There is a tough kernel in the German character—firmed by centuries of arduous survival between alien and martial peoples—that can bear defeat proudly and bide its time for response. And there were then men like Stein and Hardenberg, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, who never let a day pass without thinking how Prussia could be redeemed. Those million serfs, hopeless under ancient thralls—what energy might they pour into the Prussian economy if they were released from humiliating burdens and were welcomed into free enterprise on the soil or in the towns? And those towns, now listless under commerce-scorning nobles governing the nation from a central distant capital—what invigorating initiatives might they develop, in industry, business, and finance, under the stimulus and experiments of freedom? Revolutionary France had freed its serfs and prospered, but it had kept the towns under the political tutelage of Paris; why not steal a march on the conqueror and free the towns as well as the serfs?
So thought Freiherr Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum Stein, “of and at the Rock,” the ancestral town of his family on the River Lahn, which flowed into the Rhine above Coblenz. He was not a baron but a Freiherr, a freeman, belonging to the Reichsrittershaft, or Imperial Knighthood, pledged to defend his domain and the realm. He was born (October 26, 1757) not “of and at the Rock,” but in nearby Nassau, son of a chamberlain to the Elector of Mainz. At sixteen he entered the school of law and politics in the University of Gottingen. There he read Montesquieu, followed him in admiring the British Constitution, and resolved to be great. He served his legal apprenticeship in the law courts of the Holy Roman Empire at Wetzlar and at the Imperial Diet in Regensburg.
In 1780 he entered the Prussian civil service, and worked in the administration of Westphalian manufactures and mines. By 1796 he had won a prominent position in the economic administration of all Prussian provinces along the Rhine. His capacity for work, and the success of his proposals, brought him a call to Berlin in 1804 to serve as minister of state for trade. Within a month he was commissioned to help in the Ministry of Finance. When news reached the capital that Napoleon had shattered the Prussian Army at Jena, Stein succeeded in removing to Memel the contents of the Prussian Treasury; with these funds Frederick William III was able to finance his government in exile. Perhaps the excitement and disasters of war sharpened the temper of the King and his ministers; on January 3, 1807, Frederick William III dismissed Stein as “a refractory, insolent, obstinate, and disobedient official, who, proud of his genius and his talents,… acts from passion and from personal hatred and rancor.”16 Stein returned to his home in Nassau. Six months later, having heard Napoleon recommend Stein as an administrator, the King offered Stein the Ministry of Home Affairs.
It was precisely the post from which the irascible Freiherr could best advance reforms fit to release the energies of the Prussian people. By October 4, 1807, he was at his new post; by October 9 he had prepared for the King the proclamation which millions of peasants and hundreds of Prussian liberals had long pleaded for. Article I was apparently modest, declaring the right of “every inhabitant of our States” to buy and own land; but this right had hitherto been refused to peasants. Article II allowed any Prussian to engage in any lawful industry or business; so, as under Napoleon, career was open to talent of whatever pedigree, and class barriers were removed from the economy. Article X forbade any further enserfdom; and Article XII declared that “from Martinmas ceases all villeinage in Our entire States…. There shall be only free persons.”17 Many nobles resisted the edict, and it was not fully enforced till 1811.
Stein and his liberal associates labored through the year 1808 to free the towns of Prussia from rule by feudal barons, or retired army officers, or tax commissioners with almost limitless powers. On November 19, 1808, the King, again a willing reformer, issued a “Municipal Ordinance” by which the towns were to be governed by a local assembly choosing its own officials; except that in large towns the burgomaster was to be appointed by the king from three men chosen by the assembly. So began the healthy local political life that grew into the outstanding excellence of Germany’s municipal administration.
Stein was not alone in remaking Prussia. Gerhard von Scharnhorst (1755–1813), Count August Neithardt von Gneisenau (1760–1831), and Prince Karl von Hardenberg (1750–1822) labored together to rebuild a Prussian Army, using various devices to evade Napoleon’s restrictions. The progress of this operation was such that Stein, on August 15, 1808, wrote to a Prussian officer a letter which fell into French hands and was printed in the Moniteur for September 8. Part of it said:
Exasperation grows every day in Germany; we must feed it and work upon people. I very much wish that we could make connections with Hesse and Westphalia, and that we should prepare ourselves for certain events; that we should seek to maintain relations with men of energy and good will, and that we could put such people in contact with others…. The affairs of Spain leave a lively impression; they prove what we long since should have suspected. It would be useful to spread these tidings prudently. We think here that war between France and Austria is inevitable. This conflict will decide the fate of Europe.18
Napoleon, about to leave for a major campaign in Spain, ordered Frederick William to dismiss Stein. The King, still at Memel, delayed compliance, until he was warned that the French would continue their occupation of Prussian territory until he obeyed. On November 24, 1808, Stein was again dismissed; and on December 16 Napoleon, from Madrid, issued a decree outlawing him, confiscating all his goods, and ordering his arrest wherever found in French-controlled territory. Stein escaped into Bohemia.
His loss to Prussia was made up by the appointment (1810) of Hardenberg as state chancellor—in effect prime minister. He had been part of the government before, had reorganized the Ministry of Finance, had negotiated the peace of 1795, had shared responsibility for the disaster of 1806, and had been dismissed at the insistence of Napoleon (1807). Now, at the age of sixty, while Napoleon was amiably absorbed with his new Empress, Hardenberg moved the King toward constitutional monarchy by persuading him to summon first an Assembly of Notables (1811), and then (1812) a Representative Assembly of the Nation with consultative powers, as a check and prod on the king. An admirer of the French philosophes, Hardenberg secularized church property, insisted on civic equality for the Jews (March 11, 1812), levied a property tax on nobles and a profit tax on businessmen, ended the obstructive monopolies of the guilds, and established freedom of enterprise and trade.
The rapid reconstruction of Prussia between 1807 and 1812 revealed a saving fund of strength in the German character. Under hostile French eyes, and under one of Prussia’s weakest kings, men like Stein and Hardenberg, neither of them a noble, undertook to rebuild a defeated, occupied, and bankrupt nation, and, in six years, to raise it to the power and pride that made it, in 1813, the natural leader in the War of Liberation. Every class joined in the effort: the nobles came forth to lead the Army, the peasants accepted conscription, the merchants yielded much of their profits to the state, the men and women of letters and learning sounded through Germany the call for freedom of the press, thought, and worship; and in 1807, in a Berlin policed by French troops, Fichte delivered those famous Addresses to the German Nation which called for a disciplined minority to lead the Prussian people to moral cleansing and national renewal. At Königsberg, in June, 1808, some university professors organized a “Moral and Scientific Union,” which came to be known as the Tugenbund, or “League of Virtue,” dedicated to the liberation of Prussia.
Meanwhile Stein wandered in exile and poverty, and in daily danger of being captured or shot. In May, 1812, Alexander I invited him to join the imperial court at St. Petersburg. He went, and there waited, with his host, for Napoleon to come.