East of Westphalia and south of Prussia was a German state, known to its citizens as Sachsen, to the French as Saxe, which once had ranged from Bohemia to the Baltic, had left its name on various -sexes in Britain, had lately been devastated by the Seven Years’ War, but was now content to be a prosperous electorate spreading to right and left of the Elbe from Luther’s Wittenberg to Dresden, the Paris of Germany.
Under the long rule of Frederick Augustus III as elector (1768–1806) and as King Frederick Augustus I (1806–27), the country, blessed by the Elbe as its nourishing mother, soon recovered its prosperity. Dresden again rejoiced in its rococo architecture, its spacious thoroughfares and handsome bridges, its Sistine Madonna and Meissen pottery. The young ruler, though never outstanding as a statesman, managed his realm judiciously, spent his revenues carefully, paid off the national debt, and developed at Freiberg a famous School of Mines. Dresden’s rival, Leipzig, resumed its annual book fair, where publishers from everywhere in Europe offered their latest wares, and Germany’s flourishing literature led the intellectual parade.
Frederick Augustus “the Just” joined Prussia and Austria in an attempt to discipline the French Revolution, and shared in the setback at Valmy in 1792. He was badly upset by the execution of his cousin Louis XVI, but he willingly joined in making peace with France in 1795. When Napoleon rose to power, Frederick kept on good terms with him, and Napoleon respected him as an enlightened despot loved by his people. However, when Napoleon’s army, in 1806, was approaching Jena, Frederick was caught between hammer and anvil: Napoleon warned him not to let Prussian troops pass through Saxony; Prussia insisted, and invaded; the Elector yielded, and let his little army join the Prussians. Napoleon, victorious, treated Frederick Augustus with comparative lenience: exacted an indemnity of 25 million francs, bade him change his title to king of Saxony, made him head of the grand duchy of Warsaw, and compelled Prussia to cede to Saxony the “Circle of Cottbus” on the west bank of the River Spree. Prussia was thus hemmed in between Poland on the north and east, Westphalia on the west, and Saxony on the south—all pledged to Napoleon. It seemed only a matter of time before Prussia would have to follow the rest of Germany in vassalage to Bonaparte’s France.