Historians long distinguished this era for bringing forth the military-bureaucratic power-state, the Enlightenment’s rationalist philosophy, and the cultural efflorescence of the “age of Goethe.” Narratives of “modernization” link these commanding developments to the rise of bourgeois or middle-class society, with an attendant public sphere of liberal and nationalist political opinion, and new energies of the capitalist market economy propelling Germany to the Industrial Revolution’s portal.
In the eyes of successive generations of German speakers who lived through it, the age appeared in different guises. Despite the ferocity and political duplicities of preceding religious conflicts, culminating in the disastrous Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, Germany in the later seventeenth and eighteenth century remained an intensely Christian land, in which discovery of the soul’s path to salvation far outweighed whatever contributions people unwittingly made to a future, self-styled, and (as it turned out) often self-deceiving “secular modernity.”
From the viewpoint of Germany’s rulers – the emperors, the hundreds of territorial princes – the preservation of the far-flung Holy Roman Empire as a bulwark of international and domestic peace and as mediator and justiciar among its component principalities meant more, except to a few ambitious dynasts, than the visions of sovereign independence of one or another German state. The “German nation” and “German unity” were concepts meaningful only as they might be embodied in the ancient Empire. “Glory” [Ruhm] was a fitting object of a German ruler’s striving, but no more so than his subjects’ “welfare” [Wohl] and “felicity” [Glückseligkeit].
As for those, whether high-born or low, who lived from their private property or labor, life’s great aim was to evade untimely death from disease or warfare, so as to marry well, bring forth heirs, and manage one’s household as independently as was possible in a world structured inescapably by lordship [Herrschaft] and the obligations of “service” [Dienst] it imposed on upper and lower classes alike. “Freedoms” [Freiheiten] and “rights” [Rechte] were historical, hereditary, and often individual or communal, not universal and egalitarian. They shielded and privileged those who could claim them, though without releasing them from subjection to churchly and earthly authority [Obrigkeit].