We remind ourselves again that in the eighteenth century Germany was not a nation but a loose federation of nearly independent states, which formally accepted the “Holy Roman” emperor at Vienna as their head, and sent representatives occasionally to a Reichstag, or Imperial Diet, whose chief functions were to hear speeches, suffer ceremonies, and elect an emperor. The states had a common language, literature, and art, but differed in manners, dress, coinage, and creed. There were some advantages in this political fragmentation: the multiplicity of princely courts favored a stimulating diversity of cultures; the armies were small, instead of being united for the terror of Europe; and a considerable degree of tolerance in religion, custom, and law was forced upon state, church, and people by the ease of emigration. Theoretically the power of each prince was absolute, for the Protestant faith sanctioned the “divine right of kings.” Frederick, who recognized no divine right but that of his army, satirized “most small princes, particularly German ones,” who “ruin themselves by reckless extravagance, misled by the illusion of their imagined greatness. … The youngest son of the youngest son of an appanaged dynasty imagines he is of the same stamp as Louis XIV. He builds his Versailles, keeps mistresses, and has an army … strong enough to fight … a battle on the stage of Verona.”38
The most important of the principalities was Saxony. Its age of art and glory ended when Elector Frederick Augustus II allied himself with Maria Theresa against Frederick the Great; the merciless King bombarded and ruined Dresden in 1760; the Elector fled to Poland as its Augustus III, and died in 1763. His grandson Frederick Augustus III inherited the electorate at the age of thirteen, earned the name of “Der Gerechte” (The Just), made Saxony a kingdom (1806), and through many vicissitudes kept his throne till his death (1827).
Karl Eugen, duke of Württemberg, comes into our story chiefly as the friend and enemy of Schiller. He taxed his subjects with inexhaustible ingenuity, sold ten thousand of his troops to France, and maintained what Casanova thought “the most brilliant court in Europe,”39 with a French theater, Italian opera, and a concatenation of concubines. More important to our narrative is Karl August, reigning duke of Saxe-Weimar from 1775 to 1828; but we shall see him to better advantage surrounded by the stars who brightened his reign—Wieland, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller. He was one of several minor “enlightened despots” who in this age, feeling the influence of Voltaire and the example of Frederick, contributed to the awakening of Germany. The archbishops who ruled Münster, Cologne, Trier, Mainz, and Würzburg-Bamberg fell in line by multiplying schools and hospitals, checking court extravagance, softening class distinctions, reforming prisons, extending poor relief, and bettering the conditions of industry and trade. “It is not easy,” wrote Edmund Burke, “to find or to conceive governments more mild and indulgent than these church sovereignties.”40
Class distinctions, however, were emphasized in most of the German states, as part of the technique of social control. Nobles, clergy, army officers, professional men, merchants, and peasants constituted separate classes; and within every category there were grades each of which stiffened itself with scorn of the next beneath. Marriage outside one’s class was almost unthinkable, but some merchants and financiers bought nobility. The nobles held a monopoly of the higher posts in the army and the government, and many of them earned their privileges by bravery or competence; but many were parasites, composed of uniforms, competing for social precedence at the court, and following French fashions in language, philosophy, and mistresses.
It is to the credit of the princes, prelates, and nobles of western Germany that by 1780 they had freed their peasants from serfdom, and on terms that made possible a wide spread of rural prosperity. Reinhold Lenz thought the peasants finer human beings—simpler, heartier, more elemental—than the penny-counting tradesmen or the prancing young aristocrats.41 Heinrich Jung’s autobiography (1777) idealized village life in its daily labor as well as its seasonal festivals; Herder found the folk songs of the peasantry to be truer and profounder than the poetry of the books; and Goethe, in his Dichtung und Wahrheit, described the vintage celebration as “pervading a whole district with jubilation,” fireworks, song, and wine.42 This was one side of the German scene; the other was hard labor, high taxes, women old at thirty, illiterate children dressed in rags and begging in the streets. “At one station,” Eva König told Lessing in 1770, “there crowded around me … eighty beggars; … in Munich whole families ran after me, exclaiming that surely one would not let them starve.”43
In the eighteenth century the family was more important than the state or the school. The German home was the source and center of moral discipline, social order, and economic activity. There the child learned to obey a stern father, take refuge with a loving mother, and share at an early age in the diverse and formative tasks that filled the day. Schiller’s “Song of the Bell” gave an ideal picture of “the housewife so modest, … wisely governing the circle of the family, training the girls, restraining the boys, and using all spare moments to ply the loom.”44 The wife was subject to the husband, but she was the idol of her children. Outside the home, except at the courts, men usually excluded women from their social life, and so their conversation tended to be either dull or profane. At the courts there were many women of culture and fine manners; some, Eckermann thought, “write an excellent style, and surpass, in that respect, many of our most celebrated authors.”45 As in France, so in Germany, the women of the upper classes had to learn swooning as part of their technique, and a readiness for sentiment melting into tears.
Court morals followed French models in drinking, gambling, adultery, and divorce. Titled ladies, according to Mme. de Staël, changed husbands “with as little difficulty as if they were arranging the incidents of a drama,” and with “little bitterness of spirit.”46The princes set the pace for immorality by selling their soldiers to foreign rulers; so the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel built an elegant palace, and maintained a sumptuous court, from the proceeds of his Soldatenhandel —commerce in soldiery. Altogether, during the American Revolution, German princes sold—or, as they put it, “lent”—thirty thousand troops to England for some £500,000; 12,500 of these men never returned.47 Outside of Prussia the Germans of the eighteenth century—recalling the horrors of the seventeenth—showed little inclination to war. Apparently “national character” can change from one century to another.
Religion in Germany was more subordinate to the state than in Catholic lands. Divided into sects, it had no awesome pontiff to co-ordinate its doctrine, strategy and defense; its leaders were appointed by the prince, its income depended upon his will. In the middle and lower classes it was a strong faith; only the nobles, the intellectuals, and a few clergymen were affected by the waves of unbelief that swept in from England and France. The Rhine region was mostly Catholic, but it was there that this period saw the rise of a movement boldly challenging the authority of the popes.
In 1763 Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, auxiliary bishop of Trier, published, under the pseudonym Justinus Febronius, a treatise De Statu Ec-clesiae et legitima Potestate romani Pontificis (On the State of the Church, and the Legitimate Power of the Roman Pontiff) . The book was translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, and made a stir throughout Western Europe. “Febronius” accepted the primacy of the pope, but only as one of honor and executive administration; the pope is not infallible; appeal should be possible from his decision to a general council, which should have the ultimate legislative authority in the Church. The author distrusted the secret conservative influence of the Roman Curia, and suggested that the excessive centralization of ecclesiastical power had produced the Reformation; decentralization might ease the return of Protestants to the Catholic Church. In matters of human, not divine, law secular princes were entitled to refuse obedience to the papacy; if necessary, they might rightfully separate their national churches from Rome. The Pope condemned the book (February, 1764), but it became “the breviary of the governments.”48 We have seen its influence on Joseph II.
The archbishops of Cologne, Trier, Mainz, and Salzburg favored the views of “Febronius”; they wished to be independent of the pope as the other principalities were of the emperor. On September 25, 1786, they issued the “Punctation [preliminary statement] of Ems” (near Coblenz), which, if it had been put into effect, would have created a new Reformation:
The pope is and remains the highest authority in the Church, … but those [papal] privileges which do not spring from the first Christian centuries but are based on the false Isadoran Decretals, and are disadvantageous to the bishops, … can no longer be considered valid; they belong among the usurpations of the Roman Curia; and the bishops are entitled (since peaceful protests are of no avail) themselves to maintain their lawful rights under the protection of the Roman-German Emperor. There should no longer be any appeals [from the bishops] to Rome. … The [religious] orders should take no directions from foreign superiors, nor attend general councils outside Germany. No contributions should be sent to Rome. … Vacant benefices should be filled not by Rome but by a regular election of native candidates.... A German national council should regulate these and other matters.49
The German bishops, fearing the financial power of the Curia, gave no support to this declaration; moreover, they hesitated to replace the distant over-lordship of Rome with the immediate and less evadable authority of the German princes. The incipient revolt collapsed; Hontheim retracted (1788); the archbishops withdrew their “punctation” (1789), and all was as before.