

[xxxiv] Waite, 2003, p. 96.

[xxxv] Waite, 2003, p. 99.

[xxxvi] Cunningham and Grell, 2000, pp. 1-2.

[xxxvii] Bob Scribner, ‘The Mordbrenner, Fear in Sixteenth-century Germany: Political Paranoia or the Revenge of the Outcast?’ in Richard J. Evans (ed.), The German Underworld: Deviants and Outcasts in German History, London: Routledge, 1988, p. 43; Christopher R. Friedrichs, The Early Modern City, 1450-1750, London: Longman, 1995, pp. 215, 7.

[xxxviii] Robert Jütte, Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 160. Ginzburg, 1991, p. 38. Jews and lepers having to wear identifying markers or clothing dates back to the Lateran Council of 1215.

[xxxix] Jütte, 1994, pp.146-7.

[xl] Thomas Robisheaux, ‘The German Witch Trials’, in Brian Levack, The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 179.

[xli] Matthew Beresford, The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture, London: Reaktion Books, 2013, p. 110; Caroline Oates, ‘Metamorphosis and Lycanthropy in French-Comte, 1521-1643’, in Michel Feher (ed.), Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part One, New York: Zone, 1989, p. 305.

[xlii] Homayun Sidky, Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs, and Disease: An Anthropological Study of the European Witch-Hunts, New York: Peter Lang, 1997, p. 233.