Drawn from the author’s “Germany. A Nation in its Time: Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500-2000” (forthcoming, W.W. Norton, March 2020), this lecture attempts to lay out elementary historical structures of “the nationalist age.” Shadowing Kant’s famous distinction between an age of enlightenment and an enlightened age, it is argued that in the nationalist age, war shaped the era fundamentally, even during years of peace, and that killing and dying took on entirely new contours. It is further argued that notions of national sacrifice—for the nation and of groups within the nation—were at the heart of novel discourses about the very meaning of the term nation. One can see the evolution of this discourse with particular clarity by plotting the ascendancy of the adjective völkisch over the noun Volksgemeinschaft, and by charting the infusion of the latter term with the ethnic and racial meaning of the former. When this occurred, a descent into a new kind of exclusionary politics ensued, and was marked, on January 30, 1933, by a radical nationalist seizure of power. The politics of radical nationalism in power may, then, be traced along three conceptual axes—before and after, inside and outside, and above and below—an interpretive grid drawn from the insights of the late Reinhart Koselleck.
Helmut Walser Smith is the Martha Rivers Ingram Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, and the author of a number of works in the field of German history. “Germany. A Nation in its Time: Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500-2000” is scheduled to appear in March 2020.