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

Keywords: Nationalism, anti-Roman, Humanists, Conrad Celtis, Protestant Reformation

Updated 1 June 2022

‘Germany’ vs The Holy Roman Empire
Contention surrounds the use of ‘Germany’ during the sixteenth century at a time when the German state did not exist but was instead a part of the Holy Roman Empire. While the German state did not exist during the sixteenth century, the notion of a German cultural, linguistic, and geographical belonging did. The German lands also possessed a unique political infrastructure of independent and imperial principalities, duchies, and counties under an empire, which contrasted with its surrounding European states. The terms Germani and Germania were first used by the Romans in the mid-first century B.C. and reference to ‘Germany’ and ‘German lands’ within the Empire had gained frequency from the mid-fourteenth century. The Holy Roman Empire was referred to as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation from 1474 and became official in 1512 since most of the Italian regions had been lost after the accession of Rudolf of Habsburg (1218-1291) to the imperial throne in 1273 (Ozment, 2004, p. 17). The Holy Roman Emperor was further elected by local German rulers and the emperor also became the king of Germany (Sider, 2007, p. 15). Germany was an area that had long been roughly defined geographically as illustrated in Liber cronicarum, commonly known as the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493): ‘Germania was bounded by the Rhine on the West, by the Vistula and Carpathian mountains on the East, by the Danube on the South, and by the German Ocean and Baltic sea on the North.’

The increase in vernacular prints during the sixteenth century was a trait of the increased feeling of a common German identity. It was fuelled by Martin Luther who created standard German by basing his vernacular Bible on the dialect of Saxony (or Eastern Central German – Ostmitteldeutsch), a medium between upper and lower German (MacGregor, 2014, pp. 98, 101, 105; Whaley, 2012, p. 52; Born, 2007, p. 90). Where western Germans had difficulty understanding the eastern German vocabulary, glossaries were added, thereby helping to unite Germany vernacularly (Burke, 2013, p. 26). A consequence of translating the Bible into vernacular, which was not unique to Germany, allowed its audience to identify with the ‘Chosen People’ of the Bible. This further led to the othering of nations not deemed to have a special relationship with God (Burke, 2013, pp. 26-7).

Germany was also 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 (Krebs, 2011, p. 106; Whaley, 2012, pp. xi, 17; Sider, 2007, p. 9; Geary, 2003, p. 22). 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 (Krebs, 2011, p. 17; Hughes, 1992, p. 20; Waley and Denley, 2013, p. 236; Wells, 2004, p. 32). Influenced by Tacitus, Ulrich von Hutten’s (1488-1523), Arminius consisted of a dialogue between Tacitus and commanding generals (Hutten, 2008, pp. 27). In the dialogue, Hutten mythologises Arminius who led the Germanic tribes as the ‘liberator of Germany’ against Rome in 9 A.D. (Hutten, 2008, p. 27; Wells, 2004, p. 34). While disregarding the more derogatory observations, like lawlessness, ancient Germans were reinterpreted in terms of original nobility and natural morality (Krebs, 2009, p. 105; Hirschi, 2011, p. 170). It helped to create a sense of national pride in 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 (Krebs, 2011, pp. 19, 105).

The anti-Roman sentiment was further fed by Germany’s long history with Rome which had regarded Germans as barbarians, including Italian Renaissance scholars such as Hermolaus Barbarus (1454-1493) (Stadtwald, 1996, p. 61; Krebs, 2009, p. 283; Strauss, 1976, pp. 73-4). This in turn induced 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’ (Celtis, 1948, p. 43). 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?’ (Cited in Waley and Denley, 2013, p. 235; Estep, 1986, p. 53; Silver, 1998, p. 40; Cunningham and Grell, 2000, p. 1) 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 (Krebs, 2009, p. 105). 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 purify the Church (Stolleis, 1998, p. 15). Rome’s constant press for taxes reinforced this sentiment (Krebs, 2009, p. 283; Strauss, 1971, pp. 73-4). 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 (Celtis, 1948, p. 47).

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 (Füssel, 2005, pp. 164-5). 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?’ (Luther, 1947, p. 83) While the sphere of Italian influence remained, it served to both fuel resentment and as a means for literary and artistic representation (Muldoon, 1999, p. 115). 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 (Wilson, 2011, p. 103; Roshwald, 2006, pp. 4-5). However, the term ‘nationalism’ goes beyond the definition of patriotism and is imbued with cultural and ethnic identity (Wilson, 2011, p. 103). 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 (See for example, Hirschi, 2011, pp. 1, 8-9; Roshwald, 2006, p. 1; Len Scales, 2005, p. 168; Schmidt, 1999). 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”’ (Hutchinson, 2013, p. 75). 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 (Roshwald, 2006, p. 5). Early modern Germans maintained a strong regional identity in parallel with their patriotism for the Empire (Stolleis, 1998, p. 11). However, nationalists like Hutten, wanted local powers eliminated in favour of national unity (Holborn, 1965, pp. 106-7).

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 (Smith, 2004, p. 63). This national sentiment resulted in a sense of anti-foreignness (Hughes, 1992, p. 20). It in turn created suspicion and derision of the ‘Other’ while increased bonding among kin in a united act of persecution (Kearney, 2003, pp. 26, 37).

Erhard Schöne, Turkish Atrocities in the Vienna Woods (c. 1530, coloured woodcut, 30.7 x 19.5cm, Museum Boijmans).

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 (Cunningham and Grell, 2000, pp. 1-2). 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 (Silver, 2015, p. 60). Turkish soldiers were also portrayed conducting the worst crimes thought imaginable, impaling and murdering children. 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 (Pearlson, 1927, p. 127). 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 (Waite, 2003, p. 81). Rumours and prints also abound of Jews sacrificing and draining the blood of Christian children. 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 (Boes, 2007, p. 93; Ginzburg, 1991, p. 39). This gesture of tolerance could be at least in part due to the desire to convert them to Christianity (Waite, 2003, p. 96). 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 (Waite, 2003, p. 99). 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 (Cunningham and Grell, 2000, pp. 1-2). The continuous move of people searching for work in the cities increased during times of war and famine (Scribner, 1988, p. 43; Friedrichs, 1995, pp. 215, 7). 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 (Jütte, 1994, p. 160). 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 (Jütte, 1994, pp.146-7).

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 (Robisheaux, 2013, p. 179). 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 (Beresford, 2013, p. 110; Oates, 1989, p. 305). 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 (Sidky, 1997, p. 233).

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