Mosse's Nationalization of the Masses: General Will

Written by Daniel Hummel on Wednesday, March 01, 2017 at 12:41 PM


Mosse's General Will and Christianity

On the first page of Nationalization of the Masses, Mosse introduces us to the “general will,” a term rooted in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) that consists of “the belief that only when all are acting together as an assembled people does man’s nature as a citizen come into active existence” (1-2). Mosse argues that “the general will became a secular religion” – the latter being the very subject of his book and the driving force behind the nationalization of the German masses (2).

As a secularized religion, the general will is thus an interesting concept to contrast with the Christianity of nineteenth century Germany, which Mosse discusses at length in more than one passage. It would be too much to fully summarize Mosse’s fruitful analysis of Christianity and its relationship to the general will here, but three major points bear mentioning.

1) German Pietism. Mosse sees an exceptional role for pietism in supplying “a dynamic and emotional content…creating the kind of brotherly community, based on love, that Pietists desired” which informed the “new politics’ of nationalization (14). The transaction was not just by secularizing a pietistic, Christian concept of brotherhood in Christ, though that certainly took place. Mosse also sees the reverse at work: turning the religious into the political. He cites early cases of Pietists referring to “the fatherland as a ‘magic space’ (Wunderraum) – the ‘hidden fatherland’,” which architects like Friedrich Gilly (1772-1800) would use to conceptualize national monuments (50-51). This two-way street of the politics made religious and the religious made political is central to Mosse’s overall analysis.

2) Christian festivals. Mosse positions Christian festivals, including the cycle of holy days and Christian rites, as direct ancestors to the national festivals that fueled worship of, and for, the general will (74-75). In a very direct way, nationalists borrowed from the Christian calendar and infused national festivals with the trappings of prayer, pious service, and sacred ground. Here, though, was only a weaker expression of the secularized Christian festival. As Mosse makes clear, the French revolutionaries tried to co-opt the Christian calendar and festivals wholesale, and only achieved middling results. The genius of German organizers, such as Ernst Arndt (1769-1860), was in also sacralizing the Volk and the mythic German past. By introducing a “festival of the dead” and christening “sacred territory” for great German heroes, Arndt created a new use for Christian practices. New festivals and monuments in this mode, wrote Arndt, “were truly German and truly Christian” (76).

3) Christian aesthetics. A third way in which Christianity intersected with the nationalization of the masses was the aesthetics of the new politics, which reflexively elevated Christian architecture and symbols as the most beautiful and perfect ideals. This took place even as other parts of Germany’s Christian tradition were outright rejected. Hitler’s idealized architecture provides one clear example. As Mosse describes, through the construction of Nazi Party buildings and Hitler’s sketchbook, we can see that churches “dominated [Hitler’s] fantasies” (188). Hitler’s sketches for a national cult building featured a dome, an apse and towers that resembled German churches. Hitler’s town halls often took the shape of churches. As Mosse sees it, Hitler was overtly hostile to the German church and Christianity in general, but his conservatism “prevented a clear separation” between sacred and secular that informed Nazi architecture and even practice, as party rallies and ceremonies took influence from Christian tradition.

In these three examples we can see the complex and fascinating influence of Christianity on the general will and the creation of a secular religion. Mosse’s sophisticated insights are sometimes brief, seemingly tangential remarks, but ones that, as a scholar of religion and politics, are both enriching and indicative of the need for more attention to this intersection.

Daniel Hummel is the Postdoctoral Fellow of History and Public Policy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University.

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