Modern history



In the 1840s, political dissent across the European continent became better organized, more confident and socially more diverse. Popular cultures acquired a harder critical edge. An intensifying social crisis generated conflict and violence, confronting administrative and political establishments with problems they seemed unable to solve. This was the most turbulent phase of the post-Napoleonic ‘age of flux and hiatus’.1 In Prussia, these trends were amplified by a regime change. The death of Frederick William III on 7 June 1840 left an oppressive residue of unfinished business. The political predicaments of the previous reign were still unresolved. Above all, Frederick William III’s ‘solemn and famous promise’ to grant a constitution remained, at his death, ‘an unredeemed pledge’.2 The hopes and expectations of liberals and radicals across the kingdom were focused on his successor.


The new king, Frederick William IV, was already forty-five years old when he ascended the throne. He was something of a puzzle, even to those who knew him well. His predecessors, Frederick William III, Frederick William II and Frederick the Great, had all been educated in the spirit and values of the enlightenment. The new king, by contrast, was a product of the Romantic era. He had grown up on a diet of romantic historic novels – a favourite was the Prussian writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a descendant of the Huguenot colony in Brandenburg whose historical romances featured high-minded knights, damsels in distress, windswept crags, ancient castles and gloomy forests. Frederick William was a romantic not only in his tastes, but also in his personal life. He wept frequently. His letters to intimates and siblings were long unbosomings copiously sprinkled with batches of up to seven exclamation marks.3

Frederick William IV was the last Prussian – perhaps the last European – monarch to place religion at the centre of his understanding of kingship. He was a ‘lay theologian on the throne’, for whom religion and politics were inseparable.4 At times of stress and high drama, he turned instinctively to biblical language and precedents. But his Christianity was not merely a matter of images and formulations; it shaped his policies and affected his choice of advisers.5 Long before the death of his father in 1840, the crown prince surrounded himself with like-minded Christian friends. For his sceptical younger brother Prince William, writing in 1838, it was clear that the heir to the throne had fallen into the hands of a ‘sect of enthusiasts’. Prince William complained that these ‘fanatics’ had been able to ‘gain complete control of his entire person and his labile imagination’. The ethos of awakened Christianity had established itself so securely in the crown prince’s following, Prince William argued, that ambitious courtiers with an eye on the future sovereign had merely to master the behavioural reflexes of Pietistic devotion in order to assure their advancement. The accession brought many of the crown prince’s Christian friends – Leopold von Gerlach, Ludwig Gustav von Thile (known to his detractors as ‘Bible Thile’), Count Anton von Stolberg-Wernigerode and Count Karl von der Groeben – into positions of political influence. These were men who had been involved with the Protestant awakening of the 1810s; some of them had close ties with the Pietist and Lutheran separatist movements on the fringes of the Prussian state church.

For Frederick William IV, as for his father, the Prussian state was a Christian institute. However, whereas Frederick William III had set out to impose his own eclectic brand of Calvino-Lutheranism on the Protestant congregations of Prussia and antagonized Prussia’s Catholics by seeking a confrontation over the issue of mixed marriages, his son’s Christianity was broader and more ecumenical. To the consternation of his father, Frederick William IV chose to marry a Catholic princess, Elisabeth of Bavaria, and insisted that she be allowed to convert in her own time (as indeed she duly did). His outspoken support for the refurbishment and completion of the great cathedral at Cologne reflected not only a characteristically romantic taste for the Gothic style, but also his determination to acknowledge Catholicism as a religion with historic and cultural claims to equality within the Prussian state.

The Anglo-Prussian bishopric in Jerusalem, founded in 1841 with the intention of evangelizing the Jews of the Holy Land and building contacts with the eastern Christians, was a uniquely ecumenical institution occupied in alternation by clergymen of the Church of England and the Prussian Union. Its chief architect was the king’s close friend Carl Josias Bunsen, an expert on liturgical history who shared Frederick William’s enthusiasm for the early Christian church.6 Already as crown prince, Frederick William had been critical of the heavy-handed measures taken by his father’s administration against the Lutheran dissidents in Silesia and Pomerania. One of his earliest acts as king was to order the release of those Old Lutheran clergymen who had been imprisoned during the confrontations of the late 1830s. The obstacles to the creation of a separate Lutheran territorial church were gradually removed and the flow of Lutheran emigrants to North America and Australia came to an end.

Frederick William was not a liberal. Nor, on the other hand, was he an authoritarian statist conservative in the Kamptz-Rochow-Wittgenstein mould. The governmental conservatism of the Restoration era was rooted in the authoritarian strand of the Prussian enlightenment. By contrast, Frederick William was steeped in the corporatist ideology of the romantic counter-enlightenment. He was not opposed to representative bodies as such, but they had to be ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘grown’; in other words, they had to correspond to the natural and god-given hierarchy of human status and accomplishment, as exemplified in the medieval ‘society of orders’. Underlying his vision of politics and history was an emphasis on continuity and tradition – a response, perhaps, to the trauma he experienced in 1806 as he fled eastwards with his mother from the advancing French and to his mother’s sudden death in 1810, during Prussia’s ‘time of iron’. Frederick William’s attitude to the modern bureaucratic Prussian state was ambivalent. The state did not in his view embody the living forces of historical continuity; it was an artificial thing whose claim to universal authority violated the older and more sacred authority of the locality, the congregation, the corporation. The king was thus more than a supreme administrator, and certainly more than the first servant of the state. He was a sacred father, bound to his people in a mystical union and gifted by God with a peerless understanding of his subjects’ needs.7

The king articulated these commitments in a language that could sound almost liberal. It was a feature of the idiom of political romanticism that it tended at least superficially to blur the differences between progressive and conservative positions. Frederick William spoke admiringly of Britain and its ‘ancient constitution’. He was open – like his romantic Bavarian colleague Ludwig I – to the appeal of German cultural nationalism. He invoked the buzzwords ‘renewal’, ‘revitalization’ and ‘development’ and denounced the evils of ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘despotism’ in a way that seemed to speak to liberal aspirations. One of the king’s closest friends recognized that he expounded a diffuse combination of ‘Pietism’, ‘medievalism’ and ‘aristocratism’ with ‘patriotism’, ‘liberalism’ and ‘Anglomania’.8

All this made Frederick William IV a difficult man to read. Hyperbolic expectations of political change often attend a change of regime. They were encouraged in this case by early signs of a more liberal course. The new monarch immediately announced that all the Prussian provincial diets were to meet at the beginning of 1841 and thereafter every two years (under his father they had met every three years); he also spoke of the ‘reinvigoration’ of representative politics.9 In September 1840, when the Königsberg Diet presented a memorandum begging the monarch to grant a ‘representation of the entire land and of the people’, Frederick William replied that he intended ‘to continue cultivating this noble work’ and to oversee its further ‘development’.10 What exactly the king meant by these words was unclear, but they aroused huge excitement. Political offenders were released from confinement, and Ernst Moritz Arndt was permitted to resume his teaching post at the University of Bonn. Censorship restrictions were relaxed. There were also concessions to the Poles in the province of Posen. On 19 August 1840, there was a general amnesty for Poles who had taken part in the November uprising of 1830. The provocative Eduard Flottwell was removed in 1841, political émigrés from Russian Poland were permitted to take up residence in the province, the German settlement policy was abandoned, and a new school language ordinance met the basic demands of the Polish activists.11

The new minister of education, health and religious affairs, Johann Albrecht Friedrich Eichhorn, who took up his post in October 1840, was a former collaborator of Stein and one of the architects of the Customs Union; his entry into the ministry of state kindled liberal hopes.12 Another hopeful sign was the political rehabilitation of Hermann Boyen, the veteran champion of military and political reform, who had been forced out of public life by the conservative ministers in 1819. Now seventy-one years old, Boyen was recalled to Berlin and appointed minister of war. The new king fêted the elderly warrior, assigning him the first place in the ministry of state (on grounds of his seniority) and appointing him to the command of the I Infantry Regiment. At the unveiling of a monument to Gneisenau, Frederick William presented Boyen with the Order of the Black Eagle – eloquent testimony to the king’s determination to close the gap between patriotic and dynastic memories of the war against Napoleon. Boyen’s dramatic rehabilitation sent out clear political signals – the old man had only recently offended conservative opinion with a polemically partisan biography of the great patriot and military reformer Scharnhorst.

The accession of the new monarch also brought an end to the career of Police Chief Karl Christoph Albert Heinrich von Kamptz, that zealous hunter of demagogues who had worked with Wittgenstein to shut down political dissent in the post-war years. In the 1830s, Kamptz had become a hate figure whose name often cropped up in the songs and poems of the radical opposition. He was shocked to receive, while taking the waters in Gastein in the summer of 1841, a note from Berlin informing him that the ‘vitality and spiritual energy’ of His Majesty called for younger and more vigorous servants.13 The impact of such signal interventions was enhanced by the vibrant personal style of the new monarch. Frederick William IV received the homage of the Prussian Estates in Königsberg and Berlin, as his predecessors had done, but he was the first of his dynasty to follow up the formal part of the proceedings with an impromptu public address to the crowds gathered before the palace. These two speeches, delivered in a passionate, evangelical, plebiscitary idiom, had an electrifying effect on spectators and public opinion.14

The exhilaration and optimism generated by the inaugural ceremonies and the king’s speeches quickly dissipated, however. Alarmed by the intensity of liberal speculation, the king took steps to quash press discussion of his constitutional plans. In a cabinet order of 4 October, Interior Minister Gustav von Rochow was ordered to announce that the king regretted any misunderstandings that had arisen from his reply to the Königsberg diet and wished it to be known that he had no intention of granting its request for a national assembly. This announcement met with disappointment and bitterness, compounded by the fact that the bad news came from the desk of Rochow, a hardliner from the previous reign who was loathed by liberals throughout the kingdom.15

Among those who found themselves at loggerheads with the new regime was the long-serving provincial president in Königsberg, Theodor von Schön. Schön was an emblematic figure, even for his contemporaries. He had made repeated journeys to England in his youth; throughout his life he remained a Smithian economic liberal and an admirer of the British parliamentary system. He had been a close associate of Stein, indeed he had drafted Stein’s Political Testament of 1808, which called for a ‘general national representation’. Only through the ‘participation of the people in the operations of the state’, Schön had written, could the ‘national spirit be positively aroused and animated’.16 During the early post-war years he worked with considerable success to develop the basis for a constructive interplay between the regional government and corporate assemblies in West Prussia. Like many moderate reformers, he was aware of the limitations of the provincial diets established in 1823, but welcomed them none the less as a platform for further constitutional development.17 As the provincial president of Prussia (East and West Prussia had been amalgamated under this name in 1829), he was a powerful local boss who held one of the pivotal offices in the post-Napoleonic Prussian state. He also stood at the head of an influential party of liberal East Prussian noblemen, including the Lord Mayor of Königsberg, Rudolf von Auerswald.

During the press debate that followed the homage of the Estates in September 1840, Schön composed the essay Where Are We Headed? in which he celebrated the era of reform, lamented the ‘bureaucratic [… ] reaction’ that followed and called for the establishment of a general Estates assembly: ‘Only with national representative institutions,’ he argued, ‘can public life begin and develop in our state.’ Published in a limited edition of only thirty-two copies, Where Are We Headed? circulated privately among the Provincial President’s closest friends and associates. Schön also presented a copy to the king, presumably in the belief that he and the new monarch, whom he knew well, were essentially in agreement on the constitutional question. Frederick William’s reply to Schön’s tract was sharp and unequivocal. He would never allow a ‘piece of paper’ (constitution) to come between him and his subjects. It was his sacred duty, he declared, to continue ruling Prussia in ‘patriarchal’ fashion; ‘artificial’ organs of representation were unnecessary.18

Relations between Berlin and Königsberg quickly cooled and the conservatives in Berlin seized the opportunity to reaffirm their control over the government’s policy.19 Interior Minister Gustav von Rochow raised the stakes by sending Schön the text of a radical song that had been passed to the Berlin police, in which the East Prussian provincial president was lauded as a ‘teacher of liberty’. Schön responded to this provocation with undisguised disdain, rebuking the minister and denouncing him as a danger to the state he served. A bitter press feud broke out; Schön’s friends launched salvos against the interior minister in the East Prussian liberal newspapers, while Rochow ordered his subordinates in the ministry to plant poison-pen pieces, not only in Prussian journals, but also in the Leipzig and the Augsburg Allegemeine Zeitungen – such was the importance Prussian officials attached to the state of public opinion in the other German territories. The clash came to a head in May 1842, when Where Are We Headed? was republished without Schön’s permission by a radical in Strasbourg. The new edition included a long afterword attacking the king. Schön’s dismissal was announced on 3 June, followed by that of Rochow ten days later; Frederick William IV wished to avoid the appearance of partisanship that might have been conveyed by removing only one of the two antagonists.

What was significant about the Schön–Rochow showdown was not the enmity between two powerful servants of the Prussian Crown, for this was nothing new, but the extraordinary public resonance of the struggle. In October 1841, when he returned to Königsberg from a sitting of the state ministry in Berlin, Schön was welcomed like a hero: boats flying festive pennants sailed out to meet him as he entered the harbour and the windows of his many Königsberg supporters were illuminated that evening. On 8 June 1843, a year after his removal from office, the liberals in Königsberg orchestrated festivities to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the former president’s entry into state service. A collection was organized, and so widely had Schön’s fame spread across Germany that contributions flowed in from sympathetic liberals as far afield as Baden and Württemberg. The amount collected sufficed to liquidate the remaining debt on the Schön family estate at Arnau, with enough left over to finance the erection of a memorial obelisk in the city. For the first time in Prussian history, a senior state official had allowed himself to be celebrated as the figurehead of a dissident political movement.

The political frustrations that attended the accession of Frederick William IV were no passing storm; they signalled an irreversible elevation in the political temperature. There was a dramatic sharpening and refinement of critical politics. The radical Jewish physician Johann Jakoby was a member of a group of like-minded friends who met for political discussions at Siegel’s Café in Königsberg. His pamphlet, Four Questions, Answered by an East Prussian, published in 1841, demanded ‘lawful participation in the affairs of state’, not as a concession or favour, but as an ‘inalienable right’. Jakoby was subsequently arraigned on charges of treason but was acquitted after a chain of trials by an appeals court; in the process he became one of the most celebrated figures of the Prussian opposition movement. By contrast with the genteel Theodor von Schön and his noble circle, Jakoby represented the more impatient activism of the urban professional classes. The radicalized intellectuals of the urban elites found a forum in the new political associations that proliferated across the major Prussian cities – the Ressource in Breslau, the Citizens’ Club in Magdeburg and the Thursday Society in Königsberg, which was a more formally constituted version of the Siegel’s Café group.20 But political participation could unfold in many other contexts as well – in the Cathedral Building Society of Cologne, for example, which became an important meeting place for liberals and radicals, or at the lectures given by visiting speakers in the wine gardens of the city of Halle.21

Within the provincial diets, too, there was an unmistakable change in tone. The demands articulated here and there by individual assemblies during the 1830s now merged into an all-Prussian chorus. In 1841 and 1843, virtually all the diets passed resolutions calling for freedom of the press. In 1843, the Rhenish Diet – supported by a broad swathe of middle-class opinion – rejected a new and in many respects quite progressive Prussian penal code because it breached the principle of equality before the law by incorporating penalties that varied in accordance with a person’s corporate status.22 The campaigns mounted in support of petitions to the diet grew dramatically in size and public resonance.23 The Polish national movement in the province of Posen was initially reluctant to support liberal calls for a national parliament, on the ground that this would further integrate the province into the fabric of the kingdom. But by 1845, Polish patriots and German liberals among the deputies to the diet were ready to join forces in demanding a wide range of liberal measures.24

If the liberals had begun to coalesce into a ‘party of movement’ by the 1840s, the same could not be said of conservatives. Conservatism (a retrospective construct, since the term was not yet in use) remained a diffuse, fragmented phenomenon whose diverse threads had not been woven into a coherent fabric. The nostalgic rural paternalism so eloquently expressed by the estate owner Friedrich August Ludwig von der Marwitz remained a minority taste, even among the landed nobility. The ‘historical school’, formed by opponents of Hegelian philosophy at the University of Berlin, embraced too many conflicting perspectives, not all of which were ‘conservative’ in any straightforward sense, to furnish the basis for an abiding coalition. Those conservatives whose outlook was rooted in the neo-Pietist commitment of the Awakening found it difficult to see eye to eye with those who were inspired by the secular authoritarian statism of the late eighteenth century. The ambivalent attitude of many conservatives towards the bureaucratic state also made collaboration with the authorities difficult. The Berliner Politisches Wochenblatt, formed by ultraconservatives in 1831, conceived of itself as a loyalist organ directed against the forces unleashed by the July Revolution in France, but this newspaper soon fell foul of the Prussian censorship authorities, whose officials, according to the paper’s disgruntled sponsor, were men of ‘liberalistic’ temperament. After struggling to acquire a secure readership, the paper went under in 1841.25

Conservatives were thus in no position to coordinate a response to the expansion of liberal dissent. Most either fished around for compromises or lapsed into a resigned awareness of the inevitability of change. Even within the Cabinet, there was little sign of a unified conservative bloc. The political discussions among ministers were surprisingly speculative, conflictual and open-ended, a feature that was encouraged – or at least tolerated – by the king himself.26 In October 1843, Leopold von Gerlach, commander of the I Guards Landwehrbrigade in Spandau on the outskirts of Berlin and a close personal friend of the king, reflected on the political situation in Prussia. What worried him was not just the pressure building behind demands for constitutional reform, but also the failure of the conservatives – even within the government – to form a united front against it. Several of the ministers – including the supposedly archconservative ‘Bible Thile’ – had begun to talk ‘quite uninhibitedly’ of conceding a Chamber of Deputies. The ship of state, Gerlach observed, was sailing in the direction of Jacobinism, driven by the ‘always freshly blowing wind of the Zeitgeist’. He listed various steps that might help to arrest the process of liberalization, but he was under no illusions about the prospects of success. ‘What can these little manoeuvres possibly achieve,’ he concluded, ‘against the onward pressing Zeitgeist, which, with satanic cleverness, wages an unceasing and systematic war against the authority established by God?’27

In these circumstances, it was inconceivable that the king would be able to re-sculpt society in the image of his neo-corporate ideology. He made an unsuccessful attempt to do so in 1841, when he declared in a cabinet order that the Jews of Prussia should be organized for administrative purposes into Judenschaften (Jewries), whose elected deputies would represent the interests of the Jewish communities before the local authorities. The order also stated that Jews were to be absolved of the obligation to perform military service. Neither of these measures was ever carried out. The king’s own ministers opposed them – Interior Minister Rochow and the new minister for religious and educational affairs, Johann Albrecht Friedrich Eichhorn, objected that the proposals ran counter to the recent development of Prussian society. A survey of district governments revealed that these, too, were opposed to the king’s plan. Local administrations were prepared to bestow corporate legal status upon Jewish religious institutions, but they were strongly opposed to the imposition of corporate status in the broader political sense favoured by Frederick William, which they saw as hindering the all-important process of societal assimilation. Indeed the vehemence and candour with which they rejected this royal hobby-horse are remarkable. The district government of Cologne even pressed for full and unconditional emancipation of the Jewish minority, pointing out the success of this policy in France, Holland, Belgium and England. The officials of the 1840s were not servile Untertanen (subjects) bent on ‘working towards’ their king. They viewed themselves as autonomous participants in the policy-making process.28

As the Jewish initiative suggests, Frederick William’s neo-corporatist vision was out of tune, not only with public opinion in the broadest sense, but even with the prevalent ethos of the administration itself, which found it increasingly difficult to reach consensus on the great political questions of the day. To liberals and radicals, and even to some conservatives, the politics of the new reign seemed fundamentally incoherent, ‘a deranged mixture of the extremes of our time’.29 No one captured the resulting sense of disconnection better than the radical theologian David Friedrich Strauss, whose pamphlet A Romantic on the Throne of the Caesars was published in Mannheim in 1847. Strauss’s tract purported to be about the Emperor known as Julian the Apostate, but was in fact a caricature of the Prussian king, who was depicted as an unworldly dreamer, a man who had turned nostalgia for the ancients into a way of life and whose eyes were closed to the pressing needs of the present.30


The expansion of political activism around the diets took place against the background of a broader process of politicization that reached deep into the hinterlands of the Prussian provinces. In the Rhineland in particular the 1840s saw dramatic growth in the popular consumption of newspapers. Rates of literacy were very high in Prussia by European standards, and even those who could not read for themselves could hear newspapers being read aloud in taverns. Beyond the newspapers, and far more popular with the general public, were ‘people’s calendars’ (Volkskalender), a traditional, cheap, mass-distributed print format that offered a mixture of news, fiction, anecdotes, and practical advice. By the 1840s, the market in calendars had become highly differentiated, catering to a range of political preferences.31 Even the traditional commerce in popular printed prophecy acquired a sharper political edge in the 1840s. Of particular concern to the Prussian authorities was the ‘Prophecy of Lehnin’, a text of obscure origin that appeared to divine the future of the House of Hohenzollern. The Prophecy of Lehnin, which circulated widely in the Rhineland, had traditionally foretold the imminent conversion of the royal house to Catholicism – reason enough in itself to attract the hostile attention of the authorities – but the early 1840s saw the appearance of a more radical version predicting that the ‘infamous king’ would be punished with death for his role in an ‘atrocity’.32

This creeping politicization of popular culture was not confined to the print media. Song was an even more ubiquitous medium for the articulation of political dissent. In the Rhineland, where memories of the French Revolution were especially vivid, the records of the local police are full of references to the singing of forbidden ‘liberty songs’, including endless variations on the Marseillaise and the ça ira. Liberty songs recalled the life and deeds of Kotzebue’s assassin Karl Sand, celebrated the virtuous struggles of the Greeks or the Poles against Ottoman and Russian tyranny and commemorated moments of public insurrection against illegitimate authority. No fair or public festivity was complete, moreover, without travelling ballad-singers (Bänkelsänger), whose songs were often irreverently political in content. Even the ‘peepshow men’, travelling performers who exhibited trompe-l’oeil scenes, were adept at weaving witty political critiques into their commentaries, so that even ostensibly harmless landscape views became pretexts for satire.33

From the 1830s, carnivals and other popular traditional festivities such as Maypole ceremonies and charivaris also tended increasingly to carry a (dissenting) political message.34 By the 1840s, the carnivals of the Rhineland – especially the elaborate processions orchestrated on the Monday before Ash Wednesday – had become a focal point for political tension between locals and the Prussian authorities. With its anarchic, twelfth-night atmosphere, in which conventional social and political relationships were inverted or satirized, the carnival was suited to become an eloquent medium of political protest. It was precisely in order to discipline the unruly energies of the street festival that carnival societies were founded in the Rhineland in the 1820s and 1830s. By the early 1840s, however, these too had been infiltrated by the spirit of dissent. In 1842, the Cologne carnival society split when radical members declared that ‘the republican carnival constitution’ was the only one ‘under which true foolishness could flourish’. They intended to enthrone a ‘carnival king’ whose authority was to be defended by a ‘standing army of fools’. The unusually radical Düsseldorf carnival society was also known for its harsh satires of the monarch.35

Ridicule of the king was an increasingly prominent feature of dissenting utterances in Prussia during the 1830s and 1840s. Although only 575 cases of lèse-majesté were actually investigated during the decade between 1837 and 1847, the records suggest that a multitude of other such misdemeanours went unprosecuted, and we can presume that many more again never came to the attention of the police at all. Yet such cases as did come before the courts were generally treated seriously. When the tailor Joseph Jurowski from Warmbrunn in Silesia declared in a drunken moment ‘our Freddy is a scoundrel; the king is a scoundrel and a swindler’, he received the remarkably harsh sentence of eighteen months in jail. The judicial official Balthasar Martin, from near the city of Halberstadt, was sentenced to six months of imprisonment for stating, while sitting in a tavern, that the king ‘drank five or six bottles of champagne a day’. ‘How can the king take care of us?’, Martin asked his listeners, presumably unaware that a police informer was sitting among them. ‘He’s a lush, the lush of lushes, he only drinks the really potent stuff.’36

These calumnies referred to an image of the king that by the mid-1840s had established itself ineradicably within the popular imagination. Frederick William IV, a plump, plain, unmilitary man who was known as ‘fatty flounder’ to his siblings and close friends, was the least physically charismatic individual to occupy the Hohenzollern throne since the reign of the first king. He was also the first Prussian king ever to be lampooned in numerous satirical images. Perhaps the most famous contemporary depiction, produced in 1844, portrays the monarch as a portly, drunken puss-in-boots clutching a bottle of champagne in his left paw and a foaming glass in his right, pathetically attempting to ape Frederick the Great against the backdrop of the palace complex at Sans Souci. Having relaxed literary censorship shortly after his accession to the throne, Frederick William reimposed the censorship of images, but it proved impossible to prevent grotesque visual satires of the monarch from circulating widely across the kingdom.37

Perhaps the most extreme expression of disregard for the person of the sovereign was the Tschechlied, a song that recalled the attempted assassination of the king by the mentally disturbed former village mayor Heinrich Ludwig Tschech. Tschech had failed to secure official support for a crusade against local corruption in his native Storkow and fell under the delusion that the monarch was personally to blame for his misfortune. On 26 July 1844, having had himself photographed in a theatrical pose by a daguerreotypist in Berlin, Tschech walked up to the royal carriage and fired two shots at close range, both of which missed. The public initially responded with a wave of sympathy for the king, although it was also widely expected that Tschech would be spared the death penalty in view of his abnormal mental condition. Frederick William was at first inclined to grant him clemency, but his ministers insisted that he be made an example of. When it became known in December that Tschech had been executed in secret, public sentiment swung against the king.38 Over the following years a range of Tschech songs circulated in Berlin and across the German states. Their irreverence is captured in the following stanza:


40. Frederick William IV as a tipsy Puss-in-Boots trying vainly to follow in the footsteps of Frederick the Great. Anonymous lithograph.

A fortune ill beyond compare

Befell poor Tschech the village mayor,

That he, though shooting close at hand,

Could not hit this bloated man!39


In the summer of 1844, the Silesian textile district around Peterswaldau and Langenbielau became the scene of the bloodiest upheaval in Prussia before the revolutions of 1848. The trouble began on 4 June, when a crowd attacked the headquarters of Zwanziger Brothers, a substantial textile firm in Peterswaldau. The firm was regarded in the locality as an inconsiderate employer that had exploited the region’s oversupply of labour to depress wages and degrade working conditions. ‘The Zwanziger Brothers are hangmen,’ a popular local song declared.

Their servants are the knaves.

Instead of protecting their workers,

They crush us down like slaves.40

Having broken into the main residence, the weavers smashed everything they could lay their hands on, from tiled ovens and gilt mirrors to chandeliers and costly porcelain. They tore to shreds all the books, bonds, promissory notes, records and papers they could find, then stormed through an adjacent complex of stores, rolling presses, packing rooms, sheds and warehouses, smashing everything as they went. The work of destruction continued until nightfall, bands of weavers making their way to the scene from outlying villages. On the next morning, the weavers returned to demolish the few structures that remained intact, including the roof. The entire complex would probably have been torched, had someone not pointed out that this would entitle the owners to compensation through their fire insurance.

Armed with axes, pitchforks and stones, the weavers, by now some 3,000 in number, marched out of Peterswaldau and found their way to the house of the Dierig family in Langenbielau. Here they were told by frightened company clerks that a cash payment (five silver groschen) had been promised to any weaver who agreed not to attack the firm’s buildings. Meanwhile two companies of infantry under the command of a Major Rosenberger had arrived from Schweidnitz to restore order; these formed up in the square before the Dierig house. All the ingredients of the disaster that followed were now in place. Fearing that the Dierig house was about to be attacked, Rosenberger gave the order to fire. After three salvos, eleven lay dead on the ground; they included a woman and a child who had been with the crowd, but also several bystanders, including a little girl who had been on her way to a sewing lesson and a woman looking on from her doorway some 200 paces away. Eyewitnesses reported that one man’s head had been smashed by the shot; the blood-flecked pan of his skull was thrown several feet from his body. The defiance and rage of the crowd now knew no bounds. The troops were driven away by a desperate charge and during the night the weavers rampaged through the Dierig house and its attached buildings, destroying eighty thousand thalers worth of goods, furnishings, books and papers.


41. How the weavers suffered; and how the state responded. This woodcut published in the radical journal Fliegende Blätter in 1844 refers to the Silesian uprising of that year and bears the caption: Hunger and Desperation.

The worst was over. Early on the following morning troop reinforcements, complete with artillery pieces, arrived in Langenbielau and the crowd of those who remained in or around the Dierig buildings was quickly dispersed. There was some further rioting in nearby Friedrichsgrund, and also in Breslau, where a crowd of artisans attacked Jewish houses, but the troops stationed in the city managed to prevent any further tumults. About fifty persons were arrested in connection with the unrest; of these eighteen were sentenced to terms of imprisonment with hard labour and corporal punishment (twenty-four lashes).41

There were many tumults and hunger riots in the Prussian lands during the 1840s, but none resonated in public awareness like the Silesian weavers’ revolt. Despite the best efforts of the censors, the news of the revolt and its suppression spread across the kingdom within days. From Königsberg and Berlin to Bielefeld, Trier, Aachen, Cologne, Elber-feld and Düsseldorf, there were extensive press commentaries and public discussion. There was a flowering of radical weaver poems, among them Heinrich Heine’s apocalyptic incantation of 1844, ‘The Poor Weavers’, in which the poet invokes the misery and futile rage of a life of endless work on a starvation wage:

The crack of the loom and the shuttle’s flight;

We weave all day and we weave all night.

Germany, we’re weaving your coffin-sheet;

Still weaving, ever weaving!

Numerous essays appeared over the following months analysing the uprising from every possible angle.

The Silesian events caused a sensation because they spoke to a fashionable contemporary obsession with what was coming to be known as ‘the Social Question’ – there are parallels with the almost contemporary British debate that greeted the appearance of Carlyle’s essay of 1839 on the ‘Condition of England’. The Social Question embraced a complex of issues: working conditions within factories, the problem of housing in densely populated areas, the dissolution of corporate entities (e.g. guilds, estates), the vicissitudes of a capitalist economy based on competition, the decline of religion and morals among the emergent ‘proletariat’. But the central and dominant issue was ‘pauperization’, the progressive impoverishment of the lower social strata. The ‘pauperism’ of the pre-March era differed from traditional forms of poverty in a number of important ways: it was a mass phenomenon, collective and structural, rather than dependent upon individual contingencies, such as sickness, injury or crop failures; it was permanent rather than seasonal; and it showed signs of engulfing social groups whose position had previously been relatively secure, such as artisans (especially apprentices and journeymen) and smallholding peasants. ‘Pauperism,’ the Brockhaus Encyclopaedia noted in 1846, ‘occurs when a large class can subsist only as a result of the most intensive labour…’42 The key problem was a decline in the value of labour and its products. This affected not only unskilled labourers and those who worked in the craft trades, but also the large and growing section of the rural population who lived from various forms of cottage industry.

The deepening misery was reflected in patterns of food consumption: whereas the inhabitants of the Prussian Rhine province consumed on average forty-one kilos of meat per annum in 1838, this figure had fallen to thirty by 1848.43 A statistical survey of 1846 suggested that between 50 and 60 per cent of the Prussian population were living on or near the subsistence minimum. In the early 1840s, the deepening of poverty across the kingdom triggered a moral panic among the Prussian literary classes. Bettina von Arnim’s This Book Belongs to the King, published in Berlin in 1843, opened with a sequence of fanciful literary dialogues whose common theme was the social crisis in the kingdom.44 Included in the text was a detailed appendix recording the observations of Heinrich Grunholzer, a 23-year-old Swiss student, in the slums of Berlin. Over the three decades between 1816 and 1846, the population of the capital had risen from 197,000 to 397,000. Many of the poorest immigrants – wage labourers and artisans for the most part – settled in the densely populated slum area on the northern outskirts of the city known as the ‘Vogtland’ because many of the earliest arrivals hailed from the Vogtland in Saxony. It was here that Grunholzer recorded his observations for Arnim’s book.

In an era that has become inured to the authenticity-effect of documentary, it is hard to recapture the fascination of Grunholzer’s bald descriptions of life in the most desolate corners of the capital. He spent four weeks combing through a few selected tenements and interviewing their occupants. He recorded his impressions in a spare prose that was paced out in short, informal sentences, and integrated the brutal statistics that governed the lives of the poorest families in the city. Passages of dialogue were woven into the narrative and the frequent use of the present tense suggested notes scribbled in situ.

In basement room no. 3, I found a woodchopper with a diseased leg. When I entered, the wife grabbed the potato peelings from the table and a sixteen-year-old daughter withdrew embarrassed into a corner of the room while her father began to tell me his tale. He had been rendered unemployable while helping to construct the new School of Engineering. His request for assistance was long ignored. Only when he was economically completely ruined was he granted a monthly allowance of 15 silver groschen [half a thaler]. He had to move back into the family apartment, because he could no longer afford an apartment in the city. Now he receives two thalers monthly from the Poor Office. In times when the incurable disease of his leg permits, he can earn one thaler a month; his wife earns twice that amount, his daughter can bring in an additional one-and-a-half thalers. But their accommodation costs two thalers a month, a ‘meal of potatoes’ one silver groschen and nine pennies; at two such meals a day, this comes to three-and-a-half thalers per month for the staple nourishment. One thaler thus remains for the purchase of wood and for all that a family needs, aside from raw potatoes, in order to survive.45

Another work in the same vein was Friedrich Wilhelm Wolff’s widely read article on the ‘vaults of Breslau’, a shanty-town area of former barracks and military stores on the outskirts of the Silesian capital, which appeared in the Breslauer Zeitung in November 1843. Wolff, the son of a poor Silesian farmer who became a renowned radical journalist, claimed to describe a world that was both close and remote, a world that lay, as he put it, like an ‘open book’ before the walls of the city but was invisible to most of its better-off inhabitants. There was doubtless an element of voyeuristic pleasure in the consumption of such texts by bourgeois readers – an important influence on the burgeoning literature of social thick description was Eugène Sue’s remarkable blockbusting ten-volume novel of the Parisian underworld, Les Mystères de Paris, which appeared in instalments during 1842–3 and was widely imitated across Europe. If readers were prepared to lose themselves in Sue’s colourful demimonde, Wolff declared, then they should take all the more interest in the real ‘mystères de Breslau’ before their own doorstep.46 In almost identical language August Brass, author of Mysteries of Berlin (1844), insisted that anyone could observe the misery of the underworld in the capital if they merely ‘took the trouble to cast off the convenient veil of selfish comforts’ and cast their gaze outside their ‘usual circles’.47

By the early months of 1844, all eyes were fixed on the mountainous textile districts of Silesia, where years of falling prices and slackening demand had driven entire communities of weavers into grinding poverty. There were collections for the Silesians in the textile towns of the Rhineland. During March, the poet and radical literary scholar Karl Grün toured from town to town holding popular lectures on Shakespeare, the proceeds from which were sent via the provincial government to help the weavers of the Liegnitz district. In the same month, the Association for the Alleviation of Need among the Weavers and Spinners of Silesia was founded in Breslau. During May, on the eve of the uprising, Alexander Schneer, an official in the provincial administration and a member of the Breslau association, walked from house to house in some of the most affected areas, meticulously documenting the circumstances of weaver families in the manner pioneered by Grunholzer.48 In this sensitized environment, it is hardly surprising that contemporaries viewed the uprising of June 1844 not as an inadmissible tumult, but as the inevitable expression of an underlying social malaise.

The apparent correlation between rising population and mass poverty may lead us to suspect that the social crisis of this era was the result of a ‘Malthusian trap’, in which the needs of the population exceeded the available supply of food.49 This view is misleading, at least for Prussia. During the post-war decades, technical improvements (artificial fertilizers, modernized animal husbandry and the three-field rotation system) and an increase in land under cultivation doubled the productivity of agriculture. As a result, the food supply increased at about twice the rate of population growth. The problem was not, therefore, chronic underproduction. Large agricultural surpluses could also have a harmful effect on manufacturing, however, since they depressed the prices of agricultural produce. The resulting collapse in agrarian incomes entailed a corresponding decline in the demand for goods from the overcrowded manufacturing sector.

More importantly, food supplies remained vulnerable despite the impressive growth in total agricultural production, because natural catastrophes – poor harvests, cattle epidemics, crop diseases – could still turn the surplus into a drastic shortfall. The crisis that unfolded from the winter of 1846, when harvest failures sent food prices up to double and even triple the normal average, was a case in point. The crisis of 1846–7 was compounded by a downturn in the business cycle and a crop disease that wiped out the potato harvests upon which the poor in many areas had become dependent (Grunholzer, for example, had found in 1842 that potatoes were the main – and indeed virtually the only – food – stuff consumed by the poorest families he visited in the Vogtland in Berlin).

The pressure exerted by subsistence crises produced waves of unrest. In Prussia, 158 food riots – including marketplace disturbances, attacks on stores and shops, and transportation blockades – took place during April–May 1847 alone, when food prices were at their highest. On 21–22 April, the population of Berlin stormed and plundered market stalls and shops and attacked potato merchants.50 Interestingly enough, the geography of food riots did not coincide with that of the most acute shortage. Tumults were more likely to occur in areas that produced food for export, or in transit areas with high levels of food transportation. The Prussian territories bordering on the Kingdom of Saxony were thus particularly riot-prone, because the demand generated by the relatively industrialized Saxon economy ensured that grain exports passed through these areas.

Far from being politically subversive, such protests were generally pragmatic attempts to control the food supply, or to remind the authorities of their traditional obligation to provide for afflicted subjects, along the lines of the ‘moral economy’ famously theorized by E. P. Thompson in his study of the eighteenth-century English crowd.51 Rioters did not act as members of a class, but as representatives of a local community whose right to justice had been denied. The human targets of their wrath were likely to be outsiders: merchants who dealt with distant markets, customs officials, foreigners or Jews. There was thus no automatic or necessary link between subsistence rioting in 1846–7 and revolutionary activism in 1848. Many of the most riotous areas of 1846–7 remained quiescent during the revolutions and the most politically active group in Silesia during the revolutions of 1848 was not the Silesian weavers who had risen in 1844, but the better off among the peasants. Of the peasants, it was the most upwardly mobile who became active, forming associations and cooperating with the urban middle-class democratic intelligentsia.

Even if they were often spontaneous or apolitical in motivation, however, subsistence riots were certainly highly political in their effect. They accelerated processes of politicization that extended far beyond the milieu of the participants. Conservatives and protectionists blamed price rises and mass impoverishment upon government inaction or the deregu latory reforms introduced by liberal bureaucrats. Some conservatives blamed the ‘factory system’. On the other hand, liberals argued that industrialization and mechanization were the cure for, not the cause of, the social crisis, and called for the removal of government regulations that hindered investment and obstructed economic growth. Alarmed by the social emergency of 1844–7, conservatives experimented with prescriptions anticipating the German welfare state of the later nineteenth century.52 For radicals in particular, subsistence riots provided the opportunity to focus and sharpen their rhetoric and theory. Some left Hegelians argued, like the ‘social conservatives’, that the responsibility for arresting the polarization of society must lie with the state as the custodian of the general interest. The Silesian events of 1844 prompted the writer Friedrich Wilhelm Wolff to elaborate and refine his socialist analysis of the crisis. Whereas his report of 1843 on the Breslau slums was structured around loose binary oppositions such as ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, ‘these people’ and ‘the rich man’, or ‘a day-labourer’ and ‘the independent bourgeoisie’, his detailed article on the Silesian uprising, written seven months later, was far more theoretically ambitious. Here ‘the proletariat’ is opposed to ‘the monopoly of capital’, ‘those who produce’ to ‘those who consume’ and ‘the labouring classes of the people’ to the domain of ‘private ownership’.53

The debate between Arnold Ruge and Karl Marx over the meaning of the Silesian revolt provides a further illustration of the same process. In a rueful piece for Vorwärts! (Forwards), the journal of the German émigré radicals in Paris, Ruge argued that the weavers’ uprising had been a mere hunger riot that posed no serious threat to the political authorities in Prussia. Karl Marx responded to his former friend’s reflections with two long articles in which he put the contrary case, arguing, with what almost sounds like Prussian patriotic pride, that neither the English nor the French ‘worker uprisings’ had been as ‘theoretical and conscious in character’ as the Silesian revolt. Only ‘the Prussian’, Marx announced, had adopted ‘the correct point of view’. In burning the company books of the Zwanzigers and the Dierigs, he suggested, the weavers had directed their rage at the ‘titles of property’ and thereby struck a blow not only at the industrialist himself, but against the system of finance capital that underpinned him.54 This dispute, which ultimately turned on the issue of the conditions under which an oppressed population can be successfully revolutionized, marked an irrevocable parting of the ways for the two men. The bitter social conflict over resources gave off a negative energy that quickened the pace of political differentiation in Prussia.


By the 1840s, the Prussian political system was living on borrowed time. This was not just a matter of rising popular political expectations, but of financial necessity. Under the terms of the State Indebtedness Law of 17 January 1820, the Prussian government was prevented from raising loans unless these could be cleared through a ‘national Estates assembly’. By this means, the reformers (the drafter was Christian Rother, chief of the central directory of the ministry of finance and a close associate of Hardenberg) tied the hands of the government until such time as it should see its way to conceding further constitutional reform. This was the time-bomb that Hardenberg planted at the heart of the Prussian state. It ticked away quietly during the 1820s and 1830s, while successive finance ministers focused on raising loans indirectly through the nominally independent Seehandlung and keeping overall borrowing to a minimum. As a result, Prussia borrowed less in the 1820s and 1830s than any other German government.55

This could not continue for ever, as Frederick William IV well knew. The king was a passionate railway enthusiast at a time when the economic, military and strategic importance of the revolution in transport technology was becoming increasingly apparent.56‘Every new development in railways is a military advantage,’ the young Helmut von Moltke observed in 1843, ‘and for the national defence a few million on the completion of our railways is far more profitably employed than on our fortresses.’57 Since this was an area too important to be left to the private sector, it was clear that the Prussian state would soon face infrastructural expenditures it could not cover without raising substantial loans.

Yet the king was slow to accept the inevitability of a united national diet. There was a danger, as one of his closest associates observed, that a national assembly ‘would not stop at consultation over the state loan, but would act on anything it considered urgent’.58 In 1842, the king convened a United Committee composed of twelve delegates from each of the provincial diets, in the hope that this body would engage in consultations on matters such as the need for state railway finance without attempting to expand its own constitutional role. Petitions to the United Committee were forbidden, the issues for discussion were narrowly defined, and the rules of discussion ensured that genuine debate was out of the question – delegates were called upon to speak in alphabetical order and once only on each issue. This modest gathering could not achieve anything of substance; most importantly, as one Rhenish delegate had the temerity to point out during a discussion of railway finance, it lacked the authority to approve a state loan.59 By the end of 1844, Frederick William had resigned himself to convening a national meeting of the provincial diets within the next three years.

By the mid-1840s, the railway question was coming to a head. The Prussian railway network had grown impressively in recent years, from 185 kilometres in 1840 to 1,106 kilometres by 1845.60 But this growth had been concentrated in areas where private investors stood to make profits; entrepreneurs understandably had little interest in unprofitable major projects geared to macro-economic and military needs. In the autumn of 1845, however, news reached Berlin that the French government had embarked upon the construction of a strategic rail network whose eastern terminals posed a potential threat to the security of the German Confederation. Berlin’s calls for a coordinated all-German strategic railway policy were in vain: the Confederation failed to secure a consensus among the member states, even on the question of the appropriate gauge for an integrated network. It was clear that Prussia would have to see to its own needs.61 At the centre of the programme that crystallized during 1846 was the Ostbahn, a railway artery that would link the Rhineland and the French frontier with Brandenburg and East Prussia.

Hardenberg’s time-bomb was now primed to explode. The king’s Patent of 3 February 1847, which announced the convocation of a United Diet, stated clearly that this was the body envisaged in the State Indebtedness Law of 1820. It was not a new constitutional instrument, but merely the combination of all the provincial diets into a single body. It thus inherited the awkward hybrid identity of its predecessors: delegates were seated by province and estate, but voting was by head and the assembly operated as a single body, like a national parliament, for most of its business. There was an upper house, composed of princes, counts, mediatized nobles and members of the royal family. The rest of the delegates, representing the landed nobility, the towns and the peasants, sat in the Curia of the Three Estates. Complex voting arrangements ensured that the individual provinces retained the power to veto proposals damaging to their interests – in this respect the diet reflected the ‘federal’ structure of the Prussian state after 1815. The text of the Patent made it clear that the main business of the diet would be the introduction of new taxes and the approval of a state loan for railway construction.62

The United Diet was controversial even before it met. There was a small chorus of moderate conservative enthusiasts, but they were drowned out by the roar of liberal critique. Most liberals felt that the arrangements outlined in the Patent fell far short of their legitimate expectations. ‘We asked you for bread and you gave us a stone!’ thundered the Silesian liberal Heinrich Simon in a polemical essay published – to avoid the Prussian censors – in Saxon Leipzig. Theodor von Schön took the view that the delegates should use the opening session to declare themselves incompetent to act as a general diet and demand a new election. If the Patent was offensive to liberals, it also alarmed the hard-line conservatives, who saw it opening the door to a full-blown constitutional settlement. Many lesser landowning noblemen – even conservative ones – were put off by the special status accorded to the higher nobility; the preponderance of Silesian and Westphalian family names in the upper house also irritated the provincial deputies of the older provinces.63 And yet, at the same time, the announcement of the United Diet triggered a further expansion of political expectations.

On Sunday 11 April 1847 – a cold, grey, rainy Berlin day – a crowd of provincial delegates numbering over 600 was herded into the White Hall of the royal palace for the inaugural ceremony of the United Diet. The king’s opening speech, delivered without notes over more than half an hour, was a warning shot. Infuriated by the reception of his Patent, the king was in no mood for compromise. ‘There is no power on earth,’ he announced, ‘that can succeed in making me transform the natural relationship between prince and people [… ] into a conventional constitutional relationship, and I will never allow a written piece of paper to come between the Lord God in Heaven and this land.’ The speech closed with a reminder that the diet was no legislative parliament. It had been convened for a specific purpose, namely to approve new taxes and a state loan, but its future depended upon the will and judgement of the king. Its task was emphatically not to ‘represent opinions’. He would reconvene the diet, he told the deputies, only if he considered it ‘good and useful, and if this Diet offers me proof that I can do so without injuring the rights of the crown’.64

In the event, the deliberations of the diet were to prove the hard-line conservatives right. For the first time, Prussian liberals of every stripe found themselves performing together on the same stage. They mounted a campaign to transform the diet into a proper legislature – by securing the right to reconvene at regular intervals, by demanding the power to approve all laws, by protecting it against arbitrary action on the part of the state authorities, by sweeping away what remained of corporate discrimination. Unless these demands were granted, they insisted, the diet could not approve the government’s spending plans. For liberal politicians from the regions, this was an exhilarating chance to socialize and exchange ideas with like-minded colleagues from across the kingdom. A liberal partisan culture began to emerge.

The Rhenish industrialist and railway entrepreneur David Hansemann had been a deputy in the Rhenish provincial diet since 1843 and was a leading figure in Rhenish liberal circles. He took care to procure a large apartment near the royal palace, where he hosted meetings with liberal delegations from other provinces. Parties of liberals also congregated at the hotel Russischer Hof for political discussions, debates and general conviviality. Liberal deputies were urged to arrive in the capital at least eight days in advance of the first session, so that there would be time for preliminary meetings. The importance of this experience in a state where the press and political networks were still fragmented along regional lines can scarcely be overstated. It fired liberals with a sense of confidence and purpose; it also taught them a first intense lesson in the virtues of political cooperation and compromise. As one conservative ruefully observed, the liberals regularly worked ‘late into the night’ coordinating their strategy for key political debates.65 By this means they succeeded in retaining the initiative in much chamber debate.

The conservatives, by contrast, were something of a shambles. Throughout much of the proceedings they seemed on the defensive, reduced to reacting to liberal proposals and provocations. As the champions of provincial diversity and local autonomy, they found it harder to work together on an all-Prussian plane. For many conservative noblemen, their politics were inextricably bound up with elite corporate status – this made it difficult to establish a common platform with potential allies of more humble station. Whereas the liberals could agree on certain broad principles (constitutionalism, representation, freedom of the press), the conservatives seemed worlds away from a clearly defined joint platform, beyond a vague intuition that gradual evolution on the basis of tradition was preferable to radical change.66 The conservatives lacked leadership and were slow to form partisan factions. ‘One defeat follows another,’ Leopold von Gerlach remarked on 7 May, after four weeks of sessions.67

In purely constitutional terms, the diet was a non-event. It was not permitted to transform itself into a parliamentary legislature. Before it was adjourned on 26 June 1847, it rejected the government’s request for a state loan to finance the eastern railway, declaring that it would cooperate only when the king granted it the right to meet at regular intervals. ‘In money matters,’ the liberal entrepreneur and deputy David Hansemann famously quipped, ‘geniality has its limits.’ Yet in terms of political culture the United Diet was of enormous importance. Unlike its provincial predecessors, it was a public body whose proceedings were recorded and published, so that the debates in the chamber resounded across the political landscape of the kingdom. The diet demonstrated in the most conclusive way the exhaustion of the monarch’s strategy of containment. It also signalled the imminence – the inevitability – of real constitutional change. How exactly that change would be brought about, however, remained unclear.


In his verse satire Germany – a Winter’s Tale, the poet, essayist, wit and radical satirist Heinrich Heine described his return to Prussia after thirteen years in Parisian exile. Heine hailed from a modest Jewish mercantile family in Düsseldorf, attended lectures by Hegel in Berlin, and converted to Christianity as a young adult in order to clear any obstacles to a career in the bureaucracy, a reminder of the assimilatory pressure exerted on Jewish subjects by Prussia’s ‘Christian state’. In 1831, having abandoned his ambition to enter state employment and acquired a considerable reputation as a poet and writer, he left Prussia to work as a journalist in Paris. In 1835, thanks to his outspoken critical commentaries on contemporary German politics, the Confederal Diet issued a nationwide ban on the publication and circulation of his books. A literary career inside the Confederation was now out of the question. Germany – A Winter’s Tale was published in 1844, following a brief and unhappy visit to his native Rhineland. The first Prussians to welcome him home were of course the customs officials, who made a thorough search of his luggage. In a sequence of sparkling quatrains, Heine evokes his experience at the Prussian border:

They snuffled and burrowed through trousers and shirts

And handkerchieves – nothing was missed;

They were looking for pen-nibs and trinkets and jewels

And for books on the contraband list.

You fools! If you think you’ll find anything here

You must have been sadly misled!

The contraband that travels with me

Is stored up here, in my head!


So many books are stacked in my head –

A number beyond estimation!

My head is a twittering bird’s nest of books

All liable to confiscation!

It would be absurd to deny that these verses captured something real about the Prussian state. The oppressive, humourless and pettifogging engagement of the Prussian censorship authorities with political dissent was widely lamented by freethinkers across the kingdom. In the diary of the Berlin liberal Karl Varnhagen von Ense, the burdens of censorship are a constant theme. He writes of the ‘misery of small-minded, mischievous, obstructive surveillance’, the inventiveness of the censors in devising ‘ever new provocations’, the frustrations of running a critical literary journal under the arbitrary rule of the censorship office.68

On the other hand, as even Varnhagen was aware, Prussian censorship was laughably ineffective. Its real purpose, he observed in August 1837, was not to police popular reading habits, but to justify itself to the rest of the royal administration: ‘The people can read what it wishes, regardless of the content; but everything that might come before the king is carefully vetted.’69 It was virtually impossible, in any case, to control the traffic in contraband print. The political fragmentation of German Europe was a disadvantage from the censors’ point of view, for it meant that works banned in one state could easily be printed in another and smuggled across the lightly guarded borders. The radical Württemberg card seller Thomas Beck frequently crossed the border into the Prussian Rhineland with sheaves of his forbidden publications concealed within his hat.70‘I am now a large-scale importer of banned books into Prussia,’ Friedrich Engels, the radical son of a pious Barmen textile manufacturer, wrote to his friend Wilhelm Graeber from the city of Bremen in November 1839. ‘Börne’s Francophobe in four copies, the Letters from Paris by same, six volumes, Venedey’s Prussia and Prussianism, most strictly prohibited, in five copies, are lying ready for dispatch to Barmen.’71 Confederal bans on books such as Jakob Venedey’s Prussia and Prussianism, an angry tract against the Prussian administration by a Rhenish liberal, were ineffective because German booksellers routinely concealed their contraband stocks from the authorities.72 Songs were even harder to pin down, since they took up so little paper and could circulate without printed text. The politicization of popular culture confronted government with a mode of dissent that could never be effectively policed, because it was informal, protean, omnipresent.

The figure of the Prussian soldier, with his arrogant, affected, supercilious pose, symbolized for many, especially in the radical milieu, the worst features of the polity. It was in the city of Aachen, once the ancient capital of Charlemagne, now a sleepy Rhenish textile centre, that the returning Heinrich Heine caught his first glimpse of the Prussian military:

I wandered about in this dull little nest

For about an hour or more

Saw Prussian military once again

They looked much the same as before.


Still the same wooden, pedantic demeanour

The same rectangular paces

And the usual frozen mask of disdain

Imprinted on each of their faces.

They still strut so stiffly about the street

So groomed and so strictly moustached,

As if they had somehow swallowed the stick

With which they used to be thrashed.

Popular antipathy to the military varied in intensity across the kingdom. It was strongest in the Rhineland, where it fed on local patriotic resentment of Protestant Berlin. In many Rhenish towns, tension between solders and civilians – particularly young male civilians of the artisan and labouring classes – was a part of day-to-day life. Soldiers standing watch before public buildings made easy targets for young men on a night out; many chance violent encounters between soldiers and civilians occurred in or near taverns.73 Troops were also hated for their role in law enforcement. Prussian towns were very lightly policed by tiny contingents of ill-trained constables whose official duties included a wide range of tasks, such as attending to the orderly disposal of ‘raw materials and waste’, the cleaning of ‘streets and drains’, the clearing of obstacles, the removal of dung, the delivery of summonses, the ‘notification of official announcements by hand-bell’, and so on.74 The feebleness of civilian policing meant that the Prussian authorities were often forced to fall back on the military as a means of restoring order. In cases of serious tumult, the few local gendarmes generally made themselves scarce and waited for military assistance while the crowd, sensing its power, took the initiative – this is precisely what happened at Peterswaldau and Langenbielau in 1844. Lacking nuanced techniques of crowd management, military commanders tended to progress abruptly from verbal warnings to mounted charges with sabre blows or even gunfire. But this was not a specifically Prussian problem. In England and France too, the use of military units to restore order remained the norm. And the extreme violence meted out at Langenbielau in 1844 was no more typical of Prussian conditions than the Peterloo massacre of 1819 was of policing methods in Great Britain.

Britain was of course – as British travellers were forever pointing out – an incomparably more liberal polity, but it was not necessarily a more humane one. Britons tolerated levels of state violence that would have been unthinkable in Prussia. The number of condemnations to death in Prussia during the years from 1818 to 1847 fluctuated between twenty-one and thirty-three per annum. The number of actual executions was much lower – it varied between five and seven – thanks to the intensive use of the royal pardon, which became an important mark of sovereignty in this period. By contrast, 1,137 death sentences were handed down every year on average over the period 1816–35 in England and Wales, whose combined population (around 16 million) was comparable to Prussia’s. To be sure, relatively few (less than 10 per cent) of these sentences were actually carried out, but the number of persons executed still exceeded the Prussian figure by a factor of sixteen-to-one. Whereas the great majority of English and Welsh capital sentences were passed for property crimes (including quite minor ones), most Prussian executions were for crimes of homicide. The only ‘political’ execution of the pre-revolutionary era was that of the village mayor Tschech, who was found guilty of high treason for having attempted to murder the king.75 In short: there was no Prussian parallel to the routine slaughter perpetrated at the gallows under England’s ‘bloody code’.

Terrible as the extremes of poverty were in the ‘hungry forties’, they pale in comparison to the hunger catastrophe that ravaged British-administered Ireland. Today we blame this disaster on a combination of administrative error with the dynamics of the free market. Had such a mass famine been visited upon the Poles in Prussia, we would perhaps now be discerning in it the antecedents of post-1939 Nazi rule. It is also worth remembering that the Prussians faced constraints in Poland that had no counterpart in Ireland. Poland was the unquiet frontier between Prussia and the Russian Empire, and Prussian policy in the region had to take account of Russian interests. The Prussian Crown did not, of course, accept the legitimacy of Polish nationalist strivings. It did, however, accommodate the aspiration of its Polish subjects to cultivate their distinctive nationality. Indeed, the government’s promotion of Polish-language elementary and secondary schooling led to a dramatic rise in Polish literacy rates in the Prussian-occupied sector of the old Polish Commonwealth. There was, to be sure, a ten-year period when Provincial Governor Flottwell switched to a policy of assimilation through ‘Germanization’ – an ominous foretaste of later developments. But this was very inconsistently pursued, came to an end with the accession of the romantic Polonophile Frederick William IV and was in any case a response to the Polish revolution of 1830, which had raised serious doubts about the political loyalty of the province.

In the early 1840s, when Heine was living in literary exile in Paris, Prussian Poland remained an attractive refuge for Polish political exiles from east of the Poznanian border. Russian dissidents, too, found their way to Prussia. The radical literary critic Vissarion Grigorevich Belinskii was living in Salzbrunn, Silesia in 1847 when he wrote his famous Letter to Gogol denouncing the political and social backwardness of his homeland, a crime for which he was condemned to death in absentia by a Russian court. So resonant was this cry of protest within Russian dissident circles that Turgenev, who visited Belinskii in Silesia, chose to sign ‘Bailiff’, the savage pen-portrait of a tyrannical landlord in Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, with ‘Salzbrunn, 1847’, a coded indication of his support for Belinskii’s critique. In the same year, another exile, the Russian radical Alexander Herzen, crossed the Prussian border from the east. Arriving in Königsberg, he expressed a profound sense of relief: ‘The unpleasant feelings of fear [and] the oppressive sense of suspicion were all dispelled.’76

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