In 1789 the possibility of a German National State was so remote that Germans had not even begun to dream of one. Each little Principality was jealously tenacious of its local rights, or, as we should say, of its vested interests, as against the common interests of Germany. Most of them were narrow and parochial in their outlook; and the others, the more broad-minded, were not national but cosmopolitan in spirit. To the tradition of municipal thinking, which had lasted on uninterruptedly in the Free Cities of Germany from the Middle Ages, Germany owes the excellence of her municipal government to-day. To the broad and tolerant humanism of her more enlightened courts, such as Weimar and Brunswick, we owe the influences that shaped the work of Goethe and of Lessing, two of the greatest figures in European thought and letters.
Into these peaceful haunts of culture and parochialism Napoleon, with the armies and the ideas of Revolutionary France, swept like a whirlwind, breaking up the old settled comfortable life of the cities and countryside. One of the greatest of German writers, the Jew Heine, has described in a wonderful passage what the coming of Napoleon meant to the inhabitants of a little German Principality. It is worth transcribing at some length, for it gives the whole colour and atmosphere of the old local life in Western Germany, which has not even yet entirely passed away. The speaker is an old soldier giving reminiscences of his boyhood:
“Our Elector was a fine gentleman, a great lover of the arts, and himself very clever with his fingers. He founded the picture gallery at Duesseldorf, and in the Observatory in that city they still show a very artistic set of wooden boxes, one inside the other, made by himself in his leisure hours, of which he had twenty-four every day.
“In those days the Princes were not overworked mortals as they are to-day. Their crowns sat very firmly on their heads, and at night they just drew their nightcaps over them, and slept in peace, while peacefully at their feet slept their peoples; and when these woke up in the morning they said, ‘Good morning, Father,’ and the Princes replied, ’Good morning, dear children.’
“But suddenly there came a change. One morning when we woke up in Duesseldorf and wanted to say, ‘Good morning, Father,’ we found our Father gone, and a kind of stupefaction over the whole city. Everybody felt as though they were going to a funeral, and people crept silently to the market-place and read a long proclamation on the door of the City Hall. It was grey weather, and yet thin old tailor Kilian stood in his alpaca coat, which he kept for indoor use only, and his blue woollen stockings hung down so that his miserable little bare legs were visible above them and his thin lips were trembling, while he murmured the words of the proclamation. A veteran soldier at his side read somewhat louder, and at every few words a tear trickled down into his