The Growth of the Prussian Bureaucracy in the Eighteenth Century

The Great Elector (1640–88) had been responsible for developing the power of the ruler in Brandenburg by undermining aristocratic separatism. As Brandenburg evolved into Prussia and assumed her status as a European power the newly established absolutism was backed up by an increasingly complex bureaucracy.

Frederick William I (1713–40) rationalized the institutions which he had inherited and, in so doing, set up the basic structure which was to survive for the rest of the century. Frederick the Great (1740–86), while not intending to destroy this structure, became convinced that it was dangerously liable to malfunction when placed under pressure. He therefore reshaped it in such a way as to allow himself considerable personal influence at all levels. This chapter will examine and comment on the changes made in the mainline administration by both rulers, while excluding any detailed treatment of other institutions like the army and judiciary.

The main achievement of Frederick William I was to create a more harmonious relationship between the monarch and the central institutions of the bureaucracy, and between the central institutions and local government. In so doing, he made extensive use of the principle of collegiality; all decisions were taken jointly by ministers after careful committee consideration and every effort was made to avoid the emergence of powerful heads of departments of the type which had become common in France. At the same time, he ensured that collegiality did not reach the very top. Royal autocracy was unaffected and the king still exerted personal influence over the bureaucracy by issuing Instructions. In fact, he never departed from his general observation in 1714 about the duties of his officials and subjects: ‘One must serve the King with life and limb, with goods and chattels, with honour and conscience, and surrender everything except salvation. The latter is reserved for God. But everything else must be mine.’1

The compromise between collegiality and autocracy can be seen in the administrative reorganization which followed Frederick William I's Instructions of 1722. Aware of the conflicts about overlapping functions between the two main existing institutions, the Generalkriegskommissariatand the General Finance Directory, he recast them into the single body known as the General Directory (General–ober–Finanz–Kriegs–und–Domdnen–Direktorium). This consisted of four departments and was headed by a president and five vice–presidents (or ministers), served by fourteen councillors. The vice–presidents conferred regularly in collegial fashion (as a board) and kept in regular (written) contact with the president– the king himself—who made the ultimate policies. Local government was also remodelled; it now consisted of a series of Provincial War and Domains Chambers (Kriegs–und–Domanen–Kammerri). Each of these was headed by a president and was staffed by councillors, who supervised the activities of three main types of local official: the Steuerrate in the towns; the Landrate in the rural areas; and the Beamte on the royal estates. Responsibility was collective, and orders were handed to the Provincial Chambers by the General Directory after being approved by the king. Throughout the new structure Frederick William I emphasized the opening of careers to talent and the maintenance of a close link with the army; retired officers frequently found their way into administration either at Provincial Chamber or General Directory level.


Figure 7. The Prussian bureaucracy in the eighteenth century

While collegiality became clearly established in the General Directory and Provincial Chambers, autocracy remained firmly positioned at the apex of the bureaucracy. Despite being president of the General Directory, the king governed mostly from his Kabinett, issuing Instructions through his private secretaries. He also ensured that the army, the judiciary and foreign affairs remained outside the jurisdiction of the General Directory. He seemed generally satisfied with his reforms, and his main fear was that his successor might be weaker and allow collegiality to encroach on autocracy instead of maintaining the harmony which he had created.

What happened was the exact opposite. Frederick the Great, far from being prepared to delegate his authority, developed what was little short of an obsession about preserving every vestige of his autocratic powers. At the same time, he placed the bureaucracy under a greatly increased strain and the important modifications he found necessary extended the personal intervention of the king at all levels.

From the beginning of his reign Frederick the Great departed from his predecessor's generally pacific foreign policy and plunged Prussia into the mainstream of European diplomacy and warfare. The General Directory, according to Frederick, was unable to meet the demands of this transition, operating slowly during the First and Second Silesian Wars and grinding to a virtual halt during the Seven Years’ War. The main problem was that the collegiate system could not operate swiftly without royal supervision, particularly when the king was away on campaigns. In addition to this, the bureaucracy had to find enormously greater financial resources to save Prussia from being overrun by French, Russian and Austrian armies during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), and had to cope with Austrian and Russian occupations of Berlin, and the frequent interruption of normal communications with the Domains Chambers resulting from enemy invasions.

Frederick the Great was swift to criticize the performance of his officials and tended to underestimate the problems which confronted them. Despite his reputation as an enlightened despot, he had a generally misanthropic attitude to humanity and was harsh in his condemnation of his own subjects: ‘This nation is heavy and lazy. These are two defects against which the government has to strive without ceasing.’2 He felt that the quality of the bureaucracy was open to constant reproach and his replies to reports sent to him by his officials frequently contained phrases like: ‘The whole lot of you deserve to be given the boot.’3 Faced with the prospect of reprimand, dismissal and even impeachment, ministers in the General Directory began to co–operate in anticipating the areas of royal displeasure. This incurred further condemnation: ‘His Majesty has discovered with the greatest displeasure that a kind of hate, animosity and esprit de parti exists among the ministers.’4 His distrust became so acute that he greatly extended the Fiscal system of administrative spies which had been introduced by Frederick William I.

From the outset Frederick the Great faced a difficult problem. How could he improve the system of Frederick William I without ending up with one like Louis XV's? How could he remove the worst defects of the collegiate method of government without introducing a series of far more powerful ministers, who would have scope for extensive individual initiative? About the undesirability of the latter he had no doubts; in his Anti–machiavel he had stated: There are two kinds of princes in the world: those who see everything with their own eyes and who really govern, and those who depend on their ministers, allowing themselves to be led by those who have gained influence over them.’5 Frederick's search for a solution resulted in the growth of several new institutions which operated alongside the traditional bureaucracy but which were more firmly under the king's control and functioned more rapidly.

The General Directory was Frederick's main target. At first he tried to improve its efficiency by adding new departments to oversee the economy, to stimulate trade and industry, and to administer the provisioning of the army. Unfortunately, because of the conflicts between the new departments and the original four over the precise demarcation of duties, the reforms were less effective than Frederick had hoped, and he adopted a different approach after 1763. This can be described as an attempt to acquire more direct personal influence over each detail of administration by reducing the role of the General Directory. The Departments subsequently established were allocated specific functions and, although they were theoretically connected with the General Directory, in practice they were separate ministries, corresponding directly with the king. The process began in 1766 with the introduction of the Regie (Administration générale des accises et des péages), which took charge of the administration of finances and revenue collection. The king employed its staff from outside the General Directory, entrusting the execution of policy to a superintendant and four deputies. The Department of Mines and Metallurgy, also virtually autonomous from the General Directory, was set up in 1768, and the Department of Forestry in 1770. Other external agencies dealt with specific aspects of the economy, such as the tobacco monopoly. By this reorganization Frederick increased the scope of autocracy, cutting through the upper layers of the bureaucracy without actually removing them completely.

The same principle of close royal supervision influenced changes in local government. Frederick had no intention of abolishing his father's Provincial War and Domains Boards, but he did consider it necessary to reduce their power of initiative and to ensure the more rapid execution of royal Instructions. Therefore new provinces like Silesia (appropriated from Austria in 1740) were given Domains Boards which were responsible not to the General Directory but to Frederick himself. The same applied to West Prussia after its incorporation as a result of the First Partition of Poland (1772). The degree of this supervision was made apparent in 1783, when Frederick the Great informed the Chamber of Breslau (Silesia): ‘You have no right of initiative whatsoever. All matters must be reported to me directly.’6 Even the original Domains Chambers set up by Frederick William I found that they were expected to keep in constant and direct communication with the king, which usually meant bypassing the General Directory in the process.

The more direct involvement of the king in the administrative structure was accomplished, paradoxically, by his withdrawal into Kabinett government in order to deal with the enormous amount of paperwork. He no longer maintained even the fiction of being president of the General Directory and spent most of his time reading reports from the Departments and Provincial Chambers and issuing Instructions and orders (sometimes as many as forty in one day). The only direct contact which he had with officialdom was the inspection tours through the different provinces, which he undertook between May and August. He remained very conscious of the impossibility of exercising personal supervision, and he continued to fear opposition and intrigues from within the bureaucracy. He therefore ensured that of all the personnel governing Prussia he alone had the power, information and knowledge to maintain an overall perspective and balance. This involved a greatly exaggerated workload but this was something that Frederick the Great never attempted to avoid. After all, a year before coming to the throne he had referred to his prospective role as Prussia's premier domestique.

How effective was the Prussian bureaucracy in the eighteenth century? The main motive for administrative reorganization was the more rapid exploitation of Prussia's resources for the benefit of the army, which was of vital importance for the preservation of what was essentially an artificial state. The successful accomplishment of this can be seen in the emergence of Prussia as one of the world's leading military powers and in her capacity to survive simultaneous wars with Russia, Austria and France. Frederick the Great expressed considerable dissatisfaction and complained that the General Directory and Provincial Boards were incompetent. Yet, when placed in the context of other bureaucracies in Europe at the time, they were markedly superior. For all its faults in 1756, the Prussian administration managed to collect as much in revenue as that of Russia. Austria had consciously imitated the Prussian structure, and Frederick's system was regarded with envy in France. In a social sense the Prussian bureaucracy was also highly effective; together with the army, it made full use of Prussia's aristocracy and prevented a slide into degeneracy and uselessness of the type which afflicted the nobilities of France and Russia.

There is, however, another side to the story. In becoming a major power, Prussia accepted absolutism more completely than any other European state apart from Russia. At no stage was there any room for a bureaucracy which was related to, or in any way overlapped, representative institutions: these had been undermined by the Great Elector in the seventeenth century and were not to reappear in any significant form until the nineteenth. The administration was in every way the tool of the king and, as such, developed a very serious deficiency. Frederick the Great constantly emphasized that his ministers were to have no initiative, that they were employed ‘to carry out my orders, not to interfere.. .they must obediently let themselves be governed and must not take over the government’.3 The system worked under the personal, at times obsessive, supervision of Frederick the Great. But his less able successors, Frederick William II (1786–97) and Frederick William III (1797–1840) found that they were unequal to the task and that the reformed structure began to come apart. As Baron Stein observed in 1807: ‘As long as a great man was at the head of the state, guiding it with spirit, strength and uniformity, the system produced good and brilliant results which hid from view much that was patched up and unfinished.’7

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