Businessmen and Politics in the Rhineland, 1789-1834

Businessmen and Politics in the Rhineland, 1789-1834

by Jeffry M. Diefendorf

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In an attempt to understand the political history of the German middle class in the nineteenth century, Jeffry Diefendorf studies in detail the political, social, and economic behavior of three business communities on the Left Bank of the Rhine between 1789 and 1834.

Originally published in 1980.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest


In an attempt to understand the political history of the German middle class in the nineteenth century, Jeffry Diefendorf studies in detail the political, social, and economic behavior of three business communities on the Left Bank of the Rhine between 1789 and 1834.

Originally published in 1980.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Businessmen and Politics in the Rhineland, 1789-1834

By Jeffry M. Diefendorf


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05298-4



In the fall of 1808 Prussia was still reeling from her catastrophic defeat at the hands of Napoleon. Her government had withdrawn to Königsberg, and the king looked to a group of reform-minded officials led by Baron vom Stein to salvage what was left. Stein and his colleagues argued that Prussia's weakness was a natural consequence of the fact that the crown and bureaucracy had deprived the population of any voice in its own government. As a result, "love and eagerness for public affairs, all communal spirit, every feeling for making a sacrifice for the whole has been lost. Just to be a citizen has not been considered an honor for a long time now. On the contrary, one expected everything from the state, but without trusting in its measures and without true enthusiasm for the constitution." This situation had to be rectified if Prussia was to survive. Stein believed that "the participation of the nation in law making and administration cultivates a love of the constitution, a correct public opinion about national affairs, and the capability in many individual citizens to administer its business." Because experience in public life had been lacking for so long, it was imperative to begin by creating opportunities for participation of the people in local government. Prussia's people would then marshal their energies, defeat Bonaparte, and restore the Hohenzollerns to their proper place among the great powers of Europe.

Thus, in the opinion of the policy makers of Prussia's reform era, participation in the affairs of local government was to provide an indispensable political education for the inexperienced, self-centered subjects of the crown and to transform them into true citizens. This was an idea common to many political thinkers in nineteenth-century Europe. De Tocqueville praised local government in America for creating a "taste for authority" and an interest "in the common weal." John Stuart Mill argued that an active central government, communicating with local institutions, "completes the efficacy of local self-government as a means of instruction, by accustoming the people not only to judge of particular facts, but to understand and apply, and feel practically the value of, principles." It "teaches them by experience how public affairs must be carried on."

The subject of the present study is the political education — to continue that nineteenth-century metaphor — of the business community on the Left Bank of the Rhine during the period between the French Revolution of 1789 and the formation of the German Customs Union of 1834. More specifically, it is a detailed study of the political experiences of solidly established merchants, bankers, and manufacturers in the three cities of Cologne, Crefeld, and Aachen. As we shall see, their practical political education consisted, not of academic study, but of active participation in decision making through semipublic representative institutions, through officeholding, and through individual contacts with government figures. The object of this political activity was to articulate interests and to secure the adoption of policies favorable to business either through obtaining or preventing the state's intervention in the economy. More often than not businessmen realized their goals, and success in business and politics was rewarded with prestige on the local, regional, and national levels. Experiences such as these, very much what Stein had in mind, help to account for the political behavior of these leaders of the middle class during the subsequent decades and to explain the ultimate integration of the Rhenish businessman into the Prussian state. They also help to explain why liberalism in Germany did not develop in conformity with French and English liberalism, and to throw some light on the German variant of liberalism.

Anglo-Saxon self-government, extolled by Mill and de Tocqueville, meant liberal, participatory democracy, something that eluded the Germans throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. The failure of Western-style liberal democracy to take root in Germany is a subject of such importance to German historians that it has been studied many times — so often, in fact, that it has been dubbed the "German question" or the "German problem." The answers offered by historians have generally rested on comparisons with a normative model derived primarily from English, and to a lesser degree from French, liberalism. Comparisons of the Continent with England were as common to men living in the nineteenth century as they are to historians today. It was also common to see a close relation between socioeconomic structure and the institutions of government. Marx and Engels, however, were the ones who combined the industrial revolution, the rise of the new bourgeoisie, and the French tradition of revolutionary political emancipation into a powerful model of modernization that has held the attention of nearly all historians since, even when they reject it.

The Marxian model assumes that English and French history reveal a "normal" development in which certain forms of economic, social, political, and intellectual change should occur more or less together and in linear fashion. According to the model, the bourgeoisie, unless defective in some respect, is presumed to be progressive, individualistic, and resolutely opposed to bureaucracy, aristocracy, and autocracy. It is also presumed to be practical, and materialistic, yet highly principled and anxious to seize political power and leadership. The model entrepreneur is presumed to be economically liberal, standing firmly on the doctrine of laissez faire and opposing state intervention in the economy.

The answer to the German question has been sought, then, in deviations from this model, although the model is sometimes more implicit than explicit. Historians commonly argue, for example, that liberalism failed in Germany because the bourgeoisie failed to develop along proper lines. This was due, they say, to a defect in the bourgeois class, to a defect in bourgeois consciousness, or to both. The view most often advanced is that German liberalism, at least before 1848, "was predominantly an intellectual movement, and preeminently a movement of intellectuals." According to this view, liberalism had its roots in academia, not in a strong, sizable middle class involved in trade and industry. This was because German industrialization came too late, in the 1840s or even after 1850. The bourgeoisie, and with it liberalism, was deprived of a strong social and economic base, and it lacked practical experience in the harsh real world. Bourgeois intellectuals stood virtually alone in liberalism's struggle with bureaucratic absolutism, dooming their reform efforts to failure — the collapse of the revolution of 1848 being the most significant and spectacular example. Therefore successful liberalizing reform could come only from above or from outside, initiated by the liberal-minded members of the socially aristocratic bureaucracy. Due to its faulty development as a class, the bourgeoisie had to depend on the older and stronger elites.

An alternative view is that German liberalism failed because bourgeois consciousness was defective, regardless of whether the bourgeois class should be regarded as defective. The middle class of the small territorial towns, caught up in a web of social and economic traditionalism, was sufficiently strong but was conservative and particularist in outlook, rather than liberal. The economic bourgeoisie of larger states like Prussia adopted the values of the aristocracy and acquiesced in autocratic rule because of cowardice in the face of increasingly militant workers and artisans or because of materialistic opportunism. And bourgeois intellectuals failed to become independent of the values and ideas of the aristocracy, because of "immature German liberal thinking in general"— the concentration on moral rather than institutional questions and the facile reconciliation of freedom with existing authority — or because of an unrealistic cosmopolitanism or nationalism. The bourgeoisie failed to develop its own "social and political standards." It never made the "solidary demands of a new political class," and thus lost its "revolutionary potential." The bourgeoisie is seen as defective, therefore, in that it did not provide the right kind of leadership at the right time, that it did not develop its own proper set of values, and that entrepreneurs depended on the authoritarian state for economic assistance.

Whether or not we accept the Marxian model as normative, these explanations and interpretations still depend for their validity on definitions and assumptions about which there is little or no agreement. They depend, for instance, on how the bourgeoisie or middle class is defined and on how its social and economic strength is measured. This in turn depends on how industrialization is defined and measured, and what dates are used to bracket it. The "bourgeoisie," however, has been variously defined, and the weakness of the German bourgeoisie disputed. And though historians have increasingly made industrialization the "leitmotif" of modern German history, there is no real consensus on precisely when German industrialization began or how to conceptualize and measure its early phases. Certainly the industrial revolution began earlier in some parts of Germany than in others.

Furthermore, if German "liberal thinking" is to be judged immature, then it is necessary to define liberalism. In the nineteenth century, except when used as a specific party label, liberal and liberalism carried vague and often contradictory meanings. Today some scholars depict liberalism in terms of concrete political goals and programs including demands for constitutional and representative government, civil rights, and ministerial responsibility, or, more abstractly, for "political emancipation in the state," "freedom secured through law," and "an end to unearned privilege and unproductive social restrictions." Others argue against defining liberalism in terms of positive political demands for participation in government, preferring to define it in terms of a seeking for freedom from arbitrary authority. So here again there is no agreement.

And finally, there is the question of just what political entity we are talking about when we talk of "Germany." Throughout the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century there was no Germany, only a loose confederation of states that differed greatly in size, social condition, and degree of economic development. There was a diversity of experience. Recent research suggests that relations between states and entrepreneurs were varied and extremely complex, especially in the period of early industrialization. States sometimes helped but also often hindered economic change, and entrepreneurs sometimes sought and sometimes opposed intervention by government.

This lack of consensus on terms and definitions makes comparisons with a model difficult and the results questionable. Moreover, while models have their advantages, there is always the temptation to look more at the model than at actual events. It seems potentially more profitable in the present case to study the actual political, social, economic, and intellectual behavior of the bourgeoisie in a specific region of Germany during a specific period of time; to see what their political education did consist of; and to observe what sorts of liberal institutions actually developed, and how. Although a regional study cannot by itself solve the larger question of the failure of liberal democracy, it avoids many of the complex problems encountered by scholars working on a broader level, making possible a clearer if more limited picture, and thereby contributing to a solution of the larger problem.

The region chosen for this study — the Rhineland — was not typical of all of Germany, but it was particularly important. Economically it was one of the most advanced areas and had the most contact with the West, especially as a result of the Napoleonic era. The Rhenish bourgeoisie was relatively strong, both socially and economically, and it was not limited to intellectuals, though Rhenish entrepreneurs have at times been described as spokesmen of intellectual liberalism and even as "ideologists." In the decades before 1848, the stirrings of industrialization coincided there with early liberalism; businessmen were active politically, and men like David Hansemann, Ludolf Camphausen, Gustav von Mevissen, and Hermann von Beckerath were central figures. An examination of the origins of Rhenish patterns of political behavior and leadership during the early years of economic modernization yields insights into the meaning of liberal politics and helps to clarify the issues of bourgeois political and economic initiative. And a closer look at the process by which Rhinelanders became Prussian patriots helps to explain the process of nation building and social and political integration. All of this helps our understanding of the German problem — the failure of liberal democracy.

From 1789 to 1834, the Left Bank of the Rhine experienced an enormous amount of change, change that broke it free of the old regime and set the course for its future. In 1789 the German-speaking world was still contained within the institutions of the thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire. In spite of some attempts at reform by absolutist monarchs in Prussia and Austria and in spite of an upsurge of economic activity in some areas, the structure of German social, political, and economic life remained largely patriarchal and corporate. It was a structure based on custom, privilege, and law, and on the provisions of the Treaty of Westphalia. The Rhineland, dominated by petty ecclesiastical princes, was notorious for particularism and backwardness. Only five years later French armies abolished most (though not all) of the old social and economic privileges along with the existing state system. Modern legal codes were introduced, and corporate institutions were either destroyed or so reformed that participation depended upon occupation rather than upon birth. In 1797 the Rhineland was annexed to France and Rhinelanders became French citizens. When Napoleon was defeated and the French withdrew, the Congress of Vienna simplified the political map of Germany and awarded the major part of the Rhineland to Prussia, forcing its inhabitants to adjust to still another set of conditions.

Although Napoleon had created a vassal state in the Kingdom of Westphalia, the Right Bank had never been fully integrated with France. French political practice on the Right Bank, though similar in many respects to that on the Left Bank, had differed in that residents on the eastern shore had not experienced union with a powerful nation-state, nor had all of the major French institutions been fully established there. The Left Bank of the Rhine had been divided into four administrative areas called departments. In 1815, when Prussia was given territory on both sides of the Rhine, it acquired the entire Roer and virtually all of the Sarre departments and the Rhine and Moselle department. The rest was divided among Baden, Bavaria, Hesse, and Nassau, but only in Prussia were most of the French reforms retained. Within the new Prussian territory, the cities of greatest economic importance were Cologne, Aachen, and Crefeld. Cologne, the largest city in the Rhineland, was the major trading center on the river; Aachen and Crefeld were the leading manufacturing centers on the Left Bank. All three were located in what had been the Roer department under the French. These cities are therefore logical locations in which to examine the Left Bank business community during the period of transition. By restricting the inquiry to three important and at the same time representative cities, the experiences of the middle class can be studied in sufficient detail to provide a solid analysis of its political education.

The year chosen for the end of this study is significant on several counts. Under Prussian sponsorship the German Customs Union was formed in 1834. As the last of the great reforms begun by the generation of progressive Prussian administrators that had come to power during the Napoleonic period, the Customs Union marked a turning from internal economic and political consolidation and integration to expansion of Prussia's relations with her neighbors. By 1834 the territories gained by Prussia at the Congress of Vienna had been absorbed successfully, and the Customs Union bridged the geographical discontinuity in the monarchy. By that date too, Rhenish particularism had been transformed into French and then Prussian citizenship. By creating a new national market for trade, the Customs Union marked the end of the long depression that had followed the Napoleonic wars. Economic conditions improved and, stimulated partly by Prussian influence and partly by dynamic forces that had survived from the period of French rule, Rhenish entrepreneurs took the lead in introducing railroads, steamships, and new banking and insurance techniques in Prussia and in neighboring German states. Population growth and geographic mobility contributed to increased urbanization and economic growth as the Prussian Rhineland became the most industrialized and perhaps most modern area in Germany. In both a political and economic sense, therefore, the creation of the Customs Union can be seen as concluding the Rhineland's long period of transition from the old regime.


Excerpted from Businessmen and Politics in the Rhineland, 1789-1834 by Jeffry M. Diefendorf. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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