A European Perspective: Ireland, Germany, and the Image of ‘England’ in ‘Transnational Nationalism’

A European Perspective: Ireland, Germany, and the Image of ‘England’ in ‘Transnational Nationalism’

This week, Dr Shane Nagle compares Irish and German nationalism through a European lens and how this nationalism was shaped through both societies’ ideas of England.

‘I myself came, as a result of my study of the past combined with my observations of present conditions to the certainty that the stable and peaceful future of Ireland as well as of England rested on the Repeal of the Union, I became a complete supporter of Repeal.’[i]

These were the words of Jakob Venedey (1805-1871), a nineteenth century German nationalist politician, writer and historian at the commencement of his two-volume history of Ireland. In a period in which Ireland has long been assumed to have been a backwater detached from the affairs of Europe, Venedey brought a distinctively German and highly sympathetic eye to Irish history, leading to a work of history which would not have been out of place in any nineteenth century Irish nationalist’s library. Ireland’s history was part and parcel of Europe’s during this time, an aspect of the past which was long forgotten but is coming increasingly to the fore in modern Irish historical research.

To write Irish history in the context of Four Nations is an exercise that is inherently comparative and transnational, yet these two, while closely overlapping, are not quite the same. While transnational history is largely concerned with the movement and exchange of ideas, people, movements, and products across borders, the raison d’etre of comparative history is the systematic examination of similarities and differences in two or more contexts to judge the case for general historical patterns. This comparative history, to test the possibility of a distinctively European form of nationalist thought, was at the centre of my own recently published book, Histories of Nationalism in Ireland and Germany: A Comparative Study from 1800 to 1932. In the book, I examined comparatively the development of nationalist historicism in these countries, focusing on the key themes of origins, religion in the nation’s past, ethnic self-definition and ‘Othering’, and the historical nationalisation of territory, in order to determine, by looking at these largely ‘unconnected’ contexts, if the idea of a particular form of European nationalist culture could be substantiated. Yet I also tried to consider the transnational links between these countries during that period and what insights these links could bring for understanding nationalism in Europe more generally during that period. In this I was led back to another of the ‘Four Nations’, and the constitutive role of images of ‘England’ in the nationalisms of both Ireland and Germany during the period. It goes without saying that the political relationships vis-à-vis England for nationalists in these countries were highly different, nonetheless, ideas of England were fundamentally important to national self-perception in both societies, and this was reflected in the work of nationalist historians in each.

Several nineteenth-century British historians – Buckle, Macaulay, Froude, Carlyle, Walter Scott, to name a few – became formative influences for German writers, and the British influence in fact went back further, to Hume, and (the Irishman) Edmund Burke. Ulrich Muhlack has argued that it was a commonplace among German historians, until at least the mid-nineteenth century, that ‘German historiography should learn from the national historiography of the French and the English’.[ii] In Ireland, going as far back as the seventeenth century and Geoffrey Keating, England was the constitutive ‘Other’ of the emerging Irish national historical narrative. The work of eighteenth and nineteenth century Protestant historians such as W.E.H. Lecky makes abundantly clear that this was the case for both the main cultural communities in Ireland. Thomas Carlyle was another figure of commanding and common importance, particularly in his moralistic and cyclical perspective history and emphasis on heroic individuals in historical development. Carlyle was especially important for Young Ireland and its principal historians, including Thomas Davis and John Mitchel, despite Carlyle’s own contempt for Irish nationalism. For Germans, whose own Kulturnation appeared in the mid-nineteenth century to languish under petty, small-state provincialism and the overbearing influence of other nations Carlyle’s influence offered an inspiring and cohering form in which to interpret the German past. England’s past, as Leopold von Ranke had it, appeared to be one of a single element from antiquity to modernity: the development of national unity and greatness.[iii] After 1871, when England became a rival rather than role model, German nationalists would turn against her with equal fervour, as when Heinrich von Treitschke wrote of ‘The hypocritical Englishman, with the Bible in one hand and an opium pipe in the other’, who ‘possesses no redeeming qualities’ and who knew no ‘distinction of right and wrong’.[iv] By 1916, German writers such as Eduard Meyer were identifying England as an enemy greater even than France or Slavdom to the East, pointing towards Ireland as the lesson for their readers as to what they could expect for Germany if they were to be defeated by England. A year earlier, Roger Casement concluded that, ‘the world of European life needs today, as it needed in the days of a decadent Roman world empire, the coming of another Goth, the coming of the Teuton.’[v]

Since the late eighteenth century, and certainly the nineteenth, Irish nationalism had been distinguished by a furious anger towards England for her role in Ireland’s past and a desire ‘de-Anglicize’ Irish culture, combined with a lingering regard for some aspects of the English constitutional heritage in Ireland. Young Ireland has as much respect for institutions such as the Catholic Confederation of the 1640s, the Patriot Parliament of 1689, and ‘Grattan’s Parliament’ as it did for the Gaelic past. Even A.M. Sullivan, in his hugely popular The Story of Ireland, equated the ancient Gaelic Irish state with contemporary parliamentary government – of the ‘Westminster’ type – in order to more firmly anchor Irish claims to nationhood. This willingness to accept constitutional linkages with England alongside cultural ‘de-Anglicization’, domestic independence and the ability to chart an independent course in foreign affairs had an enduring after-life in Sinn Féin policy during the Irish Revolution and the hybrid form of republic and constitutional monarchy that was the Irish Free State and the Éire of Eamon De Valera. Of course, this is only part of the story: the traditions of Irish Republicanism and Irish-Irelandism wanted to wipe the historical and constitutional slate clean, but even in these movements, there was some willingness to embrace ‘Anglo-Ireland’, at least equivocally, with a general refusal to exclude the ‘sons of the Gall’ from Irishness along racial lines.

Nowhere in Europe were nationalisms formed in isolation from other countries. In viewing the role that ‘England’ served in the development of nationalism in Ireland and Germany, we can get an idea not only of how much we can speak for a common European path for its intellectual development, but find new avenues out of a constricting view of the Irish past which begins and ends within the island.

[i] Jakob Venedey, Irland (Leipzig, 1844), pp. 2-3.

[ii] Ulrich Muhlack, ‘Universal History and National History: Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century German Historians and the Scholarly Community’, in Benedikt Stuchtey and Peter Wende (eds.), British and German Historiography, 1750-1950: Traditions, Perceptions, and Transfers (Oxford, 2000), p. 45.

[iii] Quoted in James Campbell, ‘Stubbs, Maitland, and Constitutional History’, British and German Historiography, p. 111.

[iv] Quoted in Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (London, 1992), p. 377-378.

[v] Roger Casement, The Crime Against Europe: A Possible Outcome of the War of 1914 (Philadelphia, 1915), p. 14.

Shane Nagle is an independent researcher specializing in Irish-European comparative history, with a particular focus on Germany, and the historical study of nationalism. His first book, Histories of Nationalism in Ireland and Germany: A Comparative Study from 1800 to 1932, was published by Bloomsbury in December 2016.

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