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The Politics of the Prussian Nobility
The Development of a Conservative Ideology, 1770â"1848
By Robert M. Berdahl
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
NOBLE AND PEASANT: THE CONTOURS OF SOCIAL CLASS
The Prussian nobility, which played so prominent a role in modern German history, was a landowning class. More than for any other aristocracy in Europe, the ownership and management of landed estates formed the core of its ethos. Its power as a class rested, to be sure, not only on its control of the land, but also on its domination of the important institutions of the Prussian state, especially the army and the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, throughout its long history, the Prussian aristocracy remained a landowning class, taking its identity, self-perceptions, habits of authority, and style of domination from its experiences as owner of noble estates. The sons of nobles went off to careers in the army and the civil service, but it was always assumed that, after the interlude of a few successful years, most would return to the family estates to live the remainder of their lives as squires. Even those nobles who attained the highest pinnacle of power within the state frequently continued to concern themselves with the minute details of the operation of their estates. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the preservation of the nobility's monopoly of landed estates was a cardinal principle of Hohenzollern policy in Prussia; for decades after that monopoly had been broken, the government worked to maintain a "gentry" class of large landowners considered to be the social foundation of the monarchy. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the attitudes and patterns of social relations that matured historically within the framework of the noble estate became the most important ingredient in what came to be called the Prussian spirit.
The Prussian aristocracy was, on the whole, neither splendid nor rich. It did not routinely send its sons on a grand tour of Europe to broaden their education and gain a veneer of European culture; in fact, the Hohenzollerns discouraged young Prussian nobles from traveling abroad. It was better to send young noblemen to the cadet schools, where they were taught the habits of command that would serve them in the army and on their estates. Each province boasted a few noble families that were wealthy and controlled vast complexes of estates. Upper Silesia had perhaps the largest concentration of magnates — dukes, princes, and counts who owned more than 882,000 acres of land. The Prince of Pless, for example, owned more than 94,500 acres, whereas one branch of the Henckel-Donnersmarck family had almost one-third that amount. In Brandenburg, the estates of the Arnim-Boitzenburg complex totaled 81,900 acres; the Bredows owned 50,400 In East Prussia, the Dohnas, Finckensteins, and Schliebens held huge networks of estates. Many of these families lived in a grand style, built large and elegant manor houses, had ready access to the king, and occupied positions of influence and honor in the state generation after generation. But they were the exception. Amidst their lands were 420 noble estates whose total area was only 280,350 acres, an average of 667.5 acres. Throughout the monarchy, estates of 945 acres to 1,575 acres were most common; few exceeded 5,000. Some regions were overpopulated with nobles whose estates were little more than peasant homesteads. In South and New East Prussia — territories taken from Poland in the eighteenth century — the nobility impoverished itself through a policy of partible inheritance; in the nineteenth century, it became necessary to forbid the partitioning of any noble estate to less than 94.5 acres. A similar situation prevailed in Hither Pomerania, where a traveler reported late in the eighteenth century that "there are villages which are almost entirely composed of noble persons. Their noble estates [Ritterguter] are really peasant and half-peasant farms [Kossatenguter]. Their customs and style of life are not very different from those of the lower orders."
The older families among this Junker aristocracy descended from a socially and ethnically heterogeneous group that settled the colonized lands east of the Elbe River during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As the term Junker indicates, some were descended from the "young noblemen" (junk-herre, junc-herre), the younger sons of nobles from western Germany who had migrated to the new lands of the east, and others from the native Baltic and Slavic landholders who had inhabited the area and had married among the German settlers; in the areas that became Brandenburg, they had been largely Germanized by the fourteenth century. The forebears of other Junkers were the locatores, the land developers, usually of peasant or burgher stock, who had engineered the migration of peasants to the colonized areas, acquired large estates, and gradually blended with the other landowning nobility. Still others were the heirs of military adventurers, the soldiers of fortune who had acquired their estates in exchange for military service. This motley assortment of landholders and petty tyrants originally displayed none of the class cohesion for which their modern descendants became famous; in the turmoil and disorder characteristic of a frontier region, they robbed and feuded with one another, some becoming powerful magnates by crushing the less fortunate squires around them one day only to fall victim to acts of treachery the next.
The emergence of Junker domination in northeastern Germany resulted from a complex process extending from the mid-fifteenth through the sixteenth centuries. During this period, the internal strife and the frequent feuds that characterized their earlier history declined and the hostility and fear that existed between the powerful "castle-residing" high nobility and the lesser squires abated. In the course of the sixteenth century, a sense of collective interest developed among the nobility, especially against the prince and against the towns.
The disintegration of princely authority in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries gave the nobility the opportunity to assert its power. The nobles of Brandenburg and Pomerania carved out for themselves broader legal jurisdictions over the local populations; they purchased from impecunious princes the control of castles, domains, and villages. In Brandenburg, the alienation of crown estates in order to obtain revenues began in the thirteenth century and lasted through the sixteenth century, reaching its high point during the reign of Joachim p between 1535 and 1571. Farther east, in Prussia, which had been settled and ruled by the Knights of the Teutonic Order, central authority disintegrated after the knights were defeated by the Poles in 1410. In 1453, the Prussian nobility was bold enough to defy the Order and support the king of Poland. The subsequent defeat of the Teutonic Order in the Thirteen Years' War ended its power; West Prussia was lost to Poland and Prussia itself was henceforth held by the Order in fief to the king of Poland. The extended period of warfare left the Order financially exhausted, forcing it to alienate much of its land to creditors and opening the way for the nobility to assert its independence.
The Reformation provided the nobility with new leverage over the local populations. The Lutheran teaching of authority and obedience may have aided the princes' power, but it also directly enhanced the position of the local nobles who dominated village life and who now obtained the Patronatsrecht, the right to appoint the village pastor. The nobility, and not just the princes, gained as well from the disposition of the church lands after the Protestant conversion of the territories. The dukes of Pomerania had to overcome the opposition of some Protestant Junkers who did not wish to share the acquisition of church property with them. Elsewhere, many of the church lands found their way into the hands of the nobility. In Brandenburg, Joachim 11's chronic need for money gave the nobility the opportunity to acquire church estates; of the 654 church estates taken with the introduction of Lutheranism in 1540, 286 were owned by the nobility a decade later.
Finally, the emergent nobility was aided by the decline of the towns. Originally, the east Elbian towns were powerful, prosperous, and relatively independent. Many were allied with the Hanseatic League and able to extract broad concessions from the hapless princes: tax exemptions, toll collections, and the important advocatia, the right to try criminals, in some cases even nobles, in their own courts With the defeat of the Teutonic Order, the towns began to decline, a diminished population, the debasement of coinage, and the general insecurity of the times plagued these Baltic towns Thorn and Elbing suffered severely during the Thirteen Years' War, and by 1467 Danzig had lost one-third of its population In Brandenburg, the more aggressive Hohenzollern Electors began to abrogate urban liberties in the fifteenth century In 1448, Frederick 11 forced the twin towns of Berlin and Colin to vow obedience to him, he deprived them of their self-government, and they were subsequently forced out of the Hanse Similar concessions were wrung out of Salzwedel, Stendal, Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, and Neustadt, all were declared non-Hanseatic cities by 1525, a symptom of their decline Similarly, the dukes of Pomerania restricted the urban liberties of Stralsund and Stettin, the two most important trading centers on the Pomeranian coast
The nobles were the prime beneficiaries of the decline of the towns They had long chafed at the trade monopoly exercised by the town merchants over the export of agricultural produce, their demands for free trade consistently headed the list of grievances they drew against the towns The Junkers lent their support to the Hohenzollern efforts against the towns Eventually, they found it possible to sell their products directly to foreign merchants, bypassing the mediation of the local town merchants The emergence of the Junkers at the expense of the towns and the subsequent isolation, decline, and exclusion of the towns from the political process became one of the major factors determining the nature of east Elbian society
The growing independence of the Junkers and the decline of the towns coincided with changing patterns of production on the noble estates During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, landlords and developers (locatores) had attracted peasants to the lands they were colonizing east of the Elbe by offering them greater independence than they enjoyed in western Germany Most landlords granted the peasants hereditary tenure to their holdings, fixed their rental obligations, and demanded only a few days' labor service per year Then, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the landowning nobility began to reverse this pattern and to impose heavier servile obligations on their peasants
The economic slump that struck western Europe in the fourteenth century relieved the population pressure that had pushed people toward the more thinly populated east. The flow of peasant settlers stopped. Wars, feuds, plagues, and crop failures also contributed to a population decline in the east until, by the end of the fifteenth century, hundreds of peasant holdings and villages stood deserted. Hans Rosenberg summarized the situation succinctly: "In the fifteenth century, the central economic fact facing the rent-receiving landlord and the managing estate proprietor [Gutsherr] was the abundance of land and the scarcity of labor." The Junkers responded to this problem by increasing the labor services of the peasants, binding them to the soil, and turning their own energies toward the management of their estates. Their growing political power facilitated this response. In exchange for the assistance rendered the princes in their struggle against the towns, the nobles gained broader jurisdiction over their estates (Gerichtsherrschaft), combining in themselves the authority of police, tax collector, magistrate, and judge.
This response of the nobility to its labor shortage was also facilitated by the decline of the towns. In their prime, the towns had provided refuge for peasants who found life on the land too harsh. By the end of the fifteenth century, the power of the nobles had grown to the point that they could usually compel the towns to return runaway peasants. Where their independence had been broken, as in Brandenburg and Pomerania, the towns could offer no help to the peasants sinking into serfdom. In Prussia, where the emasculated Knights of the Teutonic Order had allowed the towns greater latitude, the unhappy peasants were able to find sympathizers and supporters among the town guilds and commons; as a result, Prussia was the only eastern region that experienced a substantial rebellion during the general uprising of German peasants in 1525. However, the new grand master of the Teutonic Order, Albert von Hohenzollern, who was also the Elector of Brandenburg, quickly dissolved the Order and cooperated with the nobles in crushing the peasants. The new Prussian ordinances of 1526 confirmed the rise of the nobility over the towns and the peasantry; no longer could peasants leave their estates without the permission of the lord and find refuge in the towns.
Economic hegemony went hand in hand with the administrative and political dominion of the Junkers. To the traditional Gerichtsherrschaft, the monopoly of legal jurisdiction over the peasants on his estates and villages, the noble landowner added Gutswirtschaft, the absolute control over the production of the estate through the domination of servile labor. With greater control over the peasantry, the landed nobility was able to exploit the favorable market for agricultural products that came with the economic upswing in western Europe during the sixteenth century. Previously, as the limited labor obligations demanded of the peasants indicated, estate productions were relatively restricted. Now, by increasing the labor obligations from as few as three, four, or six days per year to as many as two or three days per week, the lords expanded their estates and became major producers for the market. New lands were brought under cultivation, vacant peasant holdings were resettled, and occasionally peasant farms were seized and incorporated in the lord's estate. As one Pomeranian chronicler reported, "In previous years the noblemen have not been industrious and interested in agriculture; but recently this has changed, and the nobility has never been as rich as now." This social and economic system known simply as Gutsherrschaft — the cultivation of the estate land by the noble owner for his own profit, using the labor of serfs over whom he had complete legal jurisdiction — was securely established by the end of the sixteenth century.
The system of Gutsherrschaft became the backbone of Junker power in Prussia for the next two centuries; it provided the noble estate owners with an interlocking control over the social, economic, and political matters immediate to the estate itself. Gutsherrschaft was the central experience of the Prussian aristocracy; it provided the framework and the institutions within which the aristocracy became the dominant class in Prussia and determined both the means by which agricultural commodities were produced and the context for the encounter between the classes involved in that production. Gutsherrschaft granted the aristocracy its primary experience of power, and that experience shaped the aristocracy's attitude toward politics long after the system of Gutsherrschaft had been modified or had disappeared. Not even the emergence of royal absolutism or the development of a state bureaucracy diminished the power of the noble landowner on his estate. In fact, beginning with the compromise contained in the Brandenburg Recess of 1653, the Hohenzollern rulers granted the nobility complete power over their serfs in exchange for the nobility's relinquishing its claims for checks on the central administration of the Elector. Gutsherrschaft molded the Prussian aristocracy in ways substantially different from most of the other aristocracies in Europe; binding them more closely to their estate, it caused noble landowners to see possession and control of land as essential to their preservation as a class.
It is in some respects an anomaly that control of the land should have assumed such real and symbolic importance in the perception of the Prussian aristocracy, for there were, in fact, numerous poor or landless nobles. Despite the efforts of the Hohenzollerns, especially Frederick 11 in the eighteenth century, to forbid non-nobles from buying noble estates and to ensure that all who were awarded titles of nobility were either granted an estate or had the means to obtain one, many nobles in Prussia by the eighteenth century were without land, largely because of the system of inheritance. By law, all the sons of a nobleman inherited their father's title, virtually assuring that the number of noblemen would always exceed the number of estates available. By 1800, for example, there were roughly 20,000 noble families in the eastern provinces (exclusive of the newly acquired Polish territories in which the nobility was so numerous). The most accurate count of the number of estates in these provinces yields slightly more than 11,500 — far fewer than the number of noble families. Furthermore, when one considers that many noblemen owned more than one estate, the problem of landless noblemen becomes even more apparent. Statistics compiled by Fritz Martiny reveal that there were 658 adult noblemen living in the Kurmark of Brandenburg in 1800. Of these, 409 were classified as landowning vassals; 133 were vassals' brothers — blood relatives of the vassal: brothers, uncles, cousins, nephews; 116 were vassals' sons — sons or grandsons of the vassal. Twenty-seven percent (177 out of 658) were without land; more significant, however, is the fact that of those classified as vassals' brothers or vassals' sons 71 percent (177 out of 249) were landless. Most of these had sought positions in the military. Sixty-one percent of the vassals' brothers and 83 percent of the vassals' sons had military careers.
Excerpted from The Politics of the Prussian Nobility by Robert M. Berdahl. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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