Modern history


Power in the Land


Just off the Mühlentorstrasse in the Old City of Brandenburg is the shaded yard of St Gotthard’s church. Like many of the medieval churches in the Electorate of Brandenburg, St Gotthard’s is a huge barn of dark-red brick. The buttresses that support the soaring vaults of the interior are concealed beneath a vast roof of ochre tiles whose frowning eaves convey a sense of impregnability. At the western entrance, a graceful baroque tower has been incongruously grafted on to the trunk of its Romanesque predecessor. At the height of summer, spreading trees shade the churchyard. The place has a dreamy peripheral feel, yet this is the ancient core of the city. From here the medieval German settlement spread out to the south along three streets, following the curve of the river Havel.

A traveller who walks into the coolness of St Gotthard’s church will be surprised by the height and breadth of the interior. The inner walls are lined with ornately carved memorials. These epitaphs are grandiose things, carved tablets of stone up to two metres high and elaborately inscribed. One of them commemorates the life and death of Thomas Matthias, a sixteenth-century mayor of Brandenburg and descendant of a distinguished family of clothiers, who rose to high political office under Elector Joachim II but fell swiftly from favour when his successor John George held him responsible for the debts accumulated during the previous reign, and died of the plague in his home town in 1576. The relief on the memorial depicts the children of Israel mounting the far bank of the Red Sea as they flee from Egyptian captivity. On the left-hand side we see a surging crowd of men and women in lavishly rendered urban clothing, clutching their children and belongings and turning only to look back at the disaster unfolding behind them, where men in armour founder and are submerged in curled scrolls of thick grey water. Another memorial inscription, dated 1583, is surmounted by a beautifully carved relief, in which scenes from the passion of Christ take place between the columns of a two-storeyed neo-classical fa#231;ade. In the upper storey Christ hangs naked, his hands bound tight to a lintel above his head, his body bending and twisting under the kicks and blows of three men with clubs and whips. This astonishingly dynamic and naturalistic sculpture commemorates Joachim Damstorff, a mayor of the city of Brandenburg, and his wife, Anna Durings; their names and dates are seen engraved in the stepped frieze at the base of the epitaph. Portraits of Damstorff and his wife, both dressed in the ornate attire of the urban oligarchy, peep out from circular niches at the bottom left and right of the sculpture, looking almost as if they were trying to catch each other’s eye across the crowded scene between them.


13. Carved frieze from the epitaph of Mayor Thomas Matthias, 1549/1576, St Gotthard’s Church, Brandenburg

A large epitaph, surmounted by a finely carved allegorical relief depicting Lazarus and the rich man, commemorates two generations of the Trebaw family, another mayoral lineage. These stepping stones of memory run well into the eighteenth century – a richly decorated two-metre tablet to the right of the altar commends the ‘distinguished councillor and celebrated merchant and trader of the Old City of Brandenburg’ Christoph Strahle, who died at the age of eighty-one in 1738. What is striking about these objects, apart from their artistic virtuosity, is the powerful sense of civic identity that they project. They are not simply memorials to individuals but expressions of the pride and corporate identity of an oligarchy. Many of the tablets commemorate several generations of the same family and provide detailed information about children and marriages. The most impressive monument in St Gotthard’s is the pulpit itself, an extraordinary composite sculpture in sandstone in which scenes from the Old and New Testaments follow the spiral stairs up to the chancel, and the whole structure rests upon a large and superbly worked bearded figure in white stone whose head is bowed over an open book. This remarkable ensemble, executed by Georg Zimmermann and dated 1623, was sponsored by the Clothiers’ Guild of the Old City, and we find their memorial tablet fixed to the column adjoining the pulpit. In addition to ten individual portraits of prominent clothiers – all of them formidable figures wearing the austere dark costume and white ruffs of the early seventeenth-century bourgeoisie – the tablet shows the house marks and names of a hundred individual master clothiers. It is hard to imagine a more emphatic and dignified advertisement of corporate bourgeois self-importance.

This is by no means a phenomenon unique to St Gotthard’s church. We find similar seventeeth-and eighteenth-century bourgeois urban memorials in the churches of other Brandenburg towns. St Laurence’s of Havelberg, for example, nestled in the historic city centre on an island in the middle of the river Havel, offers a similar array of stone memorials, though these are executed in a somewhat less exalted register. Here too, the dedications are mainly to tradesmen – merchants, lumber-dealers, brewers – as well as to prominent mayoral families. The memorial to the ‘respected merchant and trader’ Joachim Friedrich Pein (d. 1744) is especially noteworthy for its affecting simplicity:

Unter diesem Leichen-Stein

Beneath this burial-stone

Ruh ich Pein ohn’ alle Pein

I, Payne, lie free of pain

Und erwarte mit den meinen

And wait before God to appear

Selig für Gott zu erscheinen

Saved with my near and dear

In Havelberg, as in Brandenburg, the significance of the city church as a forum for the collective self-expression of an urban congregation is heightened by the fact that both cities are cathedral seats. There is thus an implicit dichotomy between the urban church at the medieval core of the city, whose congregation is dominated by the guilds and urban officials – and the cathedral, whose chapter was traditionally recruited from members of the imperial aristocracy. This is very clearly expressed in the geography of Havelberg, where the cathedral, an imposing structure that resembles a fortified castle, looks down from the heights of the northern riverbank over the little island of the Old City with its shops and stalls and narrow streets. Well into the nineteenth century, the social character of the two congregations was correspondingly polarized: St Laurence remained the church of the townsfolk (as well as of enlisted men stationed in the local garrison), while the nobility patronized the socially and geographically more elevated cathedral.


14. Havelberg Cathedral

The church memorials of Havelberg and Brandenburg remind us of a world that is often overlooked in general accounts of the history of the Prussian lands. This is the world of the towns, a social milieu dominated by master artisans and patrician family networks, whose identity derived from an entrenched sense of autonomy and privilege, both political and cultural, vis-à-vis the surrounding countryside. If towns have traditionally occupied a marginal place in the history of Brandenburg-Prussia, this is partly because the urban sector was never especially strong in this part of German Europe – of the thirty German cities with populations of 10,000 or more in 1700, only two (Berlin and Königsberg) were in Brandenburg-Prussia. In any case, it is widely believed that the towns and, more importantly, the spirit of self-administration, civic responsibility and political autonomy that they nurtured, were among the casualties of Hohenzollern absolutism. Indeed, one historian has written of the deliberate ‘destruction’ of the Brandenburg bourgeoisie by the centralizing monarchical state.1 The consequence was a political culture that was strong on obedience, but weak on civil courage and civic virtue. Here again, we sense the powerful negative attraction of the ‘special path’.

There is certainly something to be said for the idea that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were an era of urban decline, especially if by this we mean the decline of urban political autonomy. Königsberg is perhaps the most dramatic example of a city struggling unsuccessfully to retain its traditional political and economic independence in the face of an aggressive monarchical power. In 1640, when the Great Elector came to the throne, Königsberg was still a wealthy Baltic trading city with a corporate representation in the diet that placed it on a par with the provincial nobility. By 1688, Königsberg’s political autonomy, its influence within the diet and much of its prosperity had been broken. Here, the struggle between the urban authorities and the Berlin administration was especially bitter. Königsberg was a special case, of course, but developments in other towns across the Prussian lands followed a broadly analogous course.

In many towns, the downgrading or removal of political privileges coincided with the introduction of the new excise, a tax on goods and services introduced in stages during the 1660s. Since it was raised directly on goods and services (i.e. at point of sale) the excise did away with the need for fiscal negotiations with urban Estate representatives. The towns thus disappeared as a corporate presence both from the provincial diets and from the ‘permanent committees’ of senior provincial delegates that increasingly managed negotiations between the Estates and the crown. This process of gradual disenfranchisement was reinforced by the imposition, first in Berlin in 1667, and later in all towns, of royally appointed tax commissioners, who soon began to extend the scope of their authority.2 The pace of centralization slackened during the reign of Frederick III/I, but picked up again under his successor, Frederick William I, whose Council Regulation (Rathäusliches Reglement) of 1714 transferred urban budgeting authority to royal officials and curtailed the powers of urban magistrates. Further laws were issued during the reign of Frederick II, who transferred all remaining policing powers from magistrates to royal officials and imposed a system of state authorizations on all sales of urban property.3 In the western provinces, too, the communal independence of the towns was largely abolished during the reigns of Frederick William I and Frederick II. The unique constitutions and privileges of towns such as Soest in the Westphalian county of Mark or Emden in East Friesland, were dismantled.4

For most towns, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were also a period of economic stagnation or decline. In much of Brandenburg and Eastern Pomerania, the poor quality of the soils and the weakness of regional trade meant that the towns were poorly endowed to start with. The impact on the towns of the excise tax is difficult to assess. Initially, some towns were keen on the new tax, since they saw it as a way of rebalancing the fiscal load in their favour (the towns had previously paid a higher rate in contribution tax than the countryside); in some cases the municipal authorities were even pressured by urban taxpayers into begging the government to introduce it. There is some fragmentary evidence suggesting that the excise had a stimulating effect on urban economies. In Berlin, for example, the early excise years saw a boom in construction that began to make good the appalling damage done during the war, a consequence of the fact that the excise redistributed the tax burden within the cities away from land and property towards commercial activities of all kinds.

The worst drawback of the excise was simply the fact that only the towns paid it; rural areas still paid the old contribution. This was not how things had been planned. The Great Elector had initially intended to levy the excise on town and countryside alike, but pressure from the provincial nobilities persuaded him to restrict it to the cities. What this meant was that urban manufacturers now faced competition from rural producers whose goods were duty-free as long as they were not sold within the excise towns. Many noble estate owners exploited this state of affairs by having merchandise carted direct to the major regional markets, where they could undercut urban competitors in their own region. The problem was reinforced in areas dependent upon trade by the fact that the excise undermined the regional competitiveness of manufacturers and traders trying to shift goods across the border – this complaint was often heard in Kleve, for example, where it was felt that the excise had cut the volume and profitability of the Rhine river trade, and in Geldern where the excise was seen as having depressed trading activity on the Maas.5

The impact of the growing Prussian army – and in particular of garrisons – on the towns of Brandenburg-Prussia was ambivalent. On the one hand, the soldiers and their wives and children stationed in garrison towns represented both consumers and a supplementary workforce. Since military service was not a full-time occupation, soldiers in garrisons augmented their meagre military wage by working for townsfolk. In a garrison town like Prenzlau in the Uckermark to the north of Berlin, or Wesel in the Rhenish Duchy of Kleve, many soldiers chose, when not on duty, to work in the workshops and manufacturies of the masters in whose houses they were billeted. In this way they could earn several times their basic military wage. If they were married, their wives might seek employment in the town’s textile manufactury. The presence of soldiers thus contributed to the consolidation of a textiles manufacturing sector that was partly dependent upon cheap unguilded labour. Military service may also have helped to stabilize urban social structures by providing the most vulnerable strata of the community with a small but tolerable income.6 Since wealthier burghers who preferred not to billet a soldier could pay poorer householders to take him instead, the billeting system had a small redistributive effect.

But there was a downside. Although the highly flexible billeting system used in the garrison towns worked astonishingly well, there were also many incidents of tension between householders and billeted servicemen. The presence in the city of substantial numbers of men who were subject to the authority of the military courts generated jurisdictional disputes. Military commanders sometimes succumbed to the temptation to flaunt the municipal authorities by requisitioning supplies from civilian sources or forcing local burghers to serve in the guards. The low-wage labour provided by off-duty soldiers undercut craft apprentices in workshops where troops were not employed, sowing tension within the ranks of the city’s incorporated professions.7 In lean times, when additional work was hard to come by, the dependants of garrison soldiers might be seen begging on the streets.8Soldiers, with their privileged knowledge of the fortifications surrounding the city, were also involved in the smuggling of goods across the excise boundaries.9 More ominously, one scholar has suggested that the ‘militarisation of civic society led to an arbitrary and little-regulated domination of garrison cities by the army, fostering an atmosphere of passivity among the burgher population and magistracies’.10

This argument should not be pushed too far. Soldiers were certainly a familiar sight on the streets of garrison towns and a crucial ingredient in the social scene at all levels – from the tavern to the patrician salon. But there is little evidence that this involved the permeation of urban civil society with militarist values or patterns of comportment. The conscription system established in Prussia allowed for a wide range of exemptions freeing young men of the burgher classes from the legal obligation to serve. These included not only the sons of upper-middleclass fathers, who were expected to pursue an academic degree or a career in trade or economic management, but also the sons of master artisans in various privileged trades, who were trained to work in their father’s trade. It has been estimated that across the Hohenzollern lands, some 1.7 million men benefited from such exemptions.11

The eighteenth-century peacetime Brandenburg-Prussian military was not, in any case, an institution capable of transforming the outlook and sensibility of its own recruits through systematic socialization and indoctrination. The military in the eighteenth-century towns was porous and loosely organized. Basic training lasted for less than a year (its duration was locally determined and varied widely from place to place), and even during this phase, soldiers were not ‘de-civilianized’ through isolation from the society around them. On the contrary: if they were married, they lived in barracks with their wives and other dependants – the military was not yet the exclusively masculine domain it would later become. (Indeed, marriage was encouraged for foreign recruits as a way of binding them more firmly to the Prussian service.12) If they were unmarried, they were expected to find lodgings with burghers. As for those soldiers who wished to remain in service after completion of their basic training, we have seen that their military duties consumed so little of their time that they were able to supplement their income through various forms of casual labour. Some soldiers picked up extra pocket money by standing guard duty in lieu of others who were off working for wages. It is clear that a symbiosis did evolve between military personnel and town populations,13 just as large numbers of student lodgers made a distinctive contribution to the social mix and local economy of university towns. But the soldiers no more ‘militarized’ their garrison towns than the students ‘academicized’ theirs. There were, of course, disputes between town councils and military authorities (just as there were between burghers and students), but these mostly demonstrate the readiness of ‘civilian’ authorities to protest when they saw local commanders overstepping the boundaries of their authority.


15. Soldier’s wife begging. Engraving by Daniel Chodowiecki, 1764.

There is little reason to believe that the administrative penetration of the towns by a rudimentary state officialdom had the effect of suppressing the spirit of local initiative. The royal officials appointed to administrative posts in the larger towns did not function as the imperious agents of a central policy bent on disempowering the urban elites. On the contrary, many of them ‘went native’, socializing or even intermarrying with the town elite and siding with the town authorities in disputes with local military commanders or other central government organs. The continuation of corruption and nepotism in many city governments – a sure sign that local patronage networks were alive and kicking – suggests that the oligarchies who held a controlling interest in the affairs of the cities were not displaced by state penetration. The oligarchies, for their part, assiduously cultivated newly arriving government officials and succeeded in many cases in suborning them to local interests.14

There were, moreover, dynamic and innovative elements within the urban bourgeoisie well before 1800. During the last third of the eighteenth century, changes in the structure of town-based manufacture and commerce produced a new elite composed mainly of merchants, entrepreneurs and manufacturers (rather than the guildsmen who had dominated the traditional scene).15 Members of this elite were involved in many ways – on a voluntary or honorary basis – in local urban administration. They sat on the municipal governing bodies (Magistratskollegien), on the councils of guilds and corporations, on the administrative boards of schools, churches and local charitable organizations.

This tendency was particularly pronounced in the small and middle-sized towns, because here the local administration was absolutely dependent upon the help of volunteer notables. The wool manufacturer Christian H. Böttcher, for example, sat on the town senate in Osterwieck in the province of Halberstadt; in Prenzlau (Uckermark), the merchant Johann Granze was also assistant judge in the city court. The mayors of the cities of Burg and Aschersleben were both local businessmen.16 One could list a hundred such cases from across the Prussian lands. The governance of the Prussian towns did not, in other words, lie exclusively in the hands of salaried state servants but rather depended on formidable reserves of local voluntarism among the more enterprising and innovative elements of the bourgeoisie. What had ‘declined’ in the towns of the Prussian lands – and indeed across much of western Europe – were the privileges and local autonomy of the traditional corporate system sustained by the ancient customs and honour codes of the skilled crafts. What was replacing them was a new and dynamic elite whose ambition expressed itself in entrepreneurial expansion and the assumption of informal leadership in urban affairs.

The voluntary societies founded in some middle-sized towns during the last third of the eighteenth century are a further indication of growing cultural and civic vitality among the burgher classes. There was a highly active Literary Society in Halberstadt from 1778, for example, which served as a meeting place for the educated burghers of the city and whose considerable printed output reflected a blend of regionalist pride and Prussian patriotism. In Westphalian Soest, a local judge founded a Society of Patriotic Friends and Enthusiasts of Regional History whose purpose – advertised in a regional journal, Das Westphälische Magazin – was to collate the first comprehensive and archivally researched history of the town. In the university town of Frankfurt/Oder, a German Society founded in the 1740s concerned itself with the cultivation of language and literature; it was later joined by a Learned Society and a Masonic lodge.17 In these cities, but also in many smaller country towns, education was becoming the crucial marker of a new social status. From around the middle of the century in particular, the educated bourgeoisie (consisting of lawyers, school teachers, pastors, judges, doctors and others) began to separate itself from the traditional craft-based elites, forming its own social networks within and between towns.18

It was often the leading burghers of individual towns who achieved improvements in local schooling, an area where, for all its repeated edicts, the state had in many places failed utterly. From the 1770s, a wave of new or improved schools testifies to the rising demand, even in the most modest towns, for better and broader educational provision.19 In Neuruppin, idyllically situated on the edge of a long narrow lake to the north-west of Berlin, a group of enlightened pastors, city officials and school teachers formed in the 1770s an association whose sworn objectives were to enact a major educational reform for the town and to improve its economic standing.20 Thanks to their efforts along with donations from the city magistrate and leading burghers, the Neuruppin teacher Philipp Julius Lieberkühn was able to develop an innovative anti-authoritarian pedagogical programme that would become a model for educational reformers across Germany. ‘The teacher strives,’ Lieberkühn wrote in a general outline of his educational philosophy, ‘to let all the natural faculties and strengths of his pupils develop freely and have sway, because this is a fundamental law of rational education.’21 It was a formulation that breathed the spirit not only of enlightenment, but also of bourgeois civic pride.


The ownership and management of land was the defining collective experience of the Brandenburg-Prussian nobilities. The proportion of land in noble hands varied considerably from territory to territory, but it was high by European standards. The averages for Brandenburg and Pomerania (according to figures from around 1800) were about 60 and 62 per cent respectively, while thee quivalent figure for East Prussia (where the crown was the dominant landowner) was 40 per cent. By contrast, the French nobility owned only about 20 per cent of the cultivable land in France, while the figure for the nobility of European Russia was as low as 14 per cent. On the other hand, Brandenburg-Prussia looks less anomalous if we compare it with late eighteenth-century England, where the nobility controlled about 55 per cent of the land.22

The landed nobility of the East-Elbian regions of Germany were and are known collectively as ‘Junkers’. Deriving from ‘jung Herr’, the term originally meant ‘young lord’ and referred to those German noblemen – often second and younger sons – who helped to conquer or settle and defend the lands taken from the Slavs during the waves of German eastward expansion and settlement in the middle ages. In return for their military services they were granted land and perpetual tax exemptions. There were substantial disparities in wealth. In East Prussia, there was a small minority of true magnate families descended from mercenary commanders who had fought in the employ of the Teutonic Order during the Thirteen Years War against Poland (1453–66). In Brandenburg, where most noble families descended from settler-landowners, the average Junker estate was quite modest by European standards.

Since it was in the interest of the colonizing sovereigns of the Middle Ages to settle as many warrior-nobles as possible in areas vulnerable to Slav reprisals, noble land concessions were often small and close together, so that a single village might be partitioned among several families. The statistically dominant group, accounting for around half of the nobility, was that of noble families whose possessions encompassed between one and several estates and villages.23 But even within this group, there were wide disparities. A gulf separated families such as the Quitzows (later the Kleists), for example, whose lordship at Stavenow in the Prignitz encompassed 2,400 acres of demesne arable, from the general run of Junker families in the district, who had to get by with less than 500. In such a setting it was natural that the lesser noble families should concede leadership in local and provincial politics to a small circle of wealthy and often intermarried elite families. It was from this ‘dress-circle’ of landed families that the key mediators in negotiations with the crown tended to be drawn.

The localized political structures of the seventeenth-century Hohenzollern territories militated against a shared political identity centred on Berlin. The Junkers – especially in Brandenburg – were largely shut out of senior state offices during the later decades of the Great Elector’s reign and made only slow inroads into this area during the eighteenth century. Their political ambitions focused above all on Estate-controlled offices at district and provincial level and their horizons thus tended to be rather narrow, a condition reinforced by the fact that many of the less well-off families could not afford to educate their children away from home. The regional specificities of the various Hohenzollern territories were reflected in patterns of kinship and intermarriage. In Pomerania and East Prussia there were strong kinship links with Sweden and Poland, while houses in Brandenburg frequently intermarried with families in neighbouring Saxony and Magdeburg.

The eighteenth-century Hohenzollern monarchs, for their part, never spoke of a ‘Prussian’ nobility but always of a plurality of provincial elites possessing distinct personalities. In his Instruction of 1722, Frederick William I declared of the Pomeranian nobles that they were ‘as loyal as gold’; though they might argue a little, they would never opposethe orders of the sovereign. The same was true of the Neumark, the Uckermark and the Mittelmark. By contrast, the nobles of the Altmark were ‘bad, disobedient people’ and ‘impertinent in their dealings with their sovereign’. Almost as bad were the Magdeburg and Halberstadt nobilities, who, he urged, should be kept away from official posts in their own or neighbouring provinces. As for the nobles of the western provinces, Kleve, the county of Mark and Lingen, these were ‘stupid and opinionated’.24

Nearly half a century later, in his Political Testament of 1768, Frederick the Great spoke along similar lines of the territorial nobilities within his monarchy, declaring that the East Prussians were spirited and refined, but still too attached to their separatist traditions and thus of dubious loyalty to the state, while the Pomeranians were obstinate but upstanding and made excellent officers. As for the Upper Silesians, whose homeland had only recently been conquered and annexed to the Hohenzollern lands, these were lazy and uneducated and remained attached to their former Habsburg masters.25

It was only very gradually that a more homogeneous Prussian elite emerged. Intermarriage played a role in this process. Whereas virtually all Brandenburg families married within their own provincial elite until the end of the seventeenth century, things had changed by the 1750s and 1760s, when there were signs of an increasingly enmeshed kinship structure. Almost one-half of the marriages contracted by leading families in Brandenburg, Pomerania and East Prussia were to lineages based in another Hohenzollern territory. The most important institutional driver of homogenization was the Prussian army. The rapid expansion of the eighteenth-century officer corps forced the administration to recruit energetically among the provincial elites. New state-subsidized academies were established at the beginning of the eighteenth century in Berlin, Kolberg and Magdeburg; shortly after his accession, Frederick William I integrated these into the central Cadet Corps School in Berlin.

Although there were certainly efforts to pressure noble families into forwarding their sons for military training, many leapt at the chance created by the cadet system. It was particularly attractive to those numerous families who could not afford to educate their sons in the privately run academies frequented by the monied nobility. Promotion to the rank of captain and above brought the opportunity to earn a better income than many lesser landed estates could sustain.26 A characteristic example of the new generation of career officer was Ernst von Barsewisch, the son of a small estate-owner in the Altmark, who was sent to the Berlin Cadet Corps School in 1750, because his father could not afford to send him to university to be trained for state service. In his memoirs, Barsewisch recalled that the cadets (of whom there were 350 when he attended the school) were taught writing, French, logic, history and geography, engineering, dancing, fencing and ‘military draughtsmanship’ (militärische Zeichenkunst) .27

The shared experience of military training and, more importantly, of active military service doubtless fostered a strong sense of esprit de corps, though this was achieved at appalling cost. Some families in particular became specialist suppliers of boys for sacrifice on the field of battle – the Wedels notably, a Pomeranian family, lost seventy-two (!) of their young men during the wars of 1740–63. Fifty-three male Kleists perished in the same battles. Of the twenty-three men in the Belling family of Brandenburg, twenty were killed during the Seven Years War.

The association between noble status and officer rank was reinforced during the reign of Frederick the Great by the practice of obstructing the promotion of non-nobles. Although the king was forced to admit commoners to senior military posts during the Seven Years War when noble candidates were in short supply, many of them were later purged or marginalized. By 1806, when the officer corps numbered 7,000 men, only 695 were of non-noble descent and most of these were concentrated in the less prestigious artillery and technical arms of the service.28

Yet this increasingly close identity of interest with the crown could not inure the nobility against the effects of social and economic change. During the second half of the eighteenth century, the landed nobility entered a period of crisis. The wars and economic disruption of the 1740s and 1750s–60s, aggravated by government manipulation of the grain market through the magazine system and demographic overload through the natural expansion of estate-owning families placed the landowning class under increasing strain. There was a dramatic growth in the indebtedness of Junker estates, leading in many cases to bankruptcies or forced sales, often to commoners with cash in hand. The growing frequency with which estates changed hands raised questions about the cohesion of the traditional rural social fabric.29

This was not a matter the king took lightly. Frederick II was more socially conservative than his father had been. The nobilities were the only corporate group (in Frederick’s view) capable of serving as officers in the military. From this it followed that the stability and continuity of noble property were crucial to the viability of the Frederician military state. Whereas Frederick William I had deliberately set out to dilute the social pre-eminence of the nobility, therefore, Frederick adopted a policy of conservation. The crucial objective was to prevent the transfer of noble land into non-noble ownership. There were generous tax concessions, ad hoc cash gifts to families in financial straits, and efforts – largely futile – to prevent landowners from over-mortgaging their estates.30 When these measures failed, Frederick’s instinctive response was to tighten state control of land sales, but this proved counterproductive. Transfer controls involved an aggressive curtailment of the freedom to dispose of property. The administration thus had to reconcile conflicting priorities. It wished to restore and preserve the dignity and economic stability of the noble caste, yet it sought to achieve this by curtailing the fundamental liberties of the estate-owning class.

The quest for a less interventionist and controversial method of supporting the noble interest ultimately led to the foundation of state-capitalized agricultural credit unions (Landschaften) for the exclusive use of the established Junker families. These institutions issued mortgages at subsidized interest rates to ailing or indebted landowning families. Separate credit unions were established for each province (Kurmark and Neumark in 1777, Magdeburg and Halberstadt in 1780, and Pomerania in 1781). Interestingly enough, the idea of using such institutions to consolidate noble landholdings seems to have come from a commoner, the wealthy Berlin merchant Büring, who presented his ideas to the king during an audience of 23 February 1767, although there were also longstanding traditions of noble corporate financial self-help in a number of provinces.

The credit unions were at first very successful, if this can be measured by the rapid increase in the value of their letters of credit, which soon became an important medium of financial speculation. Credit union loans certainly helped some ailing estates to make productivity improvements. But the legal requirement that loans be tied to ‘useful improvements on the estate’ was often very loosely interpreted, so that the government’s subsidized credit was tapped for purposes that did little to consolidate noble landownership. The credit unions did not in any case suffice to tackle the looming problem of indebtedness across the entire rural sector, since landowners who ran out of cheap credit with the Landschaften simply went to other lenders. By 1807, while the combined credit unions held 54 million thalers of mortgage debt in all, a further 307 million thalers of estate-based debt were held by bourgeois lenders.31

As these developments suggest, the relationship between the Junkers and the sovereign house had now turned full circle. In the sixteenth century, it was the Junkers who had kept the Electors afloat; by the last third of the eighteenth century, the polarities of their interdependency had been reversed. Some historians have spoken of a ‘power compromise’ (Herrschaftskompromiss) between the crown and the Junkers whose effect was to consolidate the domination of the state and the traditional elites at the expense of other forces in society. The problem with this metaphor is firstly that it implies that at some point both ‘parties’ agreed on a kind of steady-state power-sharing arrangement. But the opposite was true. The relationship between the crown (and its ministers) and the various provincial nobilities was one of never-ending friction, confrontations and renegotiation. A second problem with the ‘power compromise’ thesis is that it overstates the stabilizing potential of collaboration between the state and the traditional elites. The truth is that, despite their best efforts, the crown and its ministers proved completely unable to arrest the processes of social and economic change that were transforming the face of rural society in the Prussian lands.


To work the soil was the destiny of most inhabitants of German Europe in the eighteenth century. Cultivated land accounted for about one-third of total land surface and about four-fifths of the population depended on agriculture for survival.32 The power relations governing the ownership and exploitation of land were thus of overwhelming importance, not only for the generation of nutrition and wealth, but also for the political culture of the state and society more generally. The collective power of the nobility over Brandenburg-Prussian rural society was rooted only partly in its controlling share of landed wealth. There was also a crucial legal and political dimension. From the middle decades of the fifteenth century, the Junkers succeeded not only in restructuring their landholdings so that the best arable land fell to the lordship, but also in supplementing their economic advantage with political powers enabling them to exert direct authority over the peasants on their estates. They acquired, for example, the right to prevent peasants from leaving their farms without prior permission, or to bring back (if necessary by force) peasants who had absconded and taken up domicile either in a town or on another estate. They also demanded, and gradually secured, the right to impose labour services on their peasant ‘subjects’.

It is still not entirely clear why these changes came about, especially as they ran counter to prevailing developments in contemporary western Europe, where the trend was towards the legal emancipation of formerly subject peasants and the commutation of compulsory labour services into money rents. It may be that because the lands east of the river Elbe were zones of comparatively recent German settlement, traditional rights among the peasantry were relatively weak. The population decline and widespread desertion of cultivable land during the long agrarian depression of the late Middle Ages certainly placed noble landlords under pressure to maximize revenues and cut cash costs. The contraction of the urban economy undermined one potential source of resistance, since it was the towns that had most energetically contested the right of landlords to retrieve peasant absconders. Another important factor was the weakness of state authority. Deeply indebted and heavily dependent upon the provincial nobilities, the Electors of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Brandenburg had neither the power nor the inclination to resist the consolidation of noble legal and political power in the localities.

Whatever the causes, the result was the emergence of a new form of landlordship. It was not a system of ‘serfdom’, properly speaking, since the peasants themselves were not the property of their masters. But it did involve a measure of subjection to the personal authority of the lord. The noble estate became an integrated legal and political space. The landlord was not only the employer of his peasants and the owner of their land; he also held jurisdiction over them through the manorial court, which was empowered to issue punishments ranging from small fines for minor misdemeanours to corporal punishments, including whippings and imprisonment.

Historians have long been preoccupied with the authoritarian features of the Prussian agrarian system. The émigré German scholar Hans Rosenberg described a regime of miniature autocracies in which

Local dominance was complete, for, in the course of time, the Junker had become not only an exacting landlord, hereditary serf master, vigorous entrepreneur, assiduous estate manager, and nonprofessional trader, but also the local church patron, police chief, prosecutor, and judge. […] Many of these experts in local tyranny were experienced in whipping the backs, hitting the faces and breaking the bones of ‘disrespectful’ and ‘disobedient’ peasant serfs.33

For the bulk of Prussian subjects the consequence of this aristocratic tyranny was ‘abject poverty’ and ‘helpless apathy’; peasants in particular suffered ‘legal and social degradation, political emasculation, moral crippling and destruction of [their] chances of self-determination’. But they were, in the words of another study, ‘too down-trodden to revolt’.34 This view is widely echoed in the literature on the German special path, where it is presumed that the Junker-dominated agrarian system, by instilling habits of deference and obedience, had deleterious and lasting effects on Prussian – and by extension German – political culture. The historiographical black legend of Junker tyranny has been remarkably tenacious, partly because it chimes with a broader cultural tradition of anti-Junker sentiment.35

In recent years, a rather different picture has emerged. Not all peasants in the East-Elbian lands were the subjects of lords. A substantial proportion were free tenant farmers, or non-subject employees. In East Prussia in particular, free peasants – the descendants of free settler-colonists – ran 13,000 out of 61,000 peasant farms across the province by the end of the eighteenth century. In many areas, the settlement of immigrants on crown and noble land created new concentrations of non-subject farmers.36 Even traditional lordships in the Brandenburg heartland incorporated a substantial contingent of persons who were paid wages for their labour or operated as specialist subcontractors managing particular resources, such as dairy herds, on an entrepreneurial basis. The Junker estates, in other words, were not lazily run cereal monocultures, in which labour was free and incentives for innovation non-existent. They were complex businesses that involved substantial operating costs and high levels of investment. Waged labour of various kinds played a crucial role in sustaining the manorial economy, both at the level of the lordship itself and among the ranks of the better-off subject villagers, who themselves frequently employed labour in order to maximize the productivity of their own holdings.

There was, to be sure, an extensive regime of compulsory labour services. In eighteenth-century Brandenburg, labour services were generally limited to between two and four days a week; they were heavier in the Neumark, where peasants rendered labour service for four days a week in winter and six in summer and autumn.37 Services also varied within individual lordships. On the estate of Stavenow in the Prignitz, for example, the inhabitants of the village of Karstädt were required to ‘come to the manor at six in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with a horse team, or if horses are not needed, with another person on foot, and to stay until they are told they can come in from the fields with the cowherder’. By contrast, the smallholders of the little fishing village of Mesekow on the same estate were liable to ‘serve with the hand as often as they were told’.38

Yet these burdens were balanced to some extent by the strong hereditary property rights enjoyed by many subject peasants. In the light of these rights, it seems plausible to describe labour services not simply as feudal impositions, but as rents. While most fullholding peasants would dearly have loved to commute their hated labour services to money rents, it does not seem that the services were so burdensome as to prevent them from making a reasonable living out of their plots, or to prevent settler-farmers from other parts of Germany from accepting subject status in return for hereditary land titles. A study of the Stavenow estate in the Prignitz suggests that, far from being condemned to ‘abject poverty’, the average Brandenburg village peasant may actually have been better off than his southern and western European counterparts. In any case, seigneurial labour burdens were not engraved in stone; they could be, and sometimes were, renegotiated. This happened, for example, in the years following the devastation of the Thirty Years War, which left a huge number of farms deserted. Faced with a desperate labour shortage, landlords on many estates caved in to the demands of peasants for reductions in their services. Indeed, many landlords conspired in pushing labour rents down by outbidding their neighbours for incoming settlers looking to establish themselves on farmsteads.39

The state authorities, moreover, intervened to protect peasants against high-handed action by landlords. Laws and edicts issued by successive sovereigns after 1648 gradually subjected the patrimonial courts of the Junker lordships to the norms of territorial law. Whereas the consultation of lawyers in patrimonial cases had been a rarity in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, landlords tended after the Thirty Years War to employ legally qualified court administrators. In 1717, Frederick William I ordered under the threat of severe penalties that every court was to acquire a copy of the newly published Criminal Code (Criminal-Ordnung) and to operate in conformity with its guidelines in all criminal cases. Patrimonial courts were also required to render a full quarterly report of trials conducted. This trend continued under Frederick II.

From 1747–8 onwards, all patrimonial courts were obliged to employ government-certified, university-trained jurists as judges. The giving of law was thereby de-privatized and drawn back into the sphere of state authority. The result was a gradual standardization of procedures and practices across different patrimonial jurisdictions.40 These trends were reinforced by the activity of the Berlin Chamber Court, Brandenburg’s highest tribunal and court of appeal. The role of the Chamber Court in adjudicating conflicts between villagers and landlords across Brandenburg over an extended period has yet to be comprehensively analysed. But among those individual cases that have received close attention, there are many that demonstrate the court’s willingness to support the complaints of villagers or stay the hand of over-zealous Junkers.41 Moreover, access to this court became easier during the reign of Frederick II, when the reforms initiated by Justice Minister Samuel von Cocceji established faster and cheaper appellate justice.

The history of disputes between landlords and subjects suggests an impressive capacity for concerted action, as well as a strong sense, among landed and landless agrarian workers alike, of their customary entitlements and dignity. We see this in the disputes over labour services that became increasingly common towards the end of the seventeenth century, as the population began to recover from the Thirty Years War and the balance of bargaining power between rural subjects and landowners began to tilt back in the latter’s favour. In the face of demands for increased labour rents, peasants showed an elephantine memory of the customary limits to their labour obligations and a rock-hard determination not to permit the imposition of new and ‘illegitimate’ services.

In 1656, for example, it was reported that peasants in the Prignitz were refusing to pay their taxes or perform their labour services. The ringleaders had passed notes from village to village threatening that anyone who refused to join the protest would be fined three thalers.42 In 1683, when a dispute over labour services broke out on an estate in the district of Löcknitz in the Uckermark to the north-east of Berlin, twelve peasant communes joined in a labour strike against the lordship and even formulated a joint petition to the Elector complaining grandiloquently of the administrator’s ‘great illegitimate procedures’ (‘grosser unverandtwordtlicher Proceduren’).43 In a letter countering these complaints, the administrator reported to the authorities that the peasants of his lordship had refused to perform their services, stayed away from the demesne whenever they felt like it, arrived only at 10.30 in winter, and brought only tired animals and the smallest wagons to the lordship’s farm. When the lordship’s stewards pressed them to get on with their work, the peasants beat them or threatened to kill them, laying their scythes about their necks. Since the dispute remained unresolved, joint representations by the peasants continued over the following years, supported, it seems, by the local pastor. Attempts by the authorities to divide the resistance by offering each commune a different deal failed. Despite the appearance of troops and the infliction of corporal penalties on some of the ringleaders, the resistance ‘movement’ rumbled on for over a decade as the peasants thwarted the lordship’s attempts to extract more value out of the subject villagers. There was little sign here of the emasculated serf whose will has been abolished by habits of deference and obedience. When an administrator on the same estate made to hurry a labourer along with his whip during the harvest of 1697, another worker nearby threatened him with his scythe, saying: ‘Master, hold back, that does no good and will make you no friends, we don’t let ourselves be beaten.’44

This was no isolated stand. In the Prignitz, to the north-west of Berlin, a regional protest movement broke out among the peasants in 1700, again triggered by demands for increased labour rents. The peasants showed an impressive ability to organize themselves. A letter of complaint from the local nobility observed that ‘the common peasantry’ had ‘joined together most punishably’ in order to free themselves from dues and services, and had ‘duly collected money from house to house in all villages [of the Prignitz]’. To the chagrin of the noble signatories, the government, instead of simply arresting and punishing the ringleaders, had forwarded the peasants’ supplications to the Berlin Chamber Court for consideration. In the meanwhile, no fewer than 130 villages drew up petitions listing their grievances. These documents focused on the efforts of the Junker landlord to reintroduce defunct and illegitimate labour services, such as the cartage of demesne produce to Berlin, without offsetting this against other obligations; there were also complaints about a hidden rise in grain rents through the introduction of larger grain unit measures and the mistreatment of some peasants who had been manacled in the lordship’s newly built jail.45

What is striking about this and other similar protests (there were major conflicts at around the same time in the Mittelmark and parts of the Uckermark46) is the capacity for concerted action and the confidence in higher justice that many peasant protests demonstrate. Events of this kind were ordered by a latent collective memory of the techniques of protest – participants ‘knew’ how to proceed without being told. The few detailed studies we have of such upheavals also show that peasants found it easy to secure the help and guidance of persons outside their own narrower social milieu. In the protests of the Löcknitz district, the local pastor helped formulate the grievances of villagers in a language that would make sense to the higher authorities of the lordship and the appeal court. In the Prignitz uprising, a local estate administrator, an educated man, took a considerable personal risk in helping to draw up supplications and write letters for the insurgents.47

Even in cases where peasant protests did not achieve their immediate end and new labour services were exacted against their will, there were ways of getting around the landlord by stealth. The easiest was simply to sabotage the system by performing labour services to the minimum standard of competence and effort. In a letter of January 1670, the local administrator Friedrich Otto von der Gröben complained to the Elector that the winter services performed by the peasants of Babitz in the Zechlin district were of poor quality – the local people often sent their children to perform services, or arrived for work at ten or eleven in the morning and left again at two, so that a whole week (three days) of services scarcely amounted to one full day’s work.48 In 1728, Major von Kleist, whose family had bought the Stavenow estate in 1717, complained to his peasants that ‘many disorders have been observed in the performance of manorial services, since some people bring such poor horse-teams that they can’t finish the job, while others work so unconscientiously and disobediently that nothing gets done.’ An announcement to this effect was read out to the subjects before the manorial court, but a number of them failed to turn up for the reading and it had little effect.49 The evidence available suggests that this was a widespread problem in the East-Elbian lands. On estates where rental arrangements were not perceived as legitimate, open protests were merely isolated peaks of resistance in a broader landscape of noncompliance.50

The impact of such resistance on the landlords as an economic elite is difficult to assess with any precision. It does seem clear, however, that the readiness of peasants to protest at unilateral hikes in labour rents and to undermine their long-term effectiveness through under-performance or sabotage placed landlords under constraint. When one of the von Arnims inherited part of an estate complex at Böckenberg in the Uckermark in 1752, he found that the fields were full of thorns and ‘had been reduced to the poorest condition by peasant labour services’. Von Arnim decided instead to build dwellings with his own capital and settle the land with families of waged labourers working directly for him.51 Here was one clear example of how peasant recalcitrance depressed the value of labour services, encouraged the use of waged labour, and hastened the transition to a fully wage-based system that would gradually hollow out the ‘feudal’ constitution of the East-Elbian estates.


A very obvious and yet little-remarked feature of the image of the ‘Prussian Junker’ is its emphatically masculine character. One of the crystallization points for the corporate noble ideology that emerged in the Prussian lands during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was the concept of the ‘integral household’ (ganzes Haus) under the authority of a benign paterfamilias or Hausvater, whose authority and stewardship extended beyond his nuclear family to the peasants, half-holders, domestic servants and others who inhabited the estate. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a flourishing genre of non-fiction works dedicated itself to the notion of the ideal estate, well ordered and self-sufficient, held together by bonds of mutual dependence and obligation and guided by the leadership of a patriarchal family head.52

Distant echoes of this ideal type can be discerned in Theodor Fontane’s remarkable elegy to the old nobility, Der Stechlin, in which the humane virtues of an idealized social elite whose time is passing are embodied in the gruff but lovable country squire Dubslav von Stechlin. The archetype of the paterfamilias is still recognizable in the elderly Stechlin, but the broader appurtenances, male and female, of the household have faded into the background; the head of the house has been lifted out of his setting in order that he might represent the predicaments and subjectivity of his class as a whole (Fontane makes this possible by having Stechlin’s wife die young before the novel’s action begins). In this sense, Fontane masculinizes the world of the estate in a way that seems alien even to the patriarchal world invoked by the Hausvaterliteratur of the previous century. So powerful was Fontane’s nostalgic evocation of the Junker caste that it became a kind of virtual memory for the literary classes of late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Prussia. It was the world of Fontane that the historian Veit Valentin invoked when he described the Prussian Junkers as ‘quiet phlegmatic men, arrogant and amiable, splendid and impossible, who rejected anything different from their ilk, were too elevated to boast, called their country seat “house” and their park “garden”’.53

The tendency to conceive of the Junker as an emphatically masculine type was reinforced by the association with military service, which left an indelible imprint on the visual imaginings of the Junker class that still shape our perception of who they were. The caricatures that proliferated in the satirical journals of the 1890s and 1900s focused above all on officers in uniform. In the pages of the Munich journal Simplicissimus, ‘the Junker’ is a vain, feckless young man buttoned into grotesquely tight military dress and bent on squandering his inherited wealth at the gaming tables, or a ruthless womanizer and ignoramus who thinks ‘Charles Dickens’ is the name of a racehorse and mistakes ‘matriculation’ for a Jewish holiday. The physical type immortalized by Erich von Stroheim in Jean Renoir’s 1937 film La Grande Illusion is still entirely recognizable as one of the canonical modern European types: a slim narrow-waisted body held ramrod-straight, cropped hair, strict moustaches, a posed, unexpressive countenance and the glittering monocle (which can be allowed to drop at intervals for theatrical effect).54


16. ‘The Junker’. Caricature by E. Feltner from the satirical journal Simplicissimus.

The point of this brief digression is not to denounce such constructions as false (for they certainly captured important aspects of what ‘the Junker class’ meant to their bourgeois admirers and detractors and were, furthermore, internalized to some extent by the Junkers themselves). The point is rather that one of their effects has been to efface from view the women who made estates function in the classic era of commercial manorialism, not only by sustaining the sociability and communicative networks that made life in the Prussian provinces bearable, but by their contributions to financial and personnel management. If we return to the Kleist estate at Stavenow, we find that, during the two decades between 1738 and 1758, the entire estate was managed by Maria Elisabeth von Kleist, the widow of Colonel Andreas Joachim, who had died in 1738. Frau von Kleist pursued outstanding debts with great energy, both through her own manorial court and through suits filed with the Chamber Court in Berlin; she supervised the workings of patrimonial justice on the estate, lent a substantial sum on 5 per cent interest to a neighbour, accepted small savings deposits from various locals (including an apothecary, a fisherman, her carriage-driver, an innkeeper), invested in war bonds and an interest-bearing deposit with the local credit institute of the corporate nobility, and generally oversaw and managed the family estate as a business.55

Another striking case is that of Helene Charlotte von Lestwitz, who in 1788 inherited the lordship of Alt-Friedland about seventy kilometres east of Berlin on the edge of the Oder floodplain. Having acquired the estate, she adopted the name ‘von Friedland’, presumably in order to reinforce her identification with the locality and its people. In the early 1790s, a dispute broke out over use-rights to a lake known as the Kietzer See that lay between her estate and the neighbouring town of Alt-Quilitz. The villagers of Alt-Quilitz claimed the right to cut rushes and grass on the margins of the lake during late autumn when fodder was becoming scarce and winter stores were needed for the cattle. They also claimed the right to dye hemp and flax on the small sandy beaches that dotted the lakeshore on the Alt-Quilitz side. These claims were energetically disputed by Frau von Friedland, who claimed that rush-cutting rights for the entire lake belonged to her lordship – she even conducted a survey of her own subjects with a view to establishing the oral history, as it were, of usage rights to the Kietzer See.

In January 1793, after repeated complaints to the lordship of Alt-Quilitz had failed to provide satisfaction, Frau von Friedland filed a suit with the Berlin Chamber Court. She also authorized her subjects and administrators to arm themselves with clubs, arrest rush-cutting Quilitzer and confiscate their ill-gotten rushes. Her subjects set about this task with zeal and evident enjoyment. When the Berlin Chamber Court finally concluded its deliberations, the outcome was a compromise that aimed to save face for both parties and apportion usage rights to the lake between them. But this was not good enough for Frau von Friedland, who promptly launched an appeal against the verdict. She now shifted the burden of her argument from the scandalous rush-cutting of her neighbours to the deleterious effects of their hemp-dyeing on the fish population of the lake. Guards were posted along the shores by the Friedland lordship to prevent hemp-dyeing, but these were summarily arrested and carried off by a numerically superior force of Quilitz townsfolk. In a subsequent sortie, the hunter (Jäger) of the Friedland estate managed to chase off a gang of hemp-dyers by menacing them with his gun; in the confusion that followed, however, the Quilitzer succeeded in seizing and making away with the punt of a Friedland fisherman by the name of Schmah. During the two years while the appeal case ran, Frau von Friedland continued to lead her subjects in their struggle for control of the lake and its resources.

Surveying this case, one is struck not only by the remarkable solidarity between subjects and lordship and the use of ecological arguments, but also by the prominence of the energetic and quarrelsome Frau von Friedland, who was clearly something of a local titan. She was also an ‘improving landlord’ of a kind that was becoming fashionable in later eighteenth-century Brandenburg. She pioneered the rent-free loan of cattle from her own stud to her subjects (to keep them in manure), she introduced new plants and she restocked depleted woodland – her picturesque forests of oaks, lindens and beeches are today still one of the most attractive features of the area. She also improved schooling on the estates and trained villagers to take on positions as administrators and dairy farmers.56

How frequently such matriarchs make an appearance in the annals of the landowning classes and how the conditions for such rural female activism changed over time are difficult to establish. But there is nothing in the sources on the Kietzer See conflict to suggest that contemporaries perceived Frau von Friedland as a bizarre anomaly. Moreover, there are other cases sprinkled across the literature in which we find women zealously engaged as the owners and lords of their estates.57 These examples suggest, at the very least, that the image promulgated in the prescriptive eighteenth-century literature of manners of the ‘Junkerin’ knitting, darning, minding the kitchen garden and tending to ‘all manner of women’s work’58 did not apply to all households, and that the normative power of such wishful image-making may have been less than we suppose. There is certainly much to suggest that the roles of men and women were less polarized in the noble rural household of the ancien régime than they would later become in the bourgeois household of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The capacity of eighteenth-century female estate-owners to operate as autonomous agents was underpinned by strong female property rights under law that would be downgraded in the course of the following century.59

To a certain extent, these observations about the noble household can be extended to the social milieu of the peasants, villagers and servants, subject and free, who lived on the Junker estates. Here too, although there can be no doubt about the profound structural inequalities between the genders, women were in a stronger position than one might suppose: they co-managed their households (including, in many cases, the control and management of money and accumulation of savings). Women who had brought substantial dowries into a marriage might be co-owners of the household’s assets. Women also featured as semi-independent village entrepreneurs, especially in the role of tavern mistress; it was not unusual for blacksmiths or other lesser village notables to lease taverns from the lordship and run them under the management of their wives, who thereby acquired a certain status and social prominence within the village. Women frequently performed agricultural labour, especially when male labour was scarce – the sexual division of labour was less rigid in rural communities than in the towns, where male-dominated guilds made it difficult for women to break into industry.60 Marrying into the family of her husband did not sever a woman’s ties with her own kinship network, so that wives locked in disputes with their husbands could often count on support from members of their own lineage. The importance of such ties was symbolized in the retention by peasant women of the paternal (rather than the marital) surname.61

As a factor in determining power relations, gender interacted with the many other social gradations that structured rural society. Whereas the dowried wife of a fullholding peasant was in a relatively strong position to protect her own livelihood against other claimants to income from her household, even after her husband’s death or retirement, a less well-off woman who married an already retired peasant was in a far more vulnerable position, since there was no way of ensuring that the household of her husband would continue to finance her upkeep after his death. The question of a woman’s retirement benefits after the death of her husband was so sensitive that it was sometimes the subject of special stipulations in the farm occupancy deeds that were signed when a woman married into a new household. In other cases, benefits were settled at the moment of retirement, when the older generation yielded management of the holding to their heirs. Where there was good will, widowed older women could count on certain customary local assumptions about what was a fitting level of provision; where good will was lacking, they might have to seek enforcement of their rights through the manorial court.62

The study of disputes arising over illegitimate births has also shed light on how gender roles operated and were defined within rural society. Some parts of Prussia, such as the Altmark, had a surprisingly high rate of illegitimate births. One sample count in the parish of Stapen on the lordship of the Schulenburg family revealed that for ninety-one marriages solemnized in the parish over the period 1708–1800, there were twenty-eight illegitimate births.63 In such cases, the court authorities were mainly concerned to establish paternity and to define the mother’s right to claim support from the male. Court records reveal widely divergent assumptions about male and female sexuality; whereas women were viewed as naturally passive and defensive in sexual transactions, men were seen as driven by an unequivocal will for intercourse. This meant that the burden of the investigation into illegitimate births generally rested on establishing why the woman had complied with the man’s wish for sex. If it could be shown that he had won her over with a promise of marriage, her claim to child support might be strengthened. If, conversely, it could be shown that she had a reputation for promiscuity, this might weaken her position. By contrast, the sexual history of the man in question was regarded as irrelevant. In these ways, such investigations were tilted in favour of men. And yet, court proceedings were less discriminatory than one might suppose. Considerable effort was invested to establish the precise circumstances of the impregnation as securely as possible and although fathers were only rarely forced to marry, if they could be clearly identified they were generally made to share in rearing costs.64

In any case, gender was only one of several variables that could influence judicial outcomes. Women from high-status peasant families were far better placed than poor ones. They were more likely to receive support from the village elite, which could be decisive in determining the verdict. The men impugned were also more likely to agree to marry them.65 Poorer women were less well placed in both these respects, but even for them there were ways of getting by as an unmarried mother. Women in this position could make ends meet by performing domestic labour, such as spinning and sewing in other peasant households. They might sometimes succeed in marrying later down the line – the stigma associated with illegitimate birth largely dissipated (even without marriage) if a father could be identified and acknowledged his responsibilities. There is even evidence to suggest that poor women bringing up children on their own, assuming they kept their good health, were in a better position to generate income than married women of the same social status who were bound to a specific household.66

One of the most interesting things that emerge from court proceedings of this kind is the self-policing character of village society on the East-Elbian estates. The peasants and other villagers were not helpless, cowering subjects exposed to the arbitrary blows of an alien seigneurial justice. The manorial court was for much of the time the enforcer of the village’s own social and moral norms. This is particularly clear in cases where family disputes threatened to leave old or otherwise fragile people without adequate means of support; here the function of the manorial court was often to see to it that the village’s own moral economy was enforced in favour of its most vulnerable members.67 In many cases involving sexual misdemeanours, the proceedings began with a preliminary investigation by the village itself. It was the village that informed the court that there was a case to be answered. The village also oversaw the payments of alimony that followed successful paternity suits. The manorial court thus operated in partial symbiosis with the self-governing structures of the village.68


‘The power of Prussia,’ Frederick II noted in the Political Testament of 1752, ‘is not founded on any intrinsic wealth, but uniquely on the efforts of industry’ (gewerblichen Fleiss) .69 From the reign of the Great Elector onwards, the development of domestic industry was one of the central objectives of the Hohenzollern administrations. Successive Electors and kings sought to achieve this by encouraging immigration to expand the native workforce and by fostering the foundation and expansion of native enterprises. Some existing industries were protected with import bans and tariffs. In certain cases, where the product in question was deemed to be of strategic significance or promised to yield very substantial revenues, the government itself operated a monopoly, appointing managers, investing funds, controlling quality and collecting income. An effort was made to ensure – in accordance with mercantilist principle – that raw materials did not leave the territory for processing elsewhere. One of Frederick’s first decisions as king was to found a new administrative organ, the Fifth Department of the General Directory, whose task was to oversee ‘commerce and manufacturing’. In an instruction to its founding director, the king declared that the department’s objectives were to improve existing factories, to introduce new manufacturing industries and to attract as many foreigners as possible to take up places in manufacturing enterprises.

Prussian colonization agencies opened in Hamburg, Frankfurt/Main, Regensburg, Amsterdam and Geneva. Wool spinners were recruited from neighbouring Saxony to provide the wool manufacturers of the Prussian lands with much needed labour. Skilled labourers came from Lyon and Geneva to work in the Prussian silk factories, though many of these later returned to their homelands. Immigrants from the German territories of the Empire founded factories manufacturing knives and scissors. Immigrants from France (including Catholics now, in addition to the Protestants of an earlier generation) helped to build up the Prussian hat and leather industries.

Frederick’s ‘economic policy’ took the form of one-off interventions in specific sectors that he judged to be of special importance to the state. Particular attention was paid to the Prussian silk industry, partly because silk was a product for which the raw materials could theoretically be generated within the Prussian lands (provided one found a way of protecting young mulberry tree plantations against the frosts of the winter), partly because the purchase of luxury items made of foreign silk was seen as a major drain on the state’s income, and partly because silk was a prestigious commodity associated with elegance and an advanced state of civilization and technical knowledge.70

The techniques adopted to stimulate production employed a characteristic mix of incentives and controls. Garrison towns were ordered to plant mulberry trees within their walls. A royal order of 1742 stated that anyone proposing to establish a mulberry plantation was to be provided with the necessary land. Growers who maintained plantations of 1,000 trees or more from their own funds were to be offered a state subsidy to cover the wages of a gardener until the business started to generate a profit. Once the trees were sufficiently mature, growers would be entitled to grants of Italian silkworm eggs free of charge from the government. The government undertook, moreover, to purchase any silk produced on such plantations from their owners. The nascent silk sector was hedged about with special export subsidies, tariff protection and tax exemptions. From 1756, the importation of foreign silk was forbidden altogether for the Prussian territories east of the river Elbe. It is estimated that in all some 1.6 million thalers of government money was invested in the production of silk, most of it dispensed by a special government department with responsibility for silk manufacture alone. This determined nurturing of a favoured industry undoubtedly produced an increase in overall capacity, but there was controversy, even among contemporaries, as to whether this heavily interventionist approach was really the best way to stimulate productivity growth across the manufacturing sector.71

In the case of the silk industry, the state was the chief investor and the foremost entrepreneur. The same pattern could be observed across a range of other industries deemed to be of strategic or fiscal importance. There was a royal shipyard at Stettin, for example, and state monopolies in tobacco, timber, coffee and salt, managed by businessmen under the supervision of state officials. There were also a number of private – public partnerships, like that with Splitgerber and Daum, a Berlin firm specializing in war-related industries, including the purchase and resale of foreign munitions, which operated as a private enterprise but was protected by the state from competition and provided with a regular flow of government orders. A much celebrated example of state-driven entrepreneurship was the consolidation of the Upper Silesian iron ore industry. In 1753, the Malapane Hütte in Silesia became the first German ironworks to operate a modern blast furnace. The government also assisted in the expansion of the Silesian linen industry, attracting new workers and technicians through special settlement schemes offering various incentives (such as free looms for newly arriving immigrant weavers).72 All of these enterprises were protected by a regime of protective tariffs and import bans.

Intervention, at this level of depth, involved the state, and indeed the sovereign himself, in the time-consuming micro-management of specific sectoral problems. We can see this in the government’s handling of the ailing salt industry in Halle, Stassfurt and Gross Salze towards the end of Frederick’s reign. The salt-works of these towns had lost their traditional markets in Electoral Saxony and repeatedly petitioned the king for help. In 1783 Frederick entrusted one of his ministers, Friedrich Anton von Heinitz, with the task of finding out ‘whether it would be possible to process some other product from the salt-pit, such as a saltpetre or whatever, so that these people can help themselves to some extent and then sell this product’.73 Heinitz hit upon the idea of manufacturing blocks of mineral salt and selling them on to the domains administration in Silesia as saltlicks for grazing cattle. He persuaded the local salt-miners’ corporation (Pfännerschaft) of Gross Salze to conduct the necessary experiments and provided them with a royal subsidy of 2,000 thalers to cover costs. The first experiment failed because the ovens in which the mineral salt was to be extracted were of inadequate quality and collapsed during firing. A substantially larger subsidy from ministerial discretionary funds was required to finance the construction of higher-quality ovens. Heinitz also requested Carl Georg Heinrich Count von Hoym, the Minister for Silesia and a particular favourite of the king, to purchase 8,000 hundredweight of his product in the summer of 1786. Hoym acceded in the first instance but refused to renew the order in the following year because the salt from the new works at Gross Salze was of poor quality and far too expensive. Here we see a readiness to improvise and innovate combined with an ultimately counterproductive preference for government-(as opposed to market-) driven solutions.74

As his heavily interventionist and controlling approach revealed, Frederick II was out of touch with those contemporary trends in (especially French and British) economic thought that had begun to conceptualize the economy as operating under its own autonomous laws and saw individual enterprise and the deregulation of production as the key to growth. There was growing controversy – especially after the Seven Years War – as businessmen began to chafe under the government’s economic restrictions. During the 1760s, independent merchants and manufacturers in the Brandenburg-Prussian cities protested against the restrictive and discriminatory practices of the government. They found some support from within the king’s own bureaucracy. In September 1766, Erhard Ursinus, Privy Finance Secretary of the Fifth Department, submitted a memorandum criticizing government policy and focusing in particular on what he saw as the over-subsidization of the velvet and silk industries, both of which produced material of inferior quality at much higher prices than imported foreign equivalents. The network of government monopolies, Ursinus went on to argue, created an environment hostile to the flourishing of trade.75 Ursinus was not rewarded for his candour. After revelations that he had been accepting bribes from powerful figures in the business community, he was imprisoned in the fortress at Spandau for one year.


17. Frederick the Great visits a factory. Engraving by Adolph Menzel, 1856.

A more historiographically influential critique was that of HonoréGabriel Riquetti, Count Mirabeau, author of a widely discussed eight-volume treatise on the agricultural, economic and military organization of the Prussian monarchy. A passionate partisan of physiocratic free trade economics, Mirabeau found little to commend in the elaborate system of economic controls employed by the Prussian administration to sustain domestic productivity. There were, he declared, many ‘true and useful ways’ of encouraging the growth of industry, but these did not include the monopolies, import restrictions, and state subsidies that were the norm in the Kingdom of Prussia.76 Instead of allowing manufacturies to ‘establish themselves of their own accord’ on the basis of the capital naturally accumulated in agriculture and trade, Mirabeau argued, the king had wasted his resources on ill-advised investment schemes:

The King of Prussia recently gave six thousand écus for the establishment of a watch factory at Friedrichswalde. Such a small project was not worthy of this gift. It is easy to foresee that if this factory is not continually fed with further benefits, it will not sustain itself. Of all useless accoutrements, there is none more useless than a bad watch.77

The legacy of nearly half a century of Frederician rule, Mirabeau concluded, was a grim landscape of economic stagnation in which production chronically exceeded demand and the spirit of enterprise was stifled by regulation and monopoly.78

This was an overly negative assessment, whose ultimate purposes were polemical (Mirabeau’s real target was the French ancien régime, which he helped to overturn in June 1789). In defence of the Frederician experiment, one could point out that a number of the state projects launched during this era established the foundations for longer-term growth. The Silesian iron industry, for example, continued to flourish after Frederick’s death under the supervision of Count von Reden, Special Industrial Commissar for Silesia. Between 1780 and 1800, its workforce and output increased by 500 per cent. By the mid nineteenth century, Silesia possessed one of the most efficient metallurgical industries in continental Europe. Here was an example of successful state-induced long-term growth and development.79 The same point can be made for the state-sponsored wool industry established in the Luckenwalde district in the Mittelmark to the south of Berlin. The state may not in the first instance have created a congenial climate for free competition and entrepreneurship, but it did successfully substitute for the absence of a local entrepreneurial elite. No merchant, however wealthy or enterprising, would have seized upon the idea of settling artisans in an area such as Luckenwalde, where there was as yet no industry to speak of. The fructifying activity of the entrepreneurs could begin only at a later point, when a settlement, together with the necessary concentration of local resources and expertise, had already been established with the encouragement of the state. In other words, state-induced development and entrepreneurship were not mutually exclusive – they could be successive stages of the process of growth. As one nineteenth-century social and economic historian, Gustav Schmoller, put it: the regime of protectionism and state-induced growth ‘had to fall in order that the seeds it had sown could bloom under the sun of [nineteenth-century] industrial liberalism’.80

In any case, mid eighteenth-century Brandenburg-Prussia was not an economic wasteland in which the state was the only innovator and the only entrepreneur. The importance of the royal administration as the manager of large-scale manufacturies should not be exaggerated.81 In the Berlin-Potsdam residential city complex, the dominant centre of economic growth in the Prussian central provinces, only one in every fifty factories (Fabriquen) belonged to the state or to a public corporation. To be sure, these included some of the biggest concerns, such as the Lagerhaus founded by Frederick William I to supply the army, and the porcelain, gold and silver manufacturies. However, a number of these enterprises were not controlled directly by the state, but leased out to wealthy businessmen. The role of the state was less prominent in the western provinces, where there were major independent centres of metallurgy (in the county of Mark), silk manufacture (in and around Krefeld) and textiles (around the city of Bielefeld). In these areas, the dominant force in economic life was a confident mercantile and manufacturing bourgeoisie whose wealth derived not from state contracts but from regional trade, especially with the Netherlands. In this sense, the western territories were an ‘object lesson in the limits of state influence on economic developments’.82

Even in the central provinces of the Prussian conglomerate, growth in the state sector was dramatically outstripped by the expansion of private sector enterprise. Especially after the Seven Years War, the rapid growth of privately funded and managed middle-sized manufacturing enterprises (employing between fifty and ninety-nine workers) bore witness to the declining importance of government-steered production. Particularly striking was the growth of the cotton sector, which unlike those of wool and silk, received little governmental assistance. Although Berlin-Potsdam and Magdeburg were the only two production centres of supra-regional importance to compare with Hamburg, Leipzig or Frankfurt/Main, there were many lesser centres of production in the middle provinces of the kingdom. Even in quite small towns, where the chief source of income was agriculture, there could be substantial local concentrations of craft-based manufacturing activity. Stendal in the Altmark to the west of Berlin, for example, boasted no fewer than 109 master artisans in the textile sector. In many such locations, the second half of the eighteenth century saw considerable structural change, as individual workshops were gradually integrated into dispersed manufacturies. Even small craft towns could be important ‘islands of progress’ capable of laying the foundations of later industrial development.83

Overseeing this accelerated growth outside the state sector was a diverse entrepreneurial elite whose relationship with the government’s economic agencies was more complex than the mercantilist model allows. The decades after 1763 saw the rapid consolidation of a new economic elite of manufacturers, bankers, wholesalers and subcontractors. Although they remained closely tied to the old town oligarchies, their economic activities gradually dissolved the structures of the traditional corporate social order. These were not craven ‘subjects’ whose highest ambition was to capture a few crumbs from the table of the state enterprises, but independent entrepreneurs with a strong sense of their individual and collective interests. They frequently sought to influence the behaviour of the government, sometimes through open protest (such as during the depression of the 1760s, when there was collective protest against government trade restrictions) but more often through personal contacts. This could occur at many levels, from petitions to the monarch himself, to letters to senior central or provincial bureaucrats, to contacts with state agents in the locality, such as tax commissioners and factory inspectors (Gewerksassessoren) . The investigation into the alleged corruption of Privy Councillor Ursinus of the Fifth Department threw up abundant evidence of private and official contacts with the most respected merchants and manufacturers of Berlin – Wegely, Lange, Schmitz, Schütze, van Asten, Ephraim, Schickler. Such contacts between businessmen and officials were commonplace. We find evidence of them, for example, in the correspondence of Privy Finance Councillor Johann Rudolf Fäsch, Director of the Fifth Department after the departure of Marschall. In Frankfurt/Oder, local officials and businessmen even held regular conferences at which they debated the government’s measures to stimulate trade. In 1779, for example, a posse of cotton entrepreneurs – de Titre, Oehmigke, Ermeler, Sieburg, Wulff, Jüterbock and Simon – marched down to the Fifth Department to deliver a stiff protest against recent government measures.84

The state, for its part, was more open to influence from this sphere than Frederick’s famed contempt for merchants might suggest. The king counted at least a dozen renowned entrepreneurs and manufacturers among his closest personal advisers. The textile entrepreneur Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky, for example, and the Magdeburg merchant Christoph Gossler were sometimes asked for formal reports on matters of state policy, as were the powerful Krefeld silk manufacturers Johann and Friedrich von der Leyen, who were awarded the title ‘Royal Commercial Councillor’ (ko niglicher Kommerzienrat) in 1755 for their services to the king.

If the monarch himself and the officials of the central bureaucracy were open to influences from the business community, the same applied to an even greater degree to the local agents of the state in the towns. Many tax commissioners saw themselves less as the executor of the state’s will in the locality than as conduits for information and influence from the periphery to the centre. They were easily pressed into the service of local entrepreneurs – in 1768, for example, we find Tax Commissioner Canitz of Calbe on the river Saale demanding that trade restrictions with Saxony be lifted so that local wool manufacturers can sell their wares at the Leipzig trade fair. The candour (even brusqueness) of the reports filed by some provincial officials suggests that they saw their input, based on familiarity with local conditions, as a crucial corrective to the misconceptions of the central bureaucracy.85

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