Hans W. Frei on Historicism, Realism, and Political Conditions in Eighteenth Century Germany

In my last post, I offered some general comments on Hans W. Frei’s influential book The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative and presented a short quotation on an interesting difference between developments in England and Germany in the eighteenth century. As a follow up, this post will present Frei’s suggestive attempt to relate shortcomings that he perceives in  historicism as a movement in German thought to the political conditions in 18th century Germany. While I lack the expertise to evaluate the cogency of his argument, I certainly found it to be a fascinating line of thought! Indeed, in my judgment, the section (pages 212-217) is worth reading in its entirety.

[212] “Realistic writing and its appreciation in late eighteenth-century Germany did not develop beyond the level attained by Lessing and the early Schiller. Romantic writing and criticism obviously tended in the very opposite direction. … [213] It is a curious fact, noted by Auerbach, that the rise of historicism in Germany in the same era, which might have been expected to aid the development of both realistic fiction and history writing, did not in fact do so. … Historicism is the rendering of mankind’s unfinished story in which man, in his encounter with determinate historical situations and developments, actually encounters himself writ large. But the universal self or man he meets is never met—as a Rationalist might claim—in direct universal trans-historical form. The universal historical being of man is met only as the specific spirit of a specific age and group. …

Linking the historically specific with universal history by means of the notion of historical-spiritual development was one expression of a puzzling situation which Auerbach in particular noted. On the one hand, historicism was an apprehension of the specificity and irreducibly historical particularity of cultural change. But on the other hand, as a movement in German thought it led to the very opposite of this apprehension, to a vast universalization in defining the content of historical change. … [214] … The tendency toward universalization and spiritualization was due to the fact that finally the subject matter and bond of historical development was a universal subject, whose characterizing quality was taken to be that of culturally embodied or diffused consciousness. The historical subject matter in historicist perspective is finally the one universal human spirit, even though always in specific cultural form.

The cultural setting for this intellectual development was a thoroughly fragmented political situation and a backward economy, each tending to paralyze the other. The imposing figure of Frederick the Great of Prussia, bestriding the German scene of the latter eighteenth century, only accentuated the small ambience of his own and every other German realm. … Moreover, his enlightened indulgence of intellectual and religious freedom stood in broad contrast to his political despotism, typical of the period and much more characteristic of the conditions prevailing in the rest of Germany. …

In all of this, German nationalism flourished and was the object of grave suspicion. In concept and fact political nationhood, a firm cultural setting for the development of the realistic novel in England, lagged far behind in Germany. The French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest of Germany were to change the situation drastically, especially in Prussia, but in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when German intellectual and literary thought began to rise to its greatest height, the general [215] cultural context for this movement was extraordinary provincial. By the eighteenth century England had had its political, economic, and religious revolutions and had emerged as a national entity. In Germany … revolution had so far been confined to religion and philosophy…

In short, seldom has a major intellectual and literary movement, such as that which took place in Germany in the late eighteenth century, begun from so fragmented, narrow, and provincial a political base, and in so stagnant a social and political climate. Given that background, it is not surprising that even younger intellectuals like Goethe and Schiller, some of whom had at first sympathized with the French Revolution, rapidly came to find it a spiritually alien, profoundly threatening and incomprehensible force of frightening power. For them, too, sociopolitical conditions were either eternally fixed or deeply and unintelligibly disturbing. They drew back from depicting human nature and destiny through the interaction of human beings with the upheaval of the large-scale and historical forces generally characteristic of their own era. It is not surprising that both German literature and German historical writing and reflection eschewed realism in favor of more ethicizing or spiritualistic depictions and foci for continuity. Rather, it is surprising that the historicist view, with its strong emphasis on ceaseless cultural change due more to specifically historical than natural factors, developed at all. [216]

Erich Auerbach has commented with great perspicacity on the results of the entanglement of a sweeping intellectual movement such as early historicism in such a narrow political, economic, and cultural circumstances. Historicism oscillated between the depiction of richly concrete but completely localized historical phenomena on the one hand, and vast, universalizing, and spiritualizing commentary on the other. The serious treatment of a human arena of manageable scope in a broad but still specific historical context such as that of a national life was precisely what was missing.”

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne