Though Napoleon's empire remained politically intact, however, strains began to show. Napoleon's conquest of Europe, the burdens of the Continental System and the British blockade, and the high taxes Napoleon levied outside of France led to resentment and resistance in many regions of the Empire. People were becoming tired of seeing their nations used as pawns against the British. Thus, nationalism developed in reaction to Napoleon's imperial reign.

The main site of anti-Napoleonic nationalism was in the German states, some of which had been absorbed by France, but most of which were in the Confederation of the Rhine. The German nationalist movement rebelled not only against French rule, but against the entire French intellectual tradition. The years of French domination saw a remarkable flowering of thought and art in Germany, with philosophers and artists such as Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Kant, Hegel, and Beethoven rising to the fore.

Against the dominant tradition of French Enlightenment Rationalism that underlay the entire Napoleonic empire and its rules, German intellectuals now began a revolution in thought called Romanticism. Romanticism challenged nearly every aspect of French Rationalism. Since the French Empire was built on French Rationalism, the policies of the empire came under attack. The Enlightenment idea of universal laws that applied to everyone came under attack.

J.G. Fichte, who drew on the work of J.G. Herder(discussed in Commentary, below) was a German philosopher and Romantic who argued that each person's inner self determined their morality. In 1800, Fichte proposed a "Closed Commercial State", advocating a centralized state that could isolate itself from the world to develop its own volksgeist, a word describing a nations distinct sense of self. When Germany fell under French domination, Fichte argued (like Herder) that there was a special German "spirit". Unlike Herder, Fichte claimed that the German spirit was better than that of other nations, and for that reason, it needed to be carefully protected from being perverted by contact with outside influences, such as the French influence.

Thus, Napoleon's domination of Germany helped propel both a political and intellectual reaction, fueling the growth of German Nationalism and Romanticism.


Before the Napoleonic era, Germany had never had much of a national identity; it consisted only of the loose grouping of states united only by a common language, vague cultural ties, and the weak government of the Holy Roman Empire. The envy inspired by French power instilled in the Germans a desire to revitalize their own political system and to gain a unifying national consciousness. Politically, the French Revolution demonstrated to the Germans the power of nationalism to mobilize people. The liberal reforms of the French Revolution led to a more efficient French system and a more patriotic French population. As seen in the reforms of Prussia, the Germans followed suit. Socially, French domination of culture and thought created a sense in Germans that they needed to construct their own sense of nationalism. Many Germans emerged from Napoleonic rule tired of the petty kingdoms and principalities that made up the Holy Roman Empire, and they hoped for a unified state. For the most part, they looked for leadership to Prussia, a modernizing state on the eastern fringes of what at this time was the traditional "German" heartland (described in more detail next section.

Popular pages: Napoleonic Europe (1799-1815)