Modern history


A Time of Iron


In the spring of 1809, it seemed that the tide might at last be turning against Napoleon. The news that bands of freedom fighters were harrying the French armies in the Iberian Peninsula stirred excitement throughout Prussia. In the second week of April came reports that Emperor Francis I of Austria, goaded into action by the installation of Joseph Bonaparte on the Bourbon throne of Spain, had gone to war against Napoleon. The Emperor’s chief minister Count Stadion hoped to enlist German popular support, and Austrian campaign propaganda duly exhorted Germans in all states to rise up against the French. On 11 April, a massive peasant uprising in the Tyrol under the leadership of the wine merchant Andreas Hofer succeeded in driving out the Bavarians, allies of the French, who had presented them with the formerly Austrian Tyrol only four years earlier.

To many Prussians, it seemed that the moment was right for Prussia, too, to rise up against the invader. ‘The general mood,’ Provincial President Johann August Sack reported from Berlin, ‘is that now or never is the moment when salvation from dependence and subjection is possible.’1 Once again, the king was confronted with impossible choices. Vienna pressed for Prussian support, urging that the two states coordinate their military planning and strike against France together. Meanwhile, the French reminded Frederick William that under the terms of the Franco-Prussian treaty of 8 September 1808, Prussia was obliged to support France with an auxiliary corps of 12,000 men. The Russians were noncommittal. They seemed unenthusiastic about the Austrian campaign and unwilling to offer assurances. The king quickly gravitated towards his default position: even before the hostilities had begun, he had concluded that it was best for Prussia to ‘sit tight in the first instance’.2

As in 1805–6, the foreign-policy dilemma facing the state polarized the most influential figures around the monarch. Some argued that it would be suicidal for Prussia to undertake any initiative against France without Russian support. Others, including the leading military reformers, Foreign Minister August Friedrich Ferdinand von der Goltz and Minister of Justice Karl Friedrich Beyme, pressed for an alliance with Austria.3 But the king clung stubbornly to a policy of inaction. His strategy was to avoid any move that might incur the complete extinction of his state. Reputation and honour were unaffordable luxuries; survival was all. ‘A political existence of some kind, no matter how small it be, is better than none, and then [… ] at least some hope remains for the future, but none would remain if Prussia disappeared entirely from the community of states, which will very likely be the case if it shows its hand before the time is right.’4

In retrospect, Frederick William’s seems the wisest course. The opponents of war were doubtless right when they observed that full Russian support was essential to any successful strategy against Napoleon. It seems highly unlikely that Prussia and Austria, had they joined forces in the spring of 1809, could have prevailed over Napoleon. Yet to many contemporaries, the cautious, waiting stance of the Königsberg court seemed ignoble, culpable. Rumours circulated at court that a plan was afoot to depose Frederick William and replace him with his supposedly more energetic younger brother William. Police and other official reports spoke of widespread frustration and restlessness within the officer corps. A wildcat insurrection by Pomeranian officers was foiled at the beginning of April; on the western boundary of the Altmark, the former Prussian lieutenant von Katte (presumably a distant relative of Frederick the Great’s companion) led an armed band into the neighbouring Kingdom of Westphalia, seized control of the formerly Prussian town of Stendal and commandeered the cash chests.5 It appeared that the majority of Prussian officers favoured a war at Austria’s side. On 18 April, Friedrich Ludwig von Vincke, president of the Kurmark regional government, reported from Berlin that opinion within the army was highly critical of the royal government’s policy and that if the king did not take the initiative, all the young officers were determined to leave ‘and it would scarcely be possible to maintain order’. Vincke concluded with a warning that if the king did not come immediately to Berlin, general dissolution would be the result, ‘for if [the dissolution] emanates from the army, who can resist it?’ Lieutenant-General Tauentzien, a close associate of Scharnhorst, declared that he could not vouch for the loyalty of his troops if Prussia were to remain neutral, and the king’s cousin Prince August warned Frederick William that the ‘nation’ would act without him if necessary.6

There was further excitement at the end of April when it became known that a Prussian officer had led his regiment out of Berlin with the intention of heading a patriotic insurrection against the French. Major Ferdinand von Schill was famous as a veteran of guerrilla warfare against the French.7In 1806, he had commanded a corps of volunteers and carried out raids against the French supply lines in the area surrounding the fortress of Kolberg. Such was his success as a raider that in January 1807 he was promoted to captain by Frederick William III and entrusted with forming a free corps. In this capacity, Schill mounted various successful actions against French forces during the spring and early summer of 1807. Following the Peace of Tilsit on 9 July, the Schill Free Corps was dissolved. Schill himself was promoted to major and awarded the ‘Pour le mérite’, Prussia’s highest decoration for bravery. He was soon a celebrated figure. In the summer of 1808, the patriotic Königsberg weekly Der Volksfreund published a biographical essay outlining his exploits and praising him as the ideal of Prussian patriotic manhood. A portrait of the hero, published as a supplement to the Volksfreund, depicted a dark-haired, rather louche man with drooping black moustaches and a hussar’s shako tilted rakishly to one side.

In the autumn of 1808, Schill’s regiment was the first unit of Prussian troops to enter Berlin since the defeats of 1806. ‘The jubilation,’ his adjutant later recalled, ‘was indescribable. Crowns of laurels and bunches of flowers rained down upon us; from every window, prettily adorned women and girls welcomed us. Wherever Schill was seen, jubilant crowds surrounded him.’8 Perhaps the excitement turned his head. Schill began to believe that Germany was ripe for a mass insurrection against the French, and that he was the man to lead it. This delusion was nourished by his contacts with the various clandestine networks of patriots that had sprung up across Prussia – the League of Virtue based in Königsberg, over 80 per cent of whose members were military men of all ranks, and the Society of the Fatherland, based in Pomerania, whose agents urged him to take over the leadership of the patriot movement. In January and February 1809, there were even secret messages from patriot circles in the Kingdom of Westphalia beseeching him to command an insurrection in western Germany. The clandestine network of the German patriots may have been numerically small, but it was zealous, well connected and emotionally intense. Once inside, it was easy to lose touch with reality, to believe that the people were behind you, that victory was certain and liberation imminent. In April 1809, Schill agreed to lead the planned Westphalian insurrection. A proclamation was drawn up and sent to Westphalia urging all patriots to rise against the occupiers, but it was intercepted by the French. On 27 April Schill learned that his own arrest was imminent and decided, without consulting his superiors, to take his men out of Berlin on the following day and launch an insurrectionary campaign.


31. Anon., Major von Schill

The news of his departure caused an immense sensation. In a report of 1 May to Interior Minister Count Dohna, the provincial president of Brandenburg, Johann August Sack, observed that the agitation in the capital could scarcely be described; throughout the city the talk was of nothing but Schill; a Prussian declaration of war against Napoleon was felt to be imminent. In order to forestall the impression that the king was no longer in control of the country, the city authorities decided to encourage, for the time being, the belief that Schill was acting with official sanction.9 On 7 May, the king was presented in Königsberg with a report from the Berlin Police President Justus Gruner warning him that he could rescue his own authority in the kingdom only by entering immediately into an alliance with Austria or by coming to Berlin and personally endorsing a policy of peace at the side of France.

For the army is teetering – and what good is the authority of the administration then? [… ] All the tireless zeal of individuals [on the king’s behalf] will be swallowed up in a sea of restlessly agitated passions, unless the venerable pilot Himself grasps the tiller to calm the masses. The throne of the Hohenzollerns is at stake.10

Gruner was exaggerating. Schill’s venture ended in abject failure. On 31 May 1809, he was sabred by a Dane and shot dead by a Dutchman, both fighting with the French, in the city of Stralsund. The Dutchman, according to one account, cut off his head, preserved it in ‘spirits of wine’ and placed it on display in the public library at Leyden, where it remained until 1837, when it was buried in Brunswick. Twenty-eight of his surviving officers and men were subsequently executed by firing squad on Napoleon’s orders for their role in the uprising.11 Although there were many Prussian officers who sympathized with Schill and the patriot networks, there were few who were willing to break their oath of obedience to the king. The great majority of ordinary subjects in Prussia – as in the rest of Germany – were content to be passive observers of the patriots’ exploits. Schill’s experience, like the failed and almost simultaneous revolt of Colonel Ferdinand Wilhelm Caspar Freiherr von Dörnberg against King Jerôme in Westphalia, revealed that the patriotic zeal of the German masses, such as it was, could not be converted into political action.

Yet this moment of panic among the Prussian authorities is revealing none the less. It demonstrated how much had changed in the relationship between the monarchy and its public since the reign of Frederick the Great. What was remarkable about the reports from Tauentzien, Gruner, Sack and Vincke was their plebiscitary logic. For the first time in the history of the dynasty, we find senior Prussian officials and high-ranking officers invoking public opinion in order to force the hand of the monarch. Phlegmatic as ever, Frederick William kept a calm head, insisting that things were not as bad as the alarmists claimed. ‘I do not fear illegal disturbances from my people,’ he told Foreign Minister von der Goltz on 9 May, adding inconsequentially that he had no intention of going to Berlin, where ‘anarchical explosions’ might distract him from devoting his time and energy to more important questions.12

But Frederick William himself seems at some points to have internalized the arguments of his officials. In an extraordinary undated handwritten note, composed some time during the crisis of 1809, he reflected on the possibility of a forced abdication, observing morosely that if he were to be deposed in favour of another individual ‘more favoured by opinion’, then he would not protest, but readily ‘hand over the reins of government to him whom the nation believes worthier’.13 This was partly just sulking, but it also conveys a fleeting sense of how the upheavals of the revolutionary era were transforming the self-understanding of traditional monarchy.


What was at stake in the crisis of 1809 was not simply the question of whether and when to strike against the French, but also the nature of the war that Prussia would ultimately wage against Napoleon. Frederick William and the more conservative figures among the military leadership continued to think in terms of a traditional Kabinettskrieg in which the key weapons were dynastic diplomacy and a well-trained regular army. By contrast, the reformers envisaged a new insurrectionary mode of warfare involving armed masses of citizen-soldiers inflamed by love of their fatherland. ‘Why should we believe ourselves inferior to the Spaniards and Tyroleans?’, General Gebhardt Leberecht von Blücher asked Frederick William in October 1809, as he urged him to embrace the risk of war at Austria’s side. ‘We are better equipped than they!’14

The issue lost some of its urgency after the war crisis passed, but it resurfaced in 1811, as the prospect loomed of a major war between France and Russia. In a memorandum submitted to the king on 8 August 1811, Gneisenau set out a detailed plan for a popular partisan war in the Spanish manner that would be unleashed on the French army from behind the front lines. This mass uprising (Aufstand in Masse) would harry French units, disrupt supply routes and destroy resources that might otherwise fall into the enemy’s hands. Gneisenau had observed the débâcle of his sometime subordinate Schill and was aware that ordinary Prussians might need some additional encouragement before they risked life and limb against the French. To ensure that the necessary patriotic commitment was not lacking, Gneisenau suggested, the state should employ clergymen to mobilize local communities.15 Stein (now in exile in Prague) and Clausewitz arrived at similar proposals, though they placed more emphasis on the need for clear leadership from the monarchical executive.

The concept of an insurrectionary war against the French never enjoyed wide support within the officer corps. Only a minority of officers was comfortable with an approach to warfare that risked unleashing forces beyond the control of the regular army. But beyond the army itself, in the educated circles of the Prussian patriot intelligentsia, there were many who found the idea exhilarating. In a poem composed in 1809 and inspired by the Austrian campaign against Napoleon, the sometime Prussian guardsman Heinrich von Kleist imagined Germans from all corners of the old Reich rising against the French and evoked in remarkably uncompromising language the brutality of an all-out war:

Whiten with their scattered bones

Every hollow, every hill;

From what was left by fox and crow

The hungry fish shall eat their fill;

Block the Rhine with their cadavers;

Until, plugged up by so much flesh,

It breaks its banks and surges west

To draw our borderline afresh!16

Perhaps the quirkiest expression of the insurrectionary idea was the Turnbewegung, or gymnasts’ movement, founded by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in 1811 in the Hasenheide park in what is now the Berlin suburb of Neukölln. The aim of the movement was to train young men for a coming war against the French. The objectivewasnot to train paramilitaries, but to evolvespecifically civilian forms of bodily prowess and patriotic commitment in preparation for a struggle in which the people as a whole would be pitted against the enemy. The gymnasts were not ‘soldiers’, a term that Jahn despised for its mercenary associations (‘Sold’ is the German word for wage), but citizen-fighters whose participation in the struggle was entirely voluntary, because it was motivated by love for the fatherland. Gymnasts did not ‘march’, Jahn pointed out in The Art of German Gymnastics, the official catechism of the early movement, because marching killed the autonomous will and was intended to degrade the individual to the mere tool of a higher authority. Instead they ‘walked’, swinging their legs in a flowing, natural motion, as befitted free men. The art of the gymnast, Jahn wrote, ‘is an enduring site [eine bleibende Stätte] for the building of fresh sociable virtues [… ] of a sense of decency and law and [of a feeling for] cheerful obedience without prejudice to freedom of movement and high-spirited independence’.17

In order to facilitate this freedom of movement, Jahn developed a special costume, whose loose jacket and wide-legged trousers of grey unbleached linen were designed to accommodate and encourage the free forms of bodily movement so prized by the gymnasts. Here again, there was an antimilitary dimension: ‘The light and austere, unpretentious and thoroughly functional linen costume of the gymnast,’ Jahn wrote, ‘is unsuited to [… ] braids, aiguillettes, armbands, dress swords and gauntlets on the leaders of processions etc. The earnest spirit of the fighter (Wehrmannsernst) is thereby transformed into idle play.’18 Coupled with this hostility to the hierarchical order of the traditional military was an implicit egalitarianism. Jahn’s followers were encouraged to address each other as ‘du’, and their distinctive costume helped to dissolve barriers of status by removing the outward signs of social difference.19 The gymnasts were even known to sing songs proclaiming that all members were ‘equal in estate and rank’ (‘An Rang und Stand sind alle gleich’).20 Jahn’s outdoor displays, in which young men swung, twirled and twisted on raised bars that were the prototypes of today’s gymnastic equipment, attracted huge crowds. Here was a clear demonstration of how patriotism could provide the key to a reconceptualization of political culture as rooted in voluntary allegiances rather than hierarchical structures of authority.

It was precisely the subversive potential in patriotic discourses that alienated the monarch from the more radical prescriptions of the military reformers. On 28 December 1809, Frederick William at last returned to Berlin, where crowds cheered him through the city. But he remained opposed to patriotic experiments of any kind. Now that he was reestablished in the capital, he was more completely under the eye of the French authorities than ever – indeed Napoleon had demanded that he leave Königsberg for this very reason. Moreover, after 1809, the position of the French seemed totally impregnable. By 1810, nearly all the German territories left over from the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire had joined the Confederation of the Rhine, an association of states whose members were obliged to contribute military contingents in support of Napoleon’s foreign policy. In the face of such might, resistance seemed hopeless.

Frederick William’s reluctance to risk precipitate military action was further reinforced by personal tragedy. On 19 July 1810, the unexpected death of his wife Luise, at the age of only thirty-four, plunged him into a long depression in which his only comforts were seclusion and prayer. He had no faith in the idea of insurrectionary warfare; the reformers were allowed to proceed with various improvements to military administration and training but Frederick William blocked their efforts to mobilize a ‘people’s army’ (Volksarmee) through the introduction of universal conscription. To Gneisenau’s proposal that clergymen be employed to urge the people to rise up against their conquerors the king appended the laconic marginal note: ‘One executed preacher and the whole thing will be over with.’ On Gneisenau’s proposals for a system of citizen militias he commented simply: ‘Good – as poetry.’21 Nevertheless, the king agreed one important concession to the war party. During the summer of 1811, he approved plans for the enlargement of the Prussian army and the reinforcement of key strongholds. There were also tactful feelers in the direction of Russia and England.

Fortunately for Frederick William, most of his senior advisers (including Hardenberg) supported his policy of wait-and-see. The king thus had little difficulty in resisting the entreaties of the ‘war party’. But with the cooling of relations between France and Russia from 1810 onwards, the external pressures on the Berlin decision-makers gradually increased. It had always been difficult to imagine a European future in which Napoleon and Alexander I could get along as brothers. Tensions had been accumulating between the two for some time, but the breach came in December 1810, when Napoleon annexed the north-west German Duchy of Oldenburg, whose integrity had been guaranteed in the Peace of Tilsit and whose sovereign was Tsar Alexander’s uncle. Alexander responded with the ukaz of 31 December, by which he closed Russian markets and ports to French products (except wines and silks). During the spring and summer of 1811 the two powers drifted apart, neither committing itself to war. By the winter of 1811–12, however, it was clear that a major French offensive was imminent. Napoleon reinforced his armies in eastern and central Germany, occupied Swedish Pomerania and transferred thirty-six battalions from Spain.22

Once again, the Prussians found themselves in danger of being ground under the wheels of great-power politics. Frederick William and his advisers – Hardenberg foremost among them – displayed the usual timidity and caution. The rearmament process that had been launched in the early summer was impossible to hide from the French. In August 1811, Napoleon demanded an explanation. Dissatisfied with Hardenberg’s answer, he issued an ultimatum warning that if rearmament activity did not cease forthwith, the French ambassador would be withdrawn from Berlin and replaced by Marshal Davout at the head of his army. This announcement was greeted with consternation in Berlin. Gneisenau objected that to comply with such outright bullying would be political suicide, but Frederick William overruled him and orders went out that the recruitment drive and fortification works were to be stopped. There were also loud protests from the commanding officer of the Kolberg fortress, General Blücher, who would later play a key role in the campaigns against France. When Blücher urged that the king resist the French orders and remove himself from Berlin, he was recalled from his command and replaced by Tauentzien, a general acceptable to Napoleon.

The final humiliation came in the form of the offensive alliance treaty imposed by Napoleon on 24 February 1812. The Prussians undertook to quarter and supply the Grand Army as it tramped eastwards through Prussia on its way to invade Russia, to open all their munitions stores and fortresses to the French command and to provide Napoleon with an auxiliary corps of 12,000 men. This ‘agreement’ was extorted from Berlin in a manner that recalled the treaty negotiations of the Thirty Years War. Napoleon began by offering Krusemarck, the Prussian ambassador at the imperial headquarters, the choice of having the Grand Army enter Prussia as a friend or as a foe. In desperation, the ambassador provisionally accepted all conditions and forwarded the document to Berlin for ratification. But the French delayed the departure of the courier bearing the text, so that by the time it reached Frederick William a French army corps was already approaching the Prussian capital.

Prussia was now a mere instrument of Napoleon’s military strategy, on a par with the German satellite states of the Rhenish Confederation. For those patriotic reformers who had striven so hard to prepare Prussia for the coming struggle with Napoleon, this was the ultimate disappointment. A group of prominent senior officials resigned from office in disgust. These included the sometime chief of police in Berlin, Justus Gruner, who made his way to Prague, where he joined a network of patriots dedicated to overthrowing the French through insurrection and sabotage (he was arrested by the Austrian government – also allied with France – in August). Scharnhorst, the driving engine behind the military reforms, went into ‘inner exile’, disappearing entirely from public life. Three of the most talented military innovators, Boyen, Gneisenau and Clausewitz, broke ranks with their colleagues and entered the service of the Tsar in the belief that only Russia now possessed the potential to break Napoleon’s power. Here they were able to reconnect with Stein, who, having spent a period in Austrian exile, joined the imperial Russian headquarters in June 1812 at the express invitation of Tsar Alexander.

From March onward, the men of the Grand Army tramped through the Neumark, Pomerania, West and East Prussia, making their way eastwards to their assembly points. By June 1812, some 300,000 men – French, Germans, Italians, Dutch, Walloons and others – were gathered in East Prussia. It soon became clear that the provincial administration was in no position to coordinate the provisioning of this vast mass of troops. The previous year’s harvest had been poor and grain supplies were quickly depleted. Hans Jakob von Auerswald, provincial president of West and East Prussia, reported in April that the farm animals in East and West Prussia were dying of hunger, the roads were strewn with dead horses, and there was no seed corn left. The provincial government’s provisioning apparatus soon broke down under the pressure, and individual commanders simply ordered their troops to carry out independent requisitioning. It was said that those who still owned draft animals ploughed and sowed at night, so as not to see their last horse or ox carted off. Others hid their horses in the forest, though the French soon got wise to this practice and began combing the woods for concealed animals. Under these conditions, discipline rapidly broke down and there were numerous reports of excesses by the troops, especially extortion, plundering and beatings. One report from a senior official spoke of devastation ‘even worse than in the Thirty Years War’. When no horses were to be had, the French commanders forced peasants into the harness. The average East Prussian farmer, Auerswald reported in August, found it impossible to understand how he could be so mistreated by the allies of his king; indeed it was said the French behaved themselves worse as ‘friends’ in 1812 than they had as enemies in 1807. In the Lithuanian areas on the eastern margins of the province, the summer brought famine and the inevitable rise in deaths among children.23 In the memorable words of the Hanoverian diplomat Ludwig Ompteda, the French had left the inhabitants of Prussia with ‘nothing but eyes to weep with in their misery’.24

Throughout the Prussian lands, the mood gradually shifted from resentment to a simmering hatred of the Napoleonic forces. Vague early rumours of French setbacks in Russia were greeted with excitement and heartfelt schadenfreude. The first sketchy reports of the burning of Moscow (razed by the Russians to deny Napoleon winter quarters) arrived in the eastern provinces of Prussia at the beginning of October. There was particular interest in reports of the appalling damage done to the Grand Army by irregular forces of Cossacks and armed peasant partisans. On 12 November, when the newspapers reported the withdrawal of the Grand Army from Moscow, rumour gave way to near-certainty. The French diplomat Lecaro, stationed in Berlin, was shocked at the intensity of public emotion: in three and a half years of living in the city, he wrote, he had never seen its inhabitants display ‘such intense hatred and such open rage’. Emboldened by the recent news, the Prussian people ‘no longer concealed its desire to join with the Russians in exterminating everything that belongs to the French system’.25 On 14 December, the 29th Bulletin of the Grand Army put an end to any further doubts about the outcome of the Russian campaign. Issued in the Emperor’s name, the bulletin blamed the catastrophe on bad weather and the incompetence and treachery of others, announced that Napoleon had left his men in Russia and was hastening west towards Paris, and closed with a remarkably brutal expression of imperial self-centredness: ‘The Emperor’s health has never been better.’ In Prussia, this news triggered further incidents of unrest. In Neustadt, West Prussia, local inhabitants fought with Neapolitan troops guarding a transport of Russian prisoners of war. There were spontaneous attacks on French military personnel, especially in taverns, where patriotic passions were inflamed by the consumption of alcohol.

But no rumour and no printed report could bring home the meaning of Napoleon’s catastrophe as forcefully as the sight of the remnants of the once-invincible Grand Army limping westwards out of Russia.

The noblest figures had been bent and shrunken by frost and hunger, they were covered with blue bruises and white frost-sores. Whole limbs were frozen off and rotting [… ] they gave off a pestilential stench. [… ] Their clothing consisted of rags, straw mats, old women’s clothing, sheepskins, or whatever else they could lay hands on. None had proper headgear; instead they bound their heads with old cloth or pieces of shirt; instead of shoes and leggings, their feet were wrapped with straw, fur or rags.26

The slow-burning malice of the peasantry now ignited into acts of revenge as the rural population took matters into their own hands. ‘The lowest classes of the people,’ District President Theodor von Schön reported from Gumbinnen, ‘and especially the peasants, permit themselves in their fanaticism the most horrific mistreatment of these unhappy wretches [… ] in the villages and on the country roads, they vent all their rage against them [… ] All obedience to the officials has ceased.’27 There were reports of attacks on stragglers by armed troops of peasants.

During the month of December 1812, the Prussian government, like those of the other German client states, remained committed to the French alliance. On 15 December, when Napoleon requested that the Prussians expand their military contingent, the government in Berlin meekly complied. As the year drew to an end, however, Frederick William came under increasing pressure to renege on the alliance of 24 February and join in Russia’s struggle against Napoleon. Of three memoranda submitted to him by senior officials on Christmas day 1812, two (from Knesebeck and Schöler) urged him to seize the opportunity furnished by the collapse of the Russian campaign and turn against France. The third, from privy councillor Albrecht, was more circumspect and warned the king not to underestimate Napoleon’s remaining potential.28 Only when Austria’s strength was fully engaged in the common cause should Prussia risk open aggression against the French forces.

Stolid, pessimistic and cautious as ever, the king was drawn to the third option. In an aide-mémoire written three days later, Frederick William set out his own views on Prussian foreign policy over the coming months. Its central theme was ‘live and let live’; Austria should be entrusted with the mediation of a general European peace. Napoleon must be obliged to come to an understanding with Tsar Alexander on the basis of mutual respect, after which he would be permitted to retire unmolested into France and to hold on to his annexed German lands on the left bank of the Rhine. Only if he refused to be content with this arrangement would Prussia go to war, and then only at Austria’s side. The king imagined that this might occur, if at all, in April of the coming year.29


By the time Frederick William penned these lines, events were already overtaking him. On 20 December 1812, the first advance parties of Russian troops crossed the border into East Prussia. Under the terms of the alliance with France, it now fell to the Prussian General Yorck, who had managed to extricate 14,000 of his men alive from the Russian campaign, to block the further progress of the Russians and thereby cover the retreat of what remained of the Grand Army. Yorck found himself bombarded with messages from both the French and the Russian commands. Marshal Alexandre Macdonald sent orders that he clear the way for his retreat and guard the French flank against Russian attack. From the Russian commander General Diebitsch there were entreaties to abandon Macdonald and let the Russians pass unhindered. On 25 December, Yorck and Diebitsch met and it was agreed that one of the Prussians attached to the Russian headquarters should be empowered to conduct further negotiations. The man entrusted with this task was none other than the reformer, patriot and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who had left the Prussian service earlier that year.

During a difficult discussion on the evening of 29 December, Clausewitz explained to Yorck that the Russians were close by and massed in very large numbers. Any attempt to reunite with Macdonald, whose small corps had come unstuck from the Prussian contingent, would be pointless. Impressed by the cogency of Clausewitz’s arguments and the sincerity of his conviction, Yorck finally agreed: ‘Yes. You have me. Tell General Diebitsch that we shall talk early tomorrow at Poscherun Mill [near the Lithuanian town of Tauroggen, forty kilometres east of the Prussian border] and that I have now firmly decided to separate from the French and their cause.’30 The meeting was fixed for the next morning (30 December) at eight o’clock. Under the terms of the agreement drawn up there, known as the Convention of Tauroggen, Yorck undertook to neutralize his corps for a period of two months and allow the Russians to pass unhindered into Prussian territory.


32. Anon., Johann David Ludwig Count Yorck

It was a momentous decision. Yorck had no authorization whatsoever to countermand his government’s policy in this way.31 His defection was not merely disobedient; it was treasonable. This weighed very heavily with a man who was by background and nature a royalist and a conservative. Yorck attempted to justify his action in a remarkable letter he wrote to Frederick William on 3 January 1813:

Your Majesty knows me as a calm, cool-headed man who does not mix in politics. As long as everything went in the accustomed way, the loyal servant was bound to follow circumstances – that was his duty. But the circumstances have now brought about a new situation and duty likewise demands that this situation, which will never occur again, be exploited. I am speaking here the words of a loyal old servant; these words are almost universally the words of the Nation; a declaration from Your Majesty will breathe life and enthusiasm back into everything and we will fight like true old Prussians and the throne of Your Majesty will stand rock-solid and unshakeable for the future. [… ] I now anxiously await an advisement from Your Majesty as to whether I should now advance against the true enemy, or whether political conditions demand that Your Majesty condemn me. I await both outcomes in a spirit of loyal dedication and I swear to Your Majesty that I shall meet the bullets as calmly at the place of execution as on the field of battle.32

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this letter was the fact that it made – notwithstanding the superficial rhetoric of personal loyalty – so few concessions to the monarch’s standpoint. Instead, Yorck offered Frederick William the choice of confirming his action or condemning him to death for his disobedience. Moreover, the reference to the ‘true enemy’, as opposed to the enemy projected by Berlin’s foreign policy, made it clear that Yorck had arrogated to himself one of the constitutive attributes of sovereignty, namely the right to determine who is friend and who is foe. To make matters worse, Yorck justified this act of usurpation through an implicit appeal to the ultimate authority of the hard-pressed Prussian ‘nation’.

These were surprisingly radical words from a man who had initially kept his distance from the military reformers. In 1808–9, Yorck had been a bitter opponent of armed insurrection, on the grounds that it posed too grave a threat to the political and social order. But as the pressure for action grew, he had begun to look less coldly on the populist designs of the patriots. The more he thought over the idea of a popular uprising, he told Scharnhorst in the summer of 1811, the more ‘absolutely necessary’ it seemed to be. In a memorandum submitted to the king at the end of January 1812, he set out a plan to use tightly focused insurrections in West Prussia to tie down French divisions and undercut the momentum of the main advance.33 It is hard to imagine a better illustration of the potency of the ideas that animated the reformers than this belated conversion of a hard-boiled conservative to the cause of the nation.

By the end of the first week of February 1813, the entire province of East Prussia had slipped beyond the direct control of the Berlin government. Stein, who entered the province as a functionary of the Russian administration, saw himself as empowered to exercise direct authority in the liberated areas, and he did so with his accustomed tactlessness. Various trade restrictions associated with the Napoleonic system of continental tariffs were lifted without local consultation, and the Prussian financial administration was obliged, despite bitter protests, to accept Russian paper money at a fixed rate of exchange. Flaunting his sovereign status as ‘Plenipotentiary of the Russian Emperor’, Stein even convened the East Prussian Estates in order to deliberate on arrangements for the coming war against France. ‘Intelligence, honour, love of the fatherland, and revenge,’ he told Yorck in a letter of early February, ‘demand that we lose no time, that we call up a people’swar [… ] to break the chains of the insolent oppressor and wash away the dishonour we have suffered with the blood of his wicked bands.’34 Stein wanted Yorck to open the first meeting of the Estates with a rousing speech, but Yorck was uncomfortable with any role that would make him appear to be the agent of Russian interests. However, he did agree to attend a session if the Estates themselves formally invited him.

On 5 February, the ‘representatives of the nation’, as they were widely called at the time, congregated in the meeting hall of the House of the Provincial Estates in Königsberg. At their head sat the president, to his right seven members of the Estates Committee, flanked by the deputies of the provincial nobility, the free peasants and the cities. Almost immediately, it was agreed that a delegation should be sent to invite Yorck to present his proposals to the assembly. The deputies were surely aware of the boldness of this step: by the beginning of February it was universally known that Yorck had been dismissed from office, that his arrest had been ordered and that he was out of favour with the king. The scope of the insurrection unfolding in East Prussia now widened to the point where it encompassed the political class of the province.

Yorck appeared only briefly before the assembly, urging that a committee be formed to oversee further preparations for war and closing with a characteristically pithy declaration: ‘I hope to fight the French wherever I find them. I count on everyone’s support; if their strength outweighs ours, we will know how to die with honour.’ These words were greeted with thunderous cheers and applause, but Yorck raised his hand to silence the hall, saying: ‘There is no call for that on a battlefield!’ He then turned and left. On the same evening, a committee met in Yorck’s apartment to agree the calling up of a provincial militia (Landwehr) of 20,000 men with 10,000 reserves. The exemptions allowed under the old cantonal system were abolished; all adult males up to forty-five years of age, excluding only school teachers and clergymen, were declared eligible to be called up, regardless of their social status or religion – the latter stipulation implied that Jews, for the first time, would be liable for conscription. The aim was to fill the troop quotas from volunteers in the first instance and only if this proved inadequate, to proceed to conscription by ballot. The ideal of the nation at arms rising against its foe had at last been realized. In the process, the authority of the monarchical state was almost totally displaced by the Estates, who now reactivated their traditional calling as organs of provincial governance.35

In Berlin, the government began during the January weeks to distance itself from the French alliance. On 21 January, after rumours to the effect that the French were planning to take him prisoner, Frederick William left Potsdam and transferred with Hardenberg and an entourage of some seventy persons to Breslau in Silesia, where he arrived four days later. During the first week of February, as the Estates prepared to meet in Königsberg, the king and his advisory circle remained in a state of uncertainty and indecision. To stay at the side of France seemed impossible in view of the events unfolding in the east, but the prospect of an open break with France brought the threat of total dependence upon Russia. The problem of Prussia’s exposed position between the powers of east and west had never been so dramatically expressed. The western provinces remained vulnerable to French reprisals; East and West Prussia were already under what amounted to a Russian occupation. Faced with this fundamental dilemma, the Breslau court seemed paralysed; the king, Hardenberg observed in a private note on 4 February, appeared ‘not to know what he actually wants’.36

At around the same time, however, the king began to approve decisions that pointed in the direction of a more energetic policy. Scharnhorst was recalled from his retirement, and on 8 February a general call went out for volunteers to form free corps of riflemen. On the following day, the service exemptions of the cantonal system were suspended, establishing, temporarily at least, universal male liability for military service. It was as if the government were hurrying to keep abreast of developments in its eastern provinces. But these measures did not suffice, in the short term, to arrest the collapse of public faith in the monarch and his advisers. By the middle of February, the spirit of insurrection had crossed the river Oder into the Neumark and there was talk of a revolution if the king did not immediately signal his solidarity with Russia. Even the Huguenot preacher Ancillon, one of the most cautious and ingratiating of the king’s advisers, warned him in a memorandum of 22 February that it was the ‘general will of the nation’ that the king should lead his people in a war against France. If he failed to do so, Ancillon warned, he would be swept away by events.37

Only in the last days of February did the king finally decide to throw in his lot with the Russians and break openly with Napoleon. A treaty was signed with the Russians at Kalisch and Breslau on 27–28 February in which the Russians agreed to restore Prussia to the approximate borders of 1806. Under the terms of this treaty, Prussia would cede most of the Polish territories acquired through the second and third partitions to Russia, but retain a land corridor (in addition to West Prussia) between Silesia and East Prussia. The Russians in their turn agreed that Prussia would be compensated for these Polish concessions by the annexation of territory from the allies’ joint conquests in Germany – informal discussions pointed to Saxony, whose king was still aligned with Napoleon, as the most likely victim.

Scharnhorst was despatched to Tsar Alexander’s headquarters to begin discussions on a joint war plan. A formal announcement of the break with France followed on 17 March, and on 25 March the Russian and Prussian commands issued the joint Proclamation of Kalisch, in which the Russian tsar and the Prussian king sought to harness national enthusiasms by pledging their support for a united Germany. A committee was established under Stein’s chairmanship to recruit troops from across the German territories and to plan for the future political organization of southern and western Germany. The Prussian government now made strenuous efforts to reclaim the ground that had been lost to the forces of insurrection. On 17 March the king issued the famous address ‘To My People’, in which he justified the government’s cautious policy hitherto and called upon his people to rise up, province by province, against the French. Drafted by Theodor Gottfried Hippel, a native of Königsberg who had joined the chancellery under Hardenberg in 1811, ‘To My People’ steered a careful middle path between the insurrectionary rhetoric of the patriot radicals and the hierarchical order of traditional absolutism. Comparisons were drawn with the conservative uprisings of the Vendée (1793), Spain (1808) and the Tyrol (1808), but pointedly not with the revolutionary French levée en masse of 1793, and an effort was made to embed current events within a tradition of Hohenzollern dynastic leadership.38 The edict of 21 April 1813 establishing the Landsturm (home army) was perhaps the most radical official utterance of these weeks – it stated that home army officers were to be elected, although eligibility to ascend to officer rank was restricted to certain social and professional groups.39

By early March, Breslau had become the centre of operations, not only for the Prussian and Russian army commands but also for the burgeoning volunteer movement. While Frederick William III, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Blücher met with their Russian counterparts in the royal palace to coordinate the coming campaign, crowds of volunteers converged on the Hotel Szepter only a short distance away to sign for service under Major Ludwig Adolf Wilhelm von Lützow. Lützow was a Prussian officer from Berlin who had served in Schill’s regiment of hussars and was authorized by the king in 1813 to found a free corps of voluntary riflemen. The Lützow Rifles, also known as the ‘Black Band’ for their sombre, loose-cut uniforms, eventually numbered 3,000 men. Among those most actively involved in volunteer recruitment was Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who had come to Breslau with a flock of eager gymnasts and was already something of a cult figure. ‘They goggle at him as if he were some kind of messiah,’ a young regular army soldier noted, evidently with mixed feelings.40 The young nobleman Leopold von Gerlach, who came to Breslau towards the end of February, was struck by the energy and exhilaration in the city. In the theatre of an evening, Gerlach wrote, Chancellor Hardenberg could still be seen chatting amiably with the French ambassador in order to keep up appearances. But the streets were agog with preparations for war. Soldiers could be seen exercising on the ramparts, on the ring road and before the city gates; the lanes were crowded with horses being bought and sold, the streets lined with Jews selling muskets, pistols and sabres; ‘virtually everyone, from tailors, swordsmiths, cobblers to harness makers, hatters and saddlers, is working for the war.’41

While the allied commanders laid their plans in Breslau, Napoleon too was preparing for war in Germany, building a new army from veterans and fresh untested recruits raised from the client states of the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon’s history, charisma and reputation were still sufficient to dissuade most of the German sovereigns from defecting; their fear of his strength was reinforced by concern at the prospect of a national uprising against France that might sweep away German thrones as well as French garrisons. Even the beleaguered King of Saxony, who had momentarily wavered, returned to the French fold in May, partly because he recognized that the allies (and especially Prussia) posed a greater threat to the integrity of his kingdom than Napoleon. The allies thus faced a long and uncertain struggle against a foe who still controlled the resources and manpower of much of German Europe.

The Wars of Liberation, as they would come to be known, opened badly for the allies. It was agreed that the Prussian army would operate under a Russian supreme command – a telling indication of Prussia’s junior status within the coalition – but it proved difficult at first to coordinate the two command structures. Having entered Saxony at the end of March, the allies were defeated at the battle of Lützen on 2 May. But Napoleon’s victory was dearly bought: while the Prussians lost 8,500 and the Russians 3,000 in dead and wounded, the figure for the French and their client states was 22,000. This pattern was repeated at the battle of Bautzen on 20–21 May, where Napoleon forced the allies to withdraw, but lost another 22,000 men, twice as many as the Russo-Prussian forces. The allies were obliged to pull back out of Saxony into Silesia, but their armies remained intact.

It was not an encouraging start. Nevertheless, the ferocity of the allied resistance gave Napoleon pause. On 4 June, he agreed a temporary armistice with Tsar Alexander and Frederick William III. Napoleon later came to regard the ceasefire of 4 June as the error that undid his dominion in Germany. This was overstating the case, but it was certainly a serious failure of judgement. The allies used the respite afforded by it not only to enlarge and re-equip their forces, but also to put their war effort on a more solid financial footing by concluding alliance and subsidy treaties with Britain at Reichenbach on 14/15 June. In addition to direct subsidies totalling 2 million pounds, of which one-third (about 3. 3 million thalers) would go to Prussia, Britain agreed to supply 5 million pounds in ‘federal paper’, a special currency underwritten by London that would be used by the allied governments for war-related costs and redeemed jointly by the three treaty partners after the end of the war.42 In a war that had already plunged Britain into historically unprecedented levels of public debt, this was the biggest subsidy deal yet.

The most urgent objective of allied policy after 4 June was to persuade Austria to join the coalition. Clemens Wenzel von Metternich, the Austrian minister responsible for foreign policy, had kept his distance from the Russo-Prussian coalition during the early months of 1813. The Austrian government already viewed Russia as a threat in the Balkans and they had no wish to see Napoleon’s control over Germany exchanged for Russian hegemony. But after the Treaty of Reichenbach was signed, followed by an alliance with Sweden on 22 July, it became clear that the future of Europe was in contention and Vienna could no longer afford to sit on the sidelines. During the summer, Metternich attempted to mediate a European peace that would be acceptable to Napoleon, while at the same time (at Reichenbach on 27 June) agreeing conditions for joint action with the allies in the event that mediation failed. When Metternich’s efforts to broker peace foundered on Napoleon’s intransigence, Austria resolved at last to join the allied coalition. The ceasefire of 4 June was allowed to expire on 10 August 1813;on the following day Austria formally entered the coalition and declared war against France.

The balance of power now tipped sharply against France. The Austrians contributed 127,000 men to the coalition war effort. The Russians had fielded an army of 110,000 during the spring campaign and this number was steadily rising as new waves of recruits arrived. Sweden contributed a further force of 30,000 men under the command of the former French marshal, now crown prince of Sweden, Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte. Under their new conscription laws, the Prussians were able to field a massive contingent of 228,000 infantry, 31,000 cavalry and 13,000 artillerymen. At the height of the fighting, about 6 per cent of the Prussian population were in active service. Against this imposing multinational force, Napoleon could muster 442,000 troops ready for combat, many of whom were ill-trained and poorly motivated new recruits.

Napoleon concentrated his forces around Dresden, on the territory of his loyal ally the King of Saxony, in the hope that an opportunity would arise to deal a devastating blow against one or other of the allied armies. The allies, for their part, adopted a concentric strategy: a Swedish-Prussian Northern Army under the command of Bernadotte moved southwards from Brandenburg, having retaken Berlin, while Blücher commanded the Silesian Army to Napoleon’s east. Advancing from the south was the Army of Bohemia under Schwarzenberg. Closing in on Napoleon was not easy, despite the allied superiority in numbers. He enjoyed the advantage of internal lines and was still capable of mounting swift and destructive strikes. The allies suffered from the usual problem of coalition armies – relations between and within the Prussian, Swedish and Austrian commands were not harmonious and the widely dispersed forces faced the problem of tightening the ring around Napoleon without exposing themselves to a potentially devastating French attack. The third week of August brought three victories and a defeat. The Army of Berlin, a force composed for the most part of Saxon, Franconian and other German contingents and commanded by the French General Oudinot, was beaten on 23 August in a battle near Grossbeeren as it approached the Prussian capital. A French corps of 10,000 men making its way into Brandenburg to assist Oudinot was subsequently attacked and destroyed near Hagelberg. In both these engagements, men of the Prussian Landwehr played a central role. On 26 August, Blücher’s Silesian Army inflicted heavy losses on a 67,000-strong force of French and Rhenish Confederation troops under Macdonald; nearly half of Macdonald’s army perished or was taken prisoner. But these successes were offset to some extent by a bitter engagement on the outskirts of Dresden on 26–27 August, in which Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia was driven back by Napoleon with over 35,000 casualties.

Encouraged by his success at Dresden, Napoleon initially focused on finding and destroying one of the allied armies on its route of approach, trusting that his advantage of internal lines would allow him to concentrate superior forces against any one of his adversaries. He drove his men through the broad wedge of territory between the rivers Saale and Elbe in search of either Bernadotte’s Northern or Blücher’s Silesian Army, both of which he knew to be in the area. But both evaded him by moving westward across the Saale.

By this point, Napoleon was starting to run out of options. He could not withdraw from the theatre without exposing himself to damaging attacks from irregulars and Cossacks, let alone his adversaries’ armies, all of which were still intact and combat-ready. Domestic opinion in France was turning sharply against the prolongation of the conflict, and Napoleon’s resources were running low. Pressed for time, he resolved to concentrate his forces around the Saxon city of Leipzig, await the arrival of his enemies and accept battle. The city thus became the setting for the greatest single military engagement to that date in the history of continental Europe, and probably of human warfare. The battle of Leipzig has justly been called the ‘Battle of the Peoples’ (Völkerschlacht), for the 500,000 men who took part included Frenchmen, Germans (on both sides), Russians, Poles, Swedes, nearly every one of the subject nationalities of the Austrian Empire and even a specialist British rocket brigade that had been formed only in the previous year and was to see its first action at Leipzig.

By the night of 14 October, Napoleon had concentrated 177,000 troops in and around the city. Early on the following day, Schwarzenberg’s army, a mammoth corps numbering just over 200,000 men, made contact with French forces under Murat to the south of the city. Much of 15 October was spent in patrols and skirmishes as the two armies felt out each other’s positions. In the meanwhile, Blücher’s Silesian Army, whose exact position was unknown to Napoleon, advanced from the north-west along the rivers Saale and Elster. The following day, 16 October, was dominated by ferocious fighting across a wide sweep of land around the city as Schwarzenberg attacked from the south, Blücher from the north and a small allied corps of 19,000 men pressed through the wooded areas to the west of the city. At the end of the day, Napoleon still held much of the line in the south, but had been pushed back in the north-west, where his positions around Möckern had succumbed after a savage battle with the Prussians of the I Corps of the Silesian Army under General Yorck, now restored to office, if not to royal favour.

As night fell, the overall outcome still hung in the balance. The casualties were prodigious: the French had lost nearly 25,000 men, and the allies 30,000. Yet this augured well for the allies, for while Napoleon could deploy only 200,000 men in all, including the remaining reserves, the arrival of the Northern Army and the Polish Army under Bennigsen would bring the allied forces concentrated around Leipzig to 300,000 men. Moreover, Napoleon’s grip on his German allies was weakening. During 16 October, news reached him that an army of 30,000 Bavarians had defected to the Austrians and intended to intercept Napoleon’s lines of communication with France.43

The French Emperor considered the possibility of a retreat, but decided ultimately to delay his withdrawal until the 18th, in the hope that some fatal error by the allies might supply him with an opportunity to tip the balance. He also attempted, in his accustomed manner, to divide his enemies by offering a separate peace to Austria, but this initiative merely had the effect of persuading his adversaries that he was at the end of his resources. The following day (17 October) was quiet, save for various skirmishes, as all the armies rested in preparation for the decisive struggle and various gaps between the attacking forces were closed. Meanwhile, the streets of Leipzig filled with wounded from both sides. ‘Since last night,’ the Leipzig composer Friedrich Rochlitz noted in his diary on 17 October, ‘we have been working without pause to bandage and house the wounded, and still there are many lying unattended to on the marketplace and in the nearby streets, so that at several places one is, quite literally, walking through blood.’44

On 18 October, the allies pushed forward towards the outskirts of Leipzig, tightening the noose around the French forces. An important role in this phase of the battle fell to the Prussian General Bülow, whose corps formed part of the Northern Army under Bernadotte. Bülow spearheaded its advance from the east across the river Parthe and bore the brunt of the fighting for the eastern approaches to the city. Once again, casualties on both sides were heavy. The allies lost a further 20,000 men; the French had remained for the most part on the defensive and lost perhaps half that number. There were also further defections, notably of 4,000 Saxons attached to Reynier’s corps, who simply marched in closed ranks to the allies. Among those who observed this remarkable act of defection was Marshal Macdonald, who saw through his telescope how the Saxons, while leading a successful advance against the allies, simply turned about and trained their weapons on the Frenchmen following behind: ‘In the most abominable and cold-blooded manner,’ he later recalled, ‘they shot down their unsuspecting fellows, with whom they had previously served in loyal comradeship of arms.’45 Desperate attempts by Marshal Ney to close the line and mount a counter-attack were repelled by the British rocket brigade, whose Congreve rockets struck terror into the advancing column.

The outcome was now decided. Realizing that no hope remained of averting disaster, Napoleon ordered that the retreat of his forces begin under cover of darkness in the small hours of the morning. By eleven o’clock on the morning of 19 October, the French Emperor himself had left the city and was making his way back to the Rhine. A rearguard of 30,000 men stayed back to hold the city and cover the retreat. Yet the battle was still far from over, for the defenders, four of whom on average were manning each metre of the inner perimeter, had no intention of yielding without a fight. The allies pressed in along a wide arc from the north-west to the south of the city. As Bülow and his corps approached its eastern defences, they saw that the forward positions had been abandoned and hundreds of wagons overturned to impede their advance. There was a pause while a path was cleared using artillery fire. Entering the built-up area before the main wall, the vanguard of Bülow’s corps was caught in intense fire from French marksmen on the roofs and upper floors of the buildings on both sides of the narrow street. One thousand of his Prussians were lost within the first few minutes of the fighting. Artillery was virtually useless, since the men were locked in hand-to-hand combat with defending troops as they fought their way from street corner to street corner. Charging into a side street, a battalion of 400 East Prussian Landwehr were cut off and mauled by the defenders; only half of them escaped with their lives. The fighting was especially desperate at the Grimma Gate, where retreating French defenders found themselves locked out of the city – the Badenese troops manning the gate from within had received instructions to allow no one to pass. The stranded Frenchmen were massacred by the approaching Prussians, many of whom were Landwehr men attached to Bülow’s vanguard.


33. Johann Lorenz Rugendas, The Battle of Leipzig, 16–19 October 1813; fighting before the Grimma Gate

By noon, the city had been breached in the east and the north and was on the point of collapse. For the defenders, no option remained but to flee westwards across the Elster bridge in the footsteps of the Grand Army. Napoleon had ordered that the bridge be mined, held until the retreat, and blown up after the last defenders had left the city. But the hapless corporal who had been charged with this task panicked when he saw Cossacks approaching and detonated the charges while the bridge was still choked with French soldiers and horses escaping the approaching allies. A thunderous explosion shook the entire city, destroying the only route of retreat and sending a macabre shower of human and equine body parts raining down into the waters of the fast-flowing river and on to the streets and housetops of the western perimeter. Trapped, the remaining defenders either drowned trying to cross the river, were cornered and killed, or gave themselves up.

The battle of Leipzig was over. It had cost Napoleon 73,000 men, of whom 30,000 had been taken prisoner and 5,000 had deserted. The allies had lost 54,000 men, of whom 16,033 were Prussians. During three days of fighting, an average of over 30,000 men had been killed or wounded each day. The epic struggle for control of the city did not end the war against Napoleon, but it did bring to a close his dominion in Germany. The road to the Rhine and to France itself now lay open.

The significance of these events for Prussia’s re-emergence from the humiliation imposed at Tilsit in 1807 can scarcely be overstated. The Prussians played a crucial role in the campaign of 1813. Indeed, they were consistently the most active and aggressive element within the composite allied command. Although Bülow, as a corps commander within the Northern Army, was nominally subordinate to the cautious Bernadotte, he disregarded orders from his superior at several key points during the campaign to seek decisive engagements with French forces. Bülow’s successful defence of Berlin, which changed the course of the war, was launched without support from Bernadotte. During the Northern Army’s approach to Leipzig, it was Bülow who forced the pace. The impulsive Blücher likewise disregarded an order from the joint allied command to withdraw into Bohemia in September, choosing instead to march down the Elbe – had he complied with the command, it would have been impossible for the allies to concentrate their forces against Napoleon at the critical moment. A string of largely Prussian victories – at Dennewitz, Gross Beeren, on the Katzbach, Hagelberg and Kulm – helped to reverse the setback suffered by Schwarzenberg at Dresden and reinforced Prussia’s claim to parity with Austria.46

The same pattern can be observed during the campaign of the following year. In February 1814, as the allies approached the borders of France, Schwarzenberg and Metternich argued that it was now time to sue for peace with a weakened Napoleon, who could safely be left on his throne. Once again, it was Blücher who pressed urgently for a continuation of the war, while Grolman persuaded the Prussian king and the Russian tsar to allow Blücher and Bülow to consolidate their forces and launch an independent offensive.47 Whereas the Austrian command approached the struggle with Napoleon in the spirit of an eighteenth-century cabinet war, in which the purpose of military victories is to secure acceptable peace terms, the Prussian war-makers aimed at a more ambitious objective: the destruction of Napoleon’s forces and of his capacity for making war. This was the outlook that would later be distilled in Clausewitz’s On War.

In the decisive Flemish battles of 1815, too, the Prussian contribution was crucial. On 16 June, when the French launched the first major attack of the 1815 summer campaign at Ligny, it was the Prussians who did most of the fighting and took the heaviest losses. After receiving a battering at Ligny, where Wellington failed, for reasons that are still in dispute, to reinforce an exposed Prussian position, the Prussians regrouped with astonishing speed and concentrated around Wavre. From here they set out early on 18 June to link up with Wellington’s forces at Waterloo. Marching through uneven ground still boggy from recent rain, the advance units of the Prussian 4th Army under Count Bülow reached the battlefield in the mid-afternoon and immediately charged the French right flank at Plancenoit, fighting bitterly for control of the village. Some hours later, at around 7.00 p.m., General Zieten’s 1st Army corps arrived to reinforce Wellington’s left flank. This was a crucial moment for the outcome of the battle. La Haye Sainte, a fortified farm close to the British lines, had fallen to the French an hour before, clearing the way for a potentially decisive strike against Wellington’s battered centre. Napoleon seemed on the verge of victory. It was the arrival of Zieten’s corps that allowed Wellington to transfer desperately needed forces to the most vulnerable parts of his line. Napoleon, conversely, had been forced to deploy men from his own centre to retake Plancenoit, where the Prussians threatened to open up the French rear. The Old Guard did briefly succeed in retaking Plancenoit, but between 8.00 and 8.30 p.m., after desperate house-to-house fighting, it fell once again to the Prussians, who now controlled the key to the French rear. Seeing the helter-skelter flight of French troops from Plancenoit, Wellington seized the moment and ordered a general advance. The French forces broke at last and fled.48

In the brief time at their disposal, the military reformers had done much to improve the performance of the Prussian army that had so signally failed in 1806. Particularly striking was the improvement in the quality of command. This was due in part to the excellence of a cohort of outstanding generals – Blücher, Yorck, Kleist, Bülow – who had emerged from the débâcle of 1806–7 with their reputations unscathed. The reformed command system was flexible enough to allow corps commanders a degree of autonomy on the battlefield. Lieutenant-General Zieten, for example, had been ordered by Blücher’s headquarters to reinforce the Prussian 4th Army corps at Plancenoit; only at the last moment did he resolve to disregard this instruction and support Wellington’s left flank, an act of insubordination that may have saved the battle for the allies.49 Even more significant was the integration of staff officers into the command structure. For the first time in the history of the Prussian army, responsible staff officers shadowed all senior commanders. Gneisenau was assigned to Blücher and the two formed an inspirational team, each recognizing the particular talents of the other. When Blücher was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford after the war, he commented with characteristic diffidence: ‘Well, if I am to become a doctor, you must at least make Gneisenau an apothecary, for we two belong always together.’50 Not all such partnerships were as harmonious as this one, but throughout the Prussian armed forces, the new arrangements created a more responsive and cohesive fighting force.

It would be mistaken, however, to infer that the Prussian army of 1813–15 was a radically new instrument of war. The impact of the post-1807 reforms was rapidly diluted during 1813 and 1814 by casualties among veterans and a massive influx of recruits unschooled in the new methods. Little was done to heighten firepower through the technological improvement of weaponry, partly because the reformers tended – as one would expect – to focus above all on men, communication and motivation. The new Landwehr had been devised to provide the regular army with a highly motivated auxiliary force. However, while individual Landwehr units played an important supporting role in a number of engagements, their combat record was mixed and the Landwehr failed to fulfil the high expectations of its architects. The arrangements for training were still rudimentary, so that many Landwehr men lacked all but the most basic skills when they went to war. The great majority were ignorant of the new regulations of 1812, which, in the spirit of the military reforms, emphasized skirmishing and marksmanship skills.51 The Prussian military infrastructure also proved incapable of coping with the rapid proliferation of Landwehr units. As late as summer 1815, many of the men lacked coats, shoes and even trousers.52 Uniforms and equipment were locally financed and often of inferior quality. There were correspondingly wide variations in fighting quality. Whereas the Landwehr of the Northern Army fought as effectively as the regular army units beside it, those attached to Blücher’s Silesian Army proved unreliable under fire.53

The military reformers aimed above all to harness the war effort to the patriotic enthusiasm of the Prussian population. In this, too, they were only partly successful. Not all subjects of the Prussian Crown were equally moved by patriotic appeals. In parts of Silesia and West Prussia, the raising of Landwehr regiments prompted many to flee across the border into Russian-controlled Poland. Many merchants, landowners and innkeepers clung to the old system of exemptions and begged the authorities to overlook their sons or presented medical certificates of dubious authenticity suggesting that these were too sickly to serve. Patriotism was not only regionally, but also socially uneven. Educated males – high-school pupils, university students and men with academic qualifications – were over-represented in the volunteer contingents. They constituted 2 per cent of the population, but 12 per cent of volunteers. Even more remarkable are the figures for artisans, who accounted for 7 per cent of the population as a whole but 41 per cent of volunteers. Conversely, the peasants who made up nearly three-quarters of the kingdom’s population supplied only 18 per cent of the volunteers, and most of these were either landless day-labourers or free farmers from outside the East-Elbian agrarian heartland of the Prussian state. The social constituency for patriotic activism had expanded greatly since the days of the Seven Years War, but it remained a predominantly urban phenomenon.54

Within these limitations, the Prussian public responded on an unprecedented scale to the government’s call for help. The ‘gold for iron’ fund-raising campaign brought in 6.5 million thalers in donations and there was a flood of Prussian volunteers for the Landwehr and the free corps units of the volunteer riflemen. For the first time, young men from the Jewish communities, now legally eligible for military service and eager to demonstrate their patriotic gratitude for emancipation, flocked to join the colours, either in free corps or Landwehr units. There was a Jewish fund-raising campaign, in the course of which rabbis donated Kaddish cups and Torah-roll ornaments for the war effort.55

It was a mark of the modernity and inclusiveness of this war that women played a prominent role in supporting the state through organized charitable activity. For the first time in its history the dynasty expressly enlisted the support of its female subjects: the ‘Appeal to the Women of the Prussian State’, signed by twelve women of the Prussian royal family and published in March 1813, announced the foundation of a Women’s Association for the Good of the Fatherland and urged ‘noble-minded wives and daughters of all ranks’ to assist in the war effort by donating jewellery, cash, raw materials and labour. Between 1813 and 1815, some 600 women’s associations were created for these purposes. Here too, Jewish women were a conspicuous sub-group. Rahel Levin organized a circle of wealthy women friends to coordinate an ambitious fund-raising campaign and travelled to Prague in the summer of 1813 to oversee the creation of a medical mission dedicated to the care of the Prussian wounded. ‘I am in touch with our commissariat and our staff surgeon,’ she wrote to her friend and future husband Karl Varnhagen. ‘I have a great deal of lint, bandages, rags, stockings, shirts; arrange for meals in several districts of the city; attend personally to thirty or forty fusiliers and soldiers every day; discuss and inspect everything.’56

Nothing better encapsulates the demotic quality of Prussian wartime mobilization than the new decorations created to honour distinguished service to the fatherland. The Iron Cross, designed and introduced on the initiative of the monarch, was the first Prussian decoration to be awarded to all ranks. ‘The soldier [should be] on equal terms with the general, since people will know when they see a general and a soldier with the same decoration, that the general has earned it through merit in his capacity, whereas the soldier can only have earned it within his own narrower sphere…’ Here, for the first time, was an acknowledgement that courage and initiative were virtues to be found alike in all classes of the people – the king personally overrode a proposal from his staff to confine the use of the decoration to the ranks of sergeant-major and below. The new medal, formally introduced on 10 March 1813, was an austere object – a small Maltese cross fashioned in cast iron and decorated only with a sprig of oak leaves, the king’s initials surmounted by a crown and the year of the campaign. Iron was chosen for both practical and symbolic reasons. Precious metals were in short supply and Berlin happened to possess excellent local foundries specializing in the decorative use of cast iron. Equally important was the metaphorical resonance of iron: as the king observed in a remarkable memorandum of February 1813, this was a ‘time of iron’ for the Prussian state, in which ‘only iron and determination’ would bring redemption. In an extraordinary gesture, the king ordered that all other decorations were to be suspended for the duration of the war and thereby transformed the Iron Cross into a campaign memorial. After the allies had reached Paris, the king ordered that the Iron Cross was to be incorporated into all Prussian flags and ensigns that had remained in service throughout the war. From its very inception, the Iron Cross was marked out to become a Prussian lieu de mémoire.57

On 3 August 1814, a complementary decoration was introduced for women who had made a distinguished contribution to the war effort. Its presiding spirit was the dead Queen Luise, well on her way to secular canonization as a Prussian Madonna. The Order of Luise resembled the Iron Cross in shape, but was enamelled in Prussian blue and mounted in the centre with a medallion bearing the initial ‘L’. Eligible were Prussian women, born and naturalized, of all social stations, whether married or single. Among the women honoured for charitable and fund-raising work was Amalia Beer, mother of the composer Giacomo Meyer-beer and one of the wealthiest women of Berlin’s Jewish elite. The king saw to it that the medal, usually cast in the shape of a cross, was modified so as not to offend her religious sensibility.58

The creation of the Luisenorden reflected a broader public understanding of the forces mobilized in war than had been possible in the eighteenth century. For the first time, the voluntary initiatives of civil society – and particularly of its female members – were celebrated as integral to the state’s military success. One consequence of this was a new emphasis on the activism of women. But this inclusiveness was attended by a heightened emphasis on gender difference. In the document inaugurating the Order of Luise, Frederick William III emphasized the specifically feminine and functionally subordinate character of women’s contribution:


34. The Iron Cross


35. The Order of Luise

When the men of our brave armies bled for their Fatherland, they found refreshment and relief in the comforting care of the women. The mothers and daughters of this land feared for their loved ones fighting with the enemy and they grieved for the fallen, but faith and hope gave them the strength to find peace in tireless work for the cause of the Fatherland… It is impossible to honour all of those who decorated their lives with these deeds of quiet service, but We think it fair to honour those among them whose merit is recognised as especially great.59

What mattered about the new discourse of gender was not the emphasis on difference, but the tendency to see in it a principle structuring civil society. As conscription was expanded to encompass (in theory) all men of serving age, it became possible to imagine the Prussian nation in increasingly masculine and patriarchal terms. If, as the Prussian Defence Law of 1814 put it, the army was ‘the principal school for training the whole nation for war’, then it followed that the nation consisted only of men. Women, by implication, were confined to an ancillary private sphere defined by their special capacity for empathy and sacrifice.

It would be a mistake to see this solely as a consequence of the campaigns against Napoleon. The patriot philosopher Fichte had been arguing since the late 1790s that active citizenship, civic freedom and even property rights should be withheld from women, whose calling was to subject themselves utterly to the authority of their fathers and husbands. The gymnastic movement founded by Jahn in 1811 was centred on esteem for a putatively masculine form of physical prowess, as was the aggressive patriotism of the poet and nationalist publicist Ernst Moritz Arndt.60 In the same year, a circle of patriots gathered in Berlin to found a Christian-German Dining Society whose statutes explicitly excluded women (along with Jews and Jewish converts). Among the society’s early cultural events was a lecture from Fichte on the ‘almost unlimited subjection of the wife to the husband’. But the wars sharpened these distinctions and etched them more deeply in public awareness. The equivalence established here between masculinity, military service and active citizenship would become steadily more pronounced as the century progressed.61


On 18 October 1817, some 500 students from at least eleven German universities gathered at the Wartburg, a castle in the Thuringian hills where Luther had spent some time studying after his excommunication by Pope Leo X. They had come together to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Reformation and the fourth anniversary of the battle of Leipzig. Both anniversaries recalled legendary moments of liberation in the history of the German nation; the former from ‘papal despotism’, the latter from the yoke of French tyranny. In addition to singing patriotic songs, the young men on the Wartburg solemnly burned the publications of a number of reactionary authors. Among the works consigned to the flames was a pamphlet published at the end of the Wars of Liberation by Theodor Anton Heinrich Schmalz, rector of the University of Berlin. In this pamphlet, Schmalz attacked the patriotic secret societies that had formed in Prussia during the occupation and forcefully rejected the view that the war against the French had been fuelled by a wave of popular enthusiasm in Prussia. Those Prussians who had joined the colours, Schmalz argued, had not done so out of enthusiasm for the cause, but rather out of a sense of duty, ‘just as one hurries by when a neighbour’s house is burning down’.62 At the time of its appearance in 1815, the pamphlet prompted a storm of enraged protest from patriotic publicists. Schmalz himself was surprised and shocked at the vehemence of the public response.63 Two years later, his description of a people wearily following its king into war still offended the students on the Wartburg, many of them ex-volunteers, who had timed their meeting to fall on the fourth anniversary of the largest and most decisive military confrontation of the Wars of Liberation.

The symbolic auto-da-fé on the Wartburg reminds us of the controversy and emotion that accompanied public recollections of the Wars of Liberation in the immediate post-war years. The students on the Wartburg had adopted as their banner the black, red and gold colours of the Lützow volunteer corps. They were not commemorating a ‘War of Liberation’ but a ‘War of Liberty’; not a war of regular armies, but a war of volunteers; ‘not a war’, as the fallen volunteer rifleman and poet Theodor Körner put it, ‘that crowns know of’, but rather ‘a crusade’, ‘a holy war’.64 They conceived of the war against the French as an ‘insurrection of the people’.65 These preoccupations contrasted crassly with conservative recollections of the war years. It was ‘the princes and their ministers’, wrote the publicist Friedrich von Gentz in the days following the Wartburg festival, who ‘achieved the greatest [feats]’ in the war against Napoleon.

Not all the demagogues and pamphleteers of the world and of posterity can take that away from them. [… ] They prepared the war, founded it, created it. They did even more: they led it, nourished and enlivened it. [… ] Those who today in their youthful audacity suppose that they overturned the tyrant [Gentz refers to the students on the Wartburg], couldn’t even have driven him out of Germany.66

In part, these divergences in memory were grounded in the hybrid character of the struggle. The Wars of Liberation were wars of governments and monarchs, of dynastic alliances, rights and claims, in which the chief concern was to re-establish the balance of power in Europe. But they also involved – to an extent unprecedented in Prussia’s history – militias and politically motivated volunteers. Of just under 290,000 officers and men mobilized in Prussia, 120,565 served in units of the Landwehr. In addition to the Landwehr regiments, which generally served under officers of the Prussian army, there were a variety of free corps, units of voluntary riflemen recruited from Prussia and other German states. Unlike their colleagues in the regular army, they swore oaths of loyalty not to the King of Prussia, but to the German fatherland. By the end of hostilities, free corps such as the famous Lützow Rangers accounted for 12.5 per cent of the Prussian armed forces, about 30,000 men in all.67 The intense patriotism of many volunteers was tied up with potentially subversive visions of an ideal German or Prussian political order.

Yet it would be misleading to suggest that the divergence between dynastic and voluntarist recollections of the campaign was rooted solely or even primarily in distinctive modes of enlistment and combat experience. Not all post-war patriots had served in volunteer corps; many had served in the Landwehr militia and in regiments of the line, or not served at all. Nor were the officers and men of the regular army immune to the patriotic ferment of the war years. In January 1816, according to reports from the British envoy in Berlin, there were officers who had been ‘infected’ with ‘revolutionary stirrings’ in almost all regiments of the regular army.68 The Volunteer Rangers (freiwillige Jäger), on the other hand, included noblemen (such as Wilhelm von Gerlach and the sons of Count Friedrich Leopold Stolberg) whose political orientation in the post-war period was conservative or corporate-aristocratic rather than liberal or democratic.69 The controversies of the post-war period were fuelled not simply by diverse memories of wartime experience as such, but by the instrumentalization of memory for political ends.

Prussians found many ways of commemorating the Wars of Liberation in the years after 1815. The provincial archives – in particular the news reports (Zeitungsberichte) filed every month by the provincial governments – describe the ringing of church bells, target-shooting tournaments, processions involving men in militia costumes, and local theatrical events in commemoration of the battles of Leipzig and Waterloo.70 ‘Volunteer clubs’ and ‘funeral associations’ were founded in Prussian towns during the 1830s and 1840s to collect funds for the ceremonial burial of deceased veteran volunteers. These groups not only paid the costs of burial, but also provided men in uniform for the funeral procession, thereby reminding the community of the special status of those – no matter how humble their social standing – who had served their king and fatherland in the wars against the French.71 During the 1840s, according to a report in the Berlin-based Vossische Zeitung, veterans gathered almost every year in various locations to renew contact and remember fallen comrades. In June 1845, on the thirtieth anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, there were numerous meetings of veterans who had served in Landwehr and regular army regiments, as well as a gathering of surviving Lützow volunteers who congregated at the oak tree where the poet and volunteer rifleman Theodor Körner had been buried.72

Throughout the post-war decades, the volunteer, or Freiwilliger, continued to enjoy a special status; in Theodor Fontane’s childhood memoirs for example, we find an account of a public execution that took place in 1826 while his family was living in Swinemünde. Because he was an ‘1813 er’, Fontane senior was selected to march at the head of the municipal procession to the place of execution and supervise the crowd around the scaffold. The condemned murderer, for his part, continued until his last breath to believe that he would be pardoned because of a letter of commendation he had received from the king after the battle of Jena.73 General Yorck, too, remained under the spell of the war against France. His private memorial cult focused on the Convention of Tauroggen and his fall from royal favour. The Convention was never officially recognized as an act of state by the Prussian Crown; it was thus confined, for the short term at least, to the realm of private memory. Although Yorck was exonerated of any offence by a board of enquiry in March 1813, he remained convinced that he had been denied the honour he deserved for his part in the opening phase of the war against Napoleon. The original document bearing the text of the Convention was not returned for deposition among the state papers, but remained a revered heirloom in the Yorck family archive. The full-length free-standing statue that adorned the general’s tomb on the family’s estate was commissioned by Yorck himself; it shows him holding a stone scroll engraved with the words ‘Convention of Tauroggen’.74

This disparate evidence reveals a memory of the Wars of Liberation that was anchored in specific social contexts.75 One can speak, for example, of a distinctively Jewish memory of the Wars of Liberation, in which the story of volunteer enlistment was closely intertwined with the narrative of emancipation. Certainly, when the rabbis of Breslau blessed the weapons of Jewish volunteers on 11 March 1813, dispensing them at the same time from the stricter forms of observance for the duration of the campaign, they did not neglect to point out that the ceremony marked the first anniversary of the Prussian Edict of Emancipation.76 Jewish participation in the campaign could be and was invoked as an argument against discriminatory legislation.77 In 1843, when the Militärwochenblatt printed statistics from the Wars of Liberation substantially understating the numbers of Jewish volunteers, there were indignant protests and corrections from Jewish journals such as Der Orient and Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums.78 This Jewish memory of the Wars of Liberation found pictorial expression in the paintings of Moritz Daniel Oppenheimer, the ‘first modern Jewish artist’79, known for his portraits of converts and assimilated Jews. In a painting of 1833–4 entitled Return of the Jewish Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to his Family Still Living by the Old Custom, Oppenheimer depicted a young man in military uniform surrounded by his family in a room strewn with symbols of domesticity and Jewish worship. Light pours in through the windows of the room, illuminating the braid on his jacket. There could be no clearer illustration of the relationship between the drawn-out processes of assimilation and emancipation and the ‘memory of 1813’.80


36. Return of the Jewish Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to his family still living by the Old Custom. Oil painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheimer 1833–34.

The war was also commemorated through the erection of monuments. A splendid war memorial was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, greatest of the Prussian architects, and placed on the summit of the Tempelhofer Berg, later known as the Kreuzberg, in 1821. Perched on the highest point in Berlin’s otherwise flat cityscape and resembling a miniature gothic church tower, it was well placed to become a shrine for the sacralized memory of war. But Schinkel’s monument bore an inscription which made it clear that it spoke for one memory in particular: the dynastic memory of war which placed the king at the head of his people. ‘From the king to the people who, at his call, nobly sacrificed their blood and chattels to the Fatherland’. The message was reinforced by the twelve figures placed in niches around the monument. Initially intended as ‘genii’ representing the great battles of the Wars of Liberation, they were altered to function as portraits of generals and members of the Prussian and Russian ruling houses.81 Commemorative tablets in the churches of Prussia likewise bore the inscription: ‘For king and fatherland’.82 The monuments to the Prussian fallen on the battlefields of Gross-Görschen, Haynau, an der Katzbach, Dennewitz and Waterloo carried the legend: ‘King and fatherland honour the fallen heroes. They rest in peace.’83

By contrast, it seemed that the patriotic-voluntarist memory of war would have to remain without its remembrance in stone. Among those who felt this problem most keenly were the painter Caspar David Friedrich, a patriot and political radical who had grown up in Greifswald (Mecklenburg), but was now living in the Saxon city of Dresden, and Ernst Moritz Arndt, who hailed from the island of Rügen in that portion of the old Duchy of Pomerania that passed from Sweden to Prussia in 1815. Arndt and Friedrich collaborated on a statue of Scharnhorst but received no official support for the project. Both men viewed the Prussian war against Napoleon as a German ‘national’ undertaking and for both the memory of that conflict was intimately bound up with radical politics. ‘I am not at all surprised,’ Friedrich wrote to Arndt in March 1814, ‘that no memorials are being erected, neither to mark the great cause of the Volk, nor to the magnanimous deeds of great German men. As long as we remain manservants to the princes, nothing of this sort will ever happen.’84 The absence of an adequate monument to the ‘people’s’ Wars of Liberation was a theme to which Friedrich repeatedly returned in the paintings he produced during the years after 1815. Not only the voluntarist patriots, but also reformers within the military and bureaucratic establishment were sensitive to the way in which public remembrance of the Wars of Liberation had been weighted in favour of the dynastic-military tradition. In 1822, when Theodor von Schön, the liberal provincial president of West Prussia and a former close associate of Stein, heard that there were plans to erect a monument to the conservative General von Bülow, he proposed a statue be raised instead to the militiaman who had reportedly shouted ‘lick my arse’ when Bülow blew a call for retreat during the advance on Leipzig.85

How does one publicly commemorate a war without monuments? This was one of the problems addressed by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and his gymnasts. Within a few years of its foundation in the Hasenheide park on the outskirts of Berlin, the movement had spread beyond the borders of the kingdom, attracting new adherents across Protestant central and northern Germany. By 1818, Jahn estimated that there were 150 gymnastic clubs in all, encompassing a membership of around 12,000.86 While the public representation of the past in stone after 1815 remained subject, as it were, to a dynastic monopoly, the gymnasts developed new ways of perpetuating a remembrance of war inflected with their own voluntarist nationalism. They made pilgrimages to the battlefields of the Wars of Liberation. They designed and celebrated memorial feast days, the most important being the anniversary of the battle of Leipzig. The first of these memorial events took place in the Hasenheide on 18 October 1814 and attracted some 10,000 spectators. With its symphony of bodies in disciplined motion, its songs, flaming beacons and torch-lit processions, it set the pattern for subsequent anniversaries until the suppression of the gymnastic movement in 1819.

The gymnastic festival was a high holiday in the gymnastic year, and its function as a populist memorial of the Wars of Liberation could hardly escape the notice of contemporaries. But the gymnastic art itself was a kind of memorial enactment. It was more than a fitness programme; it was the disciplined maintenance of readiness for struggle and conflict. In the early post-war period, this posture of preparedness could not fail to evoke the years of the French occupation. It was not, as we have seen, the stance of the soldier, but that of the civilian volunteer. The uniforms worn by the gymnasts, and designed by Jahn himself, further reinforced these commemorative associations. The gymnastic uniform belonged within an early nineteenth-century sartorial code that linked the patriotic ‘Old German costume’ (altdeutsche Tracht) popularized by Jahn around the turn of the century with the loose jackets worn by the volunteer riflemen, and connected both with the student garb of the Burschenschaften (nationalist student fraternities), in whose early history Jahn had also played a role.

The fraternity students, whose membership overlapped with that of the gymnastic movement, were a memorial cult, preoccupied by the great deeds of the recent past. Through their networks, the Prussian war against Napoleon was woven into the fabric of a broader German memory. When, in December 1817, the Burschen of Jena set out to explain in writing the meaning of their movement, they reminded their public of the remembered experiences that still held them together. ‘For we have all seen the great year 1813’, they wrote, recalling wounds suffered and friends lost on the field of battle. ‘And would we not be contemptible before God and the world if we had not tended and sustained such thoughts and feelings? We have tended and sustained them and [we] return to dwell on them again and again and will never forsake them.’87

Wrapped up within this cult of memory was the possibility of a new kind of politics. The emphasis of the post-war patriots upon lived experience as a force capable of binding human beings together and endowing their bonds with meaning may appear transparent and unremarkable to us; it was, however, an invention of the period that bore all the marks of early nineteenth-century romanticism.88 The festival on the Wartburg was ‘a new form of political action’,89 not least because it represented the quest of the inward-looking ‘bourgeois self’ imagined by the language and thought of romanticism for a new kind of political community, welded together by a shared emotional commitment. To remember was to forge bonds with one’s fellows; forgetfulness was betrayal. The appeal to a past held in common did not exclude those who had never been volunteers, since the very purpose of festivals and rituals was to enable people to ‘remember’ events, even if they had never experienced them. The result was a form of public spectacle that could release powerful emotions in spectators and participants alike. Its politics were not rational and argumentative, but symbolic, cultic and emotional.90


Since its inception as a largely literary phenomenon within the educated middle classes during the Seven Years War, Prussian patriotism had always signified more than just a willingness to defend one’s fatherland. It had blended emotional commitments with political aspirations. This was much more threateningly the case in the Napoleonic era than it had been during the Seven Years War, partly because the social constituency capable of sustaining patriotic enthusiasms was far larger, and partly because the rhetorical environment in which these were articulated had been radicalized by the French Revolution and the controversy over reform. ‘One thing is now clear,’ the young Leopold von Gerlach wrote as he observed the frantic preparations for war in Breslau in February 1813. ‘The prevalent outlook among the most independent men is extremely Jacobin and revolutionary. Anyone who talks of the need for a future built upon historical foundations, anyone who seeks to graft the shoots of the new on to the still-healthy stems [of the past], is laughed at, so that even I feel myself wavering in my convictions.’91

The problem was not simply that patriotism sometimes went hand-in-hand with radical politics, but also that it could flow seamlessly into a nationalist commitment that threatened to unsettle the legitimacy of the particular German dynasties. The word ‘nation’ was used for both Prussia and Germany. Hardenberg and Yorck may have been at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they were both Prussian loyalists (even if Yorck found it difficult on occasion to reconcile his loyalty to Prussia with obedience to its reigning monarch). By contrast, Fichte, Boyen, Grolman and Stein were unambiguous German nationalists. For Stein, this came to imply the complete abandonment of any commitment to a specifically Prussian interest: ‘I have but one Fatherland, which is called Germany, and I am devoted with my whole heart to it alone and to no particular part of it,’ he declared in a letter of November 1812. ‘To me, in this great moment of transition, the dynasties are completely indifferent [… ] Put what you will in the place of Prussia, dissolve it, strengthen Austria by Silesia and the Electoral Mark and North Germany, excluding the banished princes…’92

The intimate tension between Prussian patriotism and German nationalism contained a threat and a promise. The threat was that nationalist agitation would become a force capable of challenging dynastic authority across the German states, that it would substitute a new horizontal culture of loyalties and affinities for the hierarchical order of the ancien régime and thereby sweep away the particularist heritage that had endowed Prussia with a distinctive history and significance. The promise was that Prussia might find a way of harnessing national enthusiasms to its own interests, of riding the nationalist wave without surrendering its particularist identity and institutions. In the short term, the threat overshadowed the promise as Frederick William III joined with other sovereigns in suppressing nationalist ‘demagoguery’ and silencing public memory of the war of volunteers. But in the longer term, as we shall see, Prussian political leaders became adept at discerning and exploiting the synergies between nationalist aspirations and territorial interest. In the process, the divided memory of the post-war years made way for an irenic synthesis in which popular and dynastic elements were juxtaposed and seen as complementary. Purged of its political ambiguities, the Prussian war against Napoleon would ultimately be refashioned – however incongruously – as a mythical war of German national liberation. Gymnastics, the Iron Cross, the cult of Queen Luise, even the battle of Jena would all mutate with time into German national symbols, legitimizing Prussian claims to political leadership within the community of German states.93

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