Angela Merkel’s recent statement that multiculturalism in German has “utterly failed” has provoked blogs and other punditry. What is not generally understood is that MC did not assume that all cultures were equal. As the Herder quotes show, he imagined a Golden Age and a hierarchy of value, preferring the Greeks. Moreover, he was arguing against Enlightenment materialism and its assault on the idea of national character (as shown in the quote from Helvétius). Finally, Fichte, a German idealist, clearly realizes that Herder’s hierarchy suggests that German culture will master the world. The remainder of this blog quotes from sources in English translation and includes footnotes.
[Helvétius, 1748; quoted in Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory, 1968, p.456:] Nothing is generally more false and ridiculous than the portraits drawn to represent the characters of different nations. Some paint their own nation after the particular society they frequent, and consequently represent the people as gloomy or gay, dull or witty…Others copy what a thousand writers have said before them; they have never examined the changes necessarily produced in a people, by those which happen in the administration and in the alteration of manners. It has been said, that the French are gay; and this will be repeated to eternity. They do not perceive, that by the misfortunes of the times having obliged the princes to lay considerable taxes on the country people; the French people cannot be gay, because the peasants, who alone compose two thirds of the nation, are in want, and want can never be gay; that even, in regard to the cities, the necessity, it is said, the police of Paris is under of defraying a part of the expence of the masquerades performed on holidays at St. Anthony’s gate, is not a proof of the gaiety of the artists and the citizen; spies may contribute to the safety of Paris; but being carried too far, they diffuse a general diffidence through the minds of the people, that is absolutely incompatible with joy, on account of the ill use that may be made of them.
[J. G. von Herder, “On Diligence in the Study of Several Learned Languages,” 1764:] That flourishing age is gone when the small circle of our earliest ancestors dwelt round the patriarchs like children round their parents; that age, in which, in the simple and noble message of our revelation, all the world was of one tongue and language. Instead of the burden of our learning and the masks of our virtues, there reigned rouch, simple contentment. Why do I sketch a lost portrait of irreplaceable charms? It is no more, this golden age.—-
As the children of dust undertook that edifice that threatened the clouds, the chalice of confusion was poured over them: their families and dialects were transplanted to various points of the compass; and a thousand languages were created in tune with the climes and mores of a thousand nations. When here the native of the Morn glows under a blazing noon, the rushing current of his mouth streams forth a heated and emotive speech. There, the Greek flourishes in the most sensuous and mild of regions, his body–in Pindar’s words—is bathed in grace, his veins pulse with a gentle fire, his limbs are charged with sensitivity, his vocal instruments exquisite; and thus there arose among them that exquisite Attic tongue, Grace among her sisters.
The Romans, sons of Mars, spoke more forcefully, and only later gathered flowers in the garden of Greece to embellish their tongue. More masculine yet is the speech of the martial German; the sprightly Gaul invents a skipping, softer language; the Spaniard gives his own an appearance of gravity, though this be merely by means of echoes. The languorous African mumbles weakly, waning away in broken tones, and the Hottentot, at last, loses himself in a stammer of gibberish. So this plant transformed itself according to the soil that nourished it and heaven’s breeze, that quenched its thirst: it became a Proteus among nations.
If thus, each language has its distinct national character, it seems that nature imposes upon us an obligation only to our mother tongue, for it is perhaps better attuned to our character and coextensive with our way of thinking. I may perhaps be able to ape haltingly the sounds of foreign nations, without, however, penetrating to the core of their uniqueness.
…[However, through commerce] state policy links languages together into a universal chain of peoples, and precisely in that way they also become a great bond of learning. So long as the scattered crowd of scholars is not governed by a monarch who would set one language upon the throne of the ruins of so many others, so long as the plans for a universal language belong among the empty projects and journeys to the moon, so long will many languages remain an indispensable evil and thus almost a genuine good.
[Herder on patriotism and sacrifice: “Do We Still Have the Public and Fatherland of Yore?”:] …do we yet have the fatherland, the love of which will move us to the unselfish sacrifice of our selves; do we yet know the passion of the ancients to court the fatherland’s love, its honor and reward, as the patriot’s finest garland?–Whoever entertains noble feelings even for those above him, whose heart beats warmly in his breast for his brother, who seeks to be a link in the chain of the whole, and is so joyfully, will not answer no to this question.
Only a Helvetius, who claims to find only selfish urges in man; a Mandeville, who transforms us into mere bees; a Hobbes, who inscribes hostility upon each man’s forehead; a Machievelli, who creates that monster of a despot who sucks the blood through tax collectors, vampires, and ticks; only these base and cold misanthropes deprive us of the gentle sentiment of patriotism; and each rotten soul that tears itself away from its fatherland and after the Ptolemaic scheme of the world makes the self’s terrestrial clod the center of the whole, will deprive itself of this gentle sentiment.—
…If one should take away from a monarch, from an empress, the sweet awareness of laboring for a fatherland, of caring for subjects as children, what would he be but the image of Machiavelli, what should she be more readily but the mechanical queen bee of Mandeville? If one should take away the invigorating thought of the fatherland from a judge, from an authority who must sacrifice private business to the public weal, who exhausts himself and surrenders the advantage of the family and personal pleasure to the benefit of the whole, is it to be wondered at when such a one, instead of petty laurels, dons the green Jew’s cap, when such a one, instead of holding court, goes out to dig where no one will notice for gold and ecclesiastical treasures?…
[Greeks, Germans, and Fichte resolve the conflict between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, 1806-7:] “The patriot wishs that the purpose of mankind be reached first of all in that nation of which he is a member. In our day this purpose can only be furthered by philosophy (Wissenschaft). Therefore philosophy and its widest possible dissemination in our day must be the immediate purpose of mankind, and no other purpose can or should be fixed for it.
The German patriot wishes that this purpose be attained first of all among the Germans and that from them it spread to the rest of mankind. The German can desire this, for in his midst philosophy has had its origin and it is developed in his language. It may be assumed that in that nation which has had the wisdom to conceive philosophy there should also rest the ability to understand it. Only the German can desire this, for only he, through the possession of philosophy and the possibility given thereby to understand it, can comprehend that this is the immediate purpose of mankind. This purpose is the only patriotic goal. Only the German can therefore be a patriot. Only he can, in the interest of his nation, include all mankind. Since the instinct of Reason has become extinct and the era of Egotism has begun, every other nation’s patriotism is selfish, narrow, hostile to the rest of mankind.
…The Germans as the Urvolk, the original people, have learned to regard the state and the nation with truly religious spirit. Not in the manner of tyrants who preach religion as a cloak of despotism, urging submission, but in the manner of freemen who have learned to love their nation. For “a nation is the totality of all those living together in society, continuing its kind physically and spiritually, living under a special law of the development of the divine out of itself.” This law of development produces national character….The state must find its chief task in the education of its citizens for these higher ends.
NOTES.  Johann Gottfried Herder, Selected Early Works 1764-1767, ed. Ernest A. Menze and Karl Menges. Transl. Ernest A. Menze with Michael Palma (University Park, Pennsylvania, Penn State UP, 1992), 29-31.
 Ibid., 61-62.
 H.C. Engelbrecht, Johann Gottlieb Fichte: A Study of his political writings with special reference to his Nationalism (N.Y.: AMS Press, orig. publ. 1933): 98, 117-18.