Understanding Nationalism in Nazi-Germany

Essay, 2015

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents


Rise of the middle class: Nationalism

‘Culture’ and ‘Civilization’

National Civilizing Patterns

The State Formation Process of Germany: Analysis and Conclusion



“‘Modern’, ‘rational’ societies produce conditions under which the effects of individual actions are removed beyond the limits of morality”

- Zygmunt Bauman1

Elias demonstrates a profound working knowledge of the mentality behind the atrocities of the National Socialist movement in Nazi Germany. His book The Germans (1996) mainly focuses on the historical foundation and social psychological processes of cause and effect to illustrate sociological reasoning behind, as well as after, the rise of Hitler. The main theme throughout this paper will be concept of Nationalism; in this sense, a social as well as political ideology including the connotations associated with the term and how they have changed. This paper will attempt to explain the extremism behind Germany’s nationalist mentality as well as create a neutral platform for the concept by observing different points of approach. For example, at the other end of the spectrum there exists Anderson’s positive conception of nationalism through media and capitalism. In Imagined Communities (2001) he asserts that nationalism is a mental and cultural phenomenon necessary for functioning democracies, as well as political integration. The standards of national identity and what it means to develop and cultivate a believing population, have changed over the years by market economies, globalization, and capitalist enterprise today. Nationalism, still, takes the forefront of critique since the Holocaust even if in its simplest form, is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

Rise of the middle class: Nationalism

Long after the French Revolution, the European states were still dominated by revolutionary movements and the idea of victorious reform, especially during the industrialization era where the working classes realized their potential2. However in Germany, “subordination to autocratic power elites, whether of a monarchical or a dictatorial kind, [became] a deeply embodied habit3 ”; this, like any other culture, is not easily subject to change or manipulation. As a result, there existed no real anti-royal our counter-regime figures that could lead the way to revolution as it occurred in the neighbouring countries. The underlying cause was a severe lack in the people’s independency, ergo they were incapable of developing their own social techniques and opinions.

The advances of humankind in regards to further industrialization, economic growth and the sciences overshadowed the positive-feeling perspective of humanism and its role for the future. The common good of the nation, its capabilities to expand and compete with neighbouring countries, and the actualization of its maximum potential moved to the highest priority; this meant looking at the past. In Germany, this process cemented “the core of their ‘we image’ and ‘we ideal’ [as] formed by an image of their national tradition and heritage (p.135)4 ”. This was a critical turning point in mentality. Instead of looking to the future and the potential for progress the focus was placed on the past and the unchanging nature of national values and beliefs. This reversed the social definitions of ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ “from concepts referring to processes ... into concepts referring to unchanging states5 ”. The ‘we image’ was to mirror the satisfying emotional ties to the accomplishments of ancestors. The strength of this new found ‘we image’ perpetrated a type of force that undermined morals and human principles. This means that a distrust in other groups, fear, and violence became elements which were now unquestioned as long as they were in the interest of the state.

As men of the middle class started coming into power after the Kaiser’s abdication in 1918, they took over the government position of the aristocratic class but retained their own ideals. Emerging from this was a completely different power relationship to the people. Where the elites engaged in war as if it were a game of chess, strategic and with honour, the new ruling class’s conception of power was placed in virtue. Before, the autocrats externally imposed laws that served as guidelines and were imposed by the ruler as well as the society. Virtue, however, is an intrinsic feeling and served as an immediate self-constraint to the public. The internalized norms, therefore, appeared psychologically absolute and inescapable6. Furthermore, with the middle class in power and industrialization further encompassing Europe, the new government had to adapt to the fast paced lifestyle and interact with competing nation-states; with different norms and codes existing in close proximity, mutual fears and suspicions became the norm in order to maintain relations as well as pursue interests of Germany.

There was a significant transition in society in the way people perceived their duties to the state. Politics of principle, where a sovereign reigned over his people with policies created by and for one person, shifted to politics of power; from individual to collective law abiding. The citizens were now encouraged to enforce laws amongst each other instead of individually abiding by a ruler’s proclamations. Symbols of collectivity were established to create cohesion and feelings of attachment, and loyalty followed7. By living in an industrializing society with a vast populous it was important for the individuals to come together in a foundational sense. The population was too large for complexities and internal fractions to arise, and still be under complete control of the government. To Elias, a modern, militaristic principle emerged, as did a mutual mistrust and fear in the ‘other’ (anything not German) accompanying an attachment to the “nationalist creed which thousands could believe in as something absolute without asking questions (p.148)” to protect them from that ‘other’.

This “modernity” (Delanty, 2006) was revolutionary thinking in itself because certainty and political traditions as they were known before the party-system dissolved; the public had to critically revision themselves and the world around them. Where the French Revolution sparked growth in the proletariat to overthrowing the aristocracy, a reverse, more psychological process, overtook Germany. The aim was for the people to subordinate their own needs to those of the nation, this is how nationalism tends to “gain power over the believers themselves through a self-escalating process of mutual reinforcement”; people will outbid each other in efforts to affirm their commitment to the cause8. Therefore, Elias characterizes nationalism as evidence that a “specific social phenomenon characteristic of large industrial state-societies at the level of development reached by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (p.151)”. There is an intrinsic implied solidarity and obligation to the nation of an almost religious character mediated by love. The individual-ideal and image matches up with the ‘we image’ and ‘we ideal’; if one says they are from Germany they are also of Germany, they can identify with everyone from Germany as well as represent and support the nation, its people, and its goals.

‘Culture’ and ‘Civilization’

The term ‘culture’ is fluid and changes meaning. In regards to the past concept, Elias refers to Schiller’s definition as “a long chain of events, interlocking as causes and effects, [stretching] from the present moment right back to the beginnings of human race (p.125)”. This characterizes the social and structural processes that developed societies have undergone to reach their most current state of evolution. However, today the term “can be applied to less and to more developed societies regardless of their stage of development, and the use of the term ‘civilization’ appears to be moving in the same direction (p.125)”. High-born societies had practically patented the term ‘civil’ before the atrocities of the Holocaust came to light. Kroeber states that, “as soon as a culture has accepted a new item, it tends to lose interest in [its] foreignness of origin”9. This could account for the sudden acceptance and obedience in regards to what used to be considered an abnormal political circumstance. By focussing on the past in attempting to identify what it is to be “German”, the entire country embraced nationalism almost immediately to subdue the identity crisis brought on by the long history of defeat in an effort to create a legitimate rule. The nationalist agenda was still young when the nation succumbed to it and one would expect a much longer and healthier transition period after the generations of authoritarian rule, instead there were barely thirty years of Nazi rule from beginning to bitter end.

Culture and the concept of civilization were tied to the ‘we image’ of the nation, which was defined by the rising middle class intelligentsia in Germany10. In investigating the National Socialist movement, one has to turn to the political history’s responsibilities in creating and defining social cohesions, and the characteristics that differentiate different populations in that nature. Since the middle class had previously been excluded from politics, as that was the sphere of the elite, the separation of culture from politics was an important mechanism through which the academics of that age could analyse their society and categorize it among other nations.

National Civilizing Patterns

In Imagined Communities nationalism is considered a cultural artefact as well as a mental phenomenon. Similar to Elias’ demonstration of German mentality, Anderson contends that nationalism has to be “understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it (p.12)” and how those systems created circumstances for nationalist-acceptance.

Due to century long territory conflicts during Germany’s development and the isolated kingdoms over a vast landscape, the individual populations remained fragmented and insecure before the actual establishment of the nation-state. Prior to the First World War there was embedded uncertainty about the self-worth in the individual11. After Germany’s loss in the war, the people’s identity became more fragmented and questioned as the nation slipped into a power decline. The German people had difficulties adjusting to the multi-party system since a figure central to their mentality, and ultimately responsible for their personality development through autocratic rule, was no longer existent12. In regards to the civilizing process Elias suggests that, “a personality structure attuned to an absolutist-monarchic or dictatorial regime allows great scope for readiness in the individual person to accept orders, to allow him- or herself to be guided by external constraints”. A product of obedience through autocratic rule is the adaptation to such a hierarchy of command13.


1 Modernity and Holocaust, Cambridge, Policy Press, 1989 cited in Elias (1996:xiii)

2 page 339

3 Elias, 1996, p.341

4 Elias, 1996, p.135

5 Elias, 1996, p.136

6 page 139

7 page 145

8 page 150

9 Hannerz, 1992 page 106

10 page 126

11 page 286

12 page 289

13 page 291

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Understanding Nationalism in Nazi-Germany
University of Southern Denmark
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
426 KB
Soziologie, Sociology, Elias, Deutsche, German, Geschichte, History, Nationalism, National sozialismus, Theory, Theorie
Quote paper
Saskia Andresen (Author), 2015, Understanding Nationalism in Nazi-Germany, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/294287


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Understanding Nationalism in Nazi-Germany

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free