Modern history


Dare to know!


The Prussian enlightenment was about conversation. It was about a critical, respectful, open-ended dialogue between free and autonomous subjects. Conversation was important because it permitted the sharpening and refinement of judgement. In a famous essay on the nature of enlightenment, the Königsberg philosopher Immanuel Kant declared that

Enlightenment refers to man’s departure from his self-imposed tutelage. Tutelage means the inability to make use of one’s own reason without the guidance of another. This tutelage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in intellectual insufficiency, but in a lack of will and courage [… ]. Dare to know! [Sapere aude!] Have the courage to use your own reason! This is the motto of the Enlightenment.1

Read in isolation, this passage makes enlightenment seem a solitary business, encapsulated in the struggle of an individual consciousness to make sense of the world. But at a later point in the same essay, Kant observes that this process of self-liberation through reason has an unstoppable social dynamic.

It is possible that a public may enlighten itself; indeed if its freedom is not constrained this is virtually inevitable. For there will always be a few individuals who are capable of thinking for themselves despite the established authorities that claim to exercise this right in their name, and who, as soon as they have cast off the yoke of tutelage, will spread about them the spirit of a reasoned appreciation of one’s own worth and the duty of every person to think for himself.2

In the percolation through society of this spirit of critical, confident independence, conversation played an indispensable role. It flourished in the clubs and societies that proliferated in the Prussian lands – and more broadly in the German states – during the second half of the eighteenth century. The statutes of the ‘German societies’, a supra-territorial enterprise whose network included a society founded in Königsberg in 1741, explicitly defined the formal conditions for fruitful conversation among the members. During the discussion that followed readings or lectures, members were to avoid arbitrary or ill-considered comments. Critiques should engage in a structured way with the style, method and content of the lecture. They should employ, in Kant’s phrase, ‘the cautious language of reason’. Digressions and interruptions were strictly prohibited. All members were ultimately guaranteed the right to have their say, but they must wait their turn and make their comments as concise as possible. Satirical or mocking remarks and suggestive wordplay were unacceptable.3

We find the same preoccupation with civility among the Freemasons, whose movement had grown to encompass between 250 and 300 German lodges with 15–18,000 members by the end of the eighteenth century. Here too, there were injunctions to avoid immoderate speech, frivolous or vulgar commentary and the discussion of topics (such as religion) that would stir divisive passions among the brothers.4 This may all sound stiflingly prim from a present-day perspective, but the purpose of such rules and norms was serious enough. They were designed to ensure that what mattered in discussion was not the individual but the issue, that the passions of personal relationships and local politics were left behind when members joined the meeting. The art of polite public debate had still to be learned; these statutes were the blueprints of a new communicative technology.

Civility was important, too, because it helped to iron out the asymmetries of status that otherwise threatened to cramp discussion. Freemasonry was not, as one historian of the movement has claimed, an ‘organisation of the emergent German middle classes’.5 It attracted a mixed elite constituency that included members of the nobility and educated or propertied commoners in almost equal measure. Although some German lodges began life by opening their doors exclusively to one or the other of these two groups, most of these soon merged. In such mixed society, the observance of transparent and egalitarian rules of engagement was essential if status differences were not to cripple debate from the outset.

The conversation that powered the Prussian enlightenment also took place in print. One of the distinctive features of the periodical literature of this era was its discursive, dialogical character. Many of the articles printed in the Berlin Monthly (Berlinische Monatsschrift), for example, the most distinguished press organ of the German late enlightenment, were in fact letters to the editor from members of the public. Readers were also treated to extensive reviews of recent publications, and sometimes also to lengthy replies by authors with a bone to pick with their reviewers. Occasionally the journal would call for views on a specific question – this was the case, for example, with the famous discussion on the theme ‘What is enlightenment?’ that began with a query posted by the theologian Johann Friedrich Zöllner in the pages of the Berlin Monthly in December 1783.6 There was no permanent staff of journalists, nor were most of the articles in each issue directly commissioned by the journal. As the editors, Gedike and Biester, made clear in the foreword to the first edition, they depended upon interested members of the public to ‘enrich’ the journal with unsolicited contributions.7 The Berlin Monthly was thus above all a forum in print that operated along similar lines to the associational networks of the towns and cities. It was not conceived as fodder for an essentially passive constituency of cultural consumers. It aimed to provide the public with the means of reflecting upon itself and its foremost preoccupations.

The resonance of the Berlin Monthly and other journals like it was greatly enhanced by the proliferation across northern Germany of reading societies.8 The purpose of these groups was to pool money for the purchase of subscriptions and books in a society where public libraries were as yet unknown. Some were relatively informal gatherings with no permanent home that met in the house of one of the better-off members. Others were reading circles specializing in the dissemination of specific journals. In some towns, local book dealers ran a library service that allowed readers to gain temporary access to new publications without paying the full purchase price. Associations of this kind multiplied at a remarkable rate during the last decades of the eighteenth century. Whereas there were only about fifty of them in the German states in 1780, the number increased to around 200 during the next ten years. They tended increasingly to meet in premises rented or bought for their own use that provided a congenial setting for discussion and debate. Statutes ensured that every member joined the meeting on equal terms and that the imperatives of politeness and reciprocal respect were observed. Parlour games and gambling were prohibited. In all, the German reading societies encompassed a membership of between fifteen and twenty thousand.

Bookshops were another important venue for enlightened sociability. The main room of Johann Jakob Kanter’s bookshop in Königsberg, founded in 1764, was a large, attractive, bright space that served as the city’s ‘intellectual stock exchange’. It was a café littéraire in which men and women, young and old, professors and students could leaf through catalogues, read newspapers and buy, order or borrow books. (Since Kant owned only 450 books when he died in 1804, it is likely that, like other intellectuals in the city, he borrowed many of his books from Kanter.) Here, too, patrons were expected to cultivate a respectful and civil tone in their dealings with each other. Kanter not only sold books, he also produced a compendious catalogue of publications (which ran to 488 pages in 1771), a bi-weekly newspaper and various political tracts – including a blistering essay attacking Frederick the Great by the young Königsberg philosopher Johann Georg Hamann.9

Beyond the reading societies, lodges and patriotic associations was a network of other gatherings: literary and philosophical associations and learned groups specializing in natural science, medicine or languages. There were also more informal circles, such as the group of writers and aspirant poets around the Berlin Cadet School master Karl Wilhelm Ramler, whose close associates included the publisher Friedrich Nicolai, the dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the patriot poet Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim, the biblical scholar Moses Mendelssohn, the jurist Johann Georg Sulzer and many other prominent figures in the Berlin enlightenment. Ramler belonged to at least one of the many Masonic lodges in Berlin and was a member of several clubs; he was also a poet in his own right – albeit of third-rate verse. What contemporaries cherished in him was above all his gift for friendship and his lively, courteous sociability. After his death in April 1798, an obituary recalled that Ramler, who remained unmarried until his death, had lived ‘only for his art and his friends, whom he loved dearly without making a show of it. He had many [friends] in all walks of life, especially among scholars and businessmen.’10

Another analogous figure was the patriot activist Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim. He too was unmarried, entertained literary aspirations and used his financially secure position as an ecclesiastical official in the city of Halberstadt to support a circle of aspiring young writers and poets in the city. Like Ramler, Gleim maintained an extensive correspondence with many of the luminaries of contemporary Prussian letters. The sociable conversation that drove the enlightenment in Prussia was not sustained by statutes and subscriptions alone; it owed much of its intensity and inclusiveness to men like Ramler and Gleim, for whom the unselfish cultivation of a wide circle of friends was a life’s work. Writers, poets, editors, club, society and lodge members, readers and subscribers, these were the ‘practitioners of civil society’ whose engagement with the great questions of the day, literary, scientific and political, helped to create a lively and diverse public sphere in the Prussian lands.11

It would be a mistake to think of this emergent public sphere either as a supine, passive mass of apolitical burghers, or as a seething force of opposition and latent rebellion. One of the most striking things about the social networks that sustained the Prussian enlightenment was their proximity to, and indeed partial identity with, the state. This was in part a matter of the intellectual tradition out of which the Prussian enlightenment grew. The links with cameralism, the ‘science’ of state administration established at the Prussian universities during the reign of Frederick III/I, and further consolidated under Frederick William I, were only gradually severed. Then there was the social location of the Prussian intelligentsia. Whereas men of independent means or free-lance writers played an important role in contemporary French letters, the dominant group within the Prussian enlightenment was that of the civil servants. A study of the Berlin Monthly has shown that of all contributors to the journal over the thirteen years of its existence (1783–96), 15 per cent were noblemen, 27 per cent were professors and school teachers, 20 per cent were senior officials, 17 per cent were clergy, and 3.3 per cent were army officers. In other words, more than half of the contributors were in paid state employment.12

A striking example of the convergence between the state and elements of civil society was the Berlin Wednesday Club, a ‘private society of friends of learning’ that met regularly during the years 1783 to 1797 (virtually the same years as the Berlin Monthly was in existence). The members of this group, which numbered first twelve and later twenty-four participants, included senior officials such as the minister of state Johann Friedrich Count von Struensee and the legal officials Karl Gottlieb Svarez and Ernst Klein; among other members were Johann Biester, who was both editor of the Berlin Monthly and secretary of the Wednesday Club, and the publisher and sometime patriot activist Friedrich Nicolai. Nicolai’s old friend Moses Mendelssohn, the by now renowned Jewish scholar and philosopher, was an honorary member. Meetings were held in the home of one of the group. Although discussions sometimes focused on scientific topics of general interest, most meetings were concerned with contemporary political issues. Debates were often heated, but an effort was made to observe the forms of civilized discussion, namely mutual respect and reciprocity, impartiality, and a commitment to eschewing opinion and vacuous generalizations in favour of rigorous fact-based interpretation. Preparation for a meeting began with the pre-circulation of a treatise on some matter of government administration, finance or legislation. This served as the basis for debate. Comments could also be submitted in writing. Essays that had been debated by the society sometimes later appeared in the Berlin Monthly.

It is difficult to imagine a better illustration of the fundamentally conversational character of enlightened literary culture. The Wednesday Club could hardly be described as an institution of the ‘public sphere’, since its meetings were shrouded in the strictest secrecy – an essential measure, given that several of the group were serving ministers. Yet it does demonstrate the kinds of synergy that were becoming possible between the informal networks of civil society and the state during the last years of Frederick II’s reign.

It was easy for progressive scholars, writers and thinkers to see the state as a partner in the enlightened project, because the sovereign himself was a renowned champion of its values. Immanuel Kant’s suggestion that the phrases ‘age of enlightenment’ and ‘age of Frederick’ were synonymous was no pious platitude.13 Of all the monarchs of eighteenth-century Europe, Frederick came closest to personifying the values and outlook of enlightenment. He joined a Masonic lodge in 1738, while he was still crown prince. He was, as we have seen, a sceptic in religious questions and an exponent of religious tolerance. When asked in June 1740 whether a Catholic subject should be permitted to enjoy civic rights in the city of Frankfurt an der Oder, he replied that ‘all religions are just as good as each other, as long as the people who practise them are honest, and even if Turks and heathens came and wanted to populate this country, then we would build mosques and temples for them.’14 He gathered about him some of the leading figures of the French enlightenment. Voltaire in particular, with whom Frederick sustained a long if intermittently fractious conversation, was for many years the foremost literary star of the enlightenment and his close association with the Prussian king was famous throughout the continent. Frederick’s own writings were composed in imitation of the sparkling but cool and detached tone of the contemporary French masters.

Then there were those early sovereign acts by which Frederick revealed his readiness to translate ideas and convictions into practice. On his accession to the throne, he ordered that the journal Die Berlinischen Nachrichten was no longer to be subject to censorship, and that the rationalist philosopher Christian Wolff, who had been driven away from the University of Halle by the Pietists in the 1720s, should be recalled forthwith.15 Even more striking was his decision, against the advice of the leading Prussian jurist of the era, Samuel von Cocceji, to suspend the use of judicial torture in his lands. Torture was still widely used by the European judicial systems to secure confessions from suspects. In 1745, Zedler’s Universallexikon, one of the canonical encyclopaedias of the German enlightenment, defended the use of torture as an investigative tool, and the practice was retained in the Theresiana, the great codex of Austrian law published in 1768.16

But on 3 June 1740, only three days after his father’s death, Frederick ordered that torture was no longer to be used, except in a small range of extreme cases involving crimes against king or country, or instances of multiple murder where robust interrogation was required to secure the identity of unknown accomplices. In a further order of 1754, Frederick extended this ban into a blanket prohibition, on the grounds that torture was not only ‘cruel’ (grausam) but also unreliable as a means of getting at the truth, since there was always the danger that suspects would implicate themselves in order to avoid further torture.17 This radical measure left many judges and legal officials complaining that there now existed no means of extracting a confession – the queen of proofs under all the ancien régime legal systems – from recalcitrant offenders. A new evidential doctrine had to be improvised to cover cases where there was a plenitude of evidence, but no confession.

Frederick also reduced the number of crimes punishable by death and made a small but significant change to the arrangements for execution by the wheel. This gruesome practice involved breaking the body of the offender on the scaffold with blows from a cartwheel and expressed a characteristically early-modern understanding of public executions as a quasi-religious ritual centred on the scourging of the malefactor in preparation for his or her departure into the afterlife. Frederick ordered that in future executions of this kind, the offender was to be strangled by the executioner out of view of the crowd before the application of the wheel. His intention was to preserve the deterrent effect of the punishment while doing away with the infliction of unnecessary pain.18 Here, as in the case of torture, a rational assessment of the utility of the practice was coupled with an enlightened distaste for acts of cruelty (for, if you strip the religious dimension from the torments meted out to the offender, nothing remains but cruelty). These achievements should not be downplayed – in 1766, it was still possible in France for a youth found guilty of blasphemy and the desecration of a wayside shrine to have his right arm hacked off and his tongue torn out before being burned at the stake.19

Frederick even granted refuge in Berlin to the radical Spinozist Johann Christian Edelmann. Edelmann was the author of various tracts arguing, among other things, that only a deism purged of all idolatry could redeem and unite humanity, that there was no need for the institution or sacrament of marriage, that sexual freedom was legitimate, and that Christ was a man like any other. Edelmann had been driven out of some of the most tolerant states of the German lands by hostile Lutheran and Calvinist establishments. During a brief visit by Edelmann to Berlin in 1747, the local Calvinist and Lutheran clergy attacked him as a dangerous and offensive sectary. He even attracted the hostile notice of Frederick for his principled opposition to royal absolutism and his dismissive (printed) remarks about Voltaire’s eulogy celebrating the king’s accession. Yet he was permitted to make his home in Berlin – even as his works were being furiously condemned across the length and breadth of the German lands – on the condition that he ceased to publish. In May 1750, as Edelmann whiled away his time in Berlin (under a false name to protect him against reprisals by Christian fanatics), there was a massive burning of his books in the city of Frankfurt/Main under the auspices of the Imperial Book Commission. With the entire magistracy and municipal government in attendance and seventy guards to hold back the crowds, nearly 1,000 copies of Edelmann’s books were tossed on to a tower of flaming birch wood. The contrast in tone and policy with Berlin could hardly have been more conspicuous. Frederick had no objections to Edelmann’s religious scepticism, his deism or his moral libertinism. The Prussian capital, he observed in a characteristically back-handed quip, already contained a great many fools and could surely accommodate one more.20

Frederick was thus – unlike his French counterpart Louis XVI – a plausible partner in the project of enlightenment in the Prussian lands. Indeed for many within the literary and political elite, the monarch’s legitimate personal claim to enlightenment bestowed a unique meaning upon the relationship between civil society and the state in Prussia. We saw in chapter 7 how the personal reputation of the king suffused political discourses in Prussia during and after the Seven Years War. At that time, patriot publicists argued that love of the king could transform mere subjects into active participants in the public life of the fatherland.

In his landmark essay of 1784, Immanuel Kant argued that the convergence of authority and enlightenment in the same sovereign person utterly transformed the relationship between political and civil liberties, for, where the monarch was enlightened, his power constituted an asset, rather than a threat to the interests vested in civil society. The result, Kant argued, was a paradox: under a truly enlightened sovereign, moderate constraints on the degree of political liberty might actually ‘create a space in which the people may expand to the fullness of its powers’. The famous formula Kant placed in the mouth of Frederick: ‘Argue as much as you will about whatever you choose; but obey!’ was not presented as the slogan of a despot. Rather it encapsulated the self-transforming potential within an enlightened monarchy. In such a polity, public argument and public criticism – a conversation, in short, between civil society and the state – ensured that the values and objectives of the state itself would ultimately merge harmoniously with those of the people, so that the duty to obey ceased to be a burden upon the subject.

For once the [… ] inclination and commitment to free thinking has germinated and taken root, this gradually exerts its influence upon the outlook of the people (steadily reinforcing its freedom of action) and ultimately upon the principles of the government itself…21

This vision of a virtuous political convection, in which the ideas of enlightened luminaries first leavened the dough of civil society before communicating themselves to the organs of government, was not entirely detached from reality. Government in Prussia was in general far more consultative than we are inclined to think. Virtually all major legislative initiatives were the result of extensive negotiations or discussion with local interests. Sometimes this was conducted through the medium of the Estates, as in the protracted consultations over restrictions on the sale of noble landed property, sometimes through local town or district officials who were themselves in consultation with a wide range of locals, and sometimes through informal networks of experts, such as jurists, for example, or businessmen. None of this was especially ‘enlightened’; it was an essential, though underemphasized, part of the gathering of opinions and information that made government possible. What changed in the later eighteenth century was the emergence of a network of enlightened activists who claimed to be trustees of the public interest, as well as partners and critics of the sovereign power.22 It was a claim that the government came largely to accept. In 1784, when Frederick II embarked on a thoroughgoing legal reform that would culminate in a new and comprehensive law code for the Prussian lands, he chose to submit early drafts of the new code to the judgement of public opinion. Initially this denoted a fairly narrow circle of leading jurists and constitutional lawyers, as well as various ‘men of practical wisdom’. But the net was later greatly widened through the institution of a public essay competition, a technique that the government borrowed from the older generation of patriotic-beneficial voluntary societies.23 This remarkable step revealed a surprising confidence in the virtue of intellectual competition and demonstrated the king’s tacit acknowledgement that public opinion was now, as one of his senior officials later put it, ‘a mighty tribunal’ judging each act of government.24

There may not have been freedom of the press in Prussia – in the sense of a generalized legal right to the public expression of opinions – but censorship was sufficiently mild to permit lively and robust political debate, both in print and in speech. The Scottish travel writer John Moore, who visited Berlin in 1775, later recorded his impressions of Prussia’s capital city:

Nothing surprised me more, when I first came to Berlin, than the freedom with which many people speak of the measures of government, and the conduct of the King. I have heard political topics, and others which I should have thought still more ticklish, discussed here with as little ceremony as at a London coffee-house. The same freedom appears in the booksellers’ shops, where literary productions of all kinds are sold openly. The pamphlet lately published on the division of Poland, wherein the King is very roughly treated, is to be had without difficulty, as well as other performances, which attack some of the most conspicuous characters with all the bitterness of satire.25


In the 1770s, the Jewish community of Berlin was the wealthiest and most acculturated of the German states. At its core was an elite of military contractors, bankers, merchants and manufacturers. The houses of the wealthiest families were located in the most fashionable areas of the city – Berlin was the only court city in the German lands where Jewish residents were not confined to a ghetto. In 1762, the banker Daniel Itzig bought a small palace in the Burgstrasse, right on the bank of the river Spree, and converted it into an elegant two-winged residence. Here he assembled a superb collection of art treasures, including Rubens’s Ganymede, works by Terborch, Watteau, Joseph Roos and Antoine Pesne, and a ‘large view with many figures by Canaletto’.26 Nearby, on the corner of Poststrasse and Mühlendamm, was the three-storeyed palace of the court jeweller and mintmaster, Veitel Heine Ephraim. Designed by the master builder Friedrich Wilhelm Diterichs and decorated in the rococo style with columns, pilasters and elegant balconies with gilded railings, the Ephraimpalais is still a landmark in today’s Berlin.

Itzig and Ephraim, like most other members of the Jewish financial elite, were men who had made their fortunes through collaboration with the Prussian state. Both were members of the business partnership entrusted by Frederick II with managing Prussia’s coin supply during the Seven Years War. When war broke out in 1756, the king resolved to fund his campaigns with a coin inflation. Prussia had no native silver to speak of and thus had to import all its coin bullion – a business that had traditionally been in the hands of Jewish agents. By reducing the proportion of silver in the Prussian coinage, he would be able to extract a ‘mint charge’ in the form of the unused silver. Frederick had always made more intensive use of Jewish financial managers than his predecessors and he obliged a consortium of Jewish bankers and bullion merchants – including Ephraim and Itzig – to accept responsibility for minting the debased coins. The profits generated by this enterprise – amounting to about 29 million thalers – made a significant contribution to the king’s war costs.27 By the end of the hostilities, the Jewish mint managers – together with an array of other Jewish businessmen specializing in the supply of war provisions – were among the wealthiest men in Prussia.

These were the most prominent members of the Jewish minority in Prussia, but they were hardly typical. Jewish life in Prussia was a study in contrasts. While a small minority enjoyed great wealth and legal privilege, the majority were weighed down by onerous restrictions. In 1730, Frederick William I issued a General Jewry Regulation that restricted Jewish trade, forbade Jews to practise in guild-controlled artisan crafts or to peddle wares in the cities, and prohibited them from purchasing houses. The trend towards ever-tighter state regulation continued during the reign of Frederick II. The elaborate Revised General Code of 1750 divided the Jews of Prussia into six discrete classes. At the top was a tiny minority of ‘generally privileged’ Jews who could purchase houses and land and operate commercially on the same footing as their Christian fellows. In special cases, members of this class might even be granted hereditary citizenship rights. The ‘privileged protected Jews’ of the next class, however, could not choose their place of residence and could pass their status only to one of their children. The third class of ‘unprivileged protected Jews’ comprised practitioners of specific professions – opticians, engravers, painters, physicians – deemed useful enough to justify conditional residence permits. Class four encompassed community employees, such as rabbis, cantors and kosher slaughterers, and entailed no hereditary rights. The fifth class comprised ‘tolerated Jews’ enjoying the patronage of a Jew in the upper three classes, as well as the non-inheriting children of Jews of the second and third classes. Class six, the least of them all, covered the private employees of Jewish businesses and households; residence permits in this class were dependent upon contracts of employment.

Confronted with the Jews, the king’s famed enlightenment narrowed to a purely instrumental rationale. Frederick was determined to use them as revenue-generators and was prepared for that purpose to grant extremely wide-ranging freedoms to the most useful of his Jewish subjects. Indeed he pressed Jews into those sectors of the economy where entrepreneurial ventures were most sorely needed – the bullion trade, iron foundries, cross-border commercial operations in peripheral regions and various branches of manufacture. He also raised special taxes and levies on Jewish subjects and required them to purchase surplus figurines from the Royal Porcelain Manufacturies – these items, reluctantly accepted in the 1770s, became the cherished heirlooms of later generations.

Underlying the superficially utilitarian measures of the state were social tensions and a lively vein of prejudice. Part of the pressure for state regulation came from the Christian corporate oligarchies of the Prussian towns, who pelted the central and provincial administrations with endless complaints and petitions against the commercial activities of the Jews.28 Jews in Prussia, as in all the German lands, were caught in the crossfire between the state and the local communities. In seeking to settle new Jewish residents or to protect their enterprises, the state ran into concerted resistance from town guildsmen and shopkeepers who feared Jewish competition and were hostile to the economic innovations pioneered by the newcomers. Here, as in other spheres of action, the authorities had to tread a careful line between grassroots opinion and the larger interests of the state.

This is not to suggest that the king himself was free of prejudice. On the contrary, Frederick was almost as hostile to the Jews as his father – who described them as ‘locusts’ – had been.29 In his Political Testament of 1752, he denounced them as the most dangerous of all sects, declaring that they harmed Christian trade, and arguing somewhat hypocritically that the state should make no use of their services. These views were reiterated in the Testament of 1768, despite the close and productive collaboration of the war years.30 Jewry regulations consequently carried a discriminatory symbolic charge. Jews were subject to a ‘body tax’ otherwise levied on cattle; they were constrained to enter and leave the capital city by one of two gates. Unlike any other minority group in Prussia, they could be punished on the basis of collective liability. A cabinet order of 1747 stated that the elders of each Jewish community were co-responsible for any robbery involving a member; the same applied to losses incurred through bankruptcies and penalties imposed for receiving or concealing stolen goods.31

Although the wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs have tended to dominate the historical record, the great majority of Jews in the Prussian lands were very modest individuals. Large-scale commerce of the sort practised by Ephraim and Itzig was the domain of a tiny elite. The small Jewish trader or Hausierer working from door to door was a far more frequent and familiar figure. Those Jews who did not possess letters of protection allowing them to trade in an open shop or stall were restricted to itinerant dealing in second-hand goods. The proportion of Prussian Jewry in this position rose steadily as the successive trade restrictions of the early and mid eighteenth century pushed many formerly prosperous merchants into marginal sectors of the economy.32 Their ranks were continuously swollen by the illegal immigration of Jews from Poland, many of whom were poor and obliged to live from very marginal forms of itinerant employment. Attempts to close the eastern borders to these economic refugees failed to have any appreciable effect. Repeated ordinances against ‘beggar Jews’, issued in 1780, 1785, 1788 and 1791, indicate that this migration, doubtless aggravated by the partitions of Poland, remained unchecked at the end of the century.33 The Pietist missionary agents who worked from the Institutum Judaicum in Halle from the 1730s onwards often encountered gaggles of ‘poor travelling Jews’ who were unable to pay the gate tax and gathered before the walls, trading in small portable items such as prayer books or calendars.34

By the middle decades of the eighteenth century, a process of cultural change was under way among the Prussian Jews that would ultimately transform Judaism. The Jewish enlightenment or Haskalah (from the Hebrew le-haskil, ‘enlighten, clarify with the aid of the intellect’) first took hold in Berlin. One of its earliest and most emblematic exponents was the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who lived and worked in the city from 1743 until his death in 1786. Mendelssohn hailed from a humble family in the Saxon city of Dessau. His father struggled to support the family as a Schulklopfer, a synagogue door knocker, whose task was to instruct young children in the Torah and run from house to house rousing the congregation to prayer in the mornings. At the age of six, Moses began studying with rabbi David Fraänkel, a distinguished scholar of the Talmud and its commentaries. When Fraänkel moved to Berlin to accept the post of chief rabbi in 1743, his fourteen-year-old student followed. The penniless Mendelssohn would have been turned back at the Rosenthal Gate, had his mentor not found him a place in the household of one of Berlin’s ‘protected Jews’.

It was the beginning of a brilliant career. A train of publications soon established Mendelssohn’s reputation as a commentator on themes drawn from Plato, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Shaftesbury, Pope and Wolff. Mendelssohn wrote in an elegant lively German, but he also kept up a stream of publications in Hebrew. He launched the first-ever Hebrew periodical, Kohelet Musar (The Moralist), in 1755. Modelled on the ‘moral weeklies’ of early eighteenth-century England, Kohelet Musar aimed to disseminate enlightened ideas within the educated stratum of Jewry. In 1784, Mendelssohn joined the debate on the meaning of ‘enlightenment’ in the pages of the Berlin Monthly. Here he argued that enlightenment denoted not a state of affairs, but a process of maturation in which individuals learned gradually to apply their ‘reason’ to the problems before them.

This was an utterly new and distinctive voice. Here was a Jewish scholar who, while continuing to avow his attachment to Jewish tradition, reached out to a mixed audience of Jews and Christians, speaking of reason, sentiment and beauty in a captivating, undogmatic idiom. In using Hebrew for Kohelet Musar, Mendelssohn brought the sacred language of the synagogue out into the open air of an enlightened public sphere. For some of his Jewish readers, there was an almost giddy sense of displacement and liberation. Young Jews from across the Prussian lands and beyond came to gather at his home, where there were lively debates on matters of enlightenment. It was here that a specifically Jewish enlightenment began to take shape. The luminaries of the early Berlin Haskalah – Naphtali Herz Wessely, Herz Homberg, Solomon Maimon, Isaac Euchel and others – were all formed in this exciting milieu. In 1778, the Mendelssohn disciple David Friedlaänder, son of a Königsberg banker, joined with Isaac Daniel Itzig (son of Daniel) to found a Jewish Free School in Berlin – Mendelssohn had a hand in designing the curriculum. By the early 1780s, Mendelssohn had established a genuinely Prussian literary network; a list of the 515 subscribers to his German translation of the Pentateuch (1781–3) includes names from across the kingdom, with major concentrations in Breslau, Königsberg and Berlin.35

For enlightened Christian readers too, Mendelssohn was an object of fascination, a modern Jewish sage, a ‘German Socrates’, a man who symbolized the ferment and potential of enlightenment. More than any other individual, he exemplified the type of the wise Jew that proliferated in German fiction and drama during the second half of the eighteenth century.36 The eminent dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a close friend and collaborator, erected a literary monument to his friend in Nathan the Wise (1779), a play whose hero was a benign and virtuous Jewish merchant. Mendelssohn became a cultural icon, a talisman to conjure against the darkness of intolerance and prejudice. His house was a popular stopping-place for visitors to Berlin with literary pretensions.37


22. Moses Mendelssohn examined at Potsdam’s Berlin Gate. Engraving by Johann Michael Siegfried Löwe, after Daniel Chodowiecki, Physiognomischer Almanach (Berlin, 1792).

There are many contemporary portraits of Mendelssohn, but one of the most memorable, an engraving based on a drawing by Daniel Chodowiecki, shows him presenting his papers for inspection at the Berlin Gate to the city of Potsdam in 1771. Mendelssohn stands in the centre of the scene, a short, stooped figure in modest dark dress flanked by two towering Prussian guards, one of whom raises his hat in acknowledgement. The engraving referred to a contemporary anecdote in which Mendelssohn was asked to produce a letter of commendation from the king and was quizzed on its content. The emotional tone of this image remains difficult to read – is the wry expression on Mendelssohn’s lean, upturned face intended to imply an ironic gloss on this routine encounter between a Prussian officer and Prussia’s most famous Jew?

The Haskalah that flowed out from Mendelssohn and his circle was no bolt out of the blue. Its roots lay in a broad process of social change. The early Jewish enlighteners were deeply indebted to a parental generation that had begun to take an interest in modern languages, philosophy and the sciences. The pressure of Prussia’s interventionist state had (unwittingly) undermined the authority of the traditional rabbinate, hollowing out the space for an intellectual counter-elite. Even more important was the acculturated milieu of the great Berlin families. The patronage of the commercial elite provided the maskilim (exponents of Haskalah), a number of whom were impoverished itinerant scholars from far afield, with work as household tutors and opportunities to test new theories on their young charges. Mendelssohn could never have pursued his career as a thinker and writer without the financial stability provided by his relationship with the wealthy silk manufacturer Isaac Bernhard, for whom he worked first as a private tutor, later as a bookkeeper and ultimately as a business partner. The homes of the wealthy bankers – especially Daniel Itzig – were meeting places and watering-holes for the young generation of scholars – it was here that Mendelssohn received his first instruction in philosophy shortly after his arrival in the city.

But the Haskalah was also part of a distinctive moment in the history of German and Jewish-German sociability. In the mid-1750s, Moses Mendelssohn wrote to the dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing to report on his deepening friendship with the Berlin publisher Friedrich Nicolai:

I visit Herr Nicolai often in his garden. (I truly love him, my dearest friend! And I believe that our own friendship can only gain by this because I cherish in him your true friend as well.) We read poetry, Herr Nicolai recites his own compositions too, and I sit on my bench, a critical judge, complimenting, laughing, approving, finding fault, until evening comes.38

Mendelssohn’s conversation with Nicolai was a spontaneous, unstructured affair, yet it carried real symbolic weight. Here were a Jew and a Christian in a garden, meeting on equal terms, delighting in each other’s company and oblivious to the passing hours – for how long had such an encounter been conceivable? In the later 1750s, Mendelssohn frequented the ‘Learned Coffeehouse’, a society dedicated to the dissemination of enlightenment, in which members – there were about one hundred in all – presented and discussed papers on topical themes.

This interstitial sphere of enlightened trans-confessional conviviality steadily expanded in the later decades of the eighteenth century. It reached its high point in the literary salons frequented by the Berlin cultural elite during the later 1780s and 1790s. These were loosely organized gatherings in which persons of every social station and religious creed came together for conversation and the exchange of ideas. Men and women, Jews and Christians, noblemen and commoners, professors, poets, scientists and merchants mingled in private houses to discuss art, politics, literature and the sciences, but also to cultivate friendships and love affairs. Jewish women were central to the creation of this new milieu because, as members of a socially marginal group, they were in a sense equidistant from all social strata within the mainstream society – their houses provided an ideal space for the suspension of conventional boundaries. Women from the wealthier Jewish families also disposed of the considerable means required to cater to the hungry and thirsty intellectuals of Berlin – a few salonnières were driven to the brink of bankruptcy by the expense of keeping open house.

The two most celebrated Berlin hostesses were Henriette Herz, daughter of the first Jewish physician to practise in Berlin, and Rahel Levin, whose father was a wealthy jewel merchant. Both women were products of the assimilated Berlin elite – they had no qualms about appearing bare-headed in public and Rahel was notorious for breaking the Sabbath with Saturday-morning rides in an open carriage. Henriette’s salon, which flourished in the 1790s, was for a time the epicentre of literary and scientific culture in Berlin – its guests included the celebrated theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, and the dramatist Heinrich von Kleist. Rahel Levin was at first a regular attendant at Henriette’s salon, but she later formed her own literary circle. The Levin salon brought literary and academic stars into contact with members of the old Prussian elites. Rahel maintained numerous friendships among noblewomen she had met during her sojourns at the spas of Bohemia. Scions of the old Junker families – Schlabrendorffs, Finckensteins and even members of the royal family – shared sofas and tables with scientists, writers, critics and literary hopefuls. Friedrich Schlegel, Jean Paul and Johann Gottlob Fichte were among the intellectual celebrities who passed through the Levin salon. Regular attendants, whatever their social status, were expected to address each other with the familiar du.39

On whose terms did this exuberant rapprochement take place? In the minds of most educated Christian contemporaries, there was still the strong presumption that acculturation must ultimately culminate in conversion. The Zürich theologian Johann Caspar Lavater, who socialized with the enlightened elite and was a frequent visitor to Mendelssohn’s home in 1763–4, surprised his former host in 1769 with an open letter in which he demanded that Mendelssohn either convert to Christianity or justify his continued attachment to the Jewish faith. Lavater’s impertinent challenge and Mendelssohn’s gentle rejection were a literary sensation. The episode was a signal reminder of the limits of tolerance, even within the republic of letters.

The enlightened Prussian civil servant Christian Wilhelm Dohm was another case in point. Dohm was a close friend of Mendelssohn and a frequent guest in the house of Marcus Herz (husband of Henriette). He was also one of the first great champions of Jewish legal emancipation. In 1781 he published a landmark essay entitled On the Civic Improvement of the Jews, which attacked Christian prejudice and called for the removal of traditional legal disabilities. The Jews, he wrote, ‘have been endowed with the same capacity to become happier, better persons, more useful members of society’; it was only oppression, ‘so unworthy of our age’, that corrupted them. It was thus congruent with ‘humaneness, justice and enlightened policy to banish this oppression and improve the condition of the Jews’.40 But even Dohm assumed that the process of emancipation must lead to a far-reaching dilution of Jewish identity, if not to conversion. Once the pressure of legal discrimination were removed, he argued, it would be possible to woo the Jews away from the ‘sophistic sayings of [their] rabbis’ and divest them of their ‘clannish religious opinions’, inspiring them instead with patriotism and love for the state.41

But what if the Jews failed to honour their part of this one-sided bargain? What if, despite acculturating outwardly to the forms of the Christian mainstream, they remained in some sense Jewish and different? Scepticism on this point continued to dog the enterprise of Jewish societal assimilation. In 1803, the Berlin lawyer Karl Wilhelm Grattenauer published a mordant pamphlet in which he mounted a direct attack on the Jews of the salon-going elite. Entitled Against the Jews, this text focused its venom specifically on the young Jewish women who

read many books, speak many languages, play many instruments, sketch in a variety of styles, paint in all colours, dance in all fashions, embroider in all patterns and possess every single thing that could give them a claim to charm, except the art of uniting all the particulars into a beautiful femininity.42

This was a missile aimed right at the heart of that social milieu that had done more than any other to open channels of communication between the Jewish and the Christian elites. Against the Jews was widely read and discussed in Berlin and across Prussia – the conservative publicist Friedrich Gentz recalled reading it, despite initial misgivings, ‘with exceptional pleasure’.43

One of the sourest fruits of this new critique of Jewish acculturation was the satirical farce The Company We Keep (Unser Verkehr) by the Breslau doctor Karl Borromaäus Sessa. Written in 1813, Sessa’s play failed to arouse much interest in Breslau, but it was an instant hit in Berlin, where it opened at the Opera House on 2 September 1815. Audiences were invited to laugh at a grotesque gallery of Jewish stereotypes. Abraham, representing the older generation of shtetl-Jews, is a dealer in second-hand goods who expresses himself in a hilariously contorted Yiddish jargon. But his son Jacob aims for higher things; he wants to dance, speak French, teach himself aesthetics and write theatre reviews. Yet he finds it hard to shake off the Yiddishness of his speech: ‘I vant to trow away de Jew in me; I’m enlightened, no? Don’t have nothin’ Jewish in me.’ The most assimilated character of all is the affected and well-spoken Lydia, an unmistakeable caricature of the sharp-witted salonnières of the Herz-Levin era, who fails despite her best efforts to conceal her essential Jewishness.44 There was nothing gentle or affectionate about Sessa’s parody. It was an outright attack on the idea that acculturation would or should suffice to close the social and political gap between Jews and their Christian fellow-Prussians.

In the meanwhile, the Haskalah and intensified contact with the Christian social environment had begun to generate profound cultural changes within Prussian Jewry. We can discern a clear break between the first generation of enlighteners, personified in the figure of Mendelssohn, who wrote eloquently in Hebrew and remained deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, and the later more radical reformers of the revolutionary era who wrote in German and ultimately sought to break the mould of traditional observance altogether. The journey away from Jewish tradition towards the periphery of the community and its world of observance led to a variety of destinations: some sought to resculpt Judaism along the lines of natural religion; others hoped – like Mendelssohn’s quixotic disciple David Friedlaänder – to merge a rationalized Judaic faith with a Christianity purged of Trinitarian elements; and for a number, including many of the well-born young Jewish women of the salons and four of Moses Mendelssohn’s six children, the road ended in the most radical assimilation of all – conversion to Christianity.45

The Berlin Haskalah did not lead to the dissolution of traditional Judaism – the pragmatic, flexible communal culture of western Ashkenaz was far too resilient for that – but it did produce a lasting transformation. It made possible, firstly, the emergence of a secular Jewish intelligentsia that could thrive alongside the old elite of the rabbis and Talmud scholars. In so doing, it created the foundations for a critical Jewish public sphere capable of engaging in an open-ended way with its own traditions. Religion was privatized, relegated to the synagogue, while everyday life was – though only gradually – freed from the trappings of religious authority. This was at first a phenomenon of the urban elites and their social satellites, but the shock-waves generated by Haskalah gradually penetrated the fabric of traditional Judaism, broadening the intellectual horizons of the rabbinate and encouraging the faithful to seek a secular education (especially in medicine) at the German universities. It fed into the Reform movement that modernized nineteenth-century synagogue liturgy and religious observance. But it also stimulated far-reaching change within the world of traditional rabbinical Judaism. It was due in large part to the invigorating challenge posed by Mendelssohn and his successors that the Judaisms of the nineteenth century – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox – succeeded in capturing and feeding the spiritual and intellectual commitments of new generations.


‘Everything has collapsed into smallness,’ Count Mirabeau wrote, reflecting on the death of Frederick the Great in 1786, ‘just as once everything had expanded into greatness.’46 Certainly the transition from Frederick II to his successor and nephew,47 Frederick William II, was attended by the usual Hohenzollern family contrasts. The uncle was misanthropic, aloof and utterly uninterested in women. The nephew was genial, gregarious and recklessly heterosexual. His first marriage, with Elisabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, was dissolved after infidelities on both sides; the second marriage, with Frederike Luise of Hessen-Darmstadt, bore seven children; a further seven offspring were born of his life-long relationship with his mistress Wilhelmine Encke (later raised to the peerage as Princess Liegnitz) and two further (bigamous) marriages ‘under the left hand’. The uncle had remained loyal to the values of the high enlightenment, espousing a rigorously sceptical rationalism that seemed old-fashioned by the 1780s. The nephew was a man of his era who took an interest in spiritism, clairvoyance, astrology and other pursuits that would have disgusted his predecessor. The uncle had demonstrated his personal attachment to the ideals of the Enlightenment by joining the Freemasons when he was still crown prince. The nephew, by contrast, joined the Rosicrucians, an esoteric and secretive offshoot of Freemasonry dedicated to mystical and occult pursuits. Frederick the Great had managed, through rigorous economies in all domains of state activity, to leave behind a treasury of 51 million thalers; this staggering sum was squandered by his successor in only eleven years.48 And there were important differences in management styles. Whereas the uncle had constantly controlled and monitored the central executive, imposing his will on secretaries and ministers alike, the nephew was an impulsive, uncertain figure who was easily steered by his advisers.

In a sense, Prussia had returned to the European dynastic norm. Frederick William was not an especially stupid man, and he was certainly a person of deep and wide-ranging cultural interests – his importance as a patron of the arts and architecture is beyond dispute.49 But he was incapable of providing the Prussian governmental system with a strong commanding centre. One consequence of this weakening of the sovereign’s grip on policy was the re-emergence of the ‘antechamber of power’, that space within which advisers, ministers and would-be friends of the king competed for influence on the monarch. Among Frederick William’s advisers there was one in particular whose influence over domestic affairs was unrivalled. Johann Christoph Wöllner was an intelligent and ambitious commoner who had worked his way up from humble origins to become a pastor and later, through a highly advantageous marriage to the daughter of his patron, the master of a landed estate. Wöllner held an exalted position within the inner circle of the Rosicrucian order in Berlin and established contact with Frederick William while he was still crown prince. Frederick the Great was un-impressed by this connection, describing the crown prince’s upwardly mobile companion as a ‘scheming, swindling parson’. But with the accession of Frederick William II to the throne, Wöllner’s day had come. In 1788, he was appointed minister of culture in place of the Baron von Zedlitz, one of the most distinguished and progressive figures in the Frederician administration. In this post, Wöllner dedicated himself to an authoritarian cultural policy whose objective was to curb the supposedly corrosive effects of scepticism on the moral fabric of school, church and university. The centrepiece of Wöllner’s campaign to restabilize the ideological substance of public life in the kingdom was the famed Edict on Religion of 9 August 1788, a law designed to arrest and reverse the corrosive effect of rationalist speculation on the integrity of Christian doctrine.

It was no accident that Wöllner’s strictures were directed specifically at religious speculation, for it was in the sphere of religion (and especially Protestant religion) that debate over the implications of philosophical rationalism had done most to unsettle conventional certainties. The impact of enlightenment on the Prussian clergy in particular had been reinforced by Frederick II’s practice of favouring rationalist candidates for appointments to clerical office. The preamble to the edict stated baldly that ‘enlightenment’ – the word was printed in bold letters on a line of its own – had gone too far. The integrity and coherence of the Christian church was in danger. Faith was being sacrificed on the altar of fashion.

The edict introduced new censorship mechanisms to impose doctrinal conformity on all texts used for school and university study. The disciplinary powers of the Lutheran and Calvinist consistories – the most senior confessional administrative organs – were reinforced. Monitoring procedures were introduced to ensure that candidates appointed to clerical posts actually subscribed to the articles of faith of their respective confessions. Further measures followed. A censorship edict was published in December 1788 in an effort to stem the flow of pamphlets and articles criticizing the new measures. A Royal Examining Commission was established to flush out the rationalists in church and teaching offices. Among those subjected to investigation was pastor Johannes Heinrich Schulz of Gelsdorf, who was notorious for preaching that Jesus was a man like any other, that he was never resurrected, that the doctrine of a general resurrection was nonsense and that hell did not exist.50 Another who came to the attention of the authorities was Immanuel Kant himself: in the autumn of 1794, he received a stiff warning in the form of a royal order stating that the essay collection published as Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone ‘abused [… ] philosophy for the purpose of distorting and disparaging several principal and fundamental doctrines of Holy Scripture’.51

Wöllner’s edict has often been seen as a reactionary backlash against the Prussian enlightenment.52 This is certainly how some of its contemporary critics saw it. Yet in many respects, Wöllner’s religious policy was deeply rooted in the traditions of the Prussian enlightenment. Wöllner had himself been a Freemason before he joined the Rosicrucians (who were in any case an outgrowth of the Masonic movement), had been educated at the rationalist University of Halle and was the author of various enlightened tracts urging agricultural improvement, land reform and the abolition of serfdom.53 The central purpose of the edict was not – as some of its more polemical contemporary critics claimed – to impose a new religious ‘orthodoxy’, but rather to consolidate the existing confessional structures and thereby safeguard the pluralist compromise struck at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In this sense it accorded with Prussia’s tradition of multi-confessional religious co-existence. Thus the edict forbade not only the public propagation of heterodox rationalist views, but also proselytizing by Catholics among members of the two Protestant faiths. It even extended the state’s guardianship (in article 2) to the various ‘sects previously publicly tolerated in our states’, including the Jews, the Herrnhut brethren, the Mennonites and the Bohemian brethren.54

The edict was also notable for its essentially instrumental view of religion. Underpinning it was the – characteristically enlightened – belief that religion had an important role to play in securing public order. What mattered was not the existence of theological speculation as such, but the fact that the ‘poor masses of the population’ were being led away from their accustomed faith in scriptural, clerical and – by extension – sovereign authority.55 The need for stabilizing measures seemed all the more urgent for the fact that the absorption of large tracts of Polish territory (see chapter 10 below) had greatly increased the number of Prussia’s Catholic subjects and raised questions about the confessional balance of power within the kingdom. For these and other reasons, many of the most prominent enlightened theologians were happy to support the edict as a policy for the maintenance of religious peace.56

It thus makes little sense to see the controversy that broke out over the edict as a conflict between ‘enlightenment’ and a political ‘reaction’ bent on turning the clock back. The real struggle was between different visions of enlightenment. On the one hand, there were those enlightened defenders of the edict who saw in it a rational exercise of the state’s authority in the interests of religious peace and the liberty of individuals to be ‘left undisturbed in their chosen public confession’.57 On the other, there were those radical critics who argued that the edict oppressed individual consciences; one of these, the Kantian law professor Gottfried Hufeland, even argued that public institutions should reflect the rational convictions of the individuals composing them, even though this implied that ‘there must be as many churches as there are personal convictions’.58 From one perspective, the confessional identities bequeathed by history to the present were parcels of religious liberty to be safeguarded against the anarchic individualism of the radical critics; from the other, they were a stifling legacy of the past whose continued existence was a burden upon individual consciences. The real issue turned on the locus of rational action. Should this reside in the state, as Pufendorf had proposed, or should it be vested in the unfolding reasoned enquiry of individuals, as the more radical disciples of Kant appeared to be suggesting? Was the state better placed to uphold a rational public order grounded in the principles of natural law, or should this be left to the increasingly dynamic political forces within an emergent civil society?

The public furore provoked by the edict and its flanking measures revealed the extent to which enlightened critical debate had already politicized the Prussian public. There was a new sharpness in the tone of printed comment that prompted the king to observe with alarm in September 1788 that ‘freedom of the press’ (Presse-Freyheit) had mutated into ‘impudence of the press’ (Presse-Frechheit).59 There were also institutional frictions between the makeshift organs established by Wöllner to police the edict through censorship and the existing bodies of ecclesiastical self-governance, many of which were dominated by theological liberals. The disciplinary proceedings against the flagrantly heterodox pastor Schulz collapsed when the senior judicial and consistorial officials appointed to investigate him came to the conclusion that since he was a Christian (though not a Lutheran as such), he should be permitted to remain in office.60 As this and many other cases revealed, there was now a network of officials at the apex of the administrative system who had passed through the crucible of the Berlin enlightenment and were prepared to defend their understanding of an enlightened political order against the authoritarian prescriptions of Wöllner and Frederick William II.61 It was surely no coincidence that Johann Friedrich Zöllner, the consistorial official who had passed the tract for publication, Johann Georg Gebhard, the tract’s Calvinist author, and Ernst Ferdinand Klein, the judge entrusted with finding a verdict for the Supreme Court, were all sometime members of Berlin’s Wednesday Club.

In the face of such resistance, Wöllner’s efforts to silence debate and purge the administrative structures of rationalist critics were bound to enjoy at best a limited success. In the spring of 1794, Hermann Daniel Hermes and Gottlob Friedrich Hillmer, members of the Royal Examining Commission, travelled to Halle to conduct an inspection of the city’s university and high school. The University of Halle had once been the headquarters of Pietism, but it was now a bastion of radical theology whose governing body had formally protested the recent censorship measures. When Hermes and Hillmer reached the city on the evening of 29 May and made their way to their quarters in the Golden Lion Hotel, they were besieged by a crowd of masked students who stood before their windows until the small hours of the morning chanting rationalist slogans. On the following night an even larger and louder crowd of students gathered to hear one of their number deliver a speech seething, in the ears of an unsympathetic onlooker, with ‘blasphemies and irreligious expressions’, before bombarding the windows of the examiners’ rooms with tiles, bricks and cobblestones.

To make matters worse, the academic authorities of the university refused to implement Wöllner’s policy within the faculties – partly because they were hostile to the spirit of the edict, and partly because they saw the imposition of such measures from above as incompatible with academic freedom and the autonomy of their institution. ‘What is our power?’ Hermes exclaimed in despair during a difficult meeting with senior university officials. ‘We have not yet succeeded in dislodging one single neological preacher. Everybody is against us.’62

By 1795, with the failure to implement the new measures in Prussia’s most important university, it was clear that the Wöllner authoritarian project had run out of steam. There was, to be sure, a generalized tightening of censorship, especially as the unfolding of the French Revolution revealed the scale of the threat posed to traditional authority by political radicalism. One prominent contemporary witness to these developments was the publisher and patriot Friedrich Nicolai, who moved his own journal, the Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek, to Altona (a town adjoining Hamburg but under Danish rule) in 1792 to avoid the scrutiny of the Prussian censors. In a letter to Frederick William II of 1794, Nicolai protested against the recent measures, observing that the number of independent printing presses operating in Berlin had fallen from 181 to sixty-one as a consequence of the regime imposed after 1788, and suggesting slyly that this was damaging to royal tax revenues.63 Whether this contraction was exclusively the result of censorship (as opposed to market forces) is doubtful. Yet there clearly was a heightened impatience with government censorship among members of the Prussian intelligentsia. This was partly a function of real constraints, but it also expressed the expansion of expectations that had occurred during the intellectual and political ferment of the 1780s. ‘Freedom of speech’ was defined in far more radical terms by the mid-1790s in Prussia than it had been in the previous decade, and the warm glow in which the charisma of ‘Frederick the Unique’ had bathed the wheels of the state machine gradually faded after 1786.

Despite this souring of the public mood, it is important not to overstate the oppressiveness of the post-Frederician administration. A recent study of the Berlin press during the French Revolution has shown that Prussian subjects had access to extremely detailed and reliable press coverage of contemporaneous events in France, not only during the liberal revolution of 1789–92, but also during the Jacobin Terror and thereafter. Reports in the Berlin press incorporated sophisticated political commentaries, which were by no means always hostile to the cause of the revolutionaries. The Haudesche und Spenersche Zeitung in particular was remarkable for the sympathy with which the positions and policies of the various parties (including even Robespierre and the Jacobins) were set out and explained. At no time did the Prussian government seriously attempt to prevent the dissemination of information about the French events, even at the time of the trial and execution of the king in 1792–3, or to ensure that the regicides and their allies were cast in an especially hostile light. Nor did the authorities prevent the widespread use of such contemporary reportage for educational purposes, not only in the Gymnasien (grammar schools) but also in village and elementary schools. Nowhere in the German states, with the possible exception of Hamburg, do we find press coverage of comparable quality and candour. Despite the pervasive fear of revolution and all the vexations of censorship, Axel Schumann writes,

the fact remains that between 1789 and 1806, four journals appeared under Prussian censorship in the capital and residential city of Berlin, in which the French Revolution was celebrated as a historic necessity and as the victory of reason over aristocratic arrogance and monarchical mismanagement.64


In the summer of 1796, crowds of Berliners swarmed to see the latest theatrical sensation orchestrated by the famous Swabian illusionist Karl Enslen. The show opened with a trio of beautifully fashioned automatons: a Spaniard with a flute, a woman playing the glass-organ and a trumpeter who could also speak. There followed an ‘aerial hunt’ involving floating animal figures filled with gas, and an android gymnast whose movements were so life-like that one would have taken him for a man, were it not for the muted creaking of the neck-joint. Towards the end of the performance, the lights were extinguished and a loud clap of thunder announced a series of ghostly apparitions culminating in a spectacular trompe-l’oeil.

Then there is seen far off in the distance a bright star; the star widens; and out of it there comes the very exact likeness of Frederick the second, in his usual clothing and posture [… ]. The image grows bigger and bigger, comes nearer and nearer, until it seems to stand as large as life just before the orchestra. The effect of this apparition on the floor and in the boxes was remarkable. The clapping and jubilation was endless. When Frederick seemed about to retreat to his star many called ‘Oh stay with us!’ He returned into his star, but after loud cries of encore he had to come back twice.65

Here was a theatre of the modern type, where darkness was used to heighten the impact of illusion (a recent innovation), where tickets and seats were set at different prices for different pockets. Men and women, minor officials, craftsmen and clerks mingled in the audience, but people of noble estate were there too, and even members of the royal family – albeit only as paying customers. And here was the figure of the resurrected king summoned back to life to satisfy a crowd hungry for entertainment and prepared to pay for it. Did those royals who watched this remarkable projection feel a certain unease at the spectacle of the dead king, hailed by his people, but also at their beck and call? It is hard to think of a scene that better exemplifies the ambivalence and modernity of nostalgia.

By 1800, Berlin was – in terms of its intellectual and social life – the most vibrant city of German Europe. Its population was approaching 200,000. There was a dense network of clubs and societies, of which we know thirty-eight by name, and sixteen Masonic lodges.66 Beyond the circles of the better-known organizations there was a further array of now-forgotten clubs catering to the lower social strata. Berlin’s clubland was not just large, it was also highly textured and diverse. The Monday Club, the Wednesday Society and the Thursday Circle were small and exclusive gatherings that met the needs of intellectuals and enlightened members of the upper bourgeoisie. The city also offered a wide range of societies focused on specific interests: the Society of Naturalist Friends, for example, or the Pedagogical Society that met on the first Monday every month in a suburban council chamber at Werder, or the Economic Heating Society that discussed ways of reducing the consumption of wood, a scarce and expensive commodity at this time. The Philomatic Society, with a membership of thirty-five, catered to people with an interest in the sciences, including the Jewish Kantian philosopher Lazarus Bendavid, the sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow and the senior official Ernst Ferdinand Klein. Then there were the Medical Club – a forerunner of the later professional organizations – and the Pharmaceutical Society, which maintained a herbarium and a small library for the use of its members. The Military Society concerned itself with the need for military reform and encompassed some 200 members – it was an early focal point for the reforming energies of those activists who would come to the fore after 1806. For those who wished to keep abreast of the latest developments in politics, science and culture, there was a wide range of reading societies and other commercial reading facilities, such as lending libraries. Newspapers and journals could also be had in the coffee houses; and the lodges often maintained considerable libraries.

As the clubs grew more numerous, their functions became ever more specialized and diverse. One popular new form of organized social activity in Berlin was the amateur theatrical society. Theatrical societies proliferated quickly in the 1780s and 1790s, catering to a wide range of social constituencies. While the Urania (founded in 1792) catered to members of the enlightened social elite, the Polyhymnia (founded in 1800) included plumbers, instrument makers, cobblers and brush makers. The theatrical clubs admitted both men and women, although the selection of works for performance was generally reserved to the men alone. It was only a matter of time before clubs sprang up combining private venues for members and their guests with a range of leisure activities and entertainments. The ‘Resources’ (Ressourcen), as they were called, were clubs that rented premises in which a wide range of services was on offer, from meals to billiards, reading rooms, concerts, balls, theatrical performances, or even, in one case, fireworks. These were large enterprises, often encompassing a membership of more than 200, and reflecting in their clientele and tone the social diversity of the capital city.

This densely textured and swiftly changing topography of voluntary organizations tells us something of the forces at work in Prussian society by the end of the eighteenth century. Berlin was a centre of royal and governmental authority, but it was also a theatre of autonomous social action where citizens could deliberate on the high matters of state, acquire scientific and other esoteric knowledge, enjoy the pleasures of a sociability that was neither private nor entirely public, consume culture and take pleasure in congenial surroundings. None of this was in any sense rebellious or revolutionary, yet it did reflect a seismic shift in the balance of power within society. Christians and Jews, men and women, nobles, burghers and artisans rubbed shoulders in this sociable urbane milieu. It was a world that had made itself out of the talents, communicative energies and ready cash of the city’s population. It was courteous rather than courtly. Controlling it, censoring it, even overseeing it, were tasks beyond the resources of Berlin’s modest police and censorship organs. Its very existence posed a subtle challenge to the structures and habits of traditional authority.

Within the ranks of the administration, too, there were signs of a paradigm shift. A new generation of civil servants began to orient Prussian administrative practice towards new objectives. In 1780, a young nobleman from the city of Nassau on the river Lahn joined the Prussian civil service. Reichsfreiherr Karl vom und zum Stein hailed from an ancient imperial family and was, like so many Germans of his generation, an admirer of Frederick II. As an official within the War and Domains Chamber, Stein was made responsible for improving the efficiency and productivity of the mining sector in the Westphalian territories. The lucrative mines of the county of Mark were at this time largely under the control of the Gewerke, corporate, trade union-like bodies that managed the local labour market. On Stein’s initiative, the powers of these unions were cut back to make way for a new unified system of wage regulations and an expanded regime of state inspection. Yet at the same time, Stein, who approved of corporate organizations as long as they did not get in the way of efficiency, achieved reconciliation with the mining unions by conceding them a greater measure of self-government, including the appointment by election of their own officers.67


23. Baron Karl vom und zum Stein

Stein’s originality and brilliance were quickly recognized and by 1788 he held two senior posts within the chamber administration in Kleve and the county of Mark. He purged outmoded regulations and privileges from the fiscal system; he also suspended guild controls in the countryside, in order to stimulate rural manufacture and eliminate smuggling. The panoply of internal tolls collected by private individuals and corporations was swept away and replaced by a state-administered border tariff set at a moderate level.68 As provincial president of Minden-Ravensberg from 1796, Stein again targeted the traditional levies and privileges that muted the vitality of the local economy. He even attempted (without success) to get to grips with the problem of servile peasant status in the Westphalian lands (and particularly in Minden-Ravensberg, where many peasants were still personally unfree). As a member of the old imperial corporate nobility, Stein was reluctant to ride roughshod over local tradition and opted for a policy of negotiation with the provincial Estates. The aim was to introduce a compensation package that would reconcile the landed families to the curtailment of their seigneurial rights. These latter initiatives foundered on the bitter resistance of the nobility, but they signalled the advent of a bold new style in Prussian administration.69

Another rising civil servant with reformist ideas was Karl August von Hardenberg, who joined the Prussian administration in 1790. Like Stein, Hardenberg was a ‘foreigner’ with a deep admiration of Frederick II. Born on his maternal grandfather’s estate at Essenrode in 1750, Hardenberg hailed from a Hanoverian family of progressive reputation.70 As a civil servant in his native Hanover, the young Hardenberg became known as an outspoken reformer – a memorandum he composed in 1780 called for the abolition of servile peasant tenures, deregulation of the economy and the creation of a more streamlined executive based upon thematic ministries and clear lines of command and responsibility.71 After his transfer to Prussia, Hardenberg was entrusted, from January 1792, with the administrative integration of the newly acquired Franconian territories of Ansbach and Bayreuth.72 This was a task of great complexity, for they were criss-crossed with enclaves, exclaves and overlapping sovereignties.

Hardenberg attacked the problem with extraordinary determination and ruthlessness. The imperial nobles were shorn of their baroque privileges and constitutional rights, in flagrant breach of imperial law. Exchange agreements and jurisdictional settlements were put in place to eliminate enclaves and establish the borders as the impermeable frontiers of a homogeneous Prussian political sovereignty. The right of subjects to bring suits before the imperial courts was abolished, thus preventing the corporate nobility in the provinces from taking their grievances to the Emperor. Where there was resistance to his orders, Hardenberg was quick to send in troops and enforce compliance. These measures were supported by an innovative approach to public opinion – Hardenberg maintained contacts with several important journals in the region and discreetly cultivated friendly writers who could be depended upon to publish articles and editorials supporting his policy.73


24. Karl August, Prince von Hardenberg. Marble bust by Christian Rauch, 1816.

Hardenberg had made it a condition of taking office that he would report directly to the king. He was thus a kind of viceroy in Ansbach and Bayreuth, with powers denied to his colleagues in the capital. This enabled him to push through far-reaching reforms without fear of their being sabotaged by jealous superiors. The new Franconian administration he established was structured (unlike the central government in Berlin) along modern lines: there were four thematic ministries (justice, interior, war and finance). Under Hardenberg’s leadership, the Franconian principalities became a hothouse of administrative reform in the old Prussia. Among those officials who moved sideways from the core administration to take up vacant posts in Ansbach and Bayreuth we find many of the names that later appear at the apex of the Prussian state: Schuckmann, Koch, Kircheisen, Humboldt, Bülow. Around Hardenberg himself there gathered an eager pack of ambitious younger bureaucrats from the region. Men of the ‘Franconian clique’ would come to occupy senior administrative posts, not only in Prussia, but also in Bavaria, which later took over the principalities as a result of the Napoleonic Wars.74

Even Prussia’s time-honoured grain-management system was under growing pressure to change. The first four years of the reign of Frederick William II (r. 1786–97) saw a dramatic liberalization of the grain trade. It was a short-lived experiment – controls were gradually reimposed from 1788 onwards, to the great disappointment of liberals within the administration.75 But a chain of subsistence riots in 1800–1805 persuaded some senior officials that productivity would rise and distribution occur more efficiently if the state abandoned its controls and allowed the grain markets to function without state interference. One influential supporter of this view was the East Prussian nobleman Friedrich Leopold Freiherr von Schroetter, Prussian State Minister for East and West Prussia and vice-president of the General Directory. Schroetter was a sometime student and family friend of Immanuel Kant and a decided exponent of the agrarian liberalism that was fashionable among the East Prussian elite at the turn of the century. On 11 July 1805, he set out his views in a memorandum to the king. If subsistence riots were possible in peacetime because of failures and inefficiencies in the state system, Schroetter argued, then what could be expected if a war were to break out, and the state barges used to transport grain were needed by the army? In place of the existing regulations, Schroetter proposed a radical deregulation of the grain economy. No one, he suggested, should be obliged to sell grain against his will or at prices imposed by the government; instead of protecting the grain supply from the traders, the state should protect the traders and uphold their right to dispose freely of their property. The General Directory rejected Schroetter’s proposals in August 1805. But this was a temporary setback. In the not-so-long term, it was Schroetter’s liberalism – not the protectionism of the Directory – that would win the day.76

We can therefore speak of a process of change diffusing inwards from various points on the Prussian periphery.77 In the 1790s, the decade of revolution in Europe, Prussia seemed to be poised between two worlds. The expansion of critical print that had taken place during the last third of the century presented the administration with a phenomenon that it could neither repress nor fully accept. The flowering of Prussian monarchical patriotism expressed an ambition among the emergent urban intelligentsia to participate in the great matters of the state for which there was as yet no outlet in Prussia’s governmental system. Debate and critical discussion within and outside the administration had raised questions about virtually every domain of the political system – from the power structures of agrarian society, to the organization and tactics of the military, to the state’s management of the economy.

No single text better documents the transitional condition of Prussia at the end of the eighteenth century than the General Law Code published in 1794. With its almost 20,000 paragraphs that seem to spy into the foundations of every conceivable transaction between one Prussian and another, the General Code was the greatest civilian achievement of the Frederician enlightenment. Drawn up by a team of brilliant jurists following a long process of public debate and consultation, it was without parallel at the time of its publication; only in 1804 and 1811 did France and Austria follow with similar, if less comprehensive, codices. It was also exemplary for the clarity and elegance of its language, which articulated key axioms with such lucidity and precision that many rhetorical fragments of the Prussian code survive in the civil law of today’s Germany.78

The fascination of the General Code lies in the curiously unresolved portrait it offers of Prussian society at the end of the eighteenth century. Peering at Prussia through its paragraphs is like using a pair of binoculars with different focal lengths. On the one hand, there are glimpses of an egalitarian socio-legal order. The very first paragraph announced that ‘the General Law Code contains the rules by which the rights and obligations of the residents of the state [… ] are to be assessed.’79 The reader is immediately struck by the choice of the latently egalitarian term ‘residents’ (Einwohner) in place of the more traditional ‘subjects’ (Untertanen), and this impression is reinforced by §22, which declares that ‘the laws of the state bind all members thereof, without regard to their Estate, rank or gender.’80 Here, the notion of ‘membership’ of the state is substituted for subjecthood and the egalitarian intention is made more explicit. At §82 of the Introduction, however, we are told that ‘the rights of the individual’ are a function, all else being equal, of ‘his birth [and] his Estate’; in a later section dealing with the ‘obligations and rights of the noble Estate’ the code states baldly that ‘the nobility is the first Estate in the State’ whose chief vocation and task is the defence thereof. Further paragraphs in the same section stipulate that members of the noble Estate are to be tried only by the highest courts in the land, that nobles enjoy privileged access (assuming adequate qualifications) to the ‘places of honour in the State’ and that ‘only the nobility is entitled to the ownership of noble landed estates.’81

These discrepancies seemed less mysterious to contemporaries than they do to us. For Frederick II, who gave the order to begin this great work of codification, the primacy of the nobility was an axiom of the social order and he ordered his jurists to consider not only the ‘general good’ but also the specific entitlements of the Estates – this element was further strengthened after his death.82 The ambivalence that resulted can be discerned in the paragraphs covering the rights and obligations of peasant subjects on the noble landed estates. Amazingly, the law characterizes these persons as ‘free citizens of the State’ (freye Bürger des Staates) – indeed the subject peasants are the only group to enjoy this distinction. Yet the bulk of the paragraphs on this topic reinforce the existing structures of corporate domination and inequality in the countryside. Subjects must gain the permission of the lordship before marrying (though, on the other hand, this cannot be refused without good legal reason); their children must offer domestic service; they must suffer (moderate) punishments for misdemeanours; they must render their services as required under law, and so on.83The corporate structures of Prussian society were seen as so fundamental to the social order that they structured the law, rather than being defined by it; indeed they were ‘sources of the law’, as one of the titles in the preamble to the code puts it.84

What is really interesting about the General Code is not that these disparate perspectives exist within it, but that neither seems reducible to the other. The code looks backwards to a world already of the past, a world where each order has its place in relation to the state, a world that seemed rooted in the Middle Ages but had in fact been invented by Frederick the Great and was already dissolving when the work of codification drew to a close. But it also anticipates a world where all citizens are ‘free’, the state is sovereign, and kings and governments are bound by the law; indeed some historians have seen the code as a kind of proto-constitution guaranteeing the rule of law.85 The nineteenth century historian Heinrich Treitschke highlighted these inner tensions when he observed that the code captured ‘the Janus-headedness’ of the Frederician state.86 He borrowed the idea from Madame de Staël, who observed that ‘the image of Prussia offers a double face, like that of Janus, one of which is military, the other philosophical.’87 The metaphor of the two-faced Roman god of thresholds caught on, metastasizing wildly across the historiography of Prussia until the point (in the 1970s and 1980s), when it seemed impossible to write anything at all about Prussia without pouring a libation to Janus. It was as if the divided gaze of the two-faced god captured something fundamental about the Prussian experience, a polarity between tradition and innovation that defined the historical trajectory of the Hohenzollern state.

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