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Internet Modern History Sourcebook

Johann Gottfried von Herder:

Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, 1784

[Halsall Introduction]

Perhaps the most successful political philosophy of the modern era has been nationalism. Nationalism has taken on many forms - calls for cultural pride, liberal-nationalist assertions of the right to self-government, and chauvinistic claims of national superiority. In the 20th century, nationalist rhetoric has been used by right-wing fascists  movements, but also Marxist "national liberation" movements.

The central claims of nationalism are that: first the "people" in politics are best understood as a defined and bounded group with a common history, language and tradition; and, second, that a "nation" has a unique claim to be considered a legitimate political basis for sovereignty - greater than older bases such as "empire", "dynastic right", "theocracy".

The great task of nationalists has always been to define what they mean by a given "nation". People  are not "naturally" aware that they belong to a nation in the sense that they might be aware they belong to a family, clan, village, town, or locality. In almost every case, nationalists envision much broader boundaries, and have gone to considerable trouble to construct and defend these boundaries with particular interpretations of history.

The origins of nationalism are manifold. The political philosophy of Rousseau, widely disseminated during the French Revolutionary era, instead that the "people" were the basis of sovereignty as a way to challenged older divine right theories. For French thinkers, however, the "nation" was relatively unproblematic: France had a centuries long history as a united state. [In fact, the situation in France was not so simple - in 1789, most inhabitants of France did not speak French, but some other language such as Breton, Occitan, or other patois unintelligible to the French speakers of the north. French national identity was created by simply incorporating such people into France, and making them all speak French - in Brittany, for instance, local Celtic names were banned.]

For German thinkers, the situation was much less clear. Between the united western proto-nations of  France, England, and Spain, and the Russian Empire, most of Europe made no sense whatsoever in terms of "nations". Peoples of different religions, languages, and traditions lived interspersed with each other under a huge variety of states and semi-states - empires, kingdoms, dukedoms, and independent cities. It is here that Johann Gottfried von Herder played such a vital foundational role. His Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind laid the intellectual foundations for the claims of romantic philosophy that the nation was all. Although his theories were soon picked up by German political activists, he was inspired to consider these issues because, as a resident of a German city in Latvia (many cities of Eastern Europe were German speaking, even as the local rural population spoke a Slavic or Baltic language), he reflected on the value of local Lettish culture, and the problems of its suppression by international cosmopolitan culture.


Nature has sketched with mountain ranges which she fashioned and with streams which she caused to flow from them the rough but substantial outline of the whole history of man . .One height produced nations of hunters, thus supporting and rendering necessary a savage state; another, more extended and mild, afforded a field to shepherd peoples and supplied them with tame animals; a third made agriculture easy and needful; while a fourth led to fishing and navigation and at length to trade. The structure of the earth, in its natural variety and diversity, rendered all such distinguishing conditions inescapable . . Seas, mountain ranges and rivers are the most natural boundaries not only of lands but also of peoples, customs, languages and empires, and they have been, even in the greatest revolutions in human affairs, the directing lines or limits of world history. If otherwise mountains had arisen, rivers flowed, or coasts trended, then how very different would mankind have scattered over this tilting place of nations....

Nature brings forth families; the most natural state therefore is also one people, with a national character of its own. For thousands of years this character preserves itself within the people and, if the native princes concern themselves with it, it can be cultivated in the most natural way: for a people is as much a plant of nature as is a family, except that it has more branches. Nothing therefore seems more contradictory to the true end of governments than the endless expansion of states, the wild confusion of races and nations under one scepter. An empire made up of a hundred peoples and a 120 provinces which have been forced together is a monstrosity, not a state-body.

What is the supreme law which we note in all great historical events? In my opinion, it is this: that, in every part of our earth, all possible development is determined in part by the position and the necessities of the locality, in part by circumstances and the opportunities of the age, and in part by the inborn and self-nourishing character of the peoples.... All events in the human sphere, like all productions of nature, are decreed solely by time, locality, and national character, in short by the coordination of all the forces of life in their most positive individuality.

Active human powers are the springs of human history, and, as man originates from and in one race, so his body, education, and mode of thinking are genetic. Hence that striking national character, which, deeply imprinted on the most ancient peoples, is unequivocally displayed in all their operations on the earth. As the mineral water derives its component parts, its operative power, and its flavor from the soil through which it flows, so the ancient character of peoples arose from the family features, the climate, the way of life and education, the early actions and employments, that were peculiar to them. The manners of the fathers took deep root and became the internal prototype of the descendants. The mode of thinking of the Jews, which is best known to us from their writings and actions, may serve as an example: both in the land of their fathers and in the midst of other nations they remain as they were, and even when mixed with other peoples they may be distinguished for some generations onward. It was and is the same with all other peoples of antiquity---Egyptians, Chinese, Arabs, Hindus, etc. The more secluded they lived, nay frequently the more they were oppressed, the more their character was confirmed, so that, if every one of these nations had remained in its place, the earth might have been regarded as a garden where in one plot one human national plant, in another, another, bloomed in its proper form and nature, where in this corner one kind of national animal, in that, another, pursued its course according to its instincts and character....

Has a people anything dearer than the speech of its fathers? In its speech resides its whole thought-domain, its tradition, history, religion, and basis of life, all its heart and soul. To deprive a people of its speech is to deprive it of its one eternal good.... As God tolerates all the different languages in the world, so also should a ruler not only tolerate but honor the various languages of his peoples.... The best culture of a people cannot be expressed through a foreign language; it thrives on the soil of a nation most beautifully, and, I may say, it thrives only by means of the nation's inherited and inheritable dialect. With language is created the heart of a people; and is it not a high concern, amongst so many peoples---Hungarians, Slavs, Rumanians, etc.---to plant seeds of well-being for the far future and in the way that is dearest and most appropriate to them? . . .

The savage who loves himself, his wife, and his child with quiet joy and glows with limited activity for his tribe as for his own life is, it seems to me, a more genuine being than that cultured shade who is enchanted by the shadow of his whole species.... In his poor hut, the former finds room for every stranger, receives him as a brother with impartial good humor and never asks whence he came. The inundated heart of the idle cosmopolitan is a home for no one....

No greater injury can be inflicted on a nation than to be robbed of her national character, the peculiarity of her spirit and her language. Reflect on this and you will perceive our irreparable loss. Look about you in Germany for the character of the nation, for their own particular cast of thought, for their own peculiar vein of speech; where are they? Read Tacitus; there you will find their character: "The tribes of Germany, who never degrade themselves by mingling with others, form a peculiar, unadulterated, original nation, which is its own archetype. Even their physical development is universally uniform, despite the large numbers of the people," and so forth. Now look about you and say: "The tribes of Germany have been degraded by mingling with others; they have sacrificed their natural disposition in protracted intellectual servitude; and, since they have, in contrast to others, imitated a tyrannical prototype for a long time, they are, among all the nations of Europe, the least true to themselves.''. . .

If Germany were only guided by the forces of the age, by the leading strings of her own culture, our intellectual disposition would doubtless be poor and restricted; but it would be true to our own soil, fashioned upon its own model, and not so misshapen and cast down....


Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook.

© Paul Halsall, November 1998, updated 24 Oct 2019

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