Modern history


The World the Bureaucrats Made


In December 1806, as Frederick William III and Luise of Prussia fled eastwards from the advancing French armies, they stopped overnight in the small East Prussian town of Ortelsburg. There was no food or clean water to be had. The king and his wife were forced to share the same sleeping quarters in ‘one of the wretched barns that they call houses’, according to the British envoy George Jackson, who was travelling with them.1 Here, Frederick William found time to reflect at length on the meaning of the Prussian defeat. In the aftermath of the disasters at Jena and Auerstedt, numerous Prussian fortresses had collapsed under circumstances in which they should have been able to hold out. Stettin, for example, which possessed a garrison of around 5,000 men and was fully provisioned, had surrendered to a small regiment of enemy hussars numbering only 800. The fortress at Küstrin – that shrine of Prussian memory – had surrendered only days after the king himself had left it to move eastward. The collapse of Prussia, it seemed, was as much a question of political will and motivation as of technical inferiority.

The king’s rage over this chain of capitulations found expression in the Declaration of Ortelsburg, a statement composed by Frederick William on 12 December 1806 and written in his own hand. It was still too early, he observed, to draw conclusions about who or what was responsible for the ‘almost total dissolution’ of the Prussian forces in the field, but the fortress capitulations were a scandal ‘without precedent’ in the history of the Prussian army. In future, he wrote, every governor or commander who surrendered his fortress ‘simply for fear of bombardment’ or ‘for any other worthless reason, whatever it might be’, would be ‘shot without mercy’. Any soldier who ‘threw away his weapons out of fear’ would likewise face the firing squad. Prussian subjects who entered the service of the enemy and were found with a weapon in their hand would be ‘shot without mercy’.2 Much of the document reads like a cathartic explosion of anger, but tucked away at the end was a passage that announced a revolution. In future, Frederick William wrote, any fighting man who performed with distinction should be promoted into the officer corps, regardless of whether he was a private, a warrant officer or a prince.3 Amid the chaos of defeat and flight, a process of reform and self-renewal had begun.

In the aftermath of the defeats and humiliations of 1806–7, a new leadership cadre of ministers and officials launched a salvo of government edicts that transformed the structure of the Prussian political executive, deregulated the economy, redrew the ground rules of rural society and reformulated the relationship between the state and civil society. It was the very scale of the defeat that opened the door to reform. The collapse of trust in traditional structures and procedures created opportunities for those who had long been striving to improve the system from within, and silenced their former opponents. The war also imposed fiscal burdens that were insoluble within the parameters of established practice. There was a substantial indemnity to pay (120 million francs), but the real cost of the French occupation, which lasted from August 1807 until December 1808, was estimated by one contemporary at around 216.9 million thalers – a huge sum if we consider that in 1816 total government revenues were just over 31 million thalers.4 The resulting sense of emergency favoured those with forceful and coherent programmes of action and the ability to communicate them persuasively. In all these ways, the exogenous shock of Napoleon’s victory focused and amplified forces already at work within the Prussian state.5

At the centre of the reform process that began in 1807 (though his role has sometimes been under-appreciated) was the King of Prussia, Frederick William III. Important as the reforming bureaucrats were, they could not have carried out their plans without the support of the monarch. It was Frederick William III who appointed Karl vom Stein as his chief adviser in October 1807, until he was forced by Napoleon to dismiss him (after allegations that Stein was plotting against the French). After appointing Alexander Count Dohna and Karl von Altenstein (an old boy from the ‘Franconian clique’) as joint chief ministers, the king called Hardenberg to the ministries of finance and the interior in June 1810 and granted him the new title of Staatskanzler, designating him as Prussia’s first prime minister.

Yet Frederick William III remains a shadowy figure. J. R. Seeley, author of a three-volume nineteenth-century portrait of Stein, described the king as ‘the most respectable and the most ordinary man that has reigned over Prussia’.6 At a time when Prussia’s cultural and political life was dominated by brilliant personalities – Schleiermacher, Hegel, Stein, Hardenberg, the Humboldts – the monarch was a pedantic and narrow-minded bore. His conversation was stunted and brusque. Napoleon, who often dined with him during the summer days in Tilsit, later recalled that it was difficult to get him to talk about anything but ‘military headgear, buttons and leather satchels’.7 Though he was rarely far from the centre of Prussian high politics in the crisis years before the defeat, he appears to us as a cipher, trying to blend into the background, fleeing the moment of decision and leaning on the counsels of those closest to him. As crown prince, Frederick William had been denied the chance to learn the business of government from the inside. (By contrast, he was to offer his own son, the future Frederick William IV, a key role in Prussian domestic politics – yet another example of the dialectical alternation of paternal regimes so characteristic of the Hohenzollern dynasty.) Throughout his life, the king combined a sharp, if reticent, intelligence with a profound lack of confidence in his own abilities. Far from embracing the opportunities of kingship, Frederick William saw the crown as a ‘burden’ to be borne, a burden he felt many others were better qualified to carry than he.

Frederick William’s accession to the throne in 1797 was attended by the usual Hohenzollern contrasts. The father had pursued territorial prizes at every conceivable opportunity; the son was a man of peace who eschewed the quest for glory and reputation. The father’s reign saw the last exuberant gasp of baroque monarchy, with its displays of wasteful splendour and bevies of mistresses; the son was austere in his tastes and remained faithful to his wife. Frederick William III found the City Palace in Berlin too imposing and preferred to stay in the smaller residence he had occupied as crown prince. His favourite domicile of all was a rustic little estate he bought at Paretz near Potsdam. Here he could live in tranquil domesticity and pretend he was an ordinary country squire. Frederick William drew a clear distinction, unlike his predecessors, between his private life and his public functions. He was painfully shy and disliked elaborate public occasions at court. He was shocked when he learned, in 1813, that his children were in the habit of referring to him in his absence as ‘the king’ rather than ‘papa’. He enjoyed watching lightweight comedies at the theatre, partly because he relished the opportunity to be in company without being the centre of attention.


26. King Frederick William and Queen Luise with the family in the palace gardens at Charlottenburg, c. 1805; engraving by Friedrich Meyer after Heinrich Anton Dähling

These might appear trivial observations, were it not for the fact that contemporary observers assigned them so much significance. Throughout the early years of his reign, contemporaries repeatedly drew attention to Frederick William’s unassuming, bourgeois (bürgerlich) comportment. In 1798, shortly after the accession, the Berlin theatre-poet Karl Alexander von Herklot, acclaimed the king in verse:

He does not care for golden crown

Nor robes with purple dyed.

He is a burgher on the throne.

To be a man’s his pride.8

The theme of the king as an ordinary (middle-class) family man runs through much of the commentary surrounding the early years of the reign. We find it in the following verse addressed to the royal couple upon their accession:

Be not gods to us you kings

Nor goddesses you wives of kings;

Nay, be what you are,

Be worthy human beings.

Show us in noblest model

How one reconciles small things and great:

A cosy life at home

And high affairs of state.9

Perhaps the most striking feature of monarchical discourse after 1797 was the prominence and public resonance of the Prussian queen. For the first time in the history of the dynasty, the king was perceived and celebrated not merely as a monarch, but as a husband. The baroque warlordly portraits of his father’s reign, with their gleaming armour and coils of ermine gave way to restrained family scenes, in which the king was shown relaxing with his wife and children. The queen emerged – for the first time – as a celebrated public personality in her own right. In 1793, when Luise left her native Mecklenburg to be betrothed to her future husband, her arrival in Berlin caused a sensation. When she was welcomed on Unter den Linden by a little girl reciting a verse, she broke with protocol by taking the child in her arms and kissing her. ‘All hearts,’ the poet de la Motte-Fouqué wrote, ‘flew out to her and her grace and sweetness left none untouched.’10

Luise was renowned not only for her charitable work, but also for her physical beauty (a superb full-length double statue of 1795–7 by Johann Gottfried Schadow, in which a teen-aged Luise stands arm-in-arm with her sister Frederike in a virtually transparent summer dress, was closed for many years to public viewing because it was deemed too overtly erotic). Luise was a figure without precedent in the history of the dynasty, a female celebrity who in the mind of the public combined virtue, modesty and sovereign grace with kindness and sex appeal, and whose early death in 1810 at the age of only thirty-four preserved her youth in the memory of posterity.11

As queen, Luise occupied a much more prominent and visible place in the life of the kingdom than her eighteenth-century predecessors. In a notable break with tradition, she joined the king on his inaugural journey through the Prussian lands to receive the oath of fealty from the provincial Estates. During the endless meetings with local worthies, it was said that the new queen impressed everyone with her warmth and charm. She even became a fashion icon. The neckerchief she wore to keep colds at bay was soon widely imitated by women across Prussia and beyond. She was also an important partner to Frederick William in his official role. From the very beginning, she was regularly consulted on affairs of state. She cultivated the most important ministers and made it her business to be informed of political developments at court. It is striking that Stein thought it appropriate to approach the queen with his radical proposal for reform during the crisis of 1806, and equally significant that she should have chosen not to pass the document to her husband, on the grounds that it would merely vex him at a time of extreme stress. Luise provided psychological support for the hesitant king. ‘The only thing you need is more self-confidence,’ she wrote to him in October 1806. ‘Once you have that, you will be able to make decisions much more quickly.’12


27. The princesses Luise and Frederike of Prussia. Die Prinzessinnengruppe by Johann Gottfried Schadow, 1795–97.

In a sense, the prominence of the queen betokened a re-feminization of Prussian royalty after nearly a century when women had been pushed to the margins of monarchical representation. However, the reintegration of the feminine into the public life of the monarchy took place within the parameters of an increasingly polarized understanding of the two genders and their social calling. Luise’s public role was not that of a female dynast with her own court, priorities and foreign policy, but that of a wife and helper. Her formidable skills and intelligence were placed at the service of her husband. This performance of subordination was crucial to the public image of the royal couple and it explains why Luise’s feminine attributes – her prettiness, sweet nature, maternal kindness and wifely virtue – were such prominent features of the cult that sprang up around her. Luise rendered the increasingly withdrawn ‘private sphere’ of the royal family legible to its growing middle-class public. By opening new channels of emotional identification, her celebrity diminished the affective distance between the royal house and the mass of Prussian subjects.13

Luise was, as we have seen, supportive of the oppositional group that emerged to challenge the government’s policies and procedures in 1806 and she pressed the king to recall them to office after the Peace of Tilsit. ‘Where is Baron vom Stein?’ she asked, after the news of Tilsit had sunk in. ‘He is my last hope. A great heart, an encompassing mind, perhaps he knows remedies that are hidden to us. If only he would come!’14 The king needed some persuading to reappoint Stein in the summer of 1807 – he had dismissed him for arrogance and insubordination only a few months earlier. Luise was also an admirer and supporter of Karl August von Hardenberg; indeed, according to one report, his name was one of the last words she uttered to her distraught husband as she lay expiring on her deathbed in 1810.15

Frederick William, too, accepted that the emergency created by the Prussian defeat called for a radical rethink – he had himself demonstrated an interest in reform long before 1806. In 1798, he had established a Royal Commission on Financial Reform and ordered it to propose changes to the administration of customs regulations and toll and excise revenue across the Prussian lands, but the members of the commission failed to harmonize their positions, and Karl August von Struensee, the minister in charge of excise, customs and factories, was unable to provide a coherent summary of its findings. In the following year, Frederick William ordered his officials to draw up plans for a reform of the Prussian prison system. In response, Grand Chancellor von Goldbeck proposed an elaborate – and quintessentially enlightened – system of graded rewards and punishments to encourage the self-improvement and rehabilitation of prisoners. Goldbeck’s recommendations were subsequently incorporated in a general plan for the reform of the Prussian prisons, issued in 1804–5.16


28. Death mask of Queen Luise, 1810

The king would doubtless have achieved more, had it not been for the resistance to reform in many quarters, including the bureaucracy itself. In a cabinet order of October 1798, the king instructed that the Commission on Financial Reform should investigate the possibility of increasing the basic property tax paid by the nobility. Even before the commission had met to discuss this proposal, however, a senior official leaked the order to the Neue Zeitung of Hamburg, where its publication triggered protests from the Prussian provincial Estates.

In the sphere of agrarian reform too, there was a strong record of monarchical initiative. Struck by ‘the unbelievably large number of complaints he had received from peasants’, Frederick William III was determined to do away with servile peasant tenures on the royal domains and an order to this effect was issued in 1799, but the king’s efforts encountered determined resistance from within the General Directory, which argued that tampering with the status of domain peasants would awaken similar aspirations among peasants on noble estates and trigger an ‘uprising of the most numerous class of the people’.17 Only after 1803 did Frederick William override these reservations and instruct the provincial ministers to begin phasing out all remaining peasant labour services on the royal domains.18


Stein and Hardenberg, the two most influential reformers within the Prussian administration after 1806, represented two distinct German progressive traditions. Stein’s familial background had imprinted him with a deep respect for corporate representative institutions. At the University of Göttingen he had imbibed a British-style aristocratic whiggery that inclined him towards the devolution of governmental responsibilities upon local institutions. His experiences as a senior Prussian official in the Westphalian coalmining sector had persuaded him that the key to effective administration lay in dialogue and collaboration with local and regional elites.19 Hardenberg, by contrast, was a man of the German enlightenment and sometime member of the Illuminaten, a radical offshoot of Freemasonry. Although he respected the historical role of the nobility in the social order, Hardenberg entertained a much less exalted conception of his caste than Stein. His reforming vision was focused above all upon the concentration of power and legitimate authority in the state. The two men were also temperamentally very different. Stein was awkward, impulsive and haughty. Hardenberg was shrewd, agile, calculating and diplomatic.

Yet they had enough in common to make fruitful collaboration possible. Both were acutely aware of the power and importance of public opinion – in this sense, they both carried the stamp of the European enlightenment. Both believed passionately in the need for structural reform at the level of the supreme executive – they had coordinated their positions on this issue during the bitter factional strife of 1806. Moreover, they were not alone: during their swift rise through the Prussian administration over more than two decades, a substantial network of younger men had coalesced around them. Some were protégésor friends, some had cut their teeth as officials in the Franconian or Westphalian administrations, and some were simply likeminded colleagues who gravitated towards the reformers as crisis loomed.

The first and in some ways the most urgent task facing the reformers was the re-establishment of Prussia as a power capable of functioning autonomously on the European stage. In addressing this problem, the reformers focused on two areas: the central decision-making executive and the military. As we have seen, there was widespread agreement among senior officials that Prussia required a more streamlined ministerial structure. A particular concern was the so-called ‘cabinet system’, in which one or more ‘foreign ministers’ competed with cabinet secretaries close to the monarch and other favoured advisers for influence over the policy-making process. This, it was claimed, was the cause of the malaise that had brought Prussia to the predicament of 1806. After his appointment in October 1807, therefore, Stein went to great pains to persuade the king to dissolve his cabinet of personal advisers, and to establish (in November 1808) a central executive consisting of five functionally defined ministries, each run by a responsible minister with direct access to the king. Taken in combination, these two measures would prevent the duplication of advisory functions between secretaries and ministers, and the appointment of multiple ‘foreign ministers’ in tandem. They would also force the king – in theory – to channel his official consultations through one responsible official, and prevent him from playing rival ministers and advisers off against each other.

Stein, Hardenberg and their collaborators naturally argued that these measures were essential if Prussia were to be restored to a condition where it could reverse the verdict of 1807. They based this claim on the presumption that the disaster of 1806–7 had been caused by the adversarial tensions within the executive, that it could have been avoided with a better decision-making structure capable of steering the monarch into the required decisions. Underlying these arguments was what Carl Schmitt once called a ‘cult of the decision’: everything depended upon devising a system that was supple and transparent enough to deliver swift, rational and well-informed decisions in response to changing conditions. It was difficult to counter this argument in the emotionally charged environment of post-Tilsit Prussia.

Yet the case for the reformers’‘decisionism’ was less compelling than it seemed. After all, the problem for Prussian foreign policy in the years 1804–6 lay not in the fact that the king had insisted on canvassing a wide range of views, but in the intrinsic difficulty of the situations Prussia had faced. It is too easy to forget that there had never been a figure like Napoleon – the efforts at ‘reunion’ launched by Louis XIV on the periphery of the Holy Roman Empire during the reign of the Great Elector look pale beside the scale and ambition of Bonaparte’s imperial project. There were no rules for dealing with an antagonist of this type, and no precedent by which to predict how he would act next. As the rug was pulled from under the neutrality policy, it was exceptionally difficult to judge which way Prussia should jump, the more so as the international balance of power and the incoming signals from potential alliance partners were constantly shifting. The Great Elector had spent long periods of agonized wavering between options during the Northern War and the various French wars of Louis XIV, not because he was by nature indecisive or fearful, or because he lacked an adequately streamlined executive, but because the predicaments he faced demanded careful weighing up and were not susceptible to obvious solutions. Yet the judgements Frederick William III was called upon to make were finer, involved more variables, and were freighted with greater risks. There is no reason to suppose that the system advocated by the reformers, had it been implemented, say, in 1804, would have generated better outcomes than the cabinet system they so fiercely attacked – after all, the king’s ill-fated decision to go to war was supported at the time by those who opposed the old system.20

If the reformers nevertheless pressed for executive streamlining in the sphere of foreign policy, this was in part because the concentration of the executive was guaranteed to consolidate the power of the most senior officials. In place of the jockeying for influence that had gone on within the antechamber of power before 1806, the new system promised the five ministers a stable place at the policy-making table. Under the old system, the influence of an individual adviser waxed and waned unpredictably as the king’s ear turned in different directions. One day’s careful work of argument and persuasion could be wiped out on the next. Under the new arrangements, however, it would be possible to work with the other ministers to manage the king, and it is interesting, though hardly surprising, to note that nearly every senior official who called for executive streamlining during the period 1805–8 envisaged that one of the key offices would fall to himself.21

The reformers always stressed – it would have been extremely impolitic not to – that their objective was to sharpen the focus and reach of the monarch’s authority by placing him in control of a better decision-making tool. In reality they were limiting his freedom of movement by confronting him with a closed bench of advisers. They aimed to bureaucratize the monarchy, embedding it in the state’s broader structures of responsibility and accountability.22 The king saw this clearly enough, and therefore baulked when Stein proposed that in future decrees issued by the king should be valid only if they bore the signatures of the five ministers.23

The Prussian army was understandably the focus of intense interest after Jena and Auerstedt, but debate over military reform was nothing new. Within a few years of the death of Frederick the Great, there had been voices, civilian and military, calling for a critical re-examination of the Frederician system. The debate continued after 1800, as the more receptive military intellectuals absorbed the lessons of the revolutionary and early Napoleonic campaigns. The adjutant and military theorist Colonel Christian von Massenbach, a south German who had entered Prussian service in 1782 (at the age of twenty-four), and was close to Frederick William III, argued that the new practice of ‘big war’ exemplified by Napoleon’s campaigns necessitated the professionalization of military planning and leadership. The fate of Prussia should not depend on whether the monarch himself was a gifted strategist. Enduring structures should be set in place to assure that all the available information was collated and weighed up before and during any campaign. Command functions should be concentrated in one decision-making organ.24 There are clear parallels between these early sketches of a modern general staff system and the contemporaneous debate over executive reform, in which Massenbach was also an exponent of streamlining.25

The most important forum for debate on army reform was the Military Society, founded in 1802, at which officers read papers to each other and discussed the implications for Prussia of the current European military situation. The dominant figure in the society was Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, a man of peasant birth who had risen swiftly through the ranks in his native Hanover and entered the Prussian service in 1801 at the age of forty-six. Scharnhorst called for the introduction in Prussia of the Napoleonic divisional system, and the establishment of a territorial militia as a reserve force. Others, such as Karl Friedrich von dem Knesebeck (a born Prussian subject), drew up ambitious plans that foresaw the creation of a genuinely ‘national’ Prussian force.26 As these efforts show, the Prussian military did not remain sealed off from the process of criticism and self-scrutiny that had begun to transform the relationship between the state and civil society in the 1780s and 1790s.


29. Gerhard Johann von Scharnhorst, before 1813, by Friedrich Bury

Little was done before 1806 to put these ideas into effect. All major reforms threaten vested interests and tentative efforts to install a vestigial general staff organization in 1803 were greeted with open hostility by office-holders within the traditional administration. There was strong resistance to innovation among the long-serving senior officers, some of whom, such as Field Marshal Möllendorf, owed their reputations to distinguished service in the Seven Years War. Möllendorf, a blimpish figure who was eighty-two when he walked calmly through the French fire at Jena, is reported to have responded to all reformist proposals with the words: ‘This is altogether above my head.’ But such men commanded enormous respect within the old Prussian army and it was psychologically difficult for anyone, even the king himself, who had grown up under the shadow of his famous uncle, to stand up to them. In a revealing conversation from 1810, Frederick William recalled that he had wanted a thorough reform of the military long before the war of 1806–7:

… but with my youth and inexperience, I didn’t dare, and instead trusted those two veterans [Möllendorf and the Duke of Brunswick] who had grown grey under their laurels and surely understood all this better than I could [… ] If I had tried as a reformer to oppose their opinions and it had gone badly, everyone would have said: ‘The young gentleman has no experience!’27

The defeats at Jena and Auerstedt changed this situation utterly and the monarch was quick to seize the initiative. In July 1807, when the shock of Tilsit was still fresh, the king established a Military Reorganization Commission, whose task was to draw up all the necessary reforms. It was as if the Military Society of the pre-war years had been reincarnated as an organ of government. The presiding spirit was Scharnhorst, supported by a quartet of gifted disciples – August Wilhelm Neidhardt von Gneisenau, Hermann von Boyen, Karl Wilhelm Georg von Grolman and Karl von Clausewitz. Gneisenau was the son of a non-noble Saxon artillery officer who had joined the Prussian army as a member of the royal suite (a predecessor of the general staff) in 1786. Promoted to major after the battles of October 1806, Gneisenau found himself in command of the fortress of Kolberg on the Baltic coast of Pomerania, where he managed, with the help of some patriotic townsfolk, to hold out against French forces until 2 July 1807.

Boyen was the son of an East Prussian officer who had attended the lectures of Immanuel Kant at the University of Königsberg and had been a member of the Military Society since 1803. Grolman had served as an adjutant under Hohenlohe at Jena, before fleeing to East Prussia, where he joined the staff of the L’Estocq Corps, the Prussian force that fought the French alongside the Russians at Preussisch-Eylau. Like Gneisenau, Grolman had the good fortune to be associated with the continued Prussian resistance in 1807, rather than with the defeat of the previous autumn. Clausewitz, the youngest of the group (he was twenty-six in 1806), had joined the army as a twelve-year-old cadet and was selected in 1801 for admission to the Institute for Young Officers in Berlin, an elite training facility of which Scharnhorst had just been appointed director.

These men attempted to carve a new kind of military entity out of the ravaged hulk of the Prussian army. There were important structural and technical improvements. The military executive was tightened up along the lines proposed by Stein. This involved, among other things, the creation of a ministry of war, within which the rudiments of a general staff organization could begin to coalesce. Greater emphasis was placed on the deployment of flexible units of riflemen operating in an open order of battle. Scharnhorst oversaw crucial improvements to training, tactics and weaponry. Appointments were henceforth to be meritocratic. In the words (written by Grolman) of an order of 6 August 1808: ‘All social preference that has existed is henceforth and hereby terminated in the military establishment, and everyone, whatever his background, has the same duties and the same rights.’28 The psychological impact of this and other innovations was heightened by the fact that they coincided with an unprecedented purge of the Prussian military leadership. In all, some 208 officers were removed from service following a forensic analysis of the defeat carried out by a committee of the Military Reorganization Commission. Of 142 generals, seventeen were simply dismissed and a further eighty-six received honourable discharges; only just over a quarter of all Prussian officers survived the purge.

The immediate objective of the order of 6 August 1808 was to ensure a better command cadre in the future. The reformers also had wider objectives. They aimed to overcome the caste-like exclusiveness of the officer corps. The army was to become the repository of a virtuous patriotism, which in turn would infuse it with the élan and commitment that had been so manifestly lacking in 1806. The objective was, in Scharnhorst’s words, ‘to raise and inspire the spirit of the army, to bring the army and the nation into a more intimate union…’29 To effect an all-embracing consummation of this new relationship between the army and the Prussian ‘nation’, the reformers argued for universal military service; those who were not called up directly into the army should be liable for service in a territorial militia. The exemptions that had kept substantial parts of Prussian society (especially in the towns) out of the army should now be dismantled. Orders were also issued phasing out the more draconian corporal punishments for disciplinary infractions, most importantly the infamous ‘running of the gauntlet’, because these were felt to be incompatible with the dignity of a bourgeois recruit. The task of an officer was not to beat or insult his charges, but to ‘educate’ them. It was the culmination of a long process of change; military punishments had been under intermittent review since the reign of Frederick William II.30

The most influential expression of this sea-change in values was Clausewitz’s On War, an encompassing philosophical treatise on military conflict that remained unfinished when the author died of cholera in 1831. In Clausewitz’s typology of military engagements, soldiers were not cattle to be herded across the battlefield, but men subject to the vicissitudes of mood, morale, hunger, cold, weariness and fear. An army should not be conceptualized as a machine, but as a conscious willed organism with its own collective ‘genius’. It followed that military theory was a soft science whose variables were partly subjective. Flexibility and self-reliance, especially among junior commanders, were vital. Coupled with this insight was an insistence on the primacy of politics. Military engagements must never be allowed, Clausewitz argued, to become an end in themselves – an implicit critique of Napoleon’s ceaseless war-making – but must always serve a clearly defined political objective. On War thus represented a first attempt to acknowledge and theorize the new and unpredictable forces unleashed by Napoleonic ‘big war’, while at the same time binding them to the service of essentially civilian ends.31


‘The abolition of serfdom has consistently been my goal since the beginning of my reign,’ Frederick William III told two of his officials shortly after the Peace of Tilsit. ‘I desired to attain it gradually, but the unhappy condition of our country now justifies and indeed demands speedier action.’32Here again, the Napoleonic shock was the catalyst, not the cause. The ‘feudal’ system of land tenures had long been under growing pressure. Some of it was ideological, and resulted from the percolation of physiocratic and Smithian liberal ideas into the Prussian administration. But the economic rationale for the old system was also wearing thin. The growing use of waged employees, who were plentiful and cheap in an era of demographic growth, emancipated many estate owners from dependence on the labour services of subject peasants.33 Moreover, the late eighteenth-century boom in grain prices produced new imbalances within the system. The better-endowed peasants took their grain surpluses to market and rode the boom while paying wage-labourers to perform their ‘feudal’ services for them. Under these conditions, the existence of a large subject peasantry whose secure land tenures were paid for with labour rents came to seem economically counterproductive. Labour dues, once a highly valued attribute of Junker manorial governance, now functioned like fixed rents within a system that benefited the better endowed peasants as ‘protected tenants’.34

Two Stein associates, Theodor von Schön and Friedrich von Schroetter, were entrusted with the task of preparing a draft law outlining reforms to the agrarian system. The result was the edict of 9 October 1807, sometimes called the October Edict, the first and most famous of the legislative monuments of the reform era. Like so many of the reform decrees, it was more a declaration of intentions than a law as such. The edict heralded fundamental changes to the constitution of Prussian rural society, but there was a bombastic vagueness about many of its formulations. Essentially, it aimed to achieve two objectives. The first was the liberation of latent economic energies – the preamble declared that every individual should be free to achieve ‘as much prosperity as his abilities allow’. The second was the creation of a society in which all Prussians were ‘citizens of the state’ equal before the law. These objectives were to be achieved through three specific measures. First, all restrictions on the purchase of noble land were abandoned. The state at last gave up its futile struggle to maintain the noble monopoly in privileged land and created for the first time something approximating a free land market. Second, all occupations were henceforth to be open to persons of all classes. For the first time there was to be a free market in labour, untrammelled by guild and corporate occupational restrictions. This too was a measure with a long prehistory: since the early 1790s, the abolition of guild controls had been the subject of repeated discussions between the General Directory and the Factory Department in Berlin.35 Thirdly, all hereditary servitude was abolished – in a hugely suggestive but tantalizingly imprecise formulation, the edict announced that ‘from Saint Martin’s Day [11 November] 1810, there will only be free people’ in the Kingdom of Prussia.

This last stipulation sent an electric shock through the rural communities of the kingdom. It also left many questions open. The peasants were to be officially ‘free’ – did this mean they were no longer obliged to perform their labour services? The answer was less obvious than it might seem, since most labour services were not attributes of personal servitude but forms of rent payable for land tenure. Nevertheless, landlords in many districts where the edict became common knowledge found it virtually impossible to persuade the peasants to perform their services. Efforts by the authorities in Silesia to prevent the news from reaching the villages failed, and in the summer of 1808 a rebellion broke out among peasants who believed they were now being held in unlawful subjection.36

A further vexing question was that of the ultimate ownership of peasant land. Since the edict made no reference to the principle of peasant protection that had traditionally informed Prussian agrarian policy, some noble landlords regarded it as a carte blanche for the seizure – or reclamation, as they saw it – of land under peasant cultivation, and there were a number of wildcat appropriations. A degree of clarity was achieved through the Ordinance of 14 February 1808, which stated that the ownership of land depended on the prior conditions of tenure. Peasants with strong ownership rights were secure against unilateral appropriation. Those with temporary leases of various kinds were in a weaker position; their lands could be appropriated, though only with the permission of the authorities. But many details of interpretation were still contested and it was only in 1816 that the questions of land ownership and the compensation of landlords for the services and land they had lost were settled.

The final position, as set out in the Regulation Edict of 1811 and the Declaration of 1816, defined a range of hierarchically graded prior peasant tenures and allotted them correspondingly differentiated rights. Broadly speaking, there were two options. The land could be partitioned, in which case peasants with hereditary tenures retained use rights to two-thirds of the land they had traditionally worked (one-half in the case of non-hereditary tenures), or the peasant might buy it outright, in which case the seigneurial portion had to be paid off. The payment of compensation by peasants for land, services and natural rents dragged on in many cases for over half a century. Peasants at the bottom end of the range were not entitled to convert the land they worked to freehold titles and their lands were vulnerable to enclosure.37 These measures were in tune with then fashionable late-enlightenment physiocratic doctrine that freeing peasants from labour dues and other irksome ‘feudal’ duties ought to make them more productive. And the writings of Adam Smith, whose works were held in high esteem among the younger cohorts of the Prussian bureaucracy (including Schroetter and Schön), suggested that it might be best to let the weakest of the peasants lose their land, since they would in any case be unviable as independent farmers.38

Some noblemen resented bitterly this tampering with the agrarian constitution of old Prussia. For the conservative neo-Pietists around the Gerlach brothers in Berlin the years of reform brought the realization that the monarchical state posed as potent a threat to traditional life as the revolution itself. The growing pretensions of the central bureaucracy, Leopold von Gerlach believed, supplemented the personal power of the monarch with a new ‘administrative despotism that eats away at everything like vermin’.39 The most trenchant and memorable spokesman for this point of view was Friedrich August Ludwig von der Marwitz, an estate owner at Friedersdorf near Küstrin on the edge of the Oder floodplain, who denounced the reforms as an assault on the traditional patriarchal structure of the countryside. Hereditary subject-hood, he argued, was not a residue of slavery, but the expression of a familial bond that joined the peasant to the nobleman. To dissolve this bond would be to undermine the cohesion of the society as a whole. Marwitz was a melancholy character to whom nostalgia came naturally; he articulated his reactionary views with great intelligence and rhetorical skill, but he remained an isolated figure. Most noblemen saw the advantages of the new dispensation, which gave relatively little to most peasants and allowed the estate owner to intensify the agrarian production process using cheap wage labour on land unencumbered by complex hereditary tenures.40


By scouring the legal residue of ‘feudalism’ from the noble estates, the October Edict aimed to facilitate the emergence of a more politically cohesive society in Prussia. ‘Subjects’ were to be refashioned into ‘citizens of the state’. Yet the reformers understood that more positive measures would be needed to mobilize the patriotic commitment of the population. ‘All our efforts are in vain,’ Karl von Altenstein wrote to Hardenberg in 1807, ‘if the system of education is against us, if it sends half-hearted officials into state service and brings forth lethargic citizens.’41 Administrative and legal innovations alone were insufficient; they had to be sustained by a broad programme of educational reform aimed at energizing Prussia’s emancipated citizenry for the tasks that lay ahead.

The man entrusted with renewing the kingdom’s educational system was Wilhelm von Humboldt, descendant of a Pomeranian military family who had grown up in the enlightened Berlin of the 1770s and 1780s. His tutors had included the emancipationist Christian Wilhelm von Dohm and the progressive jurist Ernst Ferdinand Klein. On the urging of Stein, Humboldt was appointed director of the Section for Religion and Public Instruction within the interior ministry on 20 February 1809. He was something of an odd-man-out among the senior reformers. He was not by nature a politician, but a scholar of cosmopolitan temperament who had chosen to spend much of his adult life abroad. In 1806, Humboldt was living with his family in Rome, hard at work on a translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. Only after the collapse of Prussia and the plundering by French troops of the Humboldt family residence in Tegel to the north of Berlin did he resolve to return to his beleaguered homeland. It was only with great reluctance that he agreed to accept a post in the new administration.42

Once installed, however, Humboldt unfolded a profoundly liberal reform programme that transformed education in Prussia. For the first time, the kingdom acquired a single, standardized system of public instruction attuned to the latest trends in progressive European pedagogy. Education as such, Humboldt declared, was henceforth to be decoupled from the idea of technical or vocational training. Its purpose was not to turn cobblers’ boys into cobblers, but to turn ‘children into people’. The reformed schools were not merely to induct pupils into a specific subject matter, but to instil in them the capacity to think and learn for themselves. ‘The pupil is mature,’ he wrote, ‘when he has learned enough from others to be in a position to learn for himself.’43 In order to ensure that this approach percolated through the system, Humboldt established new teachers’ colleges to train candidates for the kingdom’s chaotic primary schools. He imposed a standardized regime of state examinations and inspections and created a special department within the ministry to oversee the design of curricula, textbooks and learning aids.


30. Wilhelm von Humboldt, drawing by Luise Henry, 1826

The centrepiece – and most enduring monument – of the Humboldt reforms was the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität founded in Berlin in 1810 and installed in the vacated palace of Prince Henry, the younger brother of Frederick the Great, on Unter den Linden. Here too, Humboldt strove to realize his Kantian vision of education as a process of self-emancipation by autonomous, rational individuals.

Just as primary instruction makes the teacher possible, so he renders himself dispensable through schooling at the secondary level. The university teacher is thus no longer a teacher and the student is no longer a pupil. Instead the student conducts research on his own behalf and the professor supervises his research and supports him in it. Because learning at university level places the student in a position to apprehend the unity of scholarly enquiry and thereby lays claim to his creative powers.44

From this it followed that academic research was an activity with no predetermined end-point, no objective that could be defined in purely utilitarian terms. It was a process whose unfolding was driven by an immanent dynamic. It was concerned less with knowledge in the sense of accumulated facts than with reflection and reasoned argument. This was homage to the pluralist scepticism of Kant’s critique of human reason, and also a return to that vision of an all-embracing conversation that had animated Prussia’s enlightenment. Essential to the success of this enterprise was that it should be free from political interference. The state should abstain from intervening in the intellectual life of the university, except as a ‘guarantor of liberty’ in cases where a dominant clique of professors threatened to suppress academic pluralism within their own ranks.45

The Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (renamed Humboldt-Universität in 1949) quickly secured pre-eminence among the universities of the Protestant German states. Like the University of Halle in the age of the Great Elector, the new institution served to broadcast the cultural authority of the Prussian state. Indeed its foundation was partly motivated by the need to replace Halle, which had been lost to the Prussian Crown in the territorial settlement imposed by Napoleon. In this sense, the new university helped, as Frederick William III put it, to ‘replace by intellectual means what the state had lost in physical strength’. But it also – and herein lies its true significance – lent institutional expression to a new understanding of the purpose of higher education.

The emancipated citizens who emerged from every level of Humboldt’s educational system were expected to take an active part in the political life of the Prussian state. Stein hoped to achieve this through the creation of elected organs of municipal self-government that would encourage more active participation in matters of public interest. Shortly before his departure from office, the ministry enacted the Municipal Ordinance (Städteordnung) of November 1808. The category of ‘citizen’ (Bürger), once largely confined to the privileged members of corporate bodies such as guilds, was enlarged to include all persons owning a house (including single women) or practising a ‘municipal trade’ within the city limits. All male citizens who satisfied a modest property qualification were entitled to vote in town elections and to hold municipal office. The equivalence asserted here between ownership (Teilhabe) and participation (Teilnahme) would form an enduring theme in the history of nineteenth-century liberalism.

The same project – the engagement of citizens as active participants in public affairs – was mapped on to the kingdom as a whole during Hardenberg’s period in office. The background to this remarkable experiment in popular participation, which went beyond the programmes envisaged by most of the pre-1806 enlightened reformers, was a major fiscal crisis. In 1810, Napoleon renewed his demand for payment of the war indemnity and offered the Dohna-Altenstein ministry the choice between paying up and ceding a chunk of Silesia. When the ministers considered taking the latter course, Frederick William III relieved them of their duties and appointed Hardenberg who promised to meet the French bill through radical fiscal reform. State debt was rising fast, from 35 million thalers in 1806 to 66 million in 1810, and the debasement of the coinage, the issue of new paper money and the raising of loans at high rates of interest were feeding an inflationary spiral.

To prevent a further deterioration, Hardenberg fired off a salvo of edicts announcing major fiscal and economic reforms. Tax burdens were to be equalized through the imposition of a ‘territorial consumption tax’, the freedom of enterprise heralded in the October Edict and the Municipal Ordinance was to be put into effect across the kingdom, church and state properties were to be sold off and the tariff and toll systems were to be thoroughly overhauled and rationalized. In order to ease these controversial proposals through the system, in February 1811 the chancellor convened an Assembly of Notables comprising sixty persons nominated by various regional and local elites, and informed them that they were to regard themselves as ‘representatives of the whole nation’ whose help would be needed in the establishment of a free and equal Prussian society.46 The aim, as Hardenberg had put it in a memorandum of March 1809, was to find a way of extracting the needed funds without damaging ‘the bond of love and trust between the government and the people’. By imposing new taxes, as it were, upon themselves, the assembly would ‘spare the monarch the pain of demanding a grievous sacrifice, diminish ill-feeling among the citizens of the state, give these a degree of control over the details of implementation, prove their patriotism and enliven the necessary commitment to the common good’.47

In the event, the assembly – like so many historic assemblies convened for the same purpose – was a disappointment. Hardenberg had hoped that the public-spirited members of this gathering would offer constructive advice on how to implement the necessary changes and develop further innovations, before packing their bags and returning to their provinces as propagandists for the government. Instead the representatives loudly voiced their objections to Hardenberg’s plans and the assembly became a forum for anti-reformist opinion. It was quickly dissolved. The same problem dogged the modestly named ‘interim national representations’ elected by local government assemblies and convened by the chancellor in 1812 and 1814. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that Hardenberg could ever have made a success of these pseudo-democratic assemblies. He had no intention in the first instance of allowing them to assume the powers of a fully fledged parliament; their function was to be consultative. They were to be conduits of understanding between the government and the nation. Here was the enlightenment dream of a reasoned ‘conversation’ between state and civil society writ large.

However, as the assembly and the two interim representations revealed, this congenial vision did not provide suitable mechanisms for the public conciliation of opposed social and economic interests in a period of heightened conflict and crisis. Hardenberg’s experiments with representation illustrated a problem at the heart of the reform project, namely that where government action was controversial, the rituals of participation tended to focus and reinforce opposition rather than building consensus. The same problem could be observed in the cities, where the assemblies created by Stein often emerged as opponents of reforming measures.48

Among those who benefited from the efforts to create a more free, equal and politically coherent society of citizens were the Jews of the Prussian lands. Despite a partial easing of controls for the most privileged strata under Frederick William II, the Prussian Jews were still subject to many special restrictions and their affairs were administered under a particular jurisdiction. The first signals of a more comprehensive reform came with the cities ordinance of 1808, which allowed ‘protected, property-owning Jews’ to vote and hold municipal offices as members of town and city councils. It was thanks to this liberalizing measure that David Friedländer, a disciple of Mendelssohn, became the first Jew to hold a seat on the Berlin council. Yet the idea of a comprehensive emancipation remained controversial within the administration.49 In 1809, the task of drafting a proposal on the future status of the Jews was entrusted to Friedrich von Schroetter. Schroetter suggested a gradualist approach, beginning with the piecemeal removal of restrictions and proceeding by slow stages to the concession of full citizenship rights. His draft was circulated to the various government departments for comments.

Responses from within the administration were mixed. The conservatives who controlled the ministry of finance insisted that emancipation must be conditional upon the abandonment of all ritual observance and the cessation of Jewish trading activity. Far more liberal was the reply from Wilhelm von Humboldt. He pleaded for a clean separation of church and state; in a state organized along secular lines, he argued, the religion of the individual citizen must be a purely private affair without consequences for the exercise of citizenship rights. Yet even Humboldt took the view that emancipation would eventually lead to the voluntary self-dissolution of Judaism. ‘Since they are driven by an innate human need for a higher faith’, he argued, the Jews will ‘turn of their own free will to the Christian [religion]’.50 Both viewpoints presumed – much as Dohm had done over twenty years before – that emancipation would entail the ‘education’ of the Jews away from their faith and habits towards a higher social and religious order. The difference was that Humboldt imagined this process as a voluntary consequence of emancipation, while the officials of the ministry of finance saw it as a state-imposed precondition.

The emancipation proposal might well have mouldered away in the archives until after the Napoleonic Wars if Hardenberg had not taken the matter up following his appointment as chancellor on 6 July 1810. Hardenberg was favourable in principle to a general emancipation, but there was also a personal dimension to his advocacy. He had been a frequent guest at the Jewish salons of the 1790s and early 1800s and counted many Jews among his friends and associates. When Hardenberg had fallen into debt at the time of his divorce from his first wife, it was the Westphalian court banker Israel Jacobson – a passionate advocate of Jewish religious reform and of emancipation – who bailed him out with a low-interest loan. David Friedländer, who had moved in the same circles as Hardenberg, was asked to submit a memorandum setting out the community’s case for emancipation – it was the first time a Jew had been involved in official consultations over a Prussian matter of state. The result of Hardenberg’s canvassing and deliberation was the Edict Concerning the Civil Condition of the Jews in the Prussian State of 11 March 1812, which declared that all Jews resident in Prussia and in possession of general privileges, naturalization certificates, letters of protection, or special concessions should henceforth be regarded as ‘natives’ (Einländer) and ‘citizens’ (Staatsbürger) of the state of Prussia. The edict lifted all prior restrictions on Jewish commercial and occupational activity, swept away all special taxes and levies, and established that Jews were free to live where they wished and to marry whom they chose (although mixed marriages between Jews and Christians remained inadmissible).

These rulings certainly amounted to a major improvement, and they were duly celebrated by an enlightened Jewish journal based in Berlin as the inauguration of a ‘new and happy era’.51 The Jewish Elders of Berlin thanked Hardenberg for his good works, expressing their ‘deepest gratitude’ for this ‘immeasurable act of charity’.52 However, the emancipation made available by the edict was limited in several important respects. Most importantly, it postponed judgement on the question of whether positions in government service would be made available to Jewish applicants. It thus fell crucially short of the French emancipation of 1791, which had embedded Jewish entitlements in a universal endorsement of citizenship and political rights. By contrast, the language of the Prussian edict, which warned that the ‘continuation of their allotted title of inhabitants and citizens of the state’ would depend on the fulfilment of certain prior obligations, made it clear that the edict was about the concession of status rather than the recognition of rights.53 In this respect, it echoed the ambivalence of Dohm’s famous tract on the ‘civil improvement’ of the Jews. The majority of the reformers shared Dohm’s view that it would take time before the negative effects of discrimination wore off and the Jews were ready to take their place as equal participants in the public life of the nation. As one Prussian official put it: ‘repression had made the Jews treacherous’ and the ‘sudden concession of liberty’ would not suffice to ‘reconstitute all at once the natural human nobility within them’.54 The edict thus stripped away much ancient discriminatory law without completing the work of political emancipation, which was seen as a process that would take a generation or so to accomplish.


In the course of the nineteenth century, a nimbus of myth shrouded the era of Prussian reform establishing Stein, Hardenberg, Scharnhorst and their colleagues as the authors of a momentous revolution from above. If we look more closely at what was actually accomplished, however, the achievements of the reformers look rather modest. Subtract the propagandistic sound and fury of the edicts, and we might merely be looking at one energetic episode within a longue durée of Prussian administrative change between the 1790s and the 1840s.55

The reforms were not directed towards a single agreed objective, and many of the most important proposals were muted, held up or blocked altogether by bitter contention among the reformers themselves.56 Take, for example, the plan to abolish patrimonial powers on the manorial estates. Stein and his ministers were determined from the very beginning to do away with these jurisdictions, on the grounds that they were ‘out of tune with the cultural condition of the nation’ and thus undermined popular attachments to ‘the state in which we live’.57 Hardenberg and his associate Altenstein, by contrast, took the view that the government must consider the interests of the landowners. And so the issue remained in contention, losing much of its urgency after Napoleon forced Stein’s dismissal in 1808. Determined opposition from the nobility, especially in East Prussia, where corporate identities remained strong, helped to slow the process further, as did peasant unrest, a sobering reminder of the need for flexible and authoritative judicial organs on the land.58 Then there was the fiscal crisis of 1810; the desperate shortage of cash was yet a further reason for avoiding a costly ‘total revision’ of rural justice – an example of how the burdens of war and occupation could interrupt as well as motivate the work of reform.59 These factors in combination sufficed to drive the abolition of the patrimonial courts off the government’s agenda.

The same fate befell the Gendarmerie Edict of 30 July 1812, which foresaw the imposition of a bureaucratized system of rural government on the French model and the creation of a paramilitary state police for all rural areas. The plan was first sketched out during Stein’s period in office. Pressed to act by the director of the General Police Department in Berlin, Hardenberg entrusted the drafting of a law to his old Franconian protégé Christian Friedrich Scharnweber. Scharnweber embedded the formation of a new state police force within a thorough transformation of the Prussian administration. Under the terms of the edict, the entire surface of Prussia (with the exception of the seven largest cities) was to be divided into districts (Kreise) of even size with a uniform administration incorporating an element of local representation.60 The Gendarmerie Edict was one of the most uncompromising reformist statements of the Hardenberg era; had it succeeded, it would have swept away much of the lumpy, cellular, old-regime structure of rural governance in the kingdom.

In fact, however, the edict met with a storm of protest and widespread civil disobedience from the rural nobility (especially in East Prussia) and from conservative members of the administration. The noble-dominated interim national representation meeting in Berlin during 1812 saw the Gendarmerie Edict as yet another attempt to rob the landowning nobility of its traditional rights and passed a motion rejecting any suspension of patrimonial jurisdictions – a copy book example of how participation and reform were not always compatible.61 Two years later, after further arguments within the administration, the Gendarmerie Edict was suspended. Further efforts to subordinate all forms of rural local government to centralized state authority during the last years of the Hardenberg administration foundered, with the result that right up into the early years of the Weimar Republic, Prussia’s arrangements for rural administration remained among the most antiquated in Germany.62

Fear of a political backlash from the nobility also discouraged the reformers from attempting a more radical overhaul of the taxation system. Hardenberg had promised to equalize the land tax and remove the many exemptions that still benefited the rural nobility. He had also spoken of introducing a permanent income tax. But these plans were renounced in the face of corporate noble protests. Instead the Prussians were saddled with an array of consumption taxes that weighed most heavily on the poorest strata. The government returned to the question of land tax reform in 1817 and again in 1820, but the promised reform never materialized.63

Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the failure of the reformers to establish an organ of all-Prussian representation for the kingdom. Hardenberg’s finance edict of 27 October 1810 announced that the king intended to establish an ‘appropriately constituted representation both in the provinces and for the whole [of the kingdom], whose advice we will gladly use’.64 Under pressure from his ministers, the king renewed this promise in the Ordinance Concerning the Future Representation of the People, published on 22 May 1815. The ordinance reiterated that the government intended to establish ‘provincial estates’ (Provinzialstände) and to form out of these a ‘Territorial Representation’ (Landes-Representation), whose seat would be in Berlin. Yet no national parliament was forthcoming. Instead the Prussians had to make do with provincial diets established after Hardenberg’s death under a General Law published on 5 June 1823. These were not the robust modern representative bodies the most radical among the reformers had wished for. They were elected and organized along corporate lines and their areas of competence were very narrowly defined.

One way of casting the specificity of Prussian developments into sharper relief is to set them in the broader context of reformist activity in the German states during the Napoleonic era. Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria all passed through a period of intensified bureaucratic reform during these years, yet the result was a substantially greater measure of constitutional reform: all three states received constitutions, territorial elections and parliaments whose assent was required for the passage of legislation. Seen in this company, the neo-corporate provincial diets established in Prussia after 1823 look decidedly unimpressive. On the other hand, the Prussians were far more radical and consistent in their modernization of the economy. While the reformers in Munich and Stuttgart remained wedded to the protectionist mechanisms of old-regime mercantilism, the Prussians aimed at deregulation – of commerce, of manufacture, of the labour market, of internal trade – eloquent testimony to the cultural and geoeconomic effects of Prussia’s relative proximity to the markets of industrializing Britain. Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria launched reforms of comparable scope only in 1862, 1862 and 1868 respectively. The momentum of Prussian economic reform carried on long after 1815 into the great customs unions of the post-war era. Prussia thus emerged from the Napoleonic era with a rather less ‘modern’ constitutional system than the three southern states, but a rather more ‘modern’ political economy.65

How we judge the achievement of the reformers depends upon whether we emphasize what was accomplished, or whether we focus instead upon the still unmastered legacy of the past. One can highlight the ways in which estate-owners benefited from the compensation arrangements imposed by Hardenberg’s various revisions to Stein’s Emancipation Edict. Alternatively, one can point to the size and prosperity of the peasant small- and middle-holding class that emerged from the partitioning of the landed estates.66 The liberal Humboldtian pedagogy of the Prussian primary schools was diluted after 1819, yet the Prussian school system was internationally admired for the humanity of its ethos and the quality of its output. The Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, with its powerful institutional commitment to the freedom of research, became a model admired across Europe and widely emulated in the United States, where Humboldt’s prescriptions helped to establish the idea of a modern academy.67 It is perfectly legitimate to underline the limits of what was on offer in the Jewish Emancipation Edict of 1812, but important, too, to acknowledge its central place in the history of Jewish emancipation in nineteenth-century Germany.68 One can lament the failure of the reformers to do away with patrimonial jurisdictions in the countryside, or one can focus instead on the societal forces that transformed the patrimonial courts into legal instruments of the state during the decade after 1815.69

In other ways, too, the reformers endorsed and reinforced a momentum for change that would prove irreversible after 1815. The Council of State (Staatsrat) established in 1817 may not have enjoyed the fullness of power Stein had once envisaged for it, but it did come to play a crucial role in the formulation of laws. The resulting ministerialization of government tended, in practice if not in theory, to limit the independence of the monarch and reinforce the power of the ministerial bureaucracies.70 Ministers were far more authoritative figures after 1815 than they had been in the 1780s and 1790s. The provincial diets, despite their limitations, ultimately became important platforms for political opposition.

No single edict better illustrates the long-term impact of the reforms than the State Indebtedness Law of 17 January 1820, one of Hardenberg’s last and most important legislative achievements. The text of the law began by declaring that the current Prussian state debt (of just over 180 million thalers) was to be regarded as ‘a closed [account] for all time’ and went on to announce that if the state should in future be obliged to raise a new loan, this could take place only with the ‘involvement and co-guarantee of the future national assembly’. By means of this law, Hardenberg planted a constitutional time-bomb within the fabric of the Prussian state. It would tick away quietly until 1847, when the unforeseen financial demands of the dawning railway age would force the government to summon a United Diet in Berlin, opening the door to revolution.

The reforms were above all acts of communication. The propagandistic, exalted tone of the edicts was something new; the October Edict in particular was a remarkable piece of plebiscitary rhetoric. Prussian governments had never spoken to the public in this way before. The most innovative figure in this domain was Hardenberg, who adopted a pragmatic but respectful attitude to public opinion as a factor in the success of government initiatives. During his ministry in Ansbach and Bayreuth, he did his best to meet security needs without undermining ‘the freedom to think and to express one’s opinions publicly’. His famous Riga Memorandum of 1807 stressed the value of a cooperative, rather than antagonistic, relationship between the state and public opinion, and argued that governments should not shrink from ‘winning over opinion’ through the use of ‘good writers’. It was Chancellor Hardenberg who in 1810–11 pioneered the regular, annotated publication of new legislation, arguing that this departure from the secretive practice of earlier governments would strengthen trust in the administration. Particularly innovative was his engagement of freelance writers and editors as propagandists in the service of the state.71

One little-known but highly emblematic initiative in which Hardenberg was involved was the reform of the old chancellery style in official communications. This issue first came to the fore in March 1800, when it was proposed that the long-winded nomine regis starting with the words ‘We Frederick William III’ and listing all the king’s titles in descending order of importance, should be omitted from the header of government documents. When the matter was discussed in the state ministry on 7 April 1800, virtually all of the ministers were opposed, arguing that removal of the full title would diminish the authority of utterances stemming from the government. But on the following day Hardenberg submitted a separate judgement expressing his support for a much more radical reform to the language of public and official communications. The chancellery style that was currently used, he wrote, was that of a ‘bygone age’; but whereas the age had changed, ‘[the style] has remained’. There was thus no reason why the state authority should maintain the ‘barbaric written style of an uneducated era’. Little came of this spirited intervention in 1800, but ten years later, the nomine regis was abolished by a law of 27 October 1810 that carried Hardenberg’s and the king’s signatures.72

This apparently trifling innovation takes us to the heart of what Hardenberg’s reform project was about. What concerned him above all – and the same is true for many of the older reformers – was transparency and communication. In this sense, Hardenberg was not a liberal, but a man of the enlightenment. He did not recognize public opinion as an autonomous force whose role was to check or oppose the state. Nor did he (or Stein, for that matter) have any intention of consolidating the ‘liberal public sphere’ as a domain of critical discourse.73 He wanted to make such opposition unnecessary and unthinkable by opening the channels of understanding, by embracing the educated public in a harmonious conversation about the general good. This was the logic behind the Assembly of Notables and the national interim representations, the exalted, captivating language of the decrees and the endless government publications. It also explains his willingness to apply censorship when he deemed it necessary.74

What Hardenberg overlooked was that words have a life of their own. When he said ‘representation’, he had in mind compliant and virtuous bodies of worthies conveying information and ideas between the province and the metropolis, but others were thinking of corporate interests, or of parliaments and constitutional monarchy. When he said ‘participation’, he meant co-option and consultation, but others meant co-determination and the power to check government. When he said ‘nation’, he meant the politically conscious people of Prussia, but others were thinking of a wider German nation, whose interests and fate were not necessarily identical with those of Prussia. This is one of the reasons why the reform era seems at once so rich in promise and so poor in achievements. There are parallels here with another beleaguered historical figure, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev was a man of reform and transparency (glasnost), not of revolutionary transformation. His aim, and Hardenberg’s, was to adjust the state system to the needs of the present. But it would be churlish to deny either man his part in the changes that lay ahead.

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