The Genesis of German Conservatism

The Genesis of German Conservatism

by Klaus Epstein


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The Genesis of German Conservatism by Klaus Epstein

Although Conservative parties did not exist in Germany until after the Napoleonic Wars, there did emerge, around 1770, traceable organized political activity and intellectual currents of a clearly Conservative character. The author argues that this movement developed as a response to the challenge of the Enlightenment in the fields of religion, socioeconomic affairs, and politics- and that this response antedated the impact of the French Revolution. Believing that Conservatism cannot be treated properly as a specialized phenomenon, or simply as an intellectual movement, Professor Epstein correlates it with the political and social forces of the time.

Originally published in 1966.

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 editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691617237
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 748
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

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The Genesis of German Conservatism

By Klaus Epstein


Copyright © 1966 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-10030-2


The Enlightenment, the Constellation of Social Forces, and the Rise of Conservatism

The Enlightenment


Friends and foes of the Enlightenment are in agreement on at least one point: it constitutes, for better or worse, a decisive turning point in European history, one which may be defined as the definitive break with the "medieval view of the world." Individuals and even small groups (for example, many Renaissance humanists), had completed this break long before the eighteenth century; but a break on a mass scale, possessing an irreversible character, was the distinctive new development characterizing the "age of Enlightenment."

What were the key elements of the medieval Weltanschauung now being repudiated? They included — if a very rough and stereotyped sketch may be permitted — in the religious field, supernatural revelation and the preoccupation with salvation and the life to come; in psychology, belief in the sinful nature of man and the consequent need of supernatural grace to attain salvation; in science, a mysterious universe animated by the will of God and (insofar as God permitted) his foe, the Devil; in history, the conception of Providence which guided the world from a known beginning (described in the Book of Genesis) to a foreseeable and possibly imminent end (foretold in the Book of Revelation). Medieval man further believed — if unquestioned acceptance may be equated with belief — that the structure of society and the substance of law were essentially static and eternal. He accepted the king's authority without thinking about defining it precisely in either absolutist or constitutional terms (a polarity of concepts still unknown); he accepted a society dominated by a landowning aristocracy and a Church owning vast properties and exercising broad jurisdictions. It is of crucial importance to recognize that medieval people believed that the existing pattern of politics and economics constituted a permanent and natural order sanctioned by God; social change was neither desired nor expected nor, in most cases, even contemplated as a possibility. Man did not see himself as an autonomous creature destined to achieve, by his own unaided efforts, happiness in this world: his destiny was rather to serve God for that brief mortal life — a mere second of eternity — which constituted but the vestibule before the infinitely more important life to come.

The Enlightenment brought about a sharp break with all these views. The rise of rational or natural religion led to a de-emphasis or even abandonment of divine revelation; a new mood of secularist hedonism robbed the Hereafter first of its terror, then of its relevance; man now believed himself to be good, hence felt no need for any supernatural grace to achieve "salvation" (a concept easily watered down and soon neglected without being necessarily repudiated); science — the mechanical-mathematical science of Newton — provided an explanation of the universe from which God had retired after an initially necessary, but now very remote, act of creation; belief in the Devil was dismissed as the product of the diseased imagination of an earlier superstitious age, and so-called "miracles of nature" were viewed as promising areas for future scientific research. Man now began to see himself as the master of his political and economic life and believed he could manipulate both to serve the needs of his terrestrial happiness. The stranglehold of tradition — now seen for the first time as a hostile force — must be broken through a rationally conceived and deliberately implemented program of social planning. Traditional monarchy must either become "enlightened" or be superseded by self-government; a broadly conceived catalogue of the "rights of man" must be respected by the state; religious toleration must be established and clerical privilege broken; the hierarchic structure of society, with landowning aristocrats at the apex of the social pyramid, must yield to the principle of social equality; while the traditional collectivist regulation of the economy, oriented to the end of preserving a social pattern viewed as divinely created and therefore just, must give way to a laissez-faire system based upon the self-asserting energies of free men. History was no longer viewed as the unfolding of the providential will of God but rather, in Gibbon's famous phrase, as the record of the crimes and follies of mankind — a dark picture yet one relieved by the belief that progress, long moving at a snail's pace, had at last accelerated as the distinctive hallmark of the eighteenth century. The prevalent mood became one of optimism and even complacency. Life was already good for some and ultimately destined to be good for all; death was a regrettable fact about which it was unprofitable to brood. The task here and now was to maximize happiness through the spread of the principles of Enlightenment: rationalism, secularism, science, natural rights, equality, and laissez-faire.

The Enlightenment challenged, in short, Europe's traditional religion, its traditional social organization, and its traditional system of government — and it did this with such ceaseless persistence as to throw every area of life into permanent crisis. It ended, presumably forever, the quasi-unanimous acceptance of the status quo which had characterized — at least outside the field of religion — the previous fifteen centuries of European history. The ensuing fact of unceasing ferment constitutes one of the greatest transformations in human affairs — certainly the greatest since Christianity, with its supernatural, ascetic, and unilinear view of the world, replaced the secular, hedonist, and cyclical outlook characteristic of Greco-Roman civilization. A passive acceptance of the world yielded to an activist desire to change it; the right of rebellion replaced the duty of resignation; the fanning of discontent became the recognized, and not necessarily disreputable, function of radical intellectuals.

It is important to note that the Enlightenment meant not only the proclamation of new theoretical principles but the attempt to implement them in practice. The principles of Enlightenment were very similar in every area of Europe within its reach, and may be summarized as follows: rational science, the key to human progress, must be advanced; there was no fear that it might lead to knowledge deleterious to man's welfare. Knowledge must not only be accumulated by the few; it must be spread among the many. There was a deep faith in the educability, and even perfectibility, of the masses. Obscurantism and bigotry must be combated because they were the primary obstacles to progress; in practice this meant a vigorous anticlericalism. A further deadly enemy was any kind of prejudice, whether it made men prefer a particular religion, or nation, or class (usually their own) to another. It was necessary to replace revealed religion by natural religion, political parochialism by cosmopolitanism, and class privilege by the triumph of legal — and perhaps even actual — equality. In the field of economics it was necessary to remove all obstacles which stood in the way of the "natural system of liberty"; this meant the sweeping away of the time-honored principle of state regulation of economic activity.

In the political field the thinkers of the Enlightenment demanded that government should respect the natural "rights of man" and undertake a large catalogue of reforms. In practice this meant an active attack upon aristocratic and clerical privilege. There was, incidentally, no agreement among "enlightened" men on what kind of government was most likely to conduct this kind of attack most expeditiously. Some put their faith in "enlightened" despots like Frederick the Great or Joseph II; others favored the aristocratic-oligarchic parliamentary system practiced in England; still others despaired of these existing systems and placed their faith in the development of full democracy. This diversity of outlook was due to the fact that none of these three types of government offered any solid guarantee that rulers would act in accordance with the program of Enlightenment. An enlightened monarch might cease to be enlightened, or be succeeded by an obscurantist heir; an oligarchic parliament could easily degenerate into a stronghold of traditionalist privilege; a democratic polity could fall prey to either popular demagogy or tyranny of a majority. These considerations explain why most of the champions of Enlightenment spoke of political questions with less stridency, and much less unanimity, than about reforms in other areas of life.


Quite apart from the frequently stressed quantitative differences were the qualitative differences in the character of the Enlightenment as it spread through the various countries of Europe — differences which reflect differing economic, political, and cultural development of the various countries. A broad contrast must be drawn between the German Aufklärung — as it will henceforth be called in this book — and the Western (Anglo-French) type of Enlightenment; this contrast was due primarily to four major factors: the economic backwardness of Germany, resulting in a weak bourgeoisie; the overdevelopment of monarchical-authoritarian patterns of government, resulting in a stifling of civic consciousness; the high prestige enjoyed by universities, giving an academic flavor to all intellectual movements; and the long-standing national preoccupation with religious controversy.

The securely established bourgeoisie of England and the aggressively advancing bourgeoisie of France provided a solid social base for the Western European Enlightenment. A poet like Alexander Pope, or a man of letters like Voltaire, could appeal to an identifiably bourgeois reading public which demanded to be entertained as well as instructed as it lived its busy life in which time for reading had to compete with more practical interests. The authors of the German Aufklärung wrote, on the contrary, for a motley reading public composed of university professors, progressive bureaucrats, marginal intellectuals, and a bourgeoisie which was half-embryonic and half-decadent — all groups which did not make the same demand for literary quality. (This is one reason why this literature is read today by the specialist only.)

The principles of the Enlightenment could appeal to men of aifairs as well as men of business in Western Europe. England was a selfgoverning country; France aspired to become one. Literature in both countries was expected, and could afford to be, political, practical, and down-to-earth. Its themes were usually drawn from real life and were expected to exercise specific influence here and now. The writers of the German Aufklärung wrote, on the contrary, for a public which could scarcely envisage self-government as yet; social and political protest was vigorous but remained naively unpolitical, as is shown by the fact that it rarely looked for remedies more realistic than a prayer that God should bless Germany with better princes. The over-all constellation of political and social forces in Germany — which will be analyzed in detail shortly — discouraged the discussion of public affairs despite some notable individual polemicists like the Göttingen professor Schlözer and the Berlin bookseller Nicolai.

Schlözer was one of Germany's leading public figures though he was a university professor rather than an active statesman. His central role in the spread of political Aufklärung was symptomatic of the role played by academic figures in the German movement from its very beginning. Christian Thomasius (1655-1728), generally considered the founder of the Aufklärung, was the son of a Leipzig professor and himself a professor at Halle. Christian Wolff (1679-173/4), the great popularizer of Leibnitz and very embodiment of the Aufklärung spirit, taught philosophy at Halle and Marburg. The theological Aufklärung was championed by a long line of professors of theology, most prominently Johann Semler (1725-91), who also taught at Halle. This marriage between enlightened thought and respectable university establishments was unique to Germany and stood in sharp contrast to the situation in Western Europe. Universities in England and France stood at one of their periodic nadirs of intellectual influence. The scientific impulse given by Newton to Cambridge was quickly exhausted; Oxford, long the "home of lost causes and impossible loyalties," was impervious to the intellectual currents of the Enlightenment; while the Sorbonne was equally the stronghold of the French Obscurantist party. How different was the position of Schlözer's Göttingen, founded in 1737 with the deliberate purpose of training statesmen, administrators, and lawyers, while by no means neglecting the classical and scientific disciplines. Though Göttingen was untypical for Germany, it was widely admired as the kind of university which most other universities wanted to become; it quickly outpaced Halle as a center of Aufklärung. Its graduates spread its modern ideals, absorbed from Schlözer and a band of other distinguished professors, throughout German-speaking lands. It goes without saying that this professorial Aufklärung was of a thoroughly moderate character, and that its votaries feared the loss of respectability and tended to despise the "mob." They were "academic" in the sense of being proud of their culture and appealing pretty exclusively to an educated audience. They were afraid of the radicalism implied by their premises and tended to become frightened of their own courage as they attacked the status quo.

The German Aufklärung was primarily preoccupied with religious questions — a fact not surprising in a country still economically and politically "backward" and perennially preoccupied with confessional controversies. The absorption in religious polemics was a clear indication of the comparative youth of the German Aufklärung. In England the deistical controversy had raged at the end of the seventeenth century, while Voltaire's preoccupation with Ecrasez l'Infame was more characteristic of the early French Enlightenment than the age of Rousseau and Condorcet. The greatest figures of the German Aufklärung of the 1770's — men like Lessing, Nicolai, and Mendelssohn — were all primarily concerned with religious controversy and relatively indifferent to political and social questions. Their preoccupation was shared by broad sections of the reading public, as is demonstrated by the unending stream of religious and antireligious tracts which poured from Germany's printing presses. Only in Germany could an "enlightened" author complain that many people believed that Aufklärung was limited to the purification of religion:

Many people think only of religion when they hear of Aufklärung. No reasonable man will deny ... that Aufklärung is of course of the greatest importance in the field of religion. ... But it must not be confined to this field; indeed one cannot conceive a thorough religious Aufklärung without the prior triumph of Aufklärung in many other fields of human life. The term [Aufklärung] extends far beyond the comparatively narrow field of religion.

Another popular author provided a correction of the one-sided view deplored above by the following simple yet comprehensive definition of Aufklärung: "It is, put simply, the effort of the human mind to examine not only the world of ideas but rather of all things which exercise any influence upon human affairs, in accordance with the pure teachings of reason, and with a view to promoting whatever is useful."


How was Aufklärung actually spread throughout Germany? The answer is: partly through dedicated private individuals who edited journals, wrote books and pamphlets, ran progressive schools, founded reading clubs, and organized secret societies; partly through the work of rulers who made the promotion of Aufklärung their public responsibility.


Excerpted from The Genesis of German Conservatism by Klaus Epstein. Copyright © 1966 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Preface, pg. vii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • Contents, pg. xi
  • Abbreviations, pg. 1
  • Introduction, pg. 3
  • Chapter 1. The Enlightenment, the Constellation of Social Forces, and the Rise of Conservatism, pg. 29
  • Chapter 2. Masons, llluminati, and Rosicrucians, pg. 84
  • Chapter 3. Religious Controversies, pg. 112
  • Chapter 4. Social Controversies, pg. 176
  • Chapter 5. Political Controversies, pg. 237
  • Chapter 6. Justus Moser: Portrait of a Prerevolutionary Conservative, pg. 297
  • Chapter 7. Prussia from Frederick the Great to Frederick William III, pg. 341
  • Chapter 8. The Habsburg Monarchy from Maria Theresia to Francis II, pg. 394
  • Chapter 9. The Challenge of the French Revolution, pg. 434
  • Chapter 10. The Conspiracy Theory of the Revolution, pg. 503
  • Chapter 11. Rehberg and the Hannoverian School, pg. 547
  • Chapter 12. The Napoleonic Revolution in Germany: The End of the Ecclesiastical States and the Imperial Knights, pg. 595
  • Chapter 13. The Napoleonic Revolution in Germany: The End of the Imperial Cities and the Final Agony of the Empire, pg. 638
  • Chapter 14. Conclusion and Prospectus, pg. 672
  • Bibliographical Essay, pg. 677
  • Index, pg. 711

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