Lectures on Modern History/Peter the Great and the Rise of Prussia

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Lectures on Modern History by John Acton
XVII. Peter the Great and the Rise of Prussia



Whilst the English people, with the example and assistance of the Dutch, were carrying forward the theory of constitutional government, a still more important movement in the opposite direction was proceeding in the North, and new forces were brought into the widening circle of general history.

The Muscovite empire extended from the frontiers of Poland to the farthest extremity of China. In numbers and in extent it was the first of Christian Powers. But it played no part in the concert or the conflict of Europe, and its existence was almost unnoticed and unfelt. The people were too backward in the scale of wealth or knowledge or civilisation to obtain influence even on their neighbours. Potentially the most formidable force on earth, practically they were forgotten and unknown. In a single reign, by the action of one man, Russia passed from lethargy and obscurity to a dominant position among the nations.

The first need was intercourse with the world — intercourse of trade for its material progress, intercourse of ideas for its civilisation. The problem was too obvious to escape the earlier Romanoffs. They were a clerical dynasty, closely associated with the Church, and allowing to the Patriarch a position very near the throne. In politics they were inefficient and unsuccessful; but their Church policy was charged with far-reaching consequences. In that, they were superior to the people about them, and they introduced certain moderate reforms, literary rather than dogmatic, in the externals of ritual, and in the liturgical books. An illiterate clergy had allowed abuses to take root, and were excessively intolerant of change. A schism arose between the established church with its rectified texts and improved ceremonial, and the large minority who rejected them.

Everybody knows Newman's story of the ancient priest who fell into the habit, at mass, of saying, "quod ore mumpsimus" instead of "quod ore sumpsimus," and, when admonished of his error, refused to exchange old "mumpsimus" for new "sumpsimus." Although "mumpsimus" is the very motto for the Russian schismatics, and although ignorance and superstition were the root of the matter, they combined with a dread of arbitrary change by an arbitrary power, and supplied a basis for resistance to Erastianism and the fusion of Church and State. This was the heart of the opposition to the later reforms, to which the Church in general yielded reluctantly, and the sectaries not at all, choosing death, and even suicide by fire, to compromise. The reforming government was driven into persecution by the fanaticism of these men.

The new spirit began to reign when the young Tsar Peter triumphed over family intrigues that were supported by the party of reaction. He was uneducated, unmannerly, uncivilised; but he had a clear notion of that which his people required, and the energy and force of character to achieve it. As there were no roads in Russia, and not much material for making them, the waterway was the easy and natural line to follow. The Russian rivers flowed to the Caspian and the Euxine, and invited to the conquest of Persia and Central Asia, or to the deliverance of the Slavonic and Greek brethren from the Turk. Peter was not carried away by either prospect. He did indeed send a fleet down the Volga, and another down the Don. He conquered the Persian coast of the Caspian, but resisted the temptation of pushing his arms to the Indian Ocean. He was repeatedly at war with the Turk; but he contented himself with a humble measure of success.

Poland, for reasons of race and of religion, was the national enemy; and from the death of Sobieski in 1696 there were symptoms that it was likely to break up. The next king, Augustus of Saxony, in 1702, proposed the partition of the Polish dominions. His agent, Patkul, renewed the idea at Berlin in 1704, and Austria did the same in 1712. At the height of his military success, in 1710, Peter entertained the idea, only to dismiss it. He preferred to wait. Poland would be convenient as a helpless neighbour, covering his frontier on a dangerous side; and its constitution prevented it from becoming formidable. He was content to make sure that the feeble government should never undergo reform. He resolutely fixed his thoughts in another direction, and chose, not the easiest, but the most difficult line of attack.

Tartars, or Persians, or Zaporogue Cossacks supplied no new element that could be of service to his people. The Russians had issued from the long subjection to the Golden Horde, indigent, ignorant, prejudiced, dishonest and false. A mighty future lay before them, but they were unfit for such a destiny. The civilising influences they required could come only from contact with superior races. From them they must import the goods, they must import the men, that were needed to raise them, in the arts of peace and war, to a level with others. The route for both species of commerce was by sea. But Russia touched the sea only in the North, where it is closed by ice. The way to the countries that were most advanced, intellectually and socially, to France and England, especially to Holland and the empire behind it, was by the Baltic.

There the Swedes stopped the way. Gustavus had conquered the Baltic provinces, and all the way from Poland to Finland the coast was inaccessible to the interior of Russia. Sweden was still esteemed a great Power; and although it was not yet discovered, the new king was, what Peter never became, a capable and ambitious commander. The main argument of Peter's reign was the struggle for supremacy with Charles XII.

Before it broke out, he undertook a journey to make acquaintance with the foreign countries by which he intended to accomplish the elevation of his own. That was the time of those grotesque studies in shipbuilding, tooth-drawing, and other useful arts in which he acquired a sort of technical mastery; and it was then that he learned to think so highly of the Dutch as a practical people, worthy of imitation. This preference was not exclusive, and he was eager to borrow what he could from others — military organisation from Austria, manners from France, clothes from England, methods of administration from Germany. Together with the foreign customs he undertook to introduce experts who were to teach them, until the disciples became equal to their masters. The Scotsman Gordon and the Genevese Lefort were at the head of his army and navy. Germans, such as Munnich and Ostermann, followed; and then there came a vast army of engineers, miners, metal founders, artificers of almost all kinds, for the roads and bridges, the ships and palaces, the schools and hospitals that he called into existence. These things were the sine qua non of civilisation. It would be long before his own people understood the use of them. They could only be obtained by importation. To stimulate the demand for them at home it would be necessary to rely on the progress of intelligence. That could not be done in a nation consisting mainly of serfs. The educational part of the enterprise was the one which had least success, and which he understood least. For such imponderables he had no scales, and he cared more for the kind of knowledge that was practically useful than for the interior improvement of the mind, which constitutes what we call a gentleman. No such exotic could flourish at his court. He required that those whom he honoured with his confidence should get as drunk as himself; that they should be servile and cringing, without moral courage or self-respect, happy to be insulted, kicked, and spat upon. They might be men of resource, brave soldiers, clever administrators, but they seldom developed those elements of character which prevent a man from being corrupt. For those qualities he had no comprehension. Civilisation, as he understood it, was material, not moral. He could not imagine management of men by the nobler motives. He raised the condition of the country with great rapidity; he did not raise it above his own level.

Whilst he was on his travels exploring Europe an insurrection broke out, and the old Russian militia, the Strelitz, mutinied, and plotted to exterminate the Germans and all the abettors of foreign innovation. The movement was crushed by Gordon, and Peter on his return was undisputed master. He then plunged into war with Sweden for the Baltic provinces — that is, for access to the sea, which was the highway to all the world. Beaten at first, but not discouraged, he organised a new army, while Charles XII. overran Poland and dictated terms of peace in the heart of Germany.

It then appeared that the Russians, like most nations when they are ably commanded, were the raw material of good soldiers. Charles came back to Russia from his Saxon campaign laden with glory, and marched on Moscow by Minsk, Mohilev, the Beresina — very much the route which Napoleon followed. At the instigation of Mazeppa he turned aside to the Ukraine, in the hope of raising the Cossacks against the Tsar. At Pultawa, near the Dnieper, he was defeated, and fled for refuge to Turkey. The work of Gustavus, who had made Sweden so great, was undone, and Russia succeeded to the vacant place among the Powers.

The supreme object of Peter's policy was attained. He was in possession of the Baltic coast north of the Dwina. Finland was restored, but he retained Livonia, Esthonia, Ingria, from Riga to Viborg. On the Neva, where the Gulf of Finland penetrates farthest inland, he fixed his capital. The place was a swamp, that swallowed the tallest trunks of trees, and the workmen perished by fever. But an island in the mouth of the river made it impregnable by sea. It was free from traditions and reactionary memories, looking only to the future and the new things that the commerce with the world would bring; a gate for the inflow of the forces by which its founder would transform the nation. As part of the same transformation the Tsar of Muscovy became Emperor of Russia. It was a claim to the Byzantine inheritance, and a menace to the Austrian successor of the Western Empire. This was faint and distant; and Peter remained on friendly terms with Vienna. But the title was coldly received by Europe, and was not finally recognised until forty years after his death.

The persuasions by which Peter bent Russia to his will were base and atrocious; for, although one of the greatest men that have influenced the course of Christian history, he is undoubtedly the worst of them; but he was not working for himself; at Pultawa he told his troops that they were fighting for Russia, not for him. His motive was impersonal. He had grasped a great ideal, and he served it with devotion, sacrificing everything to it, and not sparing himself. The absolute State was the ideal, or rather the idol, for which he toiled, the State as it had been devised by Machiavelli and Hobbes. To raise the country by the employment of its own internal forces was an unpromising and unprofitable enterprise. He, who was himself a barbarian, could only accomplish his purpose by means of aid from outside, by the instrumentality of those who had experience of a more advanced order of things. The borrowed forces could only be applied by the powers of despot. That power, moreover, was already provided. Muscovy had never been governed otherwise than by irresponsible and irresistible authority. That authority had been inactive and not deeply felt. Now the same authority interfered to alter almost everything, except the subjection of the serf to the landowner.

To enforce the supremacy of the State over society, and of will over custom, Peter introduced his most characteristic institution. He made precedence depend on public service, and regulated it according to rank in the army in fourteen degrees, from the ensign to the marshal. A new aristocracy superseded the old, and the ancient nobles were forced to serve, in order to be somebody, when away from the ancestral home. They were important, not by their possessions or their descent, but by the position in which they stood towards the emperor. Peter had imbibed too much of the rationalism of the West to be a persecutor. He was severe with the schismatics, who existed only as opponents of change and enemies of civilisation; and as there were no Jews in Russia, he decreed that in future there should be none. But he built churches for the foreigners whom he brought into the country, and did not attempt to sustain the domination of the Muscovite clergy, who, like the English, professed passive obedience, but obeyed without approval. When the last patriarch was dying he expressed the wish that all men of other faith — Catholic, Protestant, and Mahomedan — should be burnt, and their places of worship levelled with the ground.

Peter's schemes of change were so tremendous that most Russians recoiled and wished them no success. His own family opposed him, and became a centre of plotting opposition. He repudiated his wife, and sent her to the seclusion of a convent. His second empress was a peasant woman, whose name was Martha, but was called, in Russia, Catharine. It was uncertain whether her husband was dead. It was certain that Peter's first wife was living. Nobody minded. But Alexis, the son of the earlier marriage, took the conservative side, and became, from 1711, the hope of those who rejected Peter's anti-national, cosmopolitan, chiefly Dutch and German system of reform. He longed for the Asiatic twilight of the past, and the discontented longed for him to succeed. Peter, seeing that he was a poor creature, wished him to resign his claim. Alexis fled, and placed himself under the protection of the emperor Charles VI. He was discovered in the castle of St. Elmo at Naples, and brought back to Russia, where he was condemned to death, and died of torture. The plan had been to return to the ancient ways, and to give Petersburg back to the Swedes, with the command of the coast. The clergy were mixed up in it, and Peter now secured himself against the Church. He had left the patriarchate vacant. He now abolished it, and divided its powers.

A kindred spirit had arisen, capable of carrying out reform in the Church, Procopovitch had become a united Greek, in order to be admitted to foreign universities. He studied in Rome, and in Germany he became familiar with Lutheran theology. He came back with much of the religious culture of the West, and Peter appointed him to one of the sees. The bishops protested. They said that he was a heretic seventeen times over. And they proposed, if they were not believed, that the matter should be decided by the three eastern patriarchs. It was a scheme to disconnect the Church from the State, to merge it in the Eastern Church. Procopovitch defeated his enemies, and drew up the plan by which the Church was brought under the civil power, much on the lines of Henry VIII. It was governed, thenceforward, by the Holy Synod, which was controlled by a great official who represented the emperor. The clergy ceased to be an obstacle. The government of the Church by the Synod was part of a plan of government by boards, which had been suggested by Leibniz. The empire was governed by a Senate of eight, of ten, at one time of twenty members. Under the Senate, which made laws, were ten ministerial departments, or boards, like our Treasury or Admiralty, which executed them. And there were eleven governors of provinces, each larger than a European monarchy. Men fit for such a responsiblity could not be found in Russia, and the empire was badly governed. But it was there. The transformation was accomplished. And the gigantic force was centred in the hand of a tyrant.

The concentration was such, the destruction of resisting forces was so complete, that the machine worked well in the hands of women. For almost the whole of the seventy years after Peter's death, Russia was governed by empresses. The last of them, Catharine II., was one of the ablest and most successful rulers in modern times. For the machine which Peter created was strong enough to endure. It still exists as he made it, an amalgam of power and servility, never leading, but often supplying the deciding force in the history of the world. It was the empire of Peter the Great that destroyed the empire of Napoleon.

Such a Power, limited by feeble neighbours, would have been a danger to the whole of Europe, but that another great Power, founded in the same generation, became a bulwark against a menacing expansion. The rise of Prussia preserved the Continent from being submerged. This new phase of northern monarchy was very unlike that which we have just considered. Prussia, like Russia, was a military Power, living on the hope of expansion. But it was infinitely inferior, as to extent and population. It was not a giant but an athlete; and its future depended, not on the intrusion of foreign elements, but on its own development and practical organisation. Nature had done nothing to promise greatness. The country was open and arid, and the inhabitants were hard, unimaginative, and poor. Religion had less power over them than over any other part of Germany. To this day the sky-line of Berlin is more unbroken by church towers than that of almost any other city. Neither their situation on the map of Europe nor hereditary endowment fitted the Prussians for empire. It was the work of the dynasty that a country which was less than Scotland, and was protected by no barrier of land or water, became greater than France.

The Prussian people, by which I mean the people of Brandenburg and its vicinity, were conscious that Nature had not favoured them excessively, and that they could prosper only by the action of their government. No people were more submissive, or more ready to suffer, for the sake of the State. And none have gone farther in asserting its omnipotence, or in abdicating in its hands. They had no silver streak, no natural barriers. As a consequence of the Reformation the dominions of the Teutonic knights were joined in personal union under the same Hohenzollerns who reigned on the Oder and the Elbe. One was part of the empire, the other was enclosed in Poland, and they were separated by Polish territory. They did not help each other, and each was a source of danger for the other. They could only hope to exist by becoming stronger. That has been, for two centuries and a half, a fixed tradition at Berlin with the rulers and the people. They could not help being aggressive, and they worshipped the authority that could make them successful aggressors.

The dynasty entered into the spirit of the problem from 1640. One-half of the electors and kings since then have struggled intensely for the increase of their power. And they built up their state in spite of the other half, who had no enterprise or masterful energy. But before the accession of the great elector, in 1640, Brandenburg had taken a line of its own in the question of religion which was eminently favourable to territorial increase. It was more tolerant than other portions of the empire. The elector was one of the last of the German princes to join the Reformation. And Saxony retained the pre-eminence among the Protestants. Early in the seventeenth century the reigning family became Calvinists. The country was Lutheran. The position was unfavourable to the exercise of what was called the right of Reformation, the right of enforcing conformity under pain of exile; and, between the Calvinist at the head and the Lutherans in every other office, the Catholics were able to exist. In some provinces, though not in all, they were definitely tolerated. The great elector made every effort to attract the fugitive Huguenots. Agents were sent out to show them the way, and to help them with funds. Whole districts were peopled by them, and about twenty thousand of them settled in Berlin and other towns. Like Peter the Great, the great elector derived his notion of better things from Holland, and he encouraged Dutch artisans to settle. His dominions were scattered and unlike. He introduced a system of government that was the same for all, and was above local or social influences. The estates lost their ancient authority, and one supreme will governed everything, through a body of trained administrators such as up to that time existed nowhere else.

The next elector obtained the royal crown. Prince Eugene said that the emperor's ministers, who had advised the grant, deserved to be hanged. But in fact they were not less prescient than he, for they warned Leopold that Prussia would deprive his family of the empire. The King of Prussia became the head of the Protestant interest in Germany. That prerogative had been forfeited by the Elector of Saxony when he received the crown of Poland and became a Catholic. Rome alone protested against the Protestant king, and spoke only of a margrave of Brandenburg until after the death of Frederic II. All the Catholic Powers acknowledged the new title and disregarded the protest. For the first time there was a kingdom within the empire, a kingdom, moreover, which was Protestant. It was a step towards the break-up of that irrational body.

The second king succeeded in 1713 and died in 1740. He is the Peter the Great of Prussia. For him, the whole secret of government is the increase of power at home. His idea was that monarchy cannot be too absolute. It requires to be wisely administered; but it does not require to be limited. Concentration cannot be too intense. No enemy outside is so dangerous as public opinion within. He announced that he would establish his power on a rock — "un rocher de bronze." He meant that the power of the State must be independent of the changing motives of the hour, that it must be directed by a will superior alike to majority and minority, to interests and classes. He spent his reign in very deliberately contriving such a machine. The king, he said, must do his work himself, and not shrink from trouble. He was perpetually in harness. He was like a madman in his vehemence and his crudity of speech. But there was method in his fury, and calculating design and even practical wisdom. He gave an impetus as powerful as that of the Tsar Peter; but he was superior to him in knowledge of detail as well as in point of character. He was a hard taskmaster but he knew what he was about; and it does not appear that his subjects desired to be governed in another way or that they would have been satisfied with a monarch who did not strain their strength to the uttermost.

The object in which they agreed with him — the supremacy of the Prussians in Germany — was not to be obtained if they would not go into training. There was no shrinking. He said, in 1713: "when my son comes to the throne he must find the vaults crowded with gold," and the son, in 1740, found eight million thalers. He found, moreover, a well-equipped army of eighty-three thousand men. This was the special creation of the energetic king. He was, indeed, a peaceful ruler, and did not thirst for military glory. Among European Powers he was of little account, and kept all his violence for home use. When he laid up treasure, and organised an army that was not so large as that of France, of Austria, or of Russia, but more concentrated and better drilled, his people understood that he would some day provide territory and population to match, — an army so excessive, an army six times as large, in proportion to those of other Powers, was meant to be employed. The burden was not felt. Of the expense, one-half was borne by the domain. Of the men, a large portion was recruited abroad, and relieved the natives of Prussia. After some years, it was felt that the platoons of giants, which had cost twelve million thalers, were a wasteful toy, and that the money might have been spent to advantage among the people. The king attempted to supply their place by a levy among the agrarian population, which is reputed the remote origin of universal service. His economy was so rigid that, with an income of seven million thalers, he spent five millions on his armaments. He thus created the force which began what Napoleon completed, the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. For that which the father stored, the son expended; and I hope in the next lecture to tell you how he did it.

He so eclipsed Frederic William that the latter became an obscure memory, and was spoken of with contempt and disgust by his own people. Carlyle discovered in him his own ideal, the strong man, and set him on his legs. And when the army which he created, which had been remodelled by Frederic, Scharnhorst, Roon, and Moltke became the greatest of all armies, Germany remembered its founder and was grateful for his militarism.

They have made their choice, as we must do. Those who remember with honour men like Hampden and Washington, regard with a corresponding aversion Peter the Great and Frederic William I. But without the first Europe might be French, and without the other it might be Russian. That which arose in Northern Europe about the time of our revolution settlement was a new form of practical absolutism. Theological monarchy had done its time, and was now followed by military monarchy. Church and State had oppressed mankind together; henceforth the State oppressed for its own sake. And this was the genuine idea which came in with the Renaissance, according to which the State alone governs, and all other things obey. Reformation and Counter-Reformation had pushed religion to the front: but after two centuries the original theory, that government must be undivided and uncontrolled, began to prevail. It is a new type, not to be confounded with that of Henry VIII., Philip II., or Lewis XIV., and better adapted to a more rational and economic age. Government so understood is the intellectual guide of the nation, the promoter of wealth, the teacher of knowledge, the guardian of morality, the mainspring of the ascending movement of man. That is the tremendous power, supported by millions of bayonets, which grew up in the days of which I have been speaking at Petersburg, and was developed, by much abler minds, chiefly at Berlin; and it is the greatest danger that remains to be encountered by the Anglo-Saxon race.