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The Politics of Technological Change in Prussia
Out of the Shadow of Antiquity, 1809â?"1848
By Eric Dorn Brose
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Rural Industrialization and the Bourgeois King
The schoolgirls had been waiting outside their home village of Weissensee for nearly an hour. Nearby, a deputation of city magistrates and army commanders stood motionless in the cool morning sun, not wanting to dirty their polished boots. At last, a rider galloped to them with the expected announcement, and a moment later, the special travelers appeared. An expressionless Frederick William of Hohenzollern, King of Prussia, rode a few paces in front of his poised queen, Luise of Mecklenburg, sitting more comfortably in her new "lilac" carriage. After the soldiers and officials made their brief remarks, the children handed over a poem of welcome and exultation, and curtsied. Then the regal procession moved out toward the city gates of Berlin where the cannon crews waited for a signal while thousands of loyal subjects waited on the streets, at windows, and on rooftops.
December 23, 1809 was to be a day of pomp and celebration for Berliners. For, after an absence of over three years, their beloved king and queen were finally returning. The festival atmosphere lasted all day and well into the evening. At every corner that night, flickering torches cast an eerie light on great throngs eagerly anticipating another appearance by the royal couple. As the mounted guardsmen cleared a path along Unter den Linden for king and queen, returning from an elegant dinner at Schloss Belevue, jubilant shouts again mixed with the incessant din of church bells and cannon. From the windows of the principal carriage could be seen the tearful face and waving hand of Luise, now publicly moved by the city's welcome. Beside her, the grim, stiff king stared silently ahead. At one halt Luise moved toward her distant husband, a protective, maternal look in her beautiful eyes. Finally she whispered something. But his thoughts were impenetrable.
The brooding monarch had been visibly ill at ease all day. Never tolerant of unnecessary public appearances, Frederick William had finally agreed to let the events go forward at the repeated urging of city officials. But as the hours wore on, he knew he had been right—the "triumphal" welcome was not only inappropriate, it was in poor taste. Indeed, what possible cause did Prussians have to celebrate after the disasters which had befallen their kingdom? Military collapse before the advancing armies of Napoleon in 1806 had necessitated the flight of the royal family from Berlin to the easternmost towns of Konigsberg and Memel. Further defeats were followed in 1807 by the crushing, humiliating Treaty of Tilsit. More than two years had passed since Napoleon had kept him anxiously waiting on the riverbank while the onerous terms of the treaty were negotiated with Tsar Alexander, yet French troops still occupied Prussia's Oder fortresses and no prudent onlooker could see an end to this disgrace—or to Napoleonic hegemony in Europe. No wonder Frederick William was reported grave and preoccupied on the day of his return and throughout the banquets, operas, and church services which highlighted the remainder of the year.
Inside his austere shell, the king of twelve years was still tormented by Prussia's cruel fate. Any head of state would have been deflated and embarrassed by such degrading events, but the nation's tragegy cut much more deeply into a monarch who had never possessed much faith in himself. Early years were spent in the gloomy shadow of his granduncle, Frederick II. The Great One built Sans Souci while the boy's father, Crown Prince Frederick William, lived in modest, middle class living quarters, saw his education neglected, and was completely excluded from the affairs of state. The young grandnephew grew to adolescence in the same bourgeois accommodations, but, as second-in-line to the succession, existed in even greater political obscurity. It was as if the old man had accepted decline as inevitable or preordained. His last words to the boy in 1786 strengthened this fatalistic impression: "I fear you will have a hard time of it. Stand firm and remember me." Eleven years as Crown Prince in his own powerless right eroded more of the young man's self-confidence. Nor were there any dashing martial exploits to boost spirits and restore inner faith. The prince's only military forray in 1793 saw Prussian troops retake Mainz after a tedious and costly siege, only to have it fall into French hands again a few months later.
Ascending the throne at the age of twenty-seven in 1797, Frederick William was quite unsure of himself, having little more than an ample store of common sense to guide him through the turbulent times. Yet this pragmatism could have served him well. Many far-reaching reforms of state and society—such as reorganization of the bureaucracy, peasant emancipation, a citizens' militia, and economic liberalization—were discussed with loyal bourgeois councillors like Anastasius Mencken and Karl Friedrich Beyme. But the king had neither the self-assurance to trust his instincts and advisers, nor the audacity to challenge conservatives entrenched in the bureaucracy, army, and nobility. It was a largely unchanged Old Regime which went to war in 1806. After Jena, Auerstedt, and Tilsit, Frederick William sank from his normal despondency into a severe depression. He lost faith in God and blamed himself entirely.
However, as 1807 drew drearily on to 1809, a semblance of emotional stability returned. Philip Borowski, a village parson in Neurossgärtner, near Königsberg, restored the king's religious beliefs with supernaturalistic, deistic sermons which placed the primary responsibility for earthly events on the shoulders of man, not God. From here it was only natural to place less emphasis on "the scourge of God"—and shield a healing psyche—by blaming others. A few months before the court moved back to Berlin, Frederick William penned his now more complex explanation of Prussia's demise. The king freely admitted his own limitations, but argued that he and his trusted advisers had sincerely striven to improve conditions and create a happy, satisfactory existence for people of all classes. That none of this had come to fruition and instead, Prussia had been vanquished, he attributed to society's general unwillingness and inability to improve and progress. The king was particularly angry, however, with the aristocratic elite which had traditionally opposed Hohenzollern power. He lashed out at its depravity, irreligion, demagoguery, belligerence, and above all, its ingratitude. "I singled them out, gave them posts, attached them to my person, gave them honors, decorations, and land," he recalled years later. "When all went well they seemed able to do anything and everything, [but] in misfortune they were exposed and disloyally deserted." Now a few well-meaning, upstanding men strove to revitalize the nation, but the ongoing attempts of these few patriots would founder on the opposition of ungrateful, contentious factions which doubted the wisdom of every plan proposed as a way out of the impasse. To be king of such an arrogant, feuding lot, Frederick William concluded, was a thankless task which he would gladly put aside if circumstances permitted. No Prussian king has had less faith in his country, and in himself, than Frederick William III in 1809. The hurras and vivas of the happy burghers that December could not change this.
* * *
Indeed, the "patriots" faced a difficult challenge. Napoleon was at the height of his power in the winter of 1809/10. Despite the intensifying Spanish uprising, French hosts had overrun Austrian forces at Wagram the previous spring, and in the East, the once-fearsome Russian eagle sat tamely on its perch. The French had also left Prussia in terrible condition. The kingdom which previous Hohenzollerns had forged into a great European power was halved in size, compelled to support a French army of occupation, and pay a huge indemnity which exceeded the state's prewar annual revenue. The countryside from Jena to Eylau was ravaged and destroyed. Prussian ports were closed to English commerce under Napoleon's "continental system" and a decade of lucrative agricultural exports to the booming industrial island halted. The subsequent recession in an already devastated countryside quickly spread to the towns where many artisans and manufacturers were forced to close shop. The kingdom's tax base was demolished, making it doubly difficult to pay the French. Prussia's military calamity had been compounded by a severe economic crisis.
As the king's memorandum implied, reform-minded individuals had been hard at work on these problems for many months. In the military, War Minister Gerhard [von] Scharnhorst and a large, intensely loyal entourage of officers and princes of the royal family concentrated on building a new army. They advocated above all an end to the aristocratic privileges promoted and indulged by Frederick the Great. The officer corps was to be opened to all social classes with admission based on competitive examination and promotion on merit. Alongside the regular army would rise a national guard to lend popular fervor to the war of liberation.
In alliance with the military reformers were two circles of talented civilians around Karl August von Hardenberg, chief minister during the gloomy spring of 1807, and Baron Karl vom Stein, Hardenberg's successor until the fall of 1808. Young, idealistic, and politically frustrated until now, these men envisioned a thorough reform of state and society which would charge the nation with energies untapped by the outmoded economic and political institutions of Frederick the Great. In conjunction with a more centralized, ministerial bureaucracy along the lines of Napoleonic France or its German allies, Prussia needed some form of parliamentary representation based on property rights. In addition, all peasants should be freed from serfdom and better-off peasants given land. Finally, class and guild restrictions, respectively, upon the ownership of land and the practice of trades were to be eliminated; equality of taxation between city and countryside established; internal toll barriers removed; and external tariffs lowered. In short, the mercantilistic, "Frederician" system of state subsidies, monopolistic chartered companies, and prohibitive tariff protection should yield to a liberalized economy based on comprehensive freedom of enterprise. The immediate result, they argued, would be more efficient farming, rural manufacturing, and the adoption of technology appropriate to Prussia. Coffers would fill to finance Scharnhorst's dreams of liberation and lay the foundation for a prosperous future.
Little of this had been approved—and even less implemented—when the royal family reentered Berlin. Scharnhorst's military reforms were the farthest along, largely due to the uncharacteristic resoluteness shown by the king in brushing aside the objections of old-line conservatives in the army. Nothing had been executed, however, and one major reform—the national guard—still lacked approval. Military and civilian reform factions were in disagreement over the merits of the proposal; but, almost as important, Frederick William's earlier enthusiasm for the idea had waned. Such overtly aggressive institutions would certainly alarm the French, while the Prussian people, assumed the pessimistic monarch, might not rally to the colors.
Even less had changed in the civilian area. One of Stein's early edicts of October 1807 established the right of all social classes to own land and eliminated the worst personal abuses of serfdom (Oktoberedikt). Another of November 1808 granted towns far-reaching rights of self-governance (Städteordnung). But none of these ordinances was scheduled to take effect until November 1810. On all other fronts, matters were at an impasse. A national assembly was one reform which Frederick William was extremely reluctant to support. Bureaucratic inertia had increased, moreover, after the civil service cliques which drafted the reforms in Königsberg rejoined the preponderance of conservative officials who had stayed behind in Berlin after Jena. Thus cautious jurists in the new Ministry of Justice expressed objections to undermining the legal rights of guilds and estate owners, while toll and tariff functionaries in the new Ministry of Finance scoffed at the idea of abandoning mercantilism for untested laissez-faire theories. Heads of the state's two economic empires, the Mining Corps and the Seehandlung, also came forward to defend their threatened vested interests.
Unfortunately for the reformers, their cause rested at this time with the ineffectual Minister of the Interior, Count Friedrich Alexander von Dohna-Schlobitten. Weak and easily intimidated, the East Prussian nobleman tended to rely on the king for strength and guidance. This was, of course, a dreadful error. Frederick William, unlike many of the zealots around Stein and Hardenberg, was no doctrinaire. His father had taken pains to arrange more tutoring than the uncaring Frederick II had provided his own Crown Prince. But this training, meted out by an army officer, in no way approached the quality and rigor of university instruction. Frederick William's relatively spotty education and consequent need to rely on common sense had molded him by adulthood into an eclectic who considered issues one at a time in a very practical, matter-of-fact fashion. Clever advisers quickly learned to avoid theoretical justifications for their proposals lest the king take offense at such "phrasemaking." Institutions which had proven themselves deserved to remain; those which had not, simply did not. And with two major exceptions—guilds, which he believed were largely worthy, and high tariffs, which sometimes proved necessary for survival—he agreed with Dohna's programs. "I had these ideas a long time before," he said. Rarely forceful himself, however, Frederick William merely grumbled about the criticism and resistance meted out to his patriotic ministers by disobediant subjects and predicted that all present reform efforts, like his own, would come to naught.
And with good reason. There were reactionary forces gathering again by the winter of 1809/10 which added weight to the recalcitrant elements within the civilian bureaucracy. Leading what was to be only the first wave of an aristocratic counterattack were distinguished members of the Brandenburgian nobility like Ludwig von der Marwitz, Otto von VossBuch, and Karl von denn Knesebeck. Intellectual force was supplied by two young journalist-philosophers of the growing romantic school, Adam Heinrich [von] Müller and Heinrich von Kleist. Voices of dissent were also heard in military ranks from Generals Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg, Ludwig von Jagow, and August von Kalckreuth. Uniting the aristocratic party was resentment over widespread accusations that the nobility was responsible for Prussia's collapse. This combined with outrage over agricultural and industrial ideas designed to resuscitate the nation at the expense of aristocratic rights of land ownership, control of the labor supply, and ultimately, political prestige, as the bourgeoisie swept into military and political positions formerly reserved for Junkers. The programs were as ill-advised, it was added, as illegal. Peasant emancipation, freedom of land ownership, and the growth of rural industry would destroy the organic harmony and welfare of the countryside, leaving only a cash nexus to govern relations between men. What was worse, materialistic bourgeois values and the lust for profit would emasculate the nation and loosen traditions of loyalty and sacrifice. An ignominious "Jew-State" would replace the heroic Prussia which they knew. The stagnation of the reform movement was thus greeted by adherents of the reactionary party like Yorck, who had always regarded the reformers as "vipers" who would "dissolve in their own poison."
Excerpted from The Politics of Technological Change in Prussia by Eric Dorn Brose. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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