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Johann Gottfried von Herder:
Materials for the Philosophy of the History of
Mankind, 1784


[Halsall Introduction]

Perhaps the most successful political philosophy of
the modern era has been nationalism. Nationalism has
taken on many forms - calls for cultural pride,
liberal-nationalist assertions of the right to
self-government, and chauvinistic claims of national
superiority. In the 20th century, nationalist rhetoric
has been used by right-wing fascists
  movements, but
also Marxist "national liberation" movements.

The central claims of nationalism are that: first the
"people" in politics are best understood as a defined
and bounded group with a common history, language and
tradition; and, second, that a "nation" has a unique
claim to be considered a legitimate political basis
for sovereignty - greater than older bases such as
"empire", "dynastic right", "theocracy".

The great task of nationalists has always been to
define what they mean by a given "nation". People
not "naturally" aware that they belong to a nation in
the sense that they might be aware they belong to a
family, clan, village, town, or locality. In almost
every case, nationalists envision much broader
boundaries, and have gone to considerable trouble to
construct and defend these boundaries with particular
interpretations of history.

The origins of nationalism are manifold. The political
philosophy of Rousseau, widely disseminated during the
French Revolutionary era, instead that the "people"
were the basis of sovereignty as a way to challenged
older divine right theories. For French thinkers,
however, the "nation" was relatively unproblematic:
France had a centuries long history as a united state.
[In fact, the situation in France was not so simple -
in 1789, most inhabitants of France did not speak
French, but some other language such as Breton,
Occitan, or other patois unintelligible to the French
speakers of the north. French national identity was
created by simply incorporating such people into
France, and making them all speak French - in
Brittany, for instance, local Celtic names were

For German thinkers, the situation was much less
clear. Between the united western proto-nations of
France, England, and Spain, and the Russian Empire,
most of Europe made no sense whatsoever in terms of
"nations". Peoples of different religions, languages,
and traditions lived interspersed with each other
under a huge variety of states and semi-states -
empires, kingdoms, dukedoms, and independent cities.
It is here that Johann Gottfried von Herder played
such a vital foundational role. His Materials for the
Philosophy of the History of Mankind laid the
intellectual foundations for the claims of romantic
philosophy that the nation was all. Although his
theories were soon picked up by German political
activists, he was inspired to consider these issues
because, as a resident of a German city in Latvia
(many cities of Eastern Europe were German speaking,
even as the local rural population spoke a Slavic or
Baltic language), he reflected on the value of local
Lettish culture, and the problems of its suppression
by international cosmopolitan culture.

Nature has sketched with mountain ranges which she
fashioned and with streams which she caused to flow
from them the rough but substantial outline of the
whole history of man . .One height produced nations of
hunters, thus supporting and rendering necessary a
savage state; another, more extended and mild,
afforded a field to shepherd peoples and supplied them
with tame animals; a third made agriculture easy and
needful; while a fourth led to fishing and navigation
and at length to trade. The structure of the earth, in
its natural variety and diversity, rendered all such
distinguishing conditions inescapable . . Seas,
mountain ranges and rivers are the most natural
boundaries not only of lands but also of peoples,
customs, languages and empires, and they have been,
even in the greatest revolutions in human affairs, the
directing lines or limits of world history. If
otherwise mountains had arisen, rivers flowed, or
coasts trended, then how very different would mankind
have scattered over this tilting place of nations....

Nature brings forth families; the most natural state
therefore is also one people, with a national
character of its own. For thousands of years this
character preserves itself within the people and, if
the native princes concern themselves with it, it can
be cultivated in the most natural way: for a people is
as much a plant of nature as is a family, except that
it has more branches. Nothing therefore seems more
contradictory to the true end of governments than the
endless expansion of states, the wild confusion of
races and nations under one scepter. An empire made up
of a hundred peoples and a 120 provinces which have
been forced together is a monstrosity, not a

What is the supreme law which we note in all great
historical events? In my opinion, it is this: that, in
every part of our earth, all possible development is
determined in part by the position and the necessities
of the locality, in part by circumstances and the
opportunities of the age, and in part by the inborn
and self-nourishing character of the peoples.... All
events in the human sphere, like all productions of
nature, are decreed solely by time, locality, and
national character, in short by the coordination of
all the forces of life in their most positive

Active human powers are the springs of human history,
and, as man originates from and in one race, so his
body, education, and mode of thinking are genetic.
Hence that striking national character, which, deeply
imprinted on the most ancient peoples, is
unequivocally displayed in all their operations on the
earth. As the mineral water derives its component
parts, its operative power, and its flavor from the
soil through which it flows, so the ancient character
of peoples arose from the family features, the
climate, the way of life and education, the early
actions and employments, that were peculiar to them.
The manners of the fathers took deep root and became
the internal prototype of the descendants. The mode of
thinking of the Jews, which is best known to us from
their writings and actions, may serve as an example:
both in the land of their fathers and in the midst of
other nations they remain as they were, and even when
mixed with other peoples they may be distinguished for
some generations onward. It was and is the same with
all other peoples of antiquity---Egyptians, Chinese,
Arabs, Hindus, etc. The more secluded they lived, nay
frequently the more they were oppressed, the more
their character was confirmed, so that, if every one
of these nations had remained in its place, the earth
might have been regarded as a garden where in one plot
one human national plant, in another, another, bloomed
in its proper form and nature, where in this corner
one kind of national animal, in that, another, pursued
its course according to its instincts and

Has a people anything dearer than the speech of its
fathers? In its speech resides its whole
thought-domain, its tradition, history, religion, and
basis of life, all its heart and soul. To deprive a
people of its speech is to deprive it of its one
eternal good.... As God tolerates all the different
languages in the world, so also should a ruler not
only tolerate but honor the various languages of his
peoples.... The best culture of a people cannot be
expressed through a foreign language; it thrives on
the soil of a nation most beautifully, and, I may say,
it thrives only by means of the nation's inherited and
inheritable dialect. With language is created the
heart of a people; and is it not a high concern,
amongst so many peoples---Hungarians, Slavs,
Rumanians, etc.---to plant seeds of well-being for the
far future and in the way that is dearest and most
appropriate to them? . . .

The savage who loves himself, his wife, and his child
with quiet joy and glows with limited activity for his
tribe as for his own life is, it seems to me, a more
genuine being than that cultured shade who is
enchanted by the shadow of his whole species.... In
his poor hut, the former finds room for every
stranger, receives him as a brother with impartial
good humor and never asks whence he came. The
inundated heart of the idle cosmopolitan is a home for
no one....

No greater injury can be inflicted on a nation than to
be robbed of her national character, the peculiarity
of her spirit and her language. Reflect on this and
you will perceive our irreparable loss. Look about you
in Germany for the character of the nation, for their
own particular cast of thought, for their own peculiar
vein of speech; where are they? Read Tacitus; there
you will find their character: "The tribes of Germany,
who never degrade themselves by mingling with others,
form a peculiar, unadulterated, original nation, which
is its own archetype. Even their physical development
is universally uniform, despite the large numbers of
the people," and so forth. Now look about you and say:
"The tribes of Germany have been degraded by mingling
with others; they have sacrificed their natural
disposition in protracted intellectual servitude; and,
since they have, in contrast to others, imitated a
tyrannical prototype for a long time, they are, among
all the nations of Europe, the least true to
themselves.''. . .

If Germany were only guided by the forces of the age,
by the leading strings of her own culture, our
intellectual disposition would doubtless be poor and
restricted; but it would be true to our own soil,
fashioned upon its own model, and not so misshapen and
cast down....



Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.
The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History
Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public
domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level
classes in modern European and World history.

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?Paul Halsall, November 1998
[email protected]