Modern history


Hubris and Nemesis: 1789–1806

The years between the French Revolution of 1789 and Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia in 1806 are among the most eventful and least impressive epochs in the history of the Prussian monarchy. Confronted by a bewildering profusion of threats and opportunities, Prussian foreign policy embarked on a course of febrile oscillation: the traditional dualist rivalry with Austria, the consolidation of Prussia’s pre-eminence in northern Germany, and the tantalizing prospect of vast territorial annexations in Poland all competed for the attention of the policy-makers in Berlin. Sly double-diplomacy, fearful wavering and spasms of rapacity alternated in rapid succession. The ascendancy of Napoleon Bonaparte brought a new and existential threat. His inability to tolerate any limit to the expansion of French hegemony on the continent and his utter disregard of international treaties and agreements tested the Prussian executive almost to breaking point. In 1806, after numerous provocations, Prussia made the momentous error of offering battle to Napoleon without first securing the military support of a major power. The result was a catastrophe that challenged the legitimacy of the traditional monarchical order.


The Prussian government looked with favourable interest on the Paris events of 1789. Far from shunning the rebels, the Prussian envoy in Paris spent the autumn and winter of 1789–90 establishing friendly contacts with the various factions. The idea – so familiar to later generations – that the Revolution hinged on a fundamental choice between obedience and rebellion, between the ‘providence of God’ and the ‘will of man’, played as yet no part in Berlin’s interpretation of events.

There were essentially two reasons for this indulgent response to the French upheaval. The first was simply that, from Berlin’s perspective, the Revolution represented an opportunity, not a threat. The Prussians were concerned above all with diminishing Austrian power and influence in Germany. Tensions between the two German rivals had risen steadily during the 1780s. In 1785, Frederick II had taken charge of a coalition of German princes opposed to the annexation of Bavaria by the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. In 1788, the Emperor had gone to war against the Turks, prompting fears that massive Habsburg acquisitions in the Balkans would give Austria the upper hand over her Prussian rival. But in the summer and autumn of 1789, as Austrian forces pushed back the armies of Sultan Selim III, a chain of revolts broke out across the peripheral territories of the Habsburg crown – Belgium, Tyrol, Galicia, Lombardy and Hungary. Frederick William II, a vain and impulsive man who was determined to live up to the reputation of his illustrious uncle, did his best to exploit the discomfort of the Austrians. The Belgians were encouraged to secede from Habsburg rule and the Hungarian dissidents were urged to rise up against Vienna – there was even talk of an independent Hungarian monarchy to be ruled by a Prussian prince.1

Seen against this background, the revolution in France was welcome news, for there was good reason to hope that a new, ‘revolutionary’ French administration would put an end to the Franco-Austrian alliance. As the Prussians well knew, the alliance – along with its dynastic personification, Queen Marie Antoinette – was deeply unpopular with the Austrophobe patriots of the revolutionary movement. Berlin therefore courted the various revolutionary parties in the hope of building an anti-Habsburg ‘party’ in Paris. The aim was to reverse the diplomatic realignment of 1756, isolate Austria, and put an end to the expansionist plans of Joseph II. When a fully fledged revolution broke out in the prince-bishopric of Liège, a strip of territory right in the middle of Belgium, the Prussians supported the rebels there too, in the hope that the upheaval would spread to the adjacent Austrian-controlled areas.

There was also an ideological dimension to this tentative support for revolutionary upheaval. In 1789, a number of the leading Prussian policy-makers, including the minister responsible for foreign affairs, Count Hertzberg – were personally sympathetic to the aspirations of the revolutionaries. Hertzberg was a man of the enlightenment who deplored the incompetent despotism of the Bourbons in France. He saw Prussian support for the insurrection in Liège as entirely in keeping with the kingdom’s ‘liberal principles’. The envoy entrusted with handling Prussia’s affairs in the prince-bishopric, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, was an enlightened official and intellectual (not to mention author of the famous tract supporting the emancipation of the Jews); he was a critic of the episcopal regime in Liège and favoured a progressive, constitutional solution to the dispute between the prince-bishop and the insurrectionists of the Third Estate.2

It was above all the threat of a Prussian-backed revolution in Hungary that persuaded Joseph’s successor, Leopold II, to seek an understanding with Prussia.3 Leopold, a wise and temperate figure, saw at once the folly of pursuing new conquests in the Ottoman Balkans while his hereditary possessions disintegrated behind his back. In March 1790, he despatched a friendly letter to Berlin, opening the door for the negotiations that culminated in the Convention of Reichenbach of 27 July 1790. The two German powers agreed – after tense discussions – to pull back from the brink of war and put their differences behind them. The Austrians undertook to end their costly Turkish war on moderate terms (i.e. without annexations) and the Prussians promised to stop fomenting rebellions within the Habsburg monarchy.

The Convention looked innocuous, but it was more significant than it seemed.4 The era of bitter Prusso-Austrian antagonism that had structured the political affairs of the Holy Roman Empire since the invasion of Silesia in 1740 was now over, at least for a time, and the two German powers could pursue their interests in concert, rather than at each other’s expense. Following an oscillatory pattern that recalled the days of the Great Elector, Frederick William II abandoned his secret efforts to secure an alliance with Paris and switched to a policy of war against revolutionary France. Foreign Minister Hertzberg and his liberal views fell into disfavour; he was later dismissed. An important role in the new diplomacy went to Frederick William’s trusted adviser and confidant, Johann Rudolf von Bischoffwerder, an exponent of war against the revolution, who was despatched to Vienna in February and June–July 1791. The resulting Vienna Convention of 25 July 1791 laid the foundations for an Austro-Prussian alliance.

The first fruit of the Austro-Prussian rapprochement was a remarkable piece of gesture politics. The Declaration of Pillnitz, issued jointly by the Austrian Emperor and the Prussian king on 27 August 1791, was not a plan of action as such, but rather a statement of principled opposition to the Revolution. It opened by stating that the sovereigns of Prussia and Austria took the fate of their ‘brother’ the King of France to be ‘an object of common interest to all the sovereigns of Europe’, and demanded that the French king be placed as soon as possible ‘in a position to affirm, in the most perfect liberty, the basis of a monarchical government’. It closed with the promise that Austria and Prussia would ‘act promptly’ with ‘the necessary forces’ to obtain ‘the proposed and common goal’.5 For all the fuzziness of its formulations, this was an unequivocal statement of monarchical counter-revolutionary solidarity. Yet the additional secret articles attached to the Declaration revealed that the dark waters of power politics were still running in their accustomed courses. Article 2 stated that the contracting parties reserved for themselves the power to ‘exchange for their benefit several of their present and future acquisitions’, always in mutual consultation, and article 6 promised that the Emperor would ‘employ willingly his good offices towards the Court of Petersburg and the Court of Poland in order to obtain the cities of Thorn and Danzig [for Prussia]…’6

The Declaration fanned the flames of political extremism in the French Assembly, strengthening the hand of the Brissotin faction, who favoured war as a means of restoring French fortunes and furthering the Revolution. During late 1791 and early 1792, the pressure for war accumulated in Paris.7 In the meanwhile, the Prussians and Austrians defined and agreed their objectives. The plan – under the terms of an alliance concluded on 7 February 1792 – was to launch a chain of enforced territorial transfers on the western periphery of the Holy Roman Empire. The allies would first conquer Alsace, handing one part of it to Austria and the other to the Elector Palatine, who would in turn be forced to yield Jülich and Berg to Prussia.

Whether and from what precise moment the allies seriously intended an invasion of France is unclear, but a military conflict became inevitable on 20 April 1792, when the French government formally declared war on the Austrian Emperor. As they prepared for an invasion, the Prussians and the Austrians assumed the mantle of ideological counter-revolution. On 25 July, the Prussian commander and joint commander of the allied forces, Charles William Ferdinand Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, issued the declaration that came to be known as the Brunswick Manifesto. This inflammatory document, based on a draft composed by vengeful French émigrés, claimed (somewhat mendaciously) that the two allied courts ‘had no intention of enriching themselves by conquest’, promised that all those who submitted to the authority of the French king would be protected, and threatened captured revolutionary guards with draconian punishments. The declaration closed with a note of menace that further radicalized the mood in Paris:

Their said Majesties declare, on their word of honour as emperor and king, that if the Chateau of the Tuileries [where the captive king and his family were housed] is entered by force or attacked, if the least violence be offered to their Majesties the king, queen and royal family, and if their safety and their liberty be not immediately assured, they will inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction, and the rebels guilty of the said outrages to the punishment that they merit.8

Accompanying the Austro-Prussian force as it lumbered into France in the late summer of 1792 was a small army of émigrés led by Louis XVI’s brother, the Count of Artois. These proved to be more trouble than they were worth: they were deeply unpopular with the French population and ineffective as a fighting force. Their chief function was to reinforce the counter-revolutionary credentials of the invaders. French peasants and townsfolk from whom food and livestock were requisitioned received promissory notes in the name of Louis XVI together with haughty assurances that the restored king would ‘pay them back’ once the war was over.

In the event, the allied campaign was a fiasco. Prussians and Austrians had never found it easy to coordinate forces on the western periphery of the Empire; the French campaign of 1792 was no exception. Confusion and conflicting priorities dogged the planning of the invasion from the start and the allied advance was stopped in its tracks at the battle of Valmy on 20 September. Here the invading troops found themselves confronted by an impregnably positioned enemy deployed in a broad arc on raised ground. Both sides let fly with their artillery, but it was the French who had the better of it, scoring hit after hit in the allied ranks, until some 1,200 soldiers had been cut down by cannon balls without their units having been able to make any headway at all against the enemy positions. It was the first time that the army of the Revolution had stood to face its enemies. Discouraged by this unexpected display of resolve, the allied forces withdrew from their exposed positions, leaving the French in control of the field.

The Prussians remained formal members of the coalition after Valmy and even fought with some success against the French in Alsace and the Saar. But they never committed more than a small fraction of their resources to these campaigns, because their attention was focused elsewhere. What distracted the men in Berlin were the prospects opening up in Poland. The pattern of internal turmoil and external interference and obstruction that had produced the first partition continued throughout the 1780s. In 1788–91, while the Russians were bogged down in a costly war with the Ottoman Empire, King Stanislaw August and a party of Polish reformers had taken the opportunity to press ahead with changes to the political system. The new Polish constitution of 3 May 1791 created, for the first time, a hereditary monarchy and the outlines of a functioning central government. ‘Our country is saved,’ its authors announced. ‘Our freedoms are assured; we are a free and independent nation; we have shaken off the bonds of slavery and misrule.’9

Neither the Prussians nor the Russians welcomed these developments. The creation of an independent Poland ran against the grain of nearly a century of Russian foreign policy. Frederick William II officially congratulated the Poles on their new constitution, but behind the scenes there was alarm at the prospect of a Polish revival. ‘I foresee that sooner or later Poland will take West Prussia from us…’ Hertzberg told a senior Prussian diplomat. ‘How can we defend our state against a numerous and well-ruled nation?’10 On 18 May 1792, Catherine II sent 100,000 Russian troops into the kingdom. Having played with the idea of supporting the Polish opposition to the invasion (in the hope of preventing or limiting Russian annexations), the Prussians decided instead to accept a partition offer from St Petersburg. Under the terms of the Treaty of St Petersburg of 23 January 1793, the Prussians received the commercially important cities of Danzig and Thorn and a substantial triangle of territory that plugged the cleft between Silesia and East Prussia and also happened to encompass the wealthiest areas of the Polish commonwealth. The Russians helped themselves to a gigantic terrain comprising almost one half of Poland’s entire remaining surface area. The agreement was manifestly unequal (in the sense that Russia’s

portion was four times the size of Prussia’s) but it gave the Prussians more than they had traditionally aspired to and it freed Berlin from any obligation to compensate Austria in the west.11

In March 1794, the uprising launched against the partition powers by the Polish patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko set the stage for a further and final partition. Although the revolt was directed primarily against Russia, it was the Prussians who first tried to take advantage of it. They hoped, by suppressing the uprising, to stake a claim for further Polish territory on an equal footing with Russia. But with substantial troop deployments still in the west, the Prussians were already seriously over-stretched; after some early successes against the revolt they were forced to pull back and call for Russian help. Seeing their chance, the Austrians, too, joined the fray. After a desperate campaign of mass recruitment, Kosciuszko held off the armies of Russia, Prussia and Austria for nearly eight months, but on 10 October 1794, a Russian victory at Maciejowice to the south-east of Warsaw brought the uprising to an end. The way was now open to the third and last partition of Poland. After bitter quarrels among the three powers, a tripartite division was agreed on 24 October 1795, by which Prussia gained a further tranche of territory encompassing about 55,000 square kilometres of land in central Poland, including the ancient capital of Warsaw, and some 1,000,000 inhabitants. Poland was no more.


Something extraordinary had happened: in the course of the second and third Polish partitions, Frederick William II, perhaps the least impressive figure to have mounted the Prussian throne over the last century and a half, secured more territory for his kingdom than any other sovereign in his dynasty’s history. Prussia grew in size by about one third to cover over 300,000 square kilometres; its population swelled from 5.5 to around 8.7 million. With its objectives in the east more than fulfilled, Prussia lost no time in extracting itself from the anti-French coalition in the west, and signing a separate peace with France at Basle on 5 April 1795.

Once again, the Prussians had left their allies in the lurch. The scribes and pamphleteers employed to produce Austrian propaganda dutifully thundered against this foul retreat from the common cause against France. Historians have often taken a similar line, denouncing the separate peace and the neutrality that followed as contemptible, ‘cowardly’, ‘suicidal’ and ‘pernicious’.12 The problem with such assessments is that they are founded on the anachronistic presumption that late-eighteenth-century Prussia had a German ‘national’ mission that it failed in 1795 to fulfil. But if we focus our attention firmly on the Prussian state and its interests, then the separate peace appears the best option. Prussia was financially exhausted, its domestic administration was struggling to digest vast swathes of newly acquired Polish territory and it could ill afford to continue campaigning in the west. A ‘peace party’ emerged at the Berlin court with powerful economic arguments for a withdrawal from the coalition against France.13

The terms of the Treaty of Basle were in any case – at least on paper – highly advantageous to Prussia. Among them was an agreement by which France and Prussia undertook to uphold the neutrality of northern Germany. The neutrality zone provided Berlin with the opportunity to extend its influence over the lesser German states within the zone. Foreign Minister Haugwitz was quick to capitalize on this by persuading a string of north German territories (including Hanover) to join the Prussian neutrality system and thereby abscond from their obligations to the defence of the Holy Roman Empire.14 Finally, the neutrality zone left Prussia’s hands free in the east and ensured that French aggression would be focused on the Austrians – to this extent it was in line with the traditional dualist policy. There was more, in other words, to neutrality than simply the avoidance of war with France. With the peace signed and Prussia safe behind the north German ‘demarcation line’, the king could afford to look upon what had been accomplished with a certain satisfaction.

His achievement was more flimsy, however, than it looked. Prussia was now isolated. Over the past six years, it had allied itself with – and then abandoned – virtually every European power. The king’s known predilection for secret diplomacy and chaotic double-dealing left him a lonely and distrusted figure on the diplomatic scene. Experience would soon show that unless Prussia could count on the assistance of a great power in defending the German demarcation line, the neutrality zone was indefensible and therefore largely meaningless. An issue of longer-term significance was the disappearance of Poland from the European map. Even if we set aside the moral outrage committed against Poland by the partitioning powers, the fact remains that independent Poland had played a crucial role as a buffer and intermediary between the three eastern powers.15 Now that it no longer existed, Prussia shared, for the first time in its history, a long and indefensible border with Russia.16 From now on, the fortunes of Prussia would be inseparable from those of its vast and increasingly powerful eastern neighbour.

By taking refuge in the north German neutrality zone agreed with the French at Basle in 1795, Berlin also signalled its utter indifference to the fate of the Holy Roman Empire: the demarcation line split Germany across the middle, abandoning the south to France and the tender mercies of the Austrians. Moreover, a secret agreement appended to the Treaty of Basle in 1795 stated that if France should ultimately retain the Prussian territories she had occupied in the Rhineland, the Prussians would be compensated with territorial indemnities to the east of the Rhine – an ominous foretaste of the rush for annexations that would consume Germany at the end of the decade. The Austrians, too, abandoned any pretence of accommodating the imperial sensibilities of the lesser and least states. The Austrian forces engaged in the war with France behaved more like an army of occupation than an ally in the southern German states, and Baron Johann von Thugut, the intelligent, unscrupulous minister appointed to run Austrian foreign policy in March 1793, focused his plans for Germany around a revived version of the old Bavarian exchange project. In October 1797, Vienna concluded an agreement with Napoleon Bonaparte to trade the Austrian Netherlands for Venetia and Salzburg, one of the most prominent ecclesiastical principalities of the old Empire.17 It seemed that the fate of Poland was about to be visited upon the Holy Roman Empire. Hans Christoph von Gagern, chief minister of the little County of Nassau, made this connection explicit when he observed in 1797: ‘The German princes have so far found themselves in the double misfortune of wishing for a rapprochement between Prussia and Austria when they think of France and of fearing one when they think of Poland.’18

The chief objective of French policy vis-à-vis Germany during these years was the ‘restoration’ to France of her ‘natural frontiers’, a wholly bogus concept invented by the Assembly and fathered upon Louis XIV. In practice, this meant the wholesale annexation of the German territories along the left bank of the river Rhine. The area was a dense patchwork of imperial principalities, encompassing territories belonging to the Hohenzollern king of Prussia, the Electorates of Cologne, Trier and Mainz, the Elector Palatine, the Duke of Pfalz-Zweibrücken, various imperial cities and numerous other lesser sovereignties. Its absorption into the French unitary state was thus bound to have a catastrophic impact on the Empire. Yet the German territories were in no position to contest France’s acquisitions in the west. The larger states – Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria – had already been forced out of the war and were looking to build bridges with France. At the Peace of Campo Formio, signed in October 1797 after Bonaparte’s victorious campaign against the Austrians in northern Italy, Vienna extended formal recognition to the French conquests in the German Rhineland. It was also agreed that the consequences of the French annexations for the Empire as a whole should be decided by direct bargaining between France and representatives of the imperial territories. The scene was thus set for the protracted negotiations that would culminate in the repartitioning of German Europe. These began in November 1797 in the picturesque Badenese city of Rastatt, and ended, after various stops and starts, with the Report of the Imperial Delegation (known in German by the gargantuan term Reichsdeputationshauptschluss) published in Regensburg on 27 April 1803.

The report announced a geopolitical revolution. All but six of the imperial cities were swept away; of the panoply of ecclesiastical principalities, from Cologne and Trier to the imperial abbeys of Corvey, Ellwangen and Guttenzell, only three remained on the map. The main winners were the greater and middle-sized principalities. The French, pursuing their time-honoured policy of creating German client states, were especially generous to Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria, whose geographical position between France and Austria made them useful allies. Baden was the biggest winner in proportional terms: it had lost 440 square kilometres through the French annexations but was compensated with over 3,237 square kilometres of land torn from the bishoprics of Speyer, Strassburg, Constance and Basle. Another winner was Prussia, which received the Bishopric of Hildesheim, Paderborn, the greater part of Münster, Erfurt and the Eichsfeld, the abbeys of Essen, Werden and Quedlinburg, the imperial city of Nordhausen, Mühlhausen and Goslar. Prussia had lost about 2,642 square kilometres of Rhenish lands with 127,000 inhabitants, but gained almost 13,000 square kilometres of territory with a population of around half a million.

The Holy Roman Empire was on its last legs. With the ecclesiastical principalities gone, the Catholic majorities in the diet were no more and the Catholicity of the Empire was a thing of the past. Its raison d’e^tre as the protective incubator for the political and constitutional diversity of traditional central Europe was exhausted. The ancient association between the imperial crown and the House of Habsburg now seemed largely meaningless, even to Leopold II’s successor, Francis II, who accordingly declared himself to be the hereditary Emperor of Austria in 1804 in order to secure an independent footing for his imperial title. The formal end of the Empire, announced by the imperial herald after the usual trumpet fanfare in Vienna on 6 August 1806, seemed a mere formality and provoked remarkably little contemporary comment.

There would be further territorial reorganizations before the Napoleonic Wars were over, but the basic outlines of a simplified nineteenth-century Germany were already visible. Prussia’s new territories reinforced its dominance in the north. The consolidation of Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria in the south created the core of a compact block of intermediary states that would confront the hegemonial ambitions of both Austria and Prussia in the post-war era. The disappearance of the ecclesiastical states also meant that millions of German Catholics now found themselves living as diasporal communities within Protestant polities, a state of affairs with far-reaching implications for the political and religious life of modern Germany. Amid the ruins of the imperial past, a German future was taking shape.


On 14 October 1806, the 26-year-old Lieutenant Johann von Borcke was posted with an army corps of 22,000 men under the command of General Ernst Wilhelm Friedrich von Rüchel to the west of the city of Jena. It was still dark when news arrived that Napoleon’s troops had engaged the main Prussian army on a plateau near the city. The noise of cannon fire could already be heard from the east. The men were cold and stiff from a night spent huddled on damp ground, but morale improved when the rising sun dispelled the fog and began to warm shoulders and limbs. ‘Hardship and hunger were forgotten,’ Borcke recalled. ‘Schiller’s Song of the Riders rang from a thousand throats.’ By ten o’clock, Borcke and his men were finally on the move towards Jena. As they marched eastward along the highway, they saw many walking wounded making their way back from the battlefield. ‘Everything bore the stamp of dissolution and wild flight.’ At about noon, however, an adjutant came galloping up to the column with a note from Prince Hohenlohe, commander of the main Prussian army fighting the French outside Jena: ‘Hurry, General Rüchel, to share with me the half-won victory; I am beating the French at all points.’ It was ordered that this message should be relayed down the column and a loud cheer went up from the ranks.

The approach to the battlefield took the corps through the little village of Kapellendorf; streets clogged with cannon, carriages, wounded men and dead horses slowed their progress. Emerging from the village, the corps came up on to a line of low hills, where the men had their first sight of the field of battle. To their horror, only ‘weak lines and remnants’ of Hohenlohe’s corps could still be seen resisting French attack. Moving forward to prepare for an attack, Borcke’s men found themselves in a hail of balls fired by French sharp-shooters who were so well positioned and so skilfully concealed that the shot seemed to fly in from nowhere. ‘To be shot at in this way,’ Borcke later recalled, ‘without seeing the enemy, made a dreadful impression upon our soldiers, for they were not used to that style of fighting, lost faith in their weapons and immediately sensed the enemy’s superiority.’

Flustered by the ferocity of the fire, commanders and troops alike became anxious to press ahead to a resolution. An attack was launched against French units drawn up near the village of Vierzehnheiligen. But as the Prussians advanced, the enemy artillery and rifle fire became steadily more intense. Against this, the corps had only a few regimental cannon, which soon broke down and had to be abandoned. The order ‘Left shoulder forward!’ was shouted down the line and the advancing Prussian columns veered to the right, twisting the angle of attack. In the process, the battalions on the left began to drift apart and the French, bringing up more and more cannon, cut larger and larger holes in the advancing columns. Borcke and his fellow officers galloped back and forth, trying to repair the broken lines. But there was little they could do to allay the confusion on the left wing, because the commander, Major von Pannwitz, was wounded and no longer on his horse, and the adjutant, Lieutenant von Jagow, had been killed. The Regimental Colonel von Walter was the next commander to fall, followed by General Rüchel himself and several staff officers.

Without awaiting orders, the men of Borcke’s corps began to fire at will in the direction of the French. Some, having expended their ammunition, ran with fixed bayonets at the enemy positions, only to be cut down by cartridge shot or ‘friendly fire’. Terror and chaos took hold, reinforced by the arrival of the French cavalry, who hoed into the surging mass of Prussians, slashing with their sabres at every head or arm that came within reach. Borcke found himself drawn along irresistibly with the masses fleeing the field westwards along the road to Weimar. ‘I had saved nothing,’ Borcke wrote, ‘but my worthless life. My mental anguish was extreme; physically I was in a state of complete exhaustion and I was being dragged along among thousands in the most horrific chaos…’19

The battle of Jena was over. The Prussians had been defeated by a better-managed force of about the same size (there were 53,000 Prussians and 54,000 French deployed). Even worse was the news from Auerstedt a few kilometres to the north, where on the same day a Prussian army numbering some 50,000 men under the command of the Duke of Brunswick was routed by a French force half that size under Marshal Davout. Over the following fortnight, the French broke up a smaller Prussian force near Halle and occupied the cities of Halberstadt and Berlin. Further victories and capitulations followed. The Prussian army had not merely been defeated; it had been ruined. In the words of one officer who was at Jena: ‘The carefully assembled and apparently unshakeable military structure was suddenly shattered to its foundations.’20 This was precisely the disaster that the Prussian neutrality pact of 1795 had been designed to avoid. How did it come about? Why did the Prussians abandon the relative security of the neutrality pact to wage war against a French Emperor at the height of his powers?

After 1797, with the accession of Frederick William III, a hesitant, cautious individual, the neutrality adopted as an expedient by his predecessor settled into a kind of system, in the sense that the Prussians clung to it, even when there was considerable pressure – as in 1799, during preparations for the second coalition against France – to join one of the warring parties. To some extent this reflected the preferences of the monarch. Unlike his father, Frederick William III had no interest in the pursuit of renown: ‘Everybody knows,’ he told his uncle in October 1798, ‘that I abhor war and that I know of nothing greater on earth than the preservation of peace and tranquillity as the only system suited to the happiness of human kind…’21 But the neutrality policy also prevailed because so many good arguments could be cited in its support. As the king himself rather casuistically pointed out, remaining neutral left open the possibility of war later and was thus the most flexible option. His wife, Luise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a forceful figure with many contacts among the senior ministers, warned that war on the side of the coalition powers would bring dependency on Russia. This line of argument was based on the correct insight that Prussia remained, by a considerable margin, the least of the great powers. As such, it lacked the means to ensure that its interests would be met through a partnership with either of the warring parties. The state treasury, moreover, was still deeply in deficit; without the shelter of neutrality, it would be impossible to repair the kingdom’s finances in preparation for a future conflict. Lastly, neutrality was attractive because it held out the prospect of territorial aggrandizement in northern Germany. This promise was partly realized in the secret convention signed between Prussia and France on 23 May 1802, when a handsome swathe of former imperial cities and secularized ecclesiastical principalities were promised to Prussia in pre-emption of the final Report of the Imperial Deputation published in the following year. So persuasive did the benefits of neutrality seem to the Prussian ministers and cabinet secretaries entrusted with advising the king on policy that there was virtually no serious opposition to it before 1805.22

The fundamental problem for Prussia during the years of neutrality was simply the kingdom’s exposed location between France and Russia, which threatened to make a nonsense of the neutrality zone and Prussia’s supposedly dominant place within it. Here was a geopolitical predicament that had preoccupied the Hohenzollerns since the days of the Great Elector.23 But the threat was now even more pronounced, thanks to the French annexations in Germany and the removal of the Polish buffer zone that had once separated Prussia and Russia.24 A case in point is the brief Prussian occupation of Hanover in March–October 1801. Joined to the British Crown by personal union, Hanover was the second largest territory within the neutrality zone and an obvious target for any state wishing to apply diplomatic pressure to Britain. In the winter and spring of 1800–1801, Tsar Paul I engineered a rapprochement with France in the hope of weakening Britain’s maritime supremacy in the Baltic and the North Sea and pressured Berlin into mounting an occupation of the Electorate of Hanover, in the hope that this would persuade Britain to back down. The Prussian king was hesitant, but agreed once it became clear that France would occupy Hanover if Prussia did not – an action that would have demolished the remaining shreds of credibility left in Prussia’s role as guarantor of the neutrality zone. The Prussians withdrew again at the earliest opportunity, but the episode illustrates how little room for autonomous manoeuvre they enjoyed, even within the neutrality zone they had carved out at the Peace of Basle. It also soured relations between Berlin and London, where there were many who believed that the ultimate aim of the Prussians was ‘to possess the [British] king’s Electoral dominions’.25

The hollowness of Berlin’s claim to hegemony within the neutrality zone was further exposed by the compensation of the lesser and middling German states for territories lost to France; rather than looking to Berlin, these states negotiated directly with Paris, bypassing the Prussians altogether.26In July 1803, Napoleon demonstrated his complete disregard for Prussian sensibilities by ordering the French occupation of Hanover. A further blow to Prussia’s prestige followed in the autumn of 1804, when French troops broke into Hamburg and kidnapped the British envoy in the city, Sir George Rumbold. The kidnapping triggered outrage in Berlin: Rumbold had been accredited to Frederick William’s court and performed his duties, as it were, under the Prussian king’s protection. Moreover, the action had involved a flagrant breach of the neutrality pact and of international law. Frederick William fired off a bitter protest to Napoleon and a crisis with France was averted only when Napoleon unexpectedly backed down and released Rumbold.27

A further breach occurred in October 1805, when French troops marched through the Hohenzollern enclaves of Ansbach and Bayreuth on their way south to the confrontation with the Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz. In the face of such provocations, the arguments for Prussian neutrality looked increasingly threadbare. It is not known whether Frederick William III pondered on the Great Elector’s troubled experience of neutrality, or whether he was reminded of Leibniz’s comment, made at the height of the Northern War: ‘To be neutral is rather like someone who lives in the middle of a house and is smoked out from below and drenched with urine from above.’28

The difficulty lay in determining what was the best alternative to neutrality. Should Prussia align itself with France or with Russia and the coalition powers? Opinions were divided. Controversy mounted within the antechamber of power as ministers, cabinet secretaries and informal advisers competed for influence over the monarch. This struggle was sanctioned by the king, who was anxious not to fall under the control of any one interest and thus continued to consult state ministers, cabinet ministers, cabinet secretaries, his wife and various friends for advice on key issues. The leading figures in the struggle to control foreign policy were the recently retired foreign minister, Count Christian von Haugwitz, and Karl August von Hardenberg, formerly of Ansbach-Bayreuth, who succeeded Haugwitz after the latter’s retirement on grounds of ill-health in 1804.

During the Rumbold crisis, Hardenberg began pressing for a Russian alignment and an open breach with France, partly in the hope of exploiting the débâcle of Haugwitz’s neutrality policy in order to advance his career. Haugwitz, recalled from his retirement to advise the monarch, counselled caution, while at the same time manoeuvring to push Hardenberg aside and regain control over foreign policy. Hardenberg fought his corner with the usual energy and ruthlessness, taking care to curry favour with the monarch, upon whom everything depended.29 As their struggle shows, divergences of opinion were amplified by adversarial relationships within the political elite. This was possible precisely because the Prussian security predicament in 1805–6 was such that it admitted of no easy resolution. Both options, alliance with France and alliance with the coalition powers, appeared equally plausible – and equally daunting.

International developments tipped the balance of Prussian policy first one way then the other. After October 1805, following the French breach of neutrality in Ansbach and Bayreuth, interest in a Russian alliance intensified. Late in November, Haugwitz was sent to deliver a stiff ultimatum to the French. Hardly had he left, however, but events tipped the balance back towards France. Upon arriving at Napoleon’s headquarters, Haugwitz learned of the shattering defeat the Emperor’s armies had just inflicted on the combined Austro-Russian forces at Austerlitz (2 December 1805). Sensing that his ultimatum was no longer opportune, the Prussian emissary offered Napoleon an alliance instead. The Treaty of Schönbrunn (15 December 1805), together with various follow-up agreements imposed by France, committed Prussia not only to a comprehensive alliance with Napoleon, but also to the annexation of Hanover and the closure of the northern sea ports to British shipping. Frederick William saw that this would mean war with Britain, but viewed such an outcome as a lesser evil than destruction at the hands of France. It looked very much as if Haugwitz had won out over his rival; in March 1806, he succeeded in forcing Hardenberg’s resignation. ‘France is all-powerful and Napoleon is the man of the century,’ Haugwitz wrote to the Prussian envoy Lucchesini in the summer of 1806. ‘What have we to fear if united with him?’30

Anxious to avoid a conflict with Russia and determined to keep his options open, Frederick William continued to pursue a secret policy aimed at rapprochment with St Petersburg. This was a welcome reprieve for Hardenberg, who now became the agent of an elaborate covert diplomacy: having seemed to withdraw in high dudgeon from public life in March, he was entrusted with responsibility for the secret relationship with Russia, which in turn made a nonsense of Haugwitz’s ostensible policy of collaboration with France.31 Never had the irresolvable complexities of the two-front dilemma produced such extravagant contortions in Berlin.

A determined political opposition now emerged within the uppermost echelons of the bureaucracy. Among the most influential dissenters was the temperamental Freiherr vom Stein, a minister in Berlin. Stein had never approved of the post-1795 neutrality, seeing in it (as indeed we might expect of a Rhenish nobleman and imperial patriot) a reprehensible abandonment of Germany. During the winter of 1805–6, as Count Haugwitz committed Prussia to an alliance with Napoleon, the annexation of Hanover and war with Britain, the Anglophile Stein found himself unable to support the government’s course. He came to believe that only a thoroughgoing structural reform of the supreme executive would enable the state to formulate a more effective foreign policy. In an act that radically overstepped the boundaries of his official responsibility, he composed a memorandum dated 27 April 1806 whose title alone was a manifesto: ‘Presentation of the mistaken organization of the cabinet and of the necessity of forming a ministerial conference’. Stein’s document was remarkable for the strength of its language: in it the men of the king’s cabinet were accused of ‘arrogance, dogmatism, ignorance, physical and moral enfeeblement, shallowness, brutal sensuality, treacherous betrayal, shameless lying, narrow-mindedness and mischievous gossiping’.32 The answer to the monarchy’s current predicament, Stein argued, lay not merely in the removal of these reprobates, but also in the establishment of clearer lines of responsibility. Under the current arrangements, he argued, the king’s personal advisers have ‘all the power, while the real ministers have all the responsibility’. It was therefore necessary to replace the arbitrary rule of cronies and favourites with a system of responsible ministerial government.

If his Majesty will not agree to the suggested change, if he persists in ruling under the influence of a Cabinet deficient in its organisation and condemned in its personnel, it is to be expected that the state will either be dissolved or lose its independence, and the love and respect of its subjects will fail it completely. […] nothing will be left for the upright official but to abandon it, covered with unmerited shame, without being able to help or take part against the wickedness that will ensue.33

Few documents illustrate more dramatically how rebellious the atmosphere had grown within the uppermost echelons of the Prussian administration. Fortunately, perhaps, for Stein, his remarkably forthright letter was never shown to the king. Stein passed it to General Rüchel (soon to take up his ill-fated command at Jena), asking that it be forwarded to the monarch, but the old general was reluctant. In May, Stein presented it to Queen Luise, who expressed her approval of its sentiments but thought it too ‘violent and passionate’ for submission to her husband. The letter did its work none the less; it circulated among the dissident senior figures within the administration, helping to sharpen the focus of their opposition. By October 1806, Stein had emerged as one of the leaders of the bureaucratic opposition.

In the meanwhile, Prussia’s foreign policy dilemma remained unsolved. ‘Your Majesty,’ Hardenberg warned in a memorandum of June 1806, ‘has been placed in the singular position of being simultaneously allied with both Russia and France [… ] This situation cannot last.’34 In July and August feelers were put out to the other north German states with a view to establishing an inter-territorial union; the most important fruit of these efforts was an alliance with Saxony. But the negotiations with Russia advanced more slowly, partly because of the sobering effect of the still-recent disaster at Austerlitz and partly because it took time for the confusion generated by the months of secret diplomacy to clear. Little had thus been done to build a solid coalition when news reached Berlin of a further French provocation. In August 1806, intercepts revealed that Napoleon was engaged in alliance negotiations with Britain, and had unilaterally offered the return of Hanover as an inducement to London. This was an outrage too far. Nothing could better have demonstrated Napoleon’s contempt for the north German neutrality zone and the place of Prussia within it.

By this point, Frederick William III was under immense pressure from elements within his own entourage to opt for war with France. On 2 September, a memorandum was passed to the king criticizing his policy thus far and pressing for war. Among the signatories were Prince Louis Ferdinand, popular military commander and a nephew of Frederick the Great, two of the king’s brothers, Prince Henry and Prince William, a cousin and the Prince of Orange. Composed for the signatories by the court historiographer Johannes von Müller, the memorandum pulled few punches. In it, the king was accused of having abandoned the Holy Roman Empire and sacrificed his subjects and the credibility of his word of honour for the sake of the policy of ill-conceived self-interest pursued by the pro-French party among his ministers. Now he was further endangering the honour of his kingdom and his house by refusing to take a stand. The king saw in this document a calculated challenge to his authority and responded with rage and alarm. In a gesture evocative of an earlier era when brothers wrestled for thrones, the princes were ordered to leave the capital city and return to their regiments. As this episode reveals, the factional strife over foreign policy had begun to drift out of control. A determined ‘war party’ had emerged that included members of the king’s family, but was centred on the two ministers Karl August von Hardenberg and Karl vom Stein. Its objective was to put an end to the fudges and compromises of the neutrality policy. But its means implied the demand for a more broadly based decision-making process that would bind the king to a collegial deliberative mechanism of some kind.35

Although the king resented deeply the impertinence, as he saw it, of the memorandum of 2 September, the charge of prevarication unsettled him deeply, sweeping aside his instinctive preference for caution and delay. And so it was that the Berlin decision-makers allowed themselves to be goaded into precipitate action, although the preparations for a coalition with Russia and Austria had scarcely begun to take concrete shape. On 26 September Frederick William III addressed a letter full of bitter recriminations to the French Emperor, insisting that the neutrality pact be honoured, demanding the return of various Prussian territories on the lower Rhine and closing with the words: ‘May heaven grant that we can reach an understanding on a basis that leaves you in possession of your full renown, but also leaves room for the honour of other peoples, [an understanding] that will put an end to this fever of fear and expectation, in which no one can count on the future.’36 Napoleon’s reply, signed in the imperial headquarters at Gera on 12 October, reverberated with a breathtaking blend of arrogance, aggression, sarcasm and false solicitude.

Only on 7 October did I receive Your Majesty’s letter. I am extraordinarily sorry that You have been made to sign such a pamphlet. I write only to assure You that I will never attribute the insults contained within it to Yourself personally, because they are contrary to Your character and merely dishonour us both. I despise and pity at once the makers of such a work. Shortly thereafter I received a note from Your minister asking me to attend a rendezvous. Well, as a gentleman, I have kept to my appointment and am now standing in the heart of Saxony. Believe me, I have such powerful forces that all of Yours will not suffice to deny me victory for long! But why shed so much blood? For what purpose? I speak to Your Majesty just as I spoke to Emperor Alexander shortly before the Battle of Austerlitz. [… ] Sire, Your Majesty will be vanquished! You will throw away the peace of Your old age, the life of Your subjects, without being able to produce the slightest excuse in mitigation! Today You stand there with your reputation untarnished and can negotiate with me in a manner worthy of Your rank, but before a month is passed, Your situation will be a different one!37

Thus spoke the ‘man of the century’, the ‘world soul on horseback’ to the King of Prussia in the autumn of 1806. The course was now set for the trial of arms at Jena and Auerstedt.

For Prussia, the timing could hardly have been worse. Since the army corps promised by Tsar Alexander had not yet materialized, the coalition with Russia remained largely theoretical. Prussia faced the might of the French armies alone, save for its Saxon ally. Ironically, the habit of delay that the war party so deplored in the king was now the one thing that could have saved Prussia. The Prussian and Saxon commanders had expected to give battle to Napoleon somewhere to the west of the Thuringian forest, but he advanced much faster than they had anticipated. On 10 October 1806, the Prussian vanguard made contact with French forces and was defeated at Saalfeld. The French then pushed past the flank of the Prussian armies and formed up with their backs to Berlin and the Oder, denying the Prussians access to their supply lines and routes of withdrawal. This is one reason why the subsequent breakdown of order on the battlefield proved so irreversible.

The relative prowess of the Prussian army had declined since the end of the Seven Years War. One reason for this was the emphasis placed upon increasingly elaborate forms of parade drill. These were not a cosmetic indulgence – they were underwritten by a genuine military rationale, namely the integration of each soldier into a fighting machine answering to one will and capable of maintaining cohesion under conditions of extreme stress. While this approach certainly had strengths (among other things, it heightened the deterrent effect upon foreign visitors of the annual parade manoeuvres in Berlin), it did not show up particularly well against the flexible and fast-moving forces deployed by the French under Napoleon’s command. A further problem was the Prussian army’s dependence upon large numbers of foreign troops – by 1786, when Frederick died, 110,000 of the 195,000 men in Prussian service were foreigners. There were very good reasons for retaining foreign troops; their deaths in service were easier to bear and they reduced the disruption caused by military service to the domestic economy. However, their presence in such large numbers also brought problems. They tended to be less disciplined, less motivated and more inclined to desert.

To be sure, the decades between the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–9) and the campaign of 1806 also saw important improvements.38 Mobile light units and contingents of riflemen (Jäger) were expanded and the field requisition system was simplified and overhauled. None of this sufficed to make good the gap that swiftly opened up between the Prussian army and the armed forces of revolutionary and Napoleonic France. In part, this was simply a question of numbers – as soon as the French Republic began scouring the French working classes for domestic recruits under the auspices of the levée en masse, there was no way the Prussians would be able to keep pace. The key to Prussian policy ought therefore to have been to avoid at all costs having to fight France without the aid of allies.

From the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars, moreover, the French had integrated infantry, cavalry and artillery in permanent divisions supported by independent logistic services and capable of sustaining autonomous mixed operations. Under Napoleon, these units were grouped together into army corps with unparalleled flexibility and striking power. By contrast, the Prussian army had scarcely begun to explore the possibilities of combined-arms divisions by the time they faced the French at Jena and Auerstedt. The Prussians were also a long way behind the French in the use of sharp-shooters. Although, as we have seen, efforts had been made to expand this element of the armed forces, overall numbers remained low, the weaponry was not of the highest standard and insufficient thought was given to how the deployment of riflemen could be integrated with the deployment of large troop masses. Lieutenant Johann Borcke and his fellow infantrymen paid dearly for this gap in tactical flexibility and striking power as they stumbled on to the killing field at Jena.

Frederick William III had initially intended to open peace negotiations with Napoleon after Jena and Auerstedt, but his approaches were rebuffed. Berlin was occupied on 24 October and three days later Bonaparte entered the capital. During a brief sojourn in nearby Potsdam, he made a famous visit to the tomb of Frederick the Great, where he is said to have stood deep in thought before the coffin. According to one account, he turned to the generals who were with him and remarked: ‘Gentlemen, if this man were still alive, I would not be here.’ This was partly imperial kitsch and partly a genuine tribute to the extraordinary reputation Frederick enjoyed among the French, especially the patriot networks that had helped to revitalize French foreign policy and had always seen the Austrian alliance of 1756 as the greatest error of the French ancien régime . Napoleon had long been an admirer of the Prussian king: he had pored through Frederick’s campaign narratives and had a statuette of him placed in his personal cabinet. The young Alfred de Vigny even claimed with a certain amusement to have observed Napoleon affecting Frederician poses, ostentatiously taking snuff, making flourishes with his hat ‘and other similar gestures’ – eloquent testimony to the continuing resonance of the cult. By the time the French Emperor stood in Berlin paying his respects to the dead Frederick, his living successor had fled to the easternmost corner of the kingdom, evoking parallels with the dark days of the 1630s and 1640s. The state treasure, too, was saved in the nick of time and transported away to the east.39

Napoleon was now ready to offer peace terms. He demanded that Prussia renounce all its territories to the west of the river Elbe. After some agonized wavering, Frederick William III signed an agreement to this effect at the Charlottenburg palace on 30 October, whereupon Napoleon changed his mind and insisted that he would agree to an armistice only if Prussia consented to serve as the operational base for a French attack upon Russia. Although the majority of his ministers supported this option, Frederick William sided with the minority who preferred to continue the war at Russia’s side. Everything now depended upon whether the Russians would be able to put sufficient forces in the field to halt the momentum of the French advance.

During the months from late October 1806 to January 1807, French forces had steadily advanced through the Prussian lands, forcing or accepting the capitulation of key fortresses. On 7 and 8 February 1807, however, they were repulsed at Preussisch-Eylau by a Russian force with a small Prussian contingent. Sobered by this experience, Napoleon returned to the armistice offer of October 1806, under which Prussia would merely give up its West-Elbian territories. Now it was Frederick William’s turn to refuse, in the hope that renewed Russian attacks would push the balance further to Prussia’s advantage. These were not forthcoming. The Russians failed to capitalize on the advantage gained at Preussisch-Eylau and the French continued throughout January and February to subdue the Prussian fortresses in Silesia. In the meanwhile, Hardenberg, who was still operating the pro-Russian policy with which he had triumphed in 1806, negotiated an alliance with St Petersburg that was signed on 26 April 1807. The new alliance was short lived; after a French victory over the Russians at Friedland on 14 June 1807, Tsar Alexander asked Napoleon for an armistice.

On 25 June 1807, Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Alexander met to begin peace negotiations. The setting was unusual. A splendid raft was built on Napoleon’s orders and tethered in the middle of the river Niemen at Piktupönen, near the East Prussian town of Tilsit. Since the Niemen was the official demarcation line of the ceasefire and the Russian and French armies were drawn up on opposite banks of the river, the raft was an ingenious solution to the need for neutral ground where the two emperors could meet on an equal footing. Frederick William of Prussia was not invited. Instead he stood miserably on the bank for several hours, surrounded by the Tsar’s officers and wrapped in a Russian overcoat. This was just one of the many ways in which Napoleon advertised to the world the inferior status of the defeated King of Prussia. The rafts on the Memel were adorned with garlands and wreaths bearing the letters ‘A’ and ‘N’ – the letters FW were nowhere to be seen, although the entire ceremony was taking place on Prussian territory. Whereas French and Russian flags could be seen everywhere fluttering in the mild breeze, the Prussian flag was conspicuous by its absence. Even when, on the following day, Napoleon invited Frederick William into his presence on the raft, the resulting conversation had the flavour of an audience rather than a meeting between two monarchs. Frederick William was made to wait in an antechamber while the Emperor saw to some overdue paperwork. Napoleon refused to inform the king of his plans for Prussia and hectored him about the many military and administrative errors he had made during the war.


25. Napoleon and Tsar Alexander meet on board a raft on the River Niemen at Tilsit. Contemporary etching by Le Beau, after Nadet.

Under pressure from the Tsar, Napoleon agreed that Prussia would continue to exist as a state. But by the terms of the Peace of Tilsit (9 July 1807), it was stripped down to the rump: Brandenburg, Pomerania (excluding the Swedish part), Silesia and East Prussia, plus the corridor of land acquired by Frederick the Great in the course of the first partition of Poland. The Polish provinces acquired through the second and third partitions were taken away to form the basis for a Franco-Polish satellite state in the east; the western territories, some of which dated back to the beginning of the seventeenth century, were also swept away to be annexed to France or incorporated into a range of Napoleonic client entities. Frederick William tried sending his wife Luise to beg the Emperor for a more generous settlement – unwittingly evoking parallels with the 1630s, when the unhappy Elector George William had sent his womenfolk out of Berlin to parley with the approaching Gustavus Adolphus. Napoleon was impressed by the determination and grace of the Prussian queen, but he made no concessions.

The dream of a Prussian custodial role in northern Germany – briefly sustained by the neutrality zone – seemed to have vanished without a trace. Gone, too, was the vision of Prussia as an eastern great power, dealing on equal terms with Russia and Austria. A large indemnity was demanded, with the precise amount to be announced in due course. The French would remain in occupation until this was settled. A small but bitter detail: having signed a separate peace with the French at Posen in December 1806 and joined the Confederation of the Rhine, an association of French satellite states in Germany, the Elector of Saxony accepted a royal crown from Napoleon’s hands to become King Frederick August I of Saxony. In the following year, the Saxons were rewarded with Cottbus, a former Prussian possession. It almost looked as if Saxony’s fortunes might revive to the point where Dresden could once again challenge Berlin for the captaincy of northern Germany. Napoleon encouraged these hopes. In an address to the officers of the defeated Saxon army in Jena castle on the day after the battle, the Emperor announced himself as a liberator and even claimed that he had waged war on Prussia only in order to maintain Saxony’s independence.40 This was a new twist in the long history of rivalry between Prussia and Saxony, in which the alliance of 1806 had been only a momentary interruption.

All regimes are tarnished by defeat – this is one of history’s few rules. There have been many worse defeats than the Prussian disasters of 1806–7, but for a political culture so centred on military prowess the defeats at Jena and Auerstedt and the surrenders that followed were definitive none the less. They signified a failure at the centre of the system. The king himself was a commanding officer (though not an especially talented one) who had been in regimental service since childhood and made it his business to be seen riding about in uniform before his advancing regiments. The adult princes of the royal family were all well-known commanders. The officer corps was the agrarian ruling class in uniform. A question mark hung over the political order of old Prussia.

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