Book Review: The Nation as a Local Metaphor: Württemberg, Imperial Germany, and National Memory, 1871-1918


    Confino, Alon, The Nation as a Local Metaphor: Württemberg, Imperial Germany, and National Memory, 1871-1918. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

One of the problems for theories of nationalism is portraying the relationship between the "intimate, immediate and real" local world and the "distant, abstract" national world, of national identity and persisting, continuing "other" identities. (4) The Nation as a Local Metaphor attempts this by examining the role of collective memory in one province of Imperial Germany, and the corresponding debates on how local identity, memory and the past would be incorporated into a new collective German identity. The process of "becoming" Germans was not simply trading an existing identity for a new, national one; but of incorporating existing identities into a new framework.

The book is broken down into two parts, which Confino contrasts to explore the relationship of local and national identities. The first is the local commemoration of Sedan Day, a nation-wide but "unofficial" holiday celebrating victory at the Battle of Sedan in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Sedan Day soon became a focus for local political struggle; Württemberg had been opposed to Prussian-led German Unification, and the holiday became a debate between local Prussophile, Protestant Liberal bourgeoisie and Catholics and upholders of local political rights. Although not a black and white conflict (the Liberals incorporate their own, local meanings into Sedan Day) the holiday failed to reconcile the local and the national in the eyes of many Württembergers; and ultimately, the holiday faltered and diminished.

The second part focuses on the "Heimat idea." From an eighteenth-century primary meaning that emphasized home, hearth and locality, by the twentieth-century Heimat had come to be a "symbolic representation of Germany" that emphasized the nation. (128) This was not a linear progress, Confino argues, but an ongoing process in which a new "hierarchy" was created in which local conceptions of homeland were merged into a "national" homeland, all by looking to the past as a source of validation for contemporary, common identity. (158) The strength of the second half is Confino's examination of the ways that the Heimat movements popularized history and encouraged new ways of approaching the past. The author pays particular attention to images representing the concept of Heimat, arguing that there is a coherent whole to the depiction of a German homeland. (158) Intriguing, but the brevity of space devoted to this argument allows for a suggestive but not conclusive argument.

Confino's book is most useful in emphasizing the way that local and national identities intermeshed and overlapped. Rejecting modernization (and, particularly the Sonderweg* approach) as explanations for German nation-building, he emphasizes the "everyday plane of the mental" and a cultural approach to studying the nation. (9) The Heimat idea succeeded in creating a new concept of the relation of the local and the national; Sedan Day failed since the nation it portrayed was perhaps too antagonistic and jarring for local sensibilities. Both broad arguments provide much food for thought, but theoretical and comparative analysis between them could be stronger in the work.

Suggestive and provocative, Confino does not offer a definitive history or theoretical approach, but it is an interesting work which, in addressing the boundaries between localness and nationhood, in examining pictorial representations of the nation and in discussing German nationhood on the local level, is useful for specialists both in nationalism theory and historians of Germany alike.