Taking the Measure of National Greatness: Georg Brandes’s Condemnation of German Imperialism

Julie K. Allen


In numerous public speeches and essays published around the turn of the 20th century, the Danish intellectual Georg Brandes (1842–1927) criticized Germany’s imperialistic behavior, in particular its oppressive treatment of the Danish minority in Slesvig-Holstein, as incompatible with true national greatness. In Brandes’s view, many of the same traits and actions that bolstered Germany’s national pride and international might violated human rights and compromised human dignity, thus diminishing Germany’s moral and cultural stature. Grounded in the traditions of bourgeois liberalism, Brandes’s brand of cosmopolitan nationalism privileges the “universal” conception of the nation as a civic union in which the rights of heterogeneous ethnic groups must be protected by the state to which they belong, regardless of that state’s dominant linguistic and ethnic identity. His defense of oppressed minority groups against the economic and military might of German imperialism exemplifies his privileging of the universal over the national. (JKA)