German Romanticism and Nationalism


During Napoleon’s reign and his attempt to take over Europe, German intellectuals saw the increasing importance in creating an economically, politically, and socially unified nation, independent from the other European countries. Thus, German Nationalism and the unification of the separate city-states within the country became increasingly more important to the country and its people. The arts deviated from the preceding conventions of the classical style as creativity, rebellion, and ingenuity became more important and Romanticism developed. Romanticism in Germany in the late eighteenth century to early 19th century contributed to the rise of German nationalism and helped its people feel proud of their country.
This guide will explore the evolution of German Nationalism in the 19th century as well as Romanticism in music and literature. First it will present German Nationalism and Romanticism as two different subjects, then it will show how Romantic works created a nationalist identity and how nationalism inspired Romantic works. Finally it will provide further sources to explore more Romantic music and German literature.

General Overview

  • R.R. Palmer, and Joel G. Colton, A History of the Modern World, , chap. 53: The Advent of the Isms.
    This textbook chapter provides a brief and simple definition of both “nationalism” and “romanticism” in the 19th century. It describes the creation of the terms and their relation to each other, stating that romanticism helped to create nationalism. Romanticism, a movement in all of Europe, took the previous conventions  and dismissed them, placing importance on emotion. However, in Germany, Romanticism had a nationalistic message as well. He discusses Herder’s theory of the Volksgeist, which literally translates to “national spirit,” and its focus on German Nationalism.
  • Snyder, Louis. Roots of German Nationalism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978
    Snyder writes about the beginnings of German Nationalism chronologically and thematically. He explores several different aspects of nationalism in the 19th century including cultural, political, and economical and discusses key figures such as Friedrich List the economist, the Grimm Brothers, Otto von Bismarck the statesman, and more. He shows how cultural, political, and other German intellectuals influenced the idea of Nationalism and how Nationalism has changed.
  • Jim Samson. “Romanticism.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.
    This Grove article provides an overview of Romantic music including the key composers and the advent of Romanticism.  It explores the history of the term, the meaning, and the styles during this period. Because the term “Romanticism” was applied to the style far later than when the style actually developed, the roots of Romanticism in music remain fuzzy. Samson explores this issue explaining that Romanticism could have began as early as with Beethoven and even Mozart and Haydn, composers who many would consider belong to the classical era.  This article covers Romanticism all over Europe, but there is a large focus on Romanticism in Germany.

Thematic Sections

  • Kohn, Hans. “Romanticism and the Rise of German Nationalism.” The Review of Politics. no. 4 (1950): 443-472.
    Kohn explores how German Romanticism directly influenced Nationalism after 1800 and how it opposed the movement before.  He discusses key literary figures such as the poet Goethe whose poetry many composers of the Romantic era adapted in their compositions,  Schlegel, Novalis, as well as political figures such as Herder and Müller. His article provides the non-German speaking reader a look into German literature and how it had such a large impact on German nationalism.
  • Snyder, Lewis. “Nationalistic Aspects of the Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales.” The Journal of Social Psychology. no. 2 (1951): 209-223.
    Snyder discusses Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a chapter in his book above, but this article provides a deeper look into the tales’ emphasis on Nationalism and the controversial hints of anti-Semitism.  Many of their tales derive from older folk tales and many of the characters show traits of the national character. The widespread distribution of these stories with the multiple translations greatly contributed to German Nationalism.
  • Daverio, John. Nineteenth Century Music and the German Romantic Ideology. New York: Schirmer Books, 1993.
    John Daverio discusses key German composers of the Romantic era including Brahms, Weber, Schumann, and Strauss and German Romantic’s literary influence on these composers. Writers such as Jean Paul, Goethe, E.T.A. Hoffman, and Schlegel influenced each of these composers alike and many composed pieces using their texts.  Again, this acts as a useful tool to the non-German speaker in discovering how German literature and music enforced nationalism.


Primary Sources

  • Beethoven Symphony No. 9 Movement 4
    Beethoven is often considered by musical scholars as the bridge between classicism and romanticism. Beethoven’s ninth symphony, his last symphony, is often considered part of the Romantic genre, because of its departure from the usual formal conventions of the symphony and its emphasis of emotion over form. Whether the fourth movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, composed in 1824, with the infamous “Ode to Joy” text by Friedrich Schiller served to promote German nationalism is a controversial subject. The English translation of the text shows an idea of unity, brotherhood, and harmony but not specifically among Germans. However, one cannot look past the fact that this was the first time a symphony had text, and that this text in German dominates the last movement as the chorus sings it out. Whether Beethoven intended for this to promote German Nationalism or not, it has become a piece that people have used in political contexts and was played often during the third reich.
  • Grimm, Wilhelm, and Jacob Grimm. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. New York: Heritage Press, 1962.
    As shown in Snyder’s book, The Grimms Brothers’ fairy tales, originally published in 1812, had a huge influence on German Nationalism. They are still read and admired today by adults and children alike, and have been republished and adapted to other media including television, movies, etc.
  • “Beware! Evil tricks threaten us; if the German people and kingdom should one day decay, under a false, foreign rule, soon no prince would understand his people; and foreign mists with foreign vanities they would plant in our German land; what is German and true none would know, if it did not live in the honour of German Masters. Therefore I say to you: honour your German Masters, then you will conjure up good spirits! And if you favour their endeavours, even if the Holy Roman Empire should dissolve in mist, for us there would yet remain holy German Art!”
    Wagner’s German Nationalism is no secret, and many even accused him of anti-Semitism.  His opera Die Meistersinger, with its first performance in 1868, shows particular nationalist character.  Wagner clearly promotes German identity, unlike Beethoven 44 years before who did this much more subtly.  The above quote shows a translation of the text of  Hans Sachs’ final speech in the third act. It encourages nationalism and pride in the political system.

Related Research Guides and Other Electronic Sources

  • Naxos
    Naxos Music provides an extensive collection of classical music. While Wagner’s German text clearly states German Nationalism, much of German instrumental music of the Romantic period reflected the language. Compared to French Romantic music which is much more flowy, German Romantic music can be much more abrupt, similar to the two respective languages. Comparing Faure’sVocalise to Schumman’s Erlkonig demonstrates this difference and reflection of the language. If one listens to just the accompaniment of these vocal pieces, one will find how much they reflect the language.
  • Swales, Martin. German poetry : an anthology from Klopstock to Enzensberger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
    One can look at Romantic poetry originally in English (such as Wordsworth) to understand the idea of Romanticism better in the broader context not just in Germany. Wordsworth included several enjambments and lack of rhyme in his poetry, going against the previous formal conventions; this placement of emotion over form was a very romantic idea and was used in Romanticism throughout the continent. A translation cannot provide anywhere near the beauty that a poem achieves, because sounds and aesthetics became important. However, knowing the German language can really allow one to the poems of the Romantic area in the above anthology.
  • Rosen, Charles. The Romantic Generation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927.
    Charles Rosen was greatly appreciated for his contributions to historical musicology. Though his work is quite old compared to other work out there, it is still used today. His book The Romantic Generation provides an excellent overview of the many composers of the Romantic era. It also has an accompanying CD.


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