Friday, April 16, 2010

Problems with historical labels: Germany

A funny thing happened yesterday. I was doing some research on Germans in New England with a special focus on the role of Wilhelm Kirchner.

Karl Ludwig Wilhelm Kirchner is something of an unknown figure in Australian history unless you are of German ancestry. Then you may well know of him

Wilhelm Kirchner was born in Frankfurt in 1814.

His father was a wealthy burger. Wilhelm received a good education and then, at age eighteen, went to Manchester to stay with friends. There he met two Sydney merchants. Attracted by the idea of the new colony, he left for Sydney on the Mary arriving on 20 July 1839. Achieving commercial success, he became consul for Hamburg in 1846 and then persuaded the NSW Government to appoint him to bring German migrants to Sydney on a bounty basis, with the first 600 arriving in 1849. In the end, thousands of German migrants came to the colony over the next decade.

You can see why so many Australians of German ancestry know the name Wilhelm Kirchner. However, there is a problem.

In writing up the material I inserted a paragraph about the definition of "German". I did so because I knew that this was a confused one. The German Empire, the first German Reich, was not formed until 1871. Further, a huge number of Germans in the sense of those speaking German or one of its dialects lived outside the Empire, while the Empire contained many non-German speakers. As Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire: Nazi rule in occupied Europe (Penguin Books, London 2009) makes clear, the desire to gather all Germans into one state was one of the drivers of Hitler's policies.

Okay, I knew all this. So what was the funny thing that happened?

I decided to re-check German history. This reminded me of how much I had forgotten. It also showed me just how difficult it was even to speak of Germans in the context of Australian colonial history: how to use the term in a way that made sense, that did not simply impose modern constructs on the past.

I think very few Australians know just how recent the concept of the nation state is, how some of the countries we take for granted just did not exist in 1788 when the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay.

We know about the new countries that emerged in the post-colonial period after the Second World War. We do not know that what we think of as old countries are new, that our systems of Government are in fact older than theirs.

To set a context here, in 1843 the NSW Legislative Council was enlarged to 36 members, 24 of whom were elected at the first elections ever to take place in Australia. Then in 1855, NSW was given full representative Government. All of this took place within an evolving British constitutional system that already had a long history.

Now consider Germany.       

The Napoleonic Wars raged between 1803 and 1815. In many ways this was the first modern war in which the resources of the state were marshaled for the purposes of armed conflict. Had Napoleon won this war, it is quite possible that the French Empire would today be the dominant power in Europe, that the European colonial expansion would have been dominated by the French. Instead, the British Empire became the dominant global power.

Prior to the Napoleonic Wars, the territory that is now Germany formed part of what was called The Holy Roman Empire, or from 1512 The Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nation. The map shows the empire around 1300.

The Empire was always a somewhat ramshackle affair, caught in constant tensions between the centre and the competing parts. By the start of the Napoleonic Wars it was a crazy patchwork quilt of states, principalities, religious territories and free cities. Further, after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 gave the constituent parts virtual independence, the ruling Habsburg concentrated on building their personal domains in Austria and elsewhere.

The Empire was formally dissolved in 1806 following military defeat by Napoleon. When Napoleon in turn was defeated, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 established the German Confederation as a loose confederation of 39 states and free cities. This is why Wilhelm Kirchner could become consul for Hamburg, for Hamburg was effectively an independent state.

Riven with internal conflicts and especially rivalry between Austria and Prussia, the Confederation collapsed in 1866 following war between Prussia and Austria. The photo from Wikipedia shows a meeting of German monarchs at Frankfurt in 1863. In 1871, the Prussian controlled German Empire was formed.

Now if you look at this brief chronology, you get just a hint of the complexity in central European politics. This had direct flow-on effects in Australia as to who came and why. It shows, I think, why you have to be careful in attaching modern labels to the past. It also illustrates my point about the relative longevity of Australia's institutions.

By the time the German Empire was formed, the colony of NSW was eighty three years old and had full representative government for sixteen years. The German Empire itself survived just forty eight years.

Of course modern Germany can claim a long heritage. However, it is still true that many things we take for granted in terms of structures are quite recent. I have to keep reminding myself of this, of the need to check rather than just assume. This is remarkably hard to do!

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