1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gneist, Heinrich Rudolf Hermann Friedrich von
GNEIST, HEINRICH RUDOLF HERMANN FRIEDRICH VON (1816–1895), German jurist and politician, was born at Berlin on the 13th of August 1816, the son of a judge attached to the “Kammergericht” (court of appeal) in that city. After receiving his school education at the gymnasium at Eisleben in Prussian Saxony, he entered the university of Berlin in 1833 as a student of jurisprudence, and became a pupil of the famous Roman law teacher von Savigny. Proceeding to the degree of doctor juris in 1838, young Gneist immediately established himself as a Privatdozent in the faculty of law. He had, however, already chosen the judicial branch of the legal profession as a career, and having while yet a student acted as Auscultator, was admitted Assessor in 1841. He soon found leisure and opportunity to fulfil a much-cherished wish, and spent the next few years on a lengthened tour in Italy, France and England. He utilized his Wanderjahre for the purposes of comparative study, and on his return in 1844 was appointed extraordinary professor of Roman law in Berlin university, and thus began a professorial connexion which ended only with his death. The first-fruits of his activity as a teacher were seen in his brilliant work, Die formellen Verträge des heutigen römischen Obligationen-Rechtes (Berlin, 1845). Pari passu with his academic labours he continued his judicial career, and became in due course successively assistant judge of the superior court and of the supreme tribunal. But to a mind constituted such as his, the want of elasticity in the procedure of the courts was galling. “Brought up,” he tells, in the preface to his Englische Verfassungsgeschichte, “in the laborious and rigid school of Prussian judges, at a time when the duty of formulating the matter in litigation was entailed upon the judge who personally conducted the pleadings, I became acquainted both with the advantages possessed by the Prussian bureau system as also with its weak points.” Feeling the necessity for fundamental reforms in legal procedure, he published, in 1849, his Trial by Jury, in which, after pointing out that the origin of that institution was common to both Germany and England, and showing in a masterly way the benefits which had accrued to the latter country through its more extended application, he pleaded for its freer admission in the tribunals of his own country.
The period of "storm and stress" in 1848 afforded Gneist an opportunity for which he had yearned, and he threw himself with ardour into the constitutional struggles of Prussia. Although his candidature for election to the National Assembly of that year was unsuccessful, he felt that "the die was cast," and deciding for a political career, retired in 1850 from his judicial position. Entering the ranks of the National Liberal party, he began both in writing and speeches actively to champion their cause, now busying himself pre-eminently with the study of constitutional law and history. In 1853 appeared his Adel und Ritterschaft in England, and in 1857 the Geschichte und heutige Gestalt der Ämter in England, a pamphlet primarily written to combat the Prussian abuses of administration, but for which the author also claimed that it had not been without its effect in modifying certain views that had until then ruled in England itself. In 1858 Gneist was appointed ordinary professor of Roman law, and in the same year commenced his parliamentary career by his election for Stettin to the Abgeordnetenhaus (House of Deputies) of the Prussian Landtag, in which assembly he sat thenceforward uninterruptedly until 1893. Joining the Left, he at once became one of its leading spokesmen. His chief oratorical triumphs are associated with the early period of his membership of the House; two noteworthy occasions being his violent attack (September 1862) upon the government budget in connexion with the reorganization of the Prussian army, and his defence (1864) of the Polish chiefs of the (then) grand-duchy of Posen, who were accused of high treason. In 1857-1863 was published Das heutige englische Verfassungs- und Verwaltungsrecht, a work which, contrasting English and German constitutional law and administration, aimed at exercising political pressure upon the government of the day. In 1868 Gneist became a member of the North German parliament, and acted as a member of the commission for organizing the federal army, and also of that for the settlement of ecclesiastical controversial questions. On the establishment of German unity his mandate was renewed for the Reichstag, and in this he sat, an active and prominent member of the National Liberal party, until 1884. In the Kulturkampf he sided with the government against the attacks of the Clericals, whom he bitterly denounced, and whose implacable enemy he ever showed himself. In 1879, together with his colleague, von Hänel, he violently attacked the motion for the prosecution of certain Socialist members, which as a result of the vigour of his opposition was almost unanimously rejected. He was parliamentary reporter for the committees on all great financial and administrative questions, and his profound acquaintance with constitutional law caused his advice to be frequently sought, not only in his own but also in other countries. In Prussia he largely influenced legislation, the reform of the judicial and penal systems and the new constitution of the Evangelical Church being largely his work. He was also consulted by the Japanese government when a constitution was being introduced into that country. In 1875 he was appointed a member of the supreme administrative court (Oberverwaltungsgericht) of Prussia, but only held office for two years. In 1882 was published his Englische Verfassungsgeschichte (trans. History of the English Constitution, London, 1886), which may perhaps be described as his magnum opus. It placed the author at once on the level of such writers on English constitutional history as Hallam and Stubbs, and supplied English literature with a text-book almost unrivalled in point of historical research. In 1888 one of the first acts of the ill-fated emperor Frederick III., who had always, as crown prince, shown great admiration for him, was to ennoble Gneist, and attach him as instructor in constitutional law to his son, the emperor William II., a charge of which he worthily acquitted himself. The last years of his life were full of energy, and, in the possession of all his faculties, he continued his wonted academic labours until a short time before his death, which occurred at Berlin on the 22nd of July 1895.
As a politician, Gneist's career cannot perhaps be said to have been entirely successful. In a country where parliamentary institutions are the living exponents of the popular will he might have risen to a foremost position in the state; as it was, the party to which he allied himself could never hope to become more than what it remained, a parliamentary faction, and the influence it for a time wielded in the counsels of the state waned as soon as the Social-Democratic party grew to be a force to be reckoned with. It is as a writer and a teacher that Gneist is best known to fame. He was a jurist of a special type. To him law was not mere theory, but living force; and this conception of its power animates all his schemes of practical reform. As a teacher he exercised a magnetic influence, not only by reason of the clearness and cogency of his exposition, but also because of the success with which he developed the talents and guided the aspirations of his pupils. He was a man of noble bearing, religious, and imbued with a stern sense of duty. He was proud of being a “Preussischer Junker” (a member of the Prussian squirearchy), and throughout his writings, despite their liberal tendencies, may be perceived the loyalty and affection with which he clung to monarchical institutions. A great admirer and a true friend of England, to which country he was attached by many personal ties, he surpassed all other Germans in his efforts to make her free institutions, in which he found his ideal, the common heritage of the two great nations of the Teutonic race.