Zef M. Segal. The Political Fragmentation of Germany: Formation of Ge
rman States by Infrastructures, Maps, and Movement, 1815–1866. (Palgrave)
This book analyses the development of German territorial states in the nineteenth century through the prism of five Mittelstaaten: Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover, Württemberg, and Baden. It asks how a state becomes a place, and argues that it involves a contested and multi-faceted process, one of slow and uneven progress. The study approaches this question from a new and crucial angle, that of spatiality and public mobility. The issues covered range from the geography of state apparatus, the aesthetics of German cartography and the trajectories of public movement. Challenging the belief that territorial delimitation is primarily a matter of policy and diplomacy, this book reveals that political territories are constructed through daily practices and imagination.
What's the one key idea or message you want readers to take from your book?
Instead of considering how various elites, such as political, economic, or intellectual leaders, tried to modernize their state and society, and how this shaped popular national sentiments, the book emphasizes the unintentional consequences of mass mobility on the formation of the states, i.e., travel, migration and communication. The focus on unintended mass processes is not history from “above” nor is it history from “below”; it is the story of mass society made up of many individuals. This, to me, is the overarching idea of the book. Ordinary people, and their everyday choices, can change the course of history.
What got you interested in the topic of your book?
My interest in the formation of nineteenth-century German states originated from questioning the significance of the German national movement prior to the unification of Germany into the German Empire in 1871. However, instead of examining the national movement itself, I wanted to explore unspoken and unwritten national affiliations of German people at that time. This historical question, especially in the context of the 19th century German speaking world, meshed well with my keen interest in the history of spatial perceptions and the history of modern mobilities (travel, migration and communication).
Books answer questions, but they also raise new questions. What questions does your book raise?
The book suggests a new approach towards the history of nationalism, which should raise many questions regarding the past as well as the future. How much impact do “state building” projects, and in particular physical infrastructures, have on personal identities? How stable are national identities?
“The citizens of these states,” I write in my conclusion, “were not simply bystanders presented with newly formed borders and regulations but were always active participants in the spatialization of the territory; they had options and choices as well as influence over the outcomes.” But the question remains as to how should we evaluate their influence in the past and in the present?
What are you currently reading, in your field or just generally, and what do you like about it?
I am currently readingTime in Maps: From the Age of Discovery to Our Digital Era(University of Chicago Press, 2020). This book considers how to investigate historical depictions of time in different types of maps produced in various periods and regions. As a historian of modern mobilities, I find the concept of mapping time, and in particular mapping movement, a fascinating historical phenomenon, which reflect, quoting from the book, “the striking imaginative capacities of people.”