Germany was still religiously divided as in the Thirty Years’ War; and in many ways the wars of Frederick the Great with Austria and France were replays of that prolonged tragedy. If Frederick had lost, Protestantism might have disappeared from Prussia as it had disappeared from Huss’s Bohemia after 1620.
As the Protestant clergy took over the property of the Catholic bishops in the Protestant north, they became dependent upon military protection by the Protestant princes, and acknowledged them as the heads of the Protestant Church in their realms; so the agnostic Frederick was the head of the Prussian Church. In the Catholic states—Austria, Bohemia, and nearly all the Confederation of the Rhine—the bishops, if not themselves rulers, needed similar protection, and fell into subservience to the civil power; many of them paid little attention to papal pronouncements, but most of them regularly read from their pulpits the decrees of the civil authorities that protected them; so, in Napoleon’s German states the bishops—Protestant or Catholic—read from their pulpits his administrative orders and his military bulletins.3
This subjection of the Church had diverse—almost contradictory—effects: Pietism and rationalism. There were many German families that had traditions of a piety stronger than politics and deeper than ritual; they found more inspiration in family prayers than in pulpit eloquence or professional theology. More and more they neglected the churches, and practiced their devotions in esoteric groups private and intense. Even more fervent was a proud cluster of mystics who cherished the traditions of seers like Jakob Böhme, and claimed or sought to see God face to face, and to have experienced illuminations that had dissolved the deepest, bitterest, problems of life. Especially impressive, if only by having borne with silent heroism centuries of persecution, were the uncloistered, unvowed monks and nuns of the Moravian Brotherhood, who, banished from Catholic Bohemia, spread through Protestant Germany, and profoundly affected its religious life. Mme. de Staël met some of them, and was impressed by their premarital chastity, their sharing of goods, and the epitaph chosen for each of their dead: “He was born on such a day, and on such a day he returned to his native country.”4 Baroness Julie (Barbara Juliane) von Krüdener (1764–1824), Mme. de Staël’s favorite mystic, was committed to their creed, and preached it so charmingly that Queen Louise of Prussia—and, for a time, Czar Alexander of Russia—fell under her influence, barring the sharing of goods.
Antipodal to the mystics were the skeptics who had inhaled the winds of the French Enlightenment. Lessing had let loose the German Aufklärung by exhuming and partly publishing the Fragmente eines Ungenannten (1774–78) in which Hermann Reitmarus had expressed his doubts about the historicity of the Gospels. Of course there had been skeptics in every generation, but most of them had found silence golden, and the infection had been controlled by hellfire and police. But now it had found its way into the Freemason and Rosicrucian lodges, into the universities, and even into the monasteries. In 1781 Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason turned educated Germany into turmoil by explaining the difficulties of a rational theology. For a generation after him German philosophy labored to refute or conceal Kant’s doubts, and some subtle web-weavers like Friedrich Schleiermacher achieved international renown. According to Mirabeau (who visited Germany thrice between 1786 and 1788) almost all the Prussian Protestant clergy had by that time secretly shed their orthodoxy, and had come to think of Jesus as a lovable mystic who proclaimed the approaching end of the world. In 1800 a hurried observer reported that religion was dead in Germany and that “it is no longer the fashion to be a Christian.”5 Georg Lichtenberg (1742–99) predicted that “the day will come when all belief in God will be like that in nursery specters.”6
Such reports were emotionally exaggerated. Religious doubt affected a few professors and some sophomores, but it hardly touched the German masses. The Christian creed continued to appeal to the sense of man’s dependence upon supersensual powers, and to the propensity of even the learned to ask for supernatural aid. The Protestant congregations warmed their own hearts with mighty hymns. The Catholic Church continued to offer a home to miracle, myth, mystery, music, and art, and a final port for spirits exhausted by years of intellectual navigation amid the storms and shoals of philosophy and sex; so erudite scholars like Friedrich von Schlegel, brilliant Jewesses like Moses Mendelssohn’s daughters, sought at last the uterine warmth of the Mother Church. Faith always recovers, and doubt remains.