Littell's Living Age/Volume 135/Issue 1740/Prussian History

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From Macmillan's Magazine.


Do we ever mean to make ourselves acquainted with the modern history of Prussia and Germany? The complete change which has taken place of late years in our estimate of the Germans as politicians might reasonably lead us to consider whether their politics are not worthy to be studied. Half a century ago our estimate of the German literature and philosophy underwent a similar change. We then discovered, to use the language of an Edinburgh Reviewer, that Germany was not "a tract of country peopled only by hussars and editors of Greek plays," but that it had its poets, its critics, its thinkers and philosophers in greater excellence and abundance, for a time at least, than any other country. But when we had discovered the new German wisdom, we made without delay a serious attempt to master and assimilate it. A considerable part of the literary ability of England has been occupied during the present century with the task of interpreting German thought. After Coleridge, the earliest, and Carlyle, the most industrious, laborer in this field, how many distinguished writers have lent themselves to the work! Is it not time that our second discovery about the Germans should be put to profit as our first was? Then we discovered that "un Allemand peut avoir de l'esprit," but we did not even then imagine that the Germans could have any politics. With the exception of Niebuhr no German politician is ever quoted among us, and the "Life of Niebuhr" is the only elaborate biography of a German politician (later than Frederick the Great) that is known to the English public. We picture to ourselves Goethe, Schiller, Schleiermacher, Kant, Hegel, not with any background of public institutions or public affairs, but as if they moved like heavenly bodies in the empty sky. And we have had some excuse for doing so. We could hardly disregard their politics much more than the Germans seemed to do themselves. They did not tell us of great German statesmen or great German political doings unjustly neglected by us. Rather they were fond of confessing that they had no political life, or that they were not yet out of their political nonage. In their minds as in ours their philosophers and writers had a great precedence over their statesmen. Two or three years ago, when I inquired of a most accomplished German whether there were any news of the "Memoirs of Hardenberg," those very memoirs which are at last before us, he took it for granted that I must be speaking of Novalis. To be sure Novalis is usually spoken of by his nom de plume, but his real name was Hardenberg, and it was intrinsically so probable that I was interested in this young mystic who died — I think — at the age of twenty-eight, and so inconceivable that I could care about Prince Hardenberg, who was only first minister of Prussia at the time of the War of Liberation and for nine years afterwards, that my friend jumped to the conclusion that I had adopted an unusual way of speaking. And for an example of the consciousness of a certain political inferiority which the Germans retained not many years back, we may take Bunsen as we see him in his biography. He looks up to Arnold in politics almost as Arnold looks up to him in learning. Bunsen, the pupil of that Niebuhr who had sat at council with Stein and Hardenberg, and who surpassed Arnold in experience of public affairs even more than in historical knowledge; Bunsen, who was himself by profession a public man, feels it quite natural to look up in political questions to an English schoolmaster, and is converted to Whiggism by him! But all this is changed now. The largest and hitherto the most successful political exploit of the century has been done by the Germans. They have their Parliaments, as we have, in fact too many Parliaments; they have their great orators, and debaters, and journalists, and statesmen, and have no reason any longer to yield the precedence in politics to the most political people on earth. We cannot but recognize this fact; but is it enough to recognize it? Is it not necessary to study it? Should not our readers read and our writers write about it?

I venture to suppose that there are some among my readers who have actually little information on this subject, and may almost be instructed about it as if they were beginners. They know of course in outline the great occurrences of 1866 and 1870; but it will occur to them that successes so sudden, complete, and on so vast a scale must have been prepared by a long antecedent history. As the horrors of the French Revolution lead us when we reflect on them to examine with a new interest the last age of the old régime because the explanation of them must lie there, so do the successes of 1866 and give a new interest to the period that precedes them in German history. Our inquirer then will search that compartment of his memory in which is stored up the German history of the first half of this century. Beyond the wranglings of Bismarck with the Prussian Parliament at the beginning of the sixties, he will remember that there were certainly great disturbances in Germany in 1848. How they began and how they ended he finds it hard to say, but he feels certain that he has heard speak of a Frankfort Parliament. Beyond this what does he remember? What was happening in Germany earlier — in the forties and in the thirties? Something occurs to him about a bishopric of Jerusalem; what curious thoughts will come into one's head at times! But beyond this stretches a cloudless expanse, a perfectly empty region. "Plumb down he drops, fluttering his pennons vain," until the strong rebuff of the battle of Waterloo stops him. Of course there were some Prussians there, though it is difficult to say how or why, and every one knows that before that Napoleon won some great battles in Germany. As to the Prussians, since they have become so important now, their beating was — at Austerlitz? no, it was at Jena, certainly at Jena. And then before that there was Frederick the Great, you know. Besides this, military men occasionally mention Scharnhorst, who did something to the Prussian army; and when political economists come together they sometimes mention a man called Stein, and sometimes another man called Hardenberg, who concerned themselves with land questions.

This I suppose would be the account my reader would give of German history if he were taken by surprise. If he had a little time to prepare he would give it somewhat more arrangement and precision. He would then discover that the reforms in Prussia, those affecting both the army and the tenure of land were connected with the disaster at Jena, and that the old system which had come down from Frederick the Great was brought to an end in consequence of its failure in the contest with Napoleon, and that Scharnhorst, Stein, Hardenberg, and others were the founders of a new system which has since made the greatness of Prussia. He would also discover that Napoleon did not merely win battles in Germany, and annex territory which was afterwards recovered again, but that his victories produced a political revolution over the whole country, destroyed the empire, raised several German princes to the rank of kings, and that after his fall the old system was not restored, but a new system in many respects widely different was introduced, and in particular that this was the time of the foundation of that German Confederation which fell in 1866.

Even this meagre outline would be enough to convince our inquirer that if he would understand the transition of 1866 and 1870, he must go back to the Napoleonic age, and that in that age he must give particular attention to the transformation of Prussia, which took place after the campaign of Jena, under the direction of Stein, Hardenberg, Scharnhorst, and the rest. He will then of course consult the English authorities upon the period. He will look in Alison to see what was done by Stein and Hardenberg, and I can promise that he will meet with the most complete disappointment. This brings us to the book before us. It seems in Germany a great event that the "Memoirs of Hardenberg" are out at last. They are out, and their editor, the illustrious Leopold von Ranke, has accompanied them with two large volumes of his own, in which not only the gaps left by the memoirs in Hardenberg's biography are filled up, but the history of Prussia from the beginning of the Revolutionary War to the War of Liberation is re-written from new documents, with all the master's well-known subtlety, and in a style which betrays no trace of the languor or garrulity of age.

But in this announcement our investigator will find a curious stumbling-block, he will say, "No, at the very outset of my inquiries I have learnt more than will allow me to believe this. The "Memoirs of Hardenberg" cannot be just published, for it is well known that they have for years past formed one of the principal sources of the history of that age. Alison draws from them more than from almost any other book, to judge by that abbreviaiion "Hard.," which is almost invariably to be found at the side of his pages when they treat of German affairs." Indeed it is a remarkable fact that for years past while the Germans have been waiting for the appearance of these memoirs, and conjecturing what they would be found to contain, English and French students have been in happy and contented enjoyment of them. Perhaps this is the reason why, as we hear, there is no market here for Von Ranke's book. Any how it is certain that for years past if you asked the librarian at the Athenæum Club for "Hardenberg's Memoirs," he would place before you without hesitation a book in thirteen volumes written in French, and entitled "Mémoires tirées des Papiers d'um Homme d'Etat," of which the catalogue declared Hardenberg to be the author. It is certain that not Alison only but most other writers on that period both in England and France have used this work freely, nay for German affairs, more freely than any other book, and generally as the work of Hardenberg. Especially the first two volumes, which profess to explain the causes of the first coalition against revolutionary France, have mainly contributed to form the current opinion on the subject; and the book is a forgery!

The fact is that this book has the great advantage of being in French, and that some of these writers would have been compelled to remain in ignorance of German affairs altogether if the knowledge had had to be sought in German books. And yet there was a certain difficulty in writing the history of the Napoleonic age without any of this knowledge. In these circumstances the belief that one of the most conspicuous and necessarily best-informed German statesmen of the period had written his memoirs in French, and that these memoirs had been published, was too consoling and precious to be parted with. Yet it is somewhat difficult to understand how they can have entertained the belief in good faith. On a closer inspection we find that at least one of them actually did not. Alison, who, as we have said, is so lavish of his "Hard.," actually has the following note, which perhaps few of those who consult his voluminous work remark. After declaring himself happy to agree with "the able and candid Prussian statesman who concluded the treaty of Basle," and introducing a quotation from the "Mémoires," etc., with the words "says Prince Hardenberg," he remarks on the next page, "These able memoirs, though written by the Count d'Allonville, were compiled from Prince Hardenberg's papers" (vol. ii. p. 926). Now even if it were true, as Alison supposes, that there was reason for regarding the memoirs as founded upon the papers of Hardenberg, it is surely unjustifiable, and betrays a very lax historical conscience, to refer to them habitually, without qualification of any kind, as Hardenberg's memoirs. But there was no such reason. It is indeed not improbable that the compiler had access to documents of some kind, and his statements, sifted with proper caution, may in some cases have their value. But even before the book appeared, and when the advertisements of it which spoke of a Prussian statesman seemed to point at Hardenberg, it was shown by Scholl that there was imposture at work, and that the papers, if there were any, were certainly not Hardenberg's. Accordingly D'Allonville and his accomplices did not venture in any positive way to declare that they were. It was not necessary to do so. The world, that is, in England and France, jumped at the bait, which was scarcely even held out to it, and the forgery has been "Hardenberg's Memoirs" to our historians ever since. Yet they have not even had the excuse that the exposure of it was only to be found in a language which they did not read, for a most complete examination and detection of the forgery is to be found in Barbier's French "Dictionnaire des Œuvres Pseudonymes."

Meanwhile the Germans have submitted to this injury with most magnanimous meekness. They have probably felt that they had no remedy, for though they have the ear of Europe on questions of learning or science, and certainly of history also, when the history is remote enough to have become the property of savants, on recent history it matters not what they say or what they prove, since no one either in France or England reads it. Accordingly Von Sybel merely remarks, without a word of complaint or indignation, that the current notion of German affairs in that age has been taken chiefly from the spurious memoirs of Hardenberg; and Von Ranke now, in introducing the genuine memoirs to the world, merely remarks in the same placid tone that the "Memoires tirées," etc. have no connection with them whatever.

This explanation may convey to the reader a new impression of the importance of the publication before us. It finally dissipates a cloud of illusion which has hung over the period for about half a century — for the first two volumes of the "Memoires tirées," etc., appeared in 1828, and at the same time it opens a new source of knowledge, the importance of which we may measure by the authority which the mere name of Hardenberg gave to the forgery now exploded. It is to be added, that in addition to the memoirs of Hardenberg, this work gives us the conclusions drawn by Von Ranke from a collection also made by Hardenberg, and now first applied to historical purposes, of original documents bearing on Prussian history.

Our inquirer will in fact find that he has taken up the study of recent German history at a moment when it is fast changing its aspect. The period to which Stein, Hardenberg, and Scharnhorst belong is now in the act of passing out of twilight into day, and this, it will be remembered, means far more when it is said of a country such as Prussia then was — a country without a Parliament, where government is a secret — than when it is said of our own country. These memoirs are only the most important of several publications of the kind which have lately appeared. Duncker, the late archivarius of Berlin, gave us not long since a paper full of new information on the state of Prussia during the French occupation; Treitschke published a full account of the Constitution dispute which occupied the politicians of Prussia in the early years of the peace, and of which former historians, such as Gervinus, had been able to learn little. More curious and amusing, though less satisfactory, than these publications, have been the selections from the papers of Schön, which have appeared in successive volumes to the number of four during the last two years. Schön was a politician who stood to Stein in the same relation as Shelburne to our own Chatham, but he outlived both Stein and Hardenberg by many years, and was in his old age a patriarch of Prussian liberalism, of whom men said that he was the real author of most of the great legislative acts upon which Stein's fame rested; and indeed for saying so they had the warrant of one who certainly must know, viz., of Schön himself. Diaries, fragments of autobiography, biographical and historical letters from his hand are now before us, and seldom has there been such an exhibition of self-conceit, envy, and reckless malice as they afford. Fortunately most of Schön's calumnies refute themselves by their inconsistency and unskilfulness. But the examination of them has given the Prussian literary world much to do lately. And when the student has digested all this mass of new material he becomes aware, on looking again at what used to be the best histories of the period, eg. Häusser, that they have become insufficient, and that they paint a landscape in twilight upon which the day has now risen.

But if this period is all-important in the history of modern Germany, is it also interesting in itself? What! the battle of Jena — the downfall in a single week of the monarchy of the great Frederick — and then its resurrection seven years afterwards — the War of Liberation — the fall of Napoleon — can a period which offers occurrences like these be other than interesting? And of course all admit the interest of it, but then most come to it with a curious preoccupation, as if all these occurrences belonged to French and not to German history, or at least as if it were only the French aspect of them that was interesting. It is with this chapter of history as with "Paradise Lost"; the character of Satan stands out so strikingly that it kills all the rest of the piece. Just as in the poem we forget to think of what the poet undertook to unfold to us — the destiny of mankind and the grand redemptive schemes of Providence — because all this is dim and remote, and think only of Satan because he is passionate, intense, and dramatic; so does Napoleon, the great deceiver and destroyer, absorb the interest that ought to be given to the progressive movement of Europe in his age. But what is excusable when we are dealing with a poem is less so when we are studying history. Poetically, perhaps, evil is more interesting than good, but it is not so important historically. The work of Napoleon looks smaller and smaller as time goes on, but the work which was done in Germany at the same time looks greater and greater. At the time Napoleon's lawless violence was taken for creative genius; but now we see how small a part of his creation stands the test of time, but that all attempts to revive it only prove its worthlessness more decisively; and how even after being restored it falls again. We can now only praise him negatively, as one who swept away what was bad, and even if we try to represent him as a great impulsive force which roused mankind out of lethargy, we discover that he only produced this effect because he failed, and that had his empire endured, with its centralization and brutal military repression, it would have produced a far more fatal lethargy than any that it disturbed. We see that his place is not among the gods, but among the Titans of history, not with the Cæsars and Charlemagnes, who founded the enduring fabric of civilization, but with Louis XIV., Philip II., and others, who have merely established ephemeral and mischievous ascendencies. Meanwhile the work of those who resisted Napoleon — even if no one of them should ever be placed in the highest class of the benefactors of mankind — has in some cases proved enduring, and nowhere so much as in Germany. They began two great works — the reorganization of Prussia and the revival of the German nationality, and time has deliberately ratified their views. Without retrogression, without mistake, except the mistake which in such matters is the most venial that can be committed, that, namely, of over-caution, of excessive hesitation, the edifice which was then founded has been raised higher and higher till it is near completion. The French empire revived again only to fall again with disgrace; France annexed Savoy and Nice, but she lost Alsace and Lorraine; and she did not avenge Waterloo. But Jena has been avenged; the manes of Queen Louise are propitiated; Barbarossa is awake at last.

This being so, we might read over again the history of that age with new feelings. We might cease to think of the German princes of that time as of ninepins whom it amuses us to see bowled over by Napoleon; still more might we cease to think only of Napoleon when we read the history of his fall, as if the heroism and the skill were even then on his side, and his opponents had nothing but luck and superior numbers. Nay, even if we sympathize with France, and with Napoleon himself, we may still recognize that, putting them out of the question altogether, the fall and resurrection of Germany is far more interesting than most passages of history, and that the interest centres on the whole in Prussia. We in England enjoy something of that happiness which proverbially makes the annals of a people dull. Since the seventeenth century nothing has been witnessed here either so painfully interesting as what Prussia witnessed in the unhappy years 1806 and 1807, or so elevating and poetical as her levée en masse and victories in 1813 and 1814. And to the student it is far more interesting than to the seeker of amusement. To the student indeed it is an interest quite independent of its exciting incidents, for it is one of those periods of radical and successful reconstruction of a State which are rare in history, and which abound beyond others in political lessons.

Let us now look more closely at the book before us. At his death, in November 1822, Hardenberg left a considerable collection of papers sealed up, with the direction that they were to lie unopened in the archives for fifty years. This fact is of itself sufficient to destroy the pretensions of the "Mémoires tirées," etc., which our editor describes as "a compilation of heterogeneous materials in which a few genuine documents are lost in a mass of statements partly well-known before, partly unauthenticated," and as "in itself more calculated to bewilder than to instruct." When the fifty years had expired the director of the archives brought the whole collection to Prince Bismarck, who with his own hand broke the seal. The commission was then given to Von Ranke to examine and report upon them. He found them to consist, first of a memoir in Hardenberg's own hand, covering the years 1804-1806 and part of 1807; secondly of a voluminous history — in French, and comprising a large number of official documents — by Friedrich Schöll, well known as one of the authors of the useful "Histoire Abrégée des Traitis." The history deals with the years 1794-1812, while Hardenberg's own memoir, which was intended to be translated into French and incorporated into it, is occupied solely with the years 1804-1807.

Our editor had to consider whether it would be advisable to publish Schöll's work as he found it. There were weighty objections to this course. It was in French, and Hardenberg's memoir was in German, so that they could not be joined together, as had been originally intended, to make one work. Moreover, there was something artificial in the style of Schöll, who had made Hardenberg speak throughout in the first person, and an attempt was discernible to efface the pretty strong tinge of Liberalism which belongs to Hardenberg's administration in order to suit the taste of the restoration period in which Schöll wrote. An alternative course was to publish Hardenberg's memoir with an introduction founded on the materials furnished by Schöll. This also seemed unsatisfactory, because these materials were copious enough to furnish a complete history. The end has been that the public are presented with four volumes, each consisting of from five to six hundred full German pages, of which the second and third contain Hardenberg's memoir, and the first and fourth a history of the whole period from 1793 to the War of Liberation by Ranke. In other words, historical literature is enriched at the same moment by two books, each of the utmost value in its own way, a history of a most memorable period, written by a great master of historical investigation from new documents, and an account of the foreign relations of Prussia in the years which ended with the great catastrophe of Tilsit, by one who was for the greater part of that time himself Prussia's foreign minister.

Hardenberg can hardly be regarded as a great man. Our editor himself says: "There is nothing very great in Hardenberg himself. His only title to a historic delineation is that he did more than any one towards the securing and restoring of Prussian independence." In his personality there was not the same strongly marked character, force, and grandeur that is to be observed in that of Stein, of whom we may observe that our editor speaks in a very different tone, e.g. "We have to introduce here again the Titanic Stein, who then took a world-historical position worthy of himself by Alexander's side;" and again, "Stein is the first and grandest representative of the German idea; he had Germany as a commonwealth ever before his eyes, and its unity ever as a thing in one way or another to be restored."

Nevertheless Hardenberg had force enough to carry him through the tasks, heavy as they were, which his lot imposed upon him; and as he was at the head of affairs far longer than Stein, the sum total of the services he rendered to Prussia is very great; his performance, though less unique in quality, is scarcely inferior in quantity to that of Stein; and his name is inseparably connected with that reorganization of Prussia which has led to her present greatness. Moreover his importance is materially increased now that he appears as a historian of some of the events in which he had a share.

It is to be observed, however, that he cannot be called the historian of his own achievements. Those achievements began with his assumption of office in 1810, two years after the fall of Stein. From that time to his death in 1822 he remained first minister. His important legislation belongs mainly to the years 1810 and 1811, and the memorable resurrection of Prussia belongs to 1813. But his original memoir deals exclusively with the time preceding the Peace of Tilsit, which was concluded in July 1807, a time in which he achieved nothing memorable. It is in fact mainly apologetic in its tone, explaining the reasons why its author was not able, in spite of all his efforts, to prevent, or even in any degree to mitigate, the calamity which fell upon Prussia at the close of that time. Instead of describing the restoration of Prussia, in which, he had so large a share, he has described only its fall, which he witnessed and foresaw, but was unable in any degree to prevent. The fall of Prussia, however, is not less interesting, if it is less agreeable to read of, than its restoration, and just at present it may be even more instructive to English people. For in our extreme scarcity of English books on the history of Prussia, in the fragmentary state of our knowledge about it, we are in danger of arriving at erroneous conclusions by piecing arbitrarily together the fragments of knowledge that we have. Thus we are apt to jump from the one book on the subject which we have read, Carlyle's "Frederick," to those modern Prussian triumphs which we know so well, and to argue — then Carlyle was right after all, and the heroic form of government turns out to be, in the long run, the best! I by no means wish the reader to run hastily into the exactly contrary conclusion, yet it is the exactly contrary conclusion which is really suggested by the facts. Frederick's government did not lead to those modern triumphs, but to the unparalleled catastrophe of Jena, and after that catastrophe the necessity was forced upon the country of radically destroying his system. By a series of changes, scarcely inferior in magnitude to those which France underwent in her first Revolution, both government and society in Prussia were reconstructed. A generation later a Parliament was added, and the triumphs which have impressed us so much began nearly twenty years later still. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is of course a very weak argument; but the slight presumption that it may afford is really a presumption against and not in favor of, the régime of Frederick, for it was not Sedan, but Jena, that was after it.

This account then of the downfall of the old system we have from Hardenberg himself, and Von Ranke's first volume furnishes an excellent introduction to it. His second volume, the fourth of the work, gives some account of the reconstruction. But we should by no means describe it as a complete account. The historical manner of Von Ranke is well known; his element is diplomacy and international affairs. In his view of the period between Tilsit and the War of Liberation, he has traced with much care the fluctuations of the long negotiation that went on between Prussia and Napoleon, but the internal reform that went on at the same time does not suit his pen so well, and is therefore not so fully treated. Altogether, though the work before us, if we consider only what it gives, seems to us the most important historical work of recent years, yet it has deficiencies, whether it is considered as a biography of Hardenberg or as an account of the fall and reconstruction of Prussia. As a biography of Hardenberg, besides closing at 1814, instead of 1822, which was the end of Hardenberg's career, it gives no sufficient account of his legislation of 1810, 1811. The same omission, joined to the slightness of the view given of Stein's legislation, makes it incomplete as a history of the transformation of Prussia.

Nevertheless the appearance of such a book affords a good opportunity of pointing out the vast historical importance of that transformation. We are most of us so ignorant of Prussian history that the very outline of it in our minds wants one of the principal features. Our view of it is such as our view of French history would be if we had never heard of the Revolution of 1789. This may seem a startling statement, but it is possible to imagine that but for one or two very glaring occurrences — such as the execution of the king and queen, and the positive destruction of monarchy and Church — we might have looked at the events that began in 1789 purely from a military and foreign point of view. We might have overlooked all internal changes, and seen nothing but that France at that time undertook a war against Europe, a war in which she was successful for many years, but afterwards lost again all the advantages she had gained. This is something like what we do with the history of Prussia. We see her neutrality between 1795 and 1806, then her ruin at Jena and Tilsit, then her period of humiliation, then her War of Liberation, and so on; but because Frederick William III. remains quietly seated on the throne through the whole period, we remain totally unaware that a Prussian revolution took place then — a revolution so comprehensive that the old reign and glories of Frederick may fairly be said to belong to another world — to an ancien regime that has utterly passed away. It was a revolution which, though it did not touch the actual framework of government in such a way as to substitute one of Aristotle's forms of government for another, yet went so far beyond government, and made such transformation both in industry and culture, that it deserves the name of revolution far more, for instance, than our English Revolution of the seventeenth century.

Thus the first step which our imaginary student of German politics must take, is to move the battle of Jena out of the life of Napoleon into the history of Prussia. Instead of thinking of it as a military feat, he is to think of it as the beginning of a political revolution. And next remembering that in Prussia two movements go on together, viz., the internal development of the state and its movement towards the headship of Germany outside, he must treat the battle of Austerlitz in the same manner and begin to think of that as the beginning of the revolution which brought down the old empire. Thus we get — 1805, fall of old Germany; 1806, fall of old Prussia. And so in Germany as in France we have an ancien régime and a revolution, and, as in the case of France, we ask first, what was the corruption, or weakness of the old régime which caused it to fall? and what was the nature of the new system which took its place?

The downfall of the old system in Prussia was much less appalling and amazing than in France; but, on the other hand, it was much more unforeseen. Many prophets had prophesied of strange things to happen in France, — nos enfants verront un beau tapage — for all the most unmistakable signs of decay met in the Bourbon monarchy. The Hohenzollerns too had been guilty of crimes, but they were the crimes of youthful energy, not of decrepitude; and the ambition of Frederick, if unscrupulous, was patriotic. Considered as an internal administrator, he was a pattern of self-sacrificing industry to all the sovereigns of his time. He and Louis XV. were at the opposite poles of kingship. Was it not strange, then, that a similar catastrophe should await the work of both? that the one system should perish in the rout of Jena, as the other in the Tenth of August? Napoleon is often described as having a sort of indefinite commission to remove out of the world whatever was rotten or decaying. Was it not strange then, that that which went down most instantaneously before his shock should be precisely that system which was youngest, and whose glories were most recent? and that even the old clumsy fabric of the Habsburgs should make a better fight than the new construction of the Hohenzollerns, the pride of the eighteenth century?

The explanation is that the Prussian State was as weak from immaturity as the French from old age; that the gigantic labors of Frederick William I. and Frederick the Great, though they had raised Prussia from insignificance to greatness, had not been sufficient to make her greatness stable and secure. But in this instance the image of a building is more convenient than that of a living body. If a State be regarded as an edifice reared on a foundation, we may say that in France the fault lay in the building itself, while in Prussia the building, the work of the Hohenzollerns, was good, but the foundation insufficient. The building is the visible part of a State — its government, administration, revenue, army. All this was rotten in France under Louis XV. and sound in Prussia under Frederick the Great. But the foundation on which all such buildings must stand is, as foundations are generally, out of sight, and may easily be left out of consideration. It is the unity of the country and of the nation; and this is marked in various ways — by continuity of territory and strength of frontier, by homogeneousness of the population and separateness of it from neighboring populations, and this again is marked by the distinctness of language, form of civilization and literature. In France this foundation was immensely strong, — no nation had so intense a self-consciousness — and therefore, when the structure of the State crumbled, the nation, after a very short interval of embarrassment, showed itself stronger than ever. But in Prussia this foundation was exceptionally weak. It could scarcely be said that either a Prussian nation or even a Prussian country existed. No one spoke of a Prussian language, or of a Prussian literature; no one supposed that Kant and Herder, because they were Prussians, belonged to a different literature from Goethe and Schiller. The ministers who conducted the government of Prussia were not necessarily Prussians either by birth or education. Who ever hears in England of a statesman being borrowed for a high official post from the French or Austrian service? Or when a public man among us is driven from office, or loses his seat in Parliament, who expects to hear that he has applied for employment to the czar? But in Prussia few of the most distinguished statesmen, few even of those who took the lead in her liberation from Napoleon, were Prussians. Blücher himself began life in the service of Sweden, Scharnhorst was a Hanoverian, so was Hardenberg, and Stein came from Nassau. Niebuhr was enticed to Berlin from the Bank of Copenhagen. Hardenberg served George III. and afterwards the duke of Brunswick before he entered the service of Frederick William II.; and when Stein was dismissed by Frederick William III. in the midst of the war of 1806, though he was a man of property and rank, he took measures to ascertain whether they were in want of a finance minister at St. Petersburg. And how weak was the frontier — how discontinuous the territory! How much of it too had in 1806 been quite recently acquired, and was inhabited by a discontented population which did not even profess to be Prussian! The partitions of Poland were quite recent; Warsaw was then a Prussian town; other large acquisitions had been made within Germany itself in 1803; and Hanover had just been taken from George III. In these circumstances, from the very nature of the case, and not from any exceptional coldness of disposition, there could not be in Prussia any of that burning spirit of nationality which showed itself in France in 1792, or in Spain in 1808; and where such a spirit is wanting the best-disciplined army and the most diligent administration and the best-intentioned government have no firm foundation under them.

Next to the baselessness of the whole fabric we are to consider the essential precariousness of an absolute form of government, and then some special abuses in government which had sprung up at that particular time. But in estimating all these influences, we are to bear in mind the immensity of the power which assailed Prussia in 1806. If the system of Frederick succumbed, it succumbed not like the French, to the sheer weight of its own corruption, but to an external force to which other systems thought good, our own for instance, might have yielded had they been equally exposed to its attack. It was this evident superiority of force which gave Napoleon himself an absolute confidence of success. On October 12th, 1806, he wrote to the king of Prussia, "Your Majesty will be defeated. Europe knows that France has thrice the population of your Majesty's states, and is not less developed than they are in a military point of view." It was in itself no great disgrace to be worsted by Napoleon at the head of such a force; the condemnation of the system lies in the fact that it did not offer a stout resistance, but collapsed at once. It was the curious fate of Prussia twice in little more than half a century to be attacked by a greatly superior force, and to wage on the first occasion the most glorious and on the second the most inglorious defensive war known to modern history. To explain this we are certainly obliged to point out the personal insufficiency of the king for the ponderous task which had devolved on him.

An administration both civil and military, if it cannot draw inspiration both from above and from below, must at least do so from one quarter or the other. If there is no patriotic nation below, there must be an energetic will above. But the great race of Prussian kings seemed to have come to an end when Frederick the Great died in 1786. His successor, the hero of Valmy and of the Treaty of Basle, had had something grandiose and generous about him, and got through his reign of eleven years without any conspicuous disaster. But he had dissolved the strictness of discipline and broken the spell of success, when he delivered over the government to the young Frederick William III. in 1797. The reign which now began lasted forty-three years, and resembles that of George III. in English history. In the course of it there were great disasters and glorious successes, and the king had good qualities of a homely kind enough to justify those who chose to attribute the successes not less than the disasters to him. Moreover the successes, coming later, effaced the disasters, and thus King Frederick William III. has preserved a fair reputation in history. We cannot but be glad of it, considering how respectable and well-intentioned a king he was; and indeed he had this merit, that as George III., after bringing himself near to ruin in his first twenty years, saved his reign by committing himself to William Pitt and remaining faithful to him, so did the Prussian king repair most of his mishaps by confiding, after 1806, in two meritorious statesmen, Stein and Hardenberg. But the mishaps themselves were due very much to his own mistakes, and this all the more because of the immense prestige which in Prussia had gathered round the crown.

Though the sudden collapse of the renowned Prussian army in 1806 took the world by surprise, yet the decline of the Prussian government had been recognized by all the world long before. In the long neutrality between 1795 and 1806 its reputation had suffered so much that it had come to be regarded with contempt, and in some sort may be said to have begun to despise itself. Hardenberg in these memoirs makes no defence of its foreign policy in the years 1804, 1805; and he defends himself by saying that his advice was not taken. The mistrust of Prussia by other powers, and her own self-mistrust, were among the leading causes of her overthrow, and for this the king himself was responsible. At least Hardenberg here throws it in pretty plain language on the king. That ruinous neutrality when all the world was in arms — what was the cause of it? People said at the time that the king was a coward, and though this was not true, yet Hardenberg himself traces it to fear. In speaking of one of Napoleon's encroachments, he says, after remarking that the king would not see it in its proper light: "I say he would not, for there was no doubt that he understood it all perfectly, but he could be inexhaustible in plausible arguments when the object was to maintain an unsound principle once adopted, and in such cases repugnance to a decisive measure outweighed his better reason. Mistrust of his own power to encounter the formidable Napoleon, a foreboding of the misfortune which afterward came so heavily upon him, were the grounds of this repugnance. Often perhaps did Frederick William curse his own high position, and wish for the unobserved life of a subject!" In other words, it was not a cowardly fear of the battle-field, but it was the fear of a war in which he felt himself certain to be worsted — yet in which, as a near successor of Frederick the Great, he would be regarded by the people as responsible for the campaign — which was the secret motive of his neutral policy. This weakness in the king concurred with a disturbance in the administrative system which had been caused by the restless personal government of Frederick the Great to throw the foreign department into the strangest confusion. In the first place the king found it necessary always to have a foreign minister who would advise unlimited concession when his favorite neutrality was endangered. He had such a minister in Count Haugwitz, whose conduct during the Austerlitz campaign has not been forgotten by history. In the summer of 1804 the count desired to retire in order to look after his estates in Silesia, which required the master's eye, and Hardenberg was to take his place. But the king did not feel sure of Hardenberg because he was a man of spirit, and accordingly it was arranged that Haugwitz should still receive a part of his salary, should be always ready to resume the duties of his department, and "particularly in the winter when he would wish to reside in Berlin, should receive information of all affairs, and be present at all conferences." Here was a pretty confusion of responsibility! And Hardenberg complains that he could never with all his exertions get his relations to Haugwitz properly defined. But how this arrangement served the king's purpose he makes perfectly clear by an example. In the matter of Sir George Rumbold, who had been seized by French soldiers near Hamburg, Hardenberg had recommended that his extradition should be demanded, and that the demand should be backed, if necessary, by war with France. The king was in a flutter, though for a wonder he took the first part of the advice. An express is at once sent to Haugwitz in Silesia, with a letter proposing the question in the following form: "I have demanded satisfaction of Bonaparte for the violation of neutrality, and because Rumbold was accredited to my person. His extradition has been demanded. If this is not granted, but recourse is had to subterfuges, what should Prussia do to maintain her dignity and to fulfil her engagements both towards Russia, in accordance with the existing understanding, and towards her co-estates in North Germany? Many persons vote for war; I do not (moi pas). Reflect on the matter, and give me the benefit of your views. You know that I reserved to myself the right of having recourse to you in critical circumstances — and these are critical indeed!" Hardenberg remarks, "How significant was that moi pas, which the king underlined!"

It may in fact be said that there were times when Haugwitz and Hardenberg might be considered indifferently as foreign ministers, though they represented opposite policies. But the confusion in the foreign department went really much further than this. Hardenberg gives us a clearer view than we could get before of an abuse which caused much outcry at the time — the secret influence of the cabinet secretaries. Of course the ministers in Prussia, where the king governed personally, had not the same undivided responsibility as they have in constitutional countries. The king took their advice or not, as it pleased him. But in 1806 the condition of things was this, that the control of affairs was in the hands neither of the ministers nor of the king, but of two or three men called cabinet secretaries who went and came between them. This abuse had risen out of a habit which Frederick the Great had formed of transacting business without any personal communication with his ministers. The reports of the ministers were laid before him and upon these his decision was formed. It was the business of the cabinet secretaries in his time simply to draft the orders of cabinet from his rough notes and to take charge of them. This form of transacting business continued after Frederick was gone, but began then to have a very different meaning and effect. These secretaries, originally merely clerks, began now to rival the ministers in influence. From drafting orders of cabinet they passed to practically originating them; and as they had the advantage, which the ministers had not, of personal communication with the king, they gradually reduced the ministers to mere tools. Meanwhile they had no real responsibility, and at the same time, compared with the ministers, they had no accurate knowledge of the affairs they conducted. The particular cabinet secretary who controlled foreign affairs, making Haugwitz, and as far as he could, Hardenberg also his agent, was one Lombard, a Frenchman by birth, and very naturally suspected, though Hardenberg pronounces him not guilty, of being in Napoleon's pay. Just before the catastrophe came, Stein complained in a letter to the king that "the guidance of the diplomatic affairs of the state, at a period unparelleled in modern history, is in the impure and feeble hands of a French poetaster of mean extraction, a roué, in whom is combined with moral corruption a complete physical prostration and decrepitude!"

If we put aside the considerable part which accident played in the fall of Prussia — for Alexander's sudden change of policy at Tilsit was an accident as far as Prussia is concerned — the causes of the catastrophe seem such as we have described: on the one hand, the want of any nation, in the proper sense of the word, underlying the State, on the other hand, a deplorable confusion in the administration arising from a failure of that powerful royal initiative by which the administration had been originally created. And now let us pass from the fall of Prussia to its reconstruction.

We misapprehend the nature of what took place when we say, as we usually do, that some important and useful reforms were introduced by Stein, Hardenberg, and Scharnhorst. In the first place, such a word as reform is not properly applied to changes so vast, and in the second place, the changes then made or at least commenced, went far beyond legislation. We want some word stronger than reform which shall convey that one of the greatest events of modern history now took place in Prussia. Revolution would convey this, but unfortunately we appropriate that word to changes in the form of government, or even mere changes of dynasty, provided they are violent, though such changes are commonly quite insignificant compared to what now took place in Prussia. And the effect of our want of a word is not less than this — that one of the very greatest events is never heard of among great events, and therefore by the mass of mankind is never heard of at all.

The form of government indeed was not changed. Not merely did the king continue to reign, but no Parliament was created even with powers ever so restricted. Another generation had to pass away before this innovation, which to us seems the beginning of political life, took place. But a nation must be made before it can be made free, and, as we have said, in Prussia there was an administration (in great disorder and an army, but no nation. When Stein was placed at the head of affairs in the autumn of 1807, he seems, at first, hardly to have been aware that anything was called for beyond the reform of the administration, and the removal of some abuses in the army. Accordingly he did reform the administration from the top to the bottom, remodelling the whole machinery both of central and local government which had come down from the father of Frederick the Great. But the other work also was forced upon him, and he began to create the nation by emancipating the peasantry, while Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were brooding over the ideas which, five years later, took shape in the Landwehr of East Prussia. Besides emancipating the peasant he emancipated industry, — everywhere abolishing that strange caste system which divided the population rigidly into nobles, citizens, and peasants, and even stamped every acre of land in the country with its own unalterable rank as noble, or citizen, or peasant land.

Emancipation, so to speak, had to be given before enfranchisement. The peasant must have something to live for; free-will must be awakened in the citizen; and he must be taught to fight for something before he could receive political liberty. Of such liberty Stein only provided one modest germ. By his Städteordnung he introduced popular election into the towns. Thus Prussia and France set out towards political liberty by different roads. Prussia began modestly with local liberties, but did not for a long time attempt a Parliament. France with her charte, and in imitation of France many of the small German States, had grand popular Parliaments, but no local liberties. And so for a long time Prussia was regarded as a backward State. F. von Raumer complains in 1828: "In Paris we are often obliged to hear it said, 'We live in a constitutional country, while you, you know …' In spite of the polite suppression of the sentence this simply means, 'We are free, but you are still slaves and subject to an unchecked tyranny.'" He protests that this representation is quite unjust so long as the Prussians have Stein's Städteordnung. It is to be added, however, that it was only by accident that Stein stopped short at municipal liberties and created no parliament. He would have gone further, and in the last years of the wartime Hardenberg did summon deliberative assemblies, which, however, fell into disuse again after the peace. For as the legislation of those years may be called a revolution, so the reaction which set in afterwards might be regarded as a counterrevolution. The reformers were driven from office, calumniated, and persecuted; the Städteordnung was revised in 1831; instead of the promised Parliament only Provincial Estates, carefully controlled by government, were instituted; and the reformed administration, working with more unity and efficiency than before, became that imperious bureaucracy which Schön compared to the Catholic priesthood, and of which a leading member rebuked some Prussian citizens for supposing that with their "narrow private understanding" they could possibly form a judgment of the views of the government!

In spite however of all reaction, the change irrevocably made by the legislation of that time was similar to that made in France by the Revolution, and caused the age before Jena to be regarded as an ancien régime. But in addition to this, a change had been made in men's minds and thoughts by the shocks of the time, which, prepared the way for legislative changes which have taken place since. How unprecedented in Prussia, for instance, was the dictatorial authority wielded by Hardenberg early in 1807, by Stein in the latter part of that year and in 1808, and by Hardenberg again from 1810 onwards! Before that time in the history of Prussia we find no subject eclipsing or even approaching the king in importance. Prussia had been made what she was almost entirely by her electors and kings. In war and organization alike all had been done by the Great Elector or Frederick William I., or Frederick the Great. But now this is suddenly changed. Everything now turns on the minister. Weak ministers are expelled by pressure put upon the king, strong ones are forced upon him. He is compelled to create a new ministerial power much greater than that of an English prime minister, and more like that of a grand vizier, and by these dictators the most comprehensive innovations are made. The loyalty of the people was not impaired by this; on the contrary, Stein and Hardenberg saved the monarchy; but it evidently transferred the monarchy, though safely, to a lower pedestal; it evidently prepared the way for such constitutionalism as we now see.

Another powerful impulse moved the State in the same direction. If we consider the transformation of Prussia as covering the whole period between 1807 and 1813, we may consider that it was accomplished in twro movements. The first was the legislative movement guided by dictatorial ministers — Stein in 1807 and 1808, Hardenberg in 1810 and 1811. The second is the great popular movement which ended in the War of Liberation. Now, while in the former the king for the first time in Prussian history is eclipsed by his ministers, in the latter the initiative is taken out of the hands of the government altogether, and the most important step of all is taken by a parliamentary assembly. The great transition of Prussia from the French to the Russian alliance at the beginning of the year 1813 was begun and wellnigh completed without the intervention, and ostensibly against the wish, of the Prussian government. It began with Yorck's Convention of Tauroggen, which was concluded on his own responsibility, and was afterwards disavowed by the government. Then came the meeting of the Estates of East Prussia at Königsberg. In this assembly Yorck appeared and spoke openly of "beating the French wherever he should find them;" and yet the French were at this time the king's allies! The assembly then proceeded to make one of the greatest institutions of modern Prussia — they created the Landwehr. But of course they were summoned by the king, and acted under his directions? Not at all; they were summoned by Stein, and his commission did not run in the name of the king of Prussia, but in that of the emperor and autocrat of all the Russias!

No doubt the king resumed a little later the guidance of his people. The Landwehrordnung was sanctioned by him and extended to the other provinces. Nevertheless, such a fact as the creation of the Landwehr by a Parliament, and a Parliament not summoned by the king, could not be forgotten. It tolled the knell of the absolute monarchy in Prussia. No wonder that when, a month after, Stein lay at death's door in the Hotel Zum Zepter at Breslau, the king, though the court was in the same town, would know nothing about him, and caused no inquiries to be made after his health.

Parallel with this fall and reconstruction of Prussia we see the fall and reconstruction of Germany. Here too the first step is to create, so to speak, the nation. A great space had to be traversed from the time when Lessing and Herder wrote of the very virtue of patriotism with disapprobation, wandering at the same time what the feeling might be like, to the days of Arndt and Körner. And when the feeling had been awakened the difficulty of expressing it in institutions seemed to have grown greater than ever. The Confederation of the Rhine had thrown half Germany into the foreign camp. New kings had been created, all whose interests were involved in the division of Germany. At the moment of the fall of Napoleon, perhaps, with decision and good fortune, something might have been done. Stein, who is even greater in the history of Germany than he is in the history of Prussia, formed a daring plan of dethroning the princes of the Confederation of the Rhine along with their master, and in this way constituting the unity of Germany, or at least its duality under Austria and Prussia, at the same time that its independence was secured. But Metternich disappointed him. And we have witnessed since the slow and wonderful attainment of the same goal by another path.

This chapter of history has commonly been thought uninviting, partly I suppose because of the intricate appearance which German history always presents from the multitude of small States, partly, perhaps, because the Germans do not write history in a dramatic or epigrammatic style. The first difficulty lies altogether on the surface; as to the second, it must be confessed that the Germans as a nation have not the art of posing like their neighbors. The French contrive to make the long ignominy and decay of Louis XV.'s reign interesting, while the Germans cannot make even the age of Stein and Hardenberg seem so. Nor, I fear, will the two thousand judicious pages in German type, which have suggested this paper, mend the matter. German history will never be read by the novel-reading public. But that it should be read by nobody seems a pity. It is quite as instructive and important as other history. And if it does not make a good novel of plot, it makes, at least in the age we are thinking of, a very fair novel of character. It is unfortunate that the only biography of an eminent German politician of that age which is known to the English public is confessedly unsatisfactory from the political point of view. Miss Winkworth, when she translated Niebuhr's life, regretted in her preface that "the account given in it of his public career was very incomplete, and by no means one that enabled the reader to perceive the relation in which Niebuhr stood to his times." Yet Niebuhr's character is so interesting, even when a good part of it is left in the shade, that two or three editions of the book have been called for. Let some one put by the side of it a portrait executed on the same scale of the other great scholar-statesman of Prussia, W. von Humboldt, the great educational reformer and founder of the University of Berlin. The life of Arndt, with its wanderings and adventures, might be made even popular. Blücher, Gneisenau, and Yorck, are striking military figures. Scharnhorst is perhaps more important than any of these, but his reserved and unimpassioned character is not much adapted for biography, at least if we may judge from the admitted failure of Klippel's attempt; but perhaps the rising historian, Max Lehmann, who promises a new life of Scharnhorst, will teach us better. The age too is rich in interesting specimens of more or less perverted character. Such are Dalberg, prince primate of the Confederation of the Rhine, Johannes Müller, Gentz, the first king of Würtemberg.

Who, in all this assemblage of characters, holds the regal position? I think it is the proud Reichsfreiherr, Karl von Stein, greater than any by the breadth of his views and the commanding force of his character, even if we should grant that Hardenberg might claim to rival him in the sum of his achievements. Our author closes his work with an elaborate comparison between the two statesmen, in which, as was natural, and perhaps proper, in a life of Hardenberg, somewhat more than justice is done to him, and somewhat less to Stein. The great superiority of Stein lies in the influence he exerted outside Prussia upon Germany as a whole. In 1813 it was the custom to speak of him as emperor of Germany; and the phrase was a happy way of marking that, as our author says, he was "the first and grandest representative of the German idea." Who else could write as early as 1812 what Stein wrote to Count Münster? — "I am sorry your Excellency suspects a Prussian in me and betrays a Hanoverian in yourself. I have but one fatherland, and that is Germany; and as under the old Constitution I belonged to Germany alone, and not to any part of Germany, so to Germany alone, and not to any part of it, I am devoted with my whole heart." It is the strangest ignorance which pictures this great-hearted man — who had his life in large and simple ideas, and who has been called Germany's political Luther — merely as a successful legislator on land questions.

If we made a commencement by becoming familiar with the lives of a few of these men, we should find the fog which now hides German politics from our view insensibly dissipated, and I believe, also, we should be astonished at the richness, variety, and interest of the scene which would be disclosed.J. R. Seeley.

  1. Suggested by the "Memoirs of Prince Hardenberg," edited by Leopold von Ranke.