What does it mean to be German?

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What does it mean to be German? This question has been open for over 200 years, and in the last century a provisional response along false lines of “racial purity” has cost millions of lives. Today, with the resurgence of far-right parties like Alternative for Germany (AfD), völkisch ideals seem attractive again. An examination of the early attempts at German self-definition can help to understand their deep and enduring appeal.

In an effort to trace the beginnings of German nationalism, historian Chen Tzoref-Ashkenazi examines the work of Friedrich Schlegel, a fervent defender of the romantic movement. In 1808, Schlegel published ber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (Of the language and wisdom of the Indians), one of the most influential books to advance and popularize the theory that Europeans originated from India. His argument was based on the linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and many European languages, including Greek and Latin. These ideas, however, were not original. They reflected his continent’s growing interest in India.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the British Empire consolidated its power over the Indian subcontinent. As a result, European journals and organizations dedicated to collecting, analyzing and disseminating information about India began to proliferate. In 1784, for example, the English philologist William Jones founded the Asiatic Bengal Society, where he would soon sketch the relationship between the Indo-European languages ​​that Schlegel later defended. For the Germans, the dawn of Indian studies would have a profound effect.

Their obsession with India coincided with an intense desire to forge an emerging national identity. The threat of French domination, stimulated by Napoleon’s imperial project to make Paris the new Rome, motivated German intellectuals to find “an alternative course in the history of civilization to the one starting with Greece and Rome,” explains Tzoref-Ashkenazi. A different fundamental history of Europe would not only demote France, but would also justify the view of the Germanic tribes as brutal barbarians who destroyed the Roman Empire.

“Like the scholars of the Renaissance who rediscovered the historical chain which linked their own culture to that of ancient Greece,” writes Tzoref-Ashkenazi, “the explorers of India would unveil the true origin of European civilization. In the eyes of men like Schlegel, the Europe of the Napoleonic Wars was not only too Greco-Roman and French, it was also too divided. Its unity could, however, be reaffirmed via India, the presumed cradle of the entire continent. A new hierarchy could then emerge, German culture “having remained more faithful to its [Indian] sources. “The new European bonds would therefore ideally be centered on the Germans.

Moreover, at home, Schlegel was deeply concerned about the religious secularism of his contemporaries. In response, “he tried to find evidence for the truth of Christianity in Indian mythology.” In texts like that of Kalidasa Shakuntala– the first Indian coin to be translated from Sanskrit into a European language – Schlegel and his followers found attractive inspirational models based on religious devotion. They “believed that the romantic poetry of India could inspire European poetry” and thus engender a cultural renaissance on a continent-wide scale.

Both at home and abroad, an idealized understanding of India provided Schlegel and many other Germans with the opportunity to define a powerful identity. It would take more than a century before the concept of an “Aryan race” [sic] and its appropriation by the Nazi Party influenced Germany, but the seeds had already germinated.


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By: Chen Tzoref-Ashkenazi

Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 67, n ° 4 (October 2006), pp. 713-734

University of Pennsylvania Press


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