“Tribal Terminology or the Language of Liberation: Tracing Volk from Herder to Büchner” by Jeffrey Jarzomb

While not necessarily explicitly tied to Romanticism, this project deals with the use and conceptualization of the term “Volk” in selected works by several Romantic or proto-Romantic authors including Johann Gottfried von Herder, Friedrich Schiller, and Heinrich von Kleist, before moving past Romanticism to Therese Huber and Georg Büchner. Using a wide breadth of texts from these authors, this dissertation will examine the development of a discourse of “Volk” and ethnicity which reflects, in some ways, a burgeoning conception of German nationality. The prevalence of the term “Volk” can be seen in its use within every iteration of a German Constitution, starting with the recommendations of the Frankfurter Nationalversammlung in 1848, and is present in language as innocuous as folk festivals and as virulent as Nazi rhetoric. 

This research project gives particular attention to the friction between instances of aspiration and execution in unifying cultural groups within these texts, hypothesizing that the idealistic notions associated with this term gradually decline as faith in their realization dissipates. Notable works adhering to this trend include Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, a dramatized account of the Swiss national founding myth; Kleist’s Der Prinz von Homburg, which is often read through the themes of national unification; Huber’s Klosterberuf, a narrative that explicitly questions the nature of ethnicity and its expression in the feminine; and Büchner’s Dantons Tod, a drama that sees both main characters’ rhetoric revolve around speaking for the “Volk.” Although these texts set a clear trajectory in the progression of this discourse, there are many other examples from these authors that problematize this concept. Ideally, this dissertation will resolve such contradictions in a meaningful way that also sheds light on the problematic nationalisms of our own times.

Starting with the philosophical writings of Herder, as well as some of the reference literature from the period, a distinct connection between the concepts of “Volk,” ethnicity, language, and statehood begin to emerge. Many of these texts contain conflicts between the prescriptive definitions of their terms, how they would like to see such terms viewed moving forward, and their descriptive sections, denoting their current applications. This specific tension is quite visible in Herder’s Ossian und die Lieder alter Völker, in which his hope for the fulfillment of his prescriptions is dashed by the generous—and ahistorical—editorializing of the text he analyzes. 

This project will examine the philosophical and literary disconnects between the possibilities revealed in unifying large groups under cultural and class-based conceptions and their realization. More often than not, the actualization of these concepts within the text leads to unexpected or disastrous consequences. In Michael Kohlhaas, the nobility wins and the once unified “provisorische(n) Weltregierung” has degenerated into a mob of looters. Büchner’s Dantons Tod sees both Danton and Robespierre using (and abusing) the rhetoric of “das Volk” for their own purposes, to the detriment of their revolution. Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, however, sees the ultimate success of this language in the expulsion of foreign empire and the death of the central villain, Geßler. 

While questions around aspiration and execution will undoubtedly remain central throughout the examination of works in this project, discussions on the parameters of membership within this group will also play a central role. How does one determine who is a member of the “Volk”? To what extent does this term refer to class? How do female characters express their sense of membership, or more importantly, in which ways can they not express their membership? The intersections of identities and the dichotomies of inclusivity v. exclusivity and aspiration v. execution will be a guiding theme in the development of this dissertation.



Jeffrey Jarzomb is a third year PhD student in the University of Washington’s German Studies Program. In the coming months he will take his doctoral exams and, hopefully, achieve candidate status. Jeffrey’s primary research interests are the intersections of nationalism and literature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.