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The roots of German identity

Hanna Weibye

Hanna Weibye is looking at the origins of German nationalism, and the relationship between physical culture and national identity.

Her PhD, which she finished last September, investigated a man who was both a German nationalist and the founder of modern gymnastics: Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778 –1852).

"Jahn was a colourful character," says Hanna. "He invented two youth movements, which still exist, and founded a volunteer corps to help drive Napoleon out of Prussia." Jahn's goal was to rejuvenate the German-speaking people through physical and moral education, and to unite them in one, constitutional state.

The period when Jahn was most active (1800-19) saw the birth of German nationalism, but at that time Jahn was already in his forties. Like other early nationalists, he had been brought up in the eighteenth century. "They were in their teens and twenties when the French Revolution broke out, so they had been educated in pre-revolutionary Europe."

She is interested in tracing which concepts they inherited from eighteenth century political thought and philosophy, and how they used these concepts in a new political movement after 1800.

Understandings of early German nationalism have sometimes been skewed by the desire to find the origins of Nazism, Hanna says, and so the period around 1800 is often taken as the starting point of a story that leads to 1871, 1914, and 1945.

Her approach, by contrast, is to examine early German national thought in its own historical context. "It became obvious very quickly that this movement grew out of enlightenment political theory. The nationalists are simply trying to figure out better ways to organise the state and society, to make people more happy and more free."

Hanna explains how she hopes to trace the ideas that formed German nationalism in the early nineteenth century back to the eighteenth century.

Hanna’s next project picks up another theme from her PhD: the relationship between politics, national identity and the body.

European discoveries of 'new' peoples and early theories about nationhood led to debates about whether national character is biological. Hanna plans to trace these debates in the German context, in order to better understand the origins of hypotheses like Jahn's - that there is an interaction between the physical culture of a nation and its identity, such that if you change one you change the other.

"Understanding the link between these eighteenth-century ideas and their nineteenth-century successors, nationalism and racism, has obvious implications for the way we understand these two forces, which are still very much alive nowadays."

- March 2014

Hanna Weibye is a Junior Research Fellow at King's. She studied French, German, History and English before going to university. Torn between studying History and Languages, she chose to study Languages at Cambridge "because it was such a wonderful, broad course. You can do a bit of everything - history, literature, film studies, philosophy and linguistics."

The language skills proved valuable later because, she says, "I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble reading the sources for the period I wanted to study". She became interested in German nationalism as an undergraduate, and studied the national thought of the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 –1814) for her MPhil.

Her interest in nationalism was partly prompted by her own upbringing in Scotland, which gave her "a very strong awareness of nationalism and national identity in action."

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