Modern history


God’s March through History

The territorial settlements agreed at the Vienna Peace Congress of 1814–15 created a new Europe. A Dutch-Belgian composite state, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, appeared in the north-west. Norway was transferred from Denmark to Sweden. Austria struck deep inroads into Italy with the acquisition of Lombardy-Venetia and the installation of Habsburg dynasts on the thrones of Tuscany, Modena and Parma. The borders of the Russian Empire, redrawn to encompass the bulk of eastern and central Poland, extended further westwards than at any time in European history.


For Prussia, too, this was a new beginning. There was no return to the pre-1806 borders. Much of the Polish territory seized in the 1790s (excepting the Grand Duchy of Posen) was transferred to Russian control, and East Frisia (Prussian since 1744) was ceded to the Kingdom of Hanover. In return, the Prussians acquired the northern half of the Kingdom of Saxony, the Swedish-ruled rump of western Pomerania and a vast tract of Rhenish and Westphalian territory reaching from Hanover in the east to the Netherlands and France in the west.1 This was no triumph of the Prussian will. Berlin failed to get what it wanted and got what it did not want. It wanted the whole of Saxony, but this was blocked by Austria and the western powers and the Prussians were forced to make do with the Saxon partition of 8 February 1815. Under this arrangement, Prussia acquired about two-fifths of the kingdom, including the fortress town of Torgau and the city of Wittenberg, where Luther had launched the Reformation in 1517 by nailing his theses to the cathedral door. The creation of a large western wedge of Prussian territory along the river Rhine was a British, not a Prussian, idea. British policy-makers had long been concerned at the power-vacuum created by the withdrawal of the Habsburgs from Belgium and they wanted Prussia to replace Austria as the German ‘sentinel’ guarding the north-eastern frontier of France.2 This suited the Austrians; they were happy to be rid of the obstreperous Belgians, who now entered a brief and unhappy period of rule by the Dutch.

The Prussians also failed to get their way in the complex negotiations over the future organization of the German states. What the Prussians (whose delegation was led by Hardenberg and Humboldt) wanted was a Germany with strong central executive organs through which Prussia and Austria could share power over the lesser states – in short, a ‘strong dualist hegemonic solution’.3 The Austrians, by contrast, pleaded for a loose association of independent states with the minimum in central institutions. The German Confederal Treaty signed on 5 June 1815 (revised in the Final Act of the Treaty of 1820) represented a victory for the Austrian over the Prussian conception. The new German Confederation, encompassing thirty-eight (later thirty-nine) states, had only one statutory central body, the Federal Diet (Bundesversammlung), which met in Frankfurt and was in effect a permanent congress of diplomatic representatives. These arrangements were a setback for those Prussian policy-makers who had hoped for a more cohesive organization of the German territories.

None of this diminishes the significance of the post-Napoleonic settlement for the future of the Prussian state. The western compensation package created a block of Prussian Rhenish territory as large as Baden and Württemberg combined. Enclosed within the new territory, more by accident than design, were those apples of the Great Elector’s eye, the duchies of Jülich and Berg. The Hohenzollern kingdom was now a colossus that stretched across the north of Germany, broken only by one gap, forty kilometres wide at its narrowest point, where the territories of Hanover, Brunswick and Hesse-Kassel separated the Prussian ‘Province of Saxony’ from the Prussian ‘Province of Westphalia’. The consequences for Prussia’s (and Germany’s) nineteenth-century political and economic development were momentous.

The Rhineland was destined to become one of the powerhouses of European industrialization and economic growth, a development entirely unforeseen by the negotiators at Vienna, who assigned little weight to economic factors when they redrew the map of Germany. The settlement of 1815 also had far-reaching geopolitical implications. In relinquishing its claims to much of the Polish territory acquired in the 1790s and accepting compensation in the centre and west, Prussia reinforced its presence within German Europe. At the same time, Austria relinquished for ever its place in the north-west (Belgium) and accepted substantial new territories in northern Italy. For the first time in its history, Prussia occupied more ‘German’ territory than Austria.

The Confederation did not provide Berlin with the strong executive institutions it would have needed in order to exercise formal dominance over northern Germany, but it was open-ended enough to allow Prussia to pursue an informal and limited hegemony without putting the system as a whole in jeopardy. Precisely because the Confederation failed to establish trans-territorial institutions of its own, the door remained open for Prussia to seize the initiative. Two areas in particular commanded the attention of Prussian administrations after 1815: customs harmonization and federal security policy. These were the domains in which Prussia evolved what we could describe as a ‘German policy’ during the decades before the 1848 revolutions.

The ministers in Berlin were slow to embrace an expansionist customs policy. When the government of Hesse-Darmstadt approached Berlin in June 1825 with a view to negotiating a customs agreement, they were turned down on the grounds that the potential financial advantage was too slight. The danger that the Hessians might opt to join the newly founded Bavarian-Württemberg customs union instead seems to have carried no weight whatsoever with the Prussians. Only from around 1826 did the Berlin administration begin to think in broader strategic terms. This was partly a function of the state’s improving financial health, which did away with the need to prioritize financial over all other considerations. At around the same time, the foreign ministry began to insist that customs negotiations be seen as an arm of Prussian foreign policy. In 1827, when Hesse-Darmstadt appealed once again for a union with Berlin, it was welcomed with open arms.

The Austrians reacted with alarm to news of the new customs agreement. The Prussian-Hessian treaty, Metternich observed in a letter to

the Austrian ambassador in Berlin, ‘engenders the most anguished and certainly justified concern of all the German governments. Henceforth all of Prussia’s efforts will be focused on entangling the remaining states in its net…’4 The Austrian chancellor did what he could to dissuade further German courts from joining the Prussians; he also encouraged the growth of a competing customs association, the Central German Commercial Union, whose members included Saxony, Hanover, Electoral Hesse and Nassau and whose territory ran up between the two separate territorial blocks of the post-Napoleonic Prussian state. But these were temporary triumphs. Berlin proved adept at combining friendly appeals to enlightened self-interest with arm-twisting and naked blackmail. Small adjacent states that refused to enter the Prussian-Hessian union were subjected to hard-hitting counter-measures, including ‘road wars’, in which new transport routes were used to suck the flow of trade away from target territories. Finally, on 27 May 1829, an agreement signed with Bavaria and Württemberg allowed Prussia and its partners to encircle some of the smaller states of the Central German Union. The way was now open to the amalgamation of the two customs zones.

The German Customs Union (Zollverein) that came into effect on 1 January 1834 incorporated the majority of Germans outside Austria. Baden, Nassau and Frankfurt joined in the following year, to be followed in 1841 by Brunswick and Lüneburg. Nearly 90 per cent of the German population now lived in member states of the Zollverein.5 No one who looks at a map of the Zollverein states in 1841 can fail to be impressed by its close resemblance to the Prussian-dominated German state that emerged from the wars of 1864–71. Yet this outcome still lay far beyond the mental horizons of those who made policy in Berlin. They aimed above all to extend Prussian influence within a more cohesive association of German states. Customs harmonization became a new arena for the old competition between Prussia and Austria for influence and prestige among the German territories.

With hindsight, it seems clear that both sides overestimated the significance of Prussia’s success. The Customs Union never became an effective tool for the exercise of Prussian political influence over the lesser states. Indeed it may have had a small contrary effect, since it provided enlarged annual revenues to conservative territorial governments jealous of their autonomy.6 For the lesser states, membership of the Customs Union was a matter of fiscal expediency; it did not – as the events of 1866 would show – translate into political loyalty to Berlin.7 It does not even appear to have laid the ground for Prussian economic primacy in Germany, as is widely asserted in the older literature on the economic prehistory of German unification.8 There is no evidence to suggest that the Customs Union decisively accelerated Prussian industrial investment, or did much to reverse the overwhelming preponderance of agriculture within the kingdom’s economy.9 The Zollverein’s contribution to the later emergence of a Prussian-dominated German Empire was thus less straightforward than has often been assumed.

Customs policy was important, but for different reasons: it was for a time the pre-eminent domain of Berlin’s ‘German policy’. It was here that ministers and officials learned to think in an authentically German compass and to combine the pursuit of specifically Prussian benefits with the building of consensus and the mediation of interests among the other German states. The long, painstaking work towards a German Customs Union reinforced Berlin’s moral authority; it demonstrated to liberal and progressive opinion in the lesser states that Prussia, for all its flaws, might stand for a more modern and rational order of things. Finance Minister Friedrich von Motz and Foreign Minister Christian Count von Bernstorff, the two statesmen most closely associated with Prussian customs policy in the 1820s and 1830s, understood this and they worked consistently to establish Prussia’s reputation as a progressive force in German affairs.10

The coordination of German security arrangements provided another outlet for competitive pressures within the Confederal system. From the outset, this was an area where Prussian and Austrian interests clashed. Prussian negotiators tried in 1818–19 to establish a more cohesive and ‘national’ federal military force (under Berlin’s leadership), but a lobby of lesser states supported by Austria refused to countenance any arrangement that might compromise the military autonomy of the minor German powers. These states won the day, with the result that Germany was left with no federal military apparatus. This suited the Austrians, who believed that a strong federal structure would ultimately play into Prussia’s hands.

The first chance to test the waters of Confederal military policy came with the French July Revolution of 1830.11 The memory of the revolutionary and Napoleonic invasions was still vivid and many contemporaries, especially in the south, feared that the upheaval of summer 1830 would be followed (as in the 1790s) by an invasion of western Germany. Prussian policy-makers were quick to see how the French war scare could be exploited to Prussia’s advantage. In a letter of 8 October 1830 to the king, Bernstorff pressed for military consultations with the southern courts, with a view to formulating a joint security policy. This would not only meet immediate Prussian security needs, Bernstorff argued, but would also ‘create a general trust in Prussia, so that one will depend upon her advice, her suggestions and her beneficial influence’.12

In the short term, his policy was a success. In the spring of 1831, the Prussian General August Rühle von Lilienstern was sent on a mission to southern Germany. There were cordial conversations with the Bavarian king, Ludwig I, who expressed doubts about the idea of a Prussian supreme command of the joint federal forces, but was enthusiastic about close cooperation. ‘I know of no north and no south Germany, only Germany,’ the Bavarian monarch wrote to Frederick William III on 17 March 1831. Bavaria, like Prussia, had acquired a tract of exposed Rhenish territory in 1815 (the Palatinate, opposite Baden on the west bank of the Rhine) and thus stood sorely in need of a coordinated defence policy. ‘Safety’, as the king himself put it, was ‘only to be found in a firm connection with Prussia’.13 Rühle von Lilienstern was also partly right when he reported that Prussia’s ‘sure, wise, magnanimous and prudent attitude’ and the beneficial impact of its customs policy had earned the ‘respect, trust and sympathy’ of Bavarian political circles.14 The reception in Stuttgart (Württemberg) and Karlsruhe (Baden) was less warm, but here too there was general agreement on the necessity of federal military restructuring and closer collaboration with Prussia.

In the event, it proved easy for the Austrians to block these Prussian initiatives. After all, the southern states, though they distrusted Austria and had little confidence in Vienna’s commitment to the defence of western Germany, were also wary of further reinforcing the pre-eminence of Berlin. As the direct threat from France waned, their readiness to exchange independence for security declined. The most crucial Austrian asset was simply the fissured structure of the Prussian political elite. Clam-Martinitz, the devious Austrian envoy sent to sort things out in Berlin in September 1831, soon realized that the powerhouse behind the new federal military policy was the politically progressive Prussian-German faction around Bernstorff, Eichhorn and Rühle von Lilienstern. Opposed to these was the conservative ‘independent Prussian faction’ around Duke Charles of Mecklenburg, Prince Wilhelm Ludwig Sayn-Wittgenstein and the Huguenot preacher and royal confidant Ancillon (who intrigued with Clam although, as a foreign office bureaucrat, he was Bernstorff’s subordinate). Clam thus found it relatively easy to prise the Prussian decision-making establishment apart by playing different interests against each other. Once he had secured the support of the anti-Bernstorff faction and enjoyed direct access to the king, he was able to undercut the foreign minister and shut him out of the remaining Austro-Prussian negotiations.15

The issue of federal security resurfaced during the French invasion scare of 1840–41. In the wake of international tensions over the Eastern Question, there was loose talk by Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers in Paris of a French attack on the Rhine. Across Germany, the ‘Rhine crisis’ unleashed a wave of nationalist outrage. Once again, a group within the Prussian administration looked to exploit the moment. A senior Prussian emissary was despatched to the south German courts to discuss closer military cooperation. Again there was a warm welcome, at least at first. The Austrian envoy in Berlin was quick to sound the alarm, reporting that the Prussian cabinet was working to found ‘if not in name, then at least de facto, a Prussian Germany’.16 The south German states played both angles, confiding to the Prussians that they distrusted the Austrians and to the Austrians that they feared the Prussians. An Austrian envoy shadowed the Prussian mission, working on the south German courts to undo the damage. Once again, it was the Austrians who ultimately won the diplomatic battle, obliging Prussia to forsake any unilateral initiatives and work in close concert with Vienna towards a negotiated settlement.

The Prussians thus gained little for their efforts. One reason for this was simply that the southern states viewed all such initiatives with profound distrust, especially if they stemmed from Prussia. The Austrians, who had established themselves early on as the guarantors of German small-state autonomy, could play on these fears to great effect. Then there was the fact that Berlin did not yet possess a unitary governmental policy-making apparatus. Ministers and other senior political figures were still not bound by collective responsibility – the reformers had seen this problem but had failed to impose a durable remedy for it. Instead, ministers, royal advisers, courtiers and even subordinate officials jockeyed for influence against each other, creating openings that the Austrians found it easy to exploit. The logic of the ‘antechamber of power’ continued to unsettle Prussian high politics. Not until the 1850s and 1860s would this problem be eliminated through the gradual concentration of authority in the hands of the first minister.

The men in Berlin, for their part, had no intention of risking an open break with Vienna. There was still a need for Austro-Prussian solidarity in the face of internal disorder and subversion. The prospect of political upheaval was still fearful enough to bring the conservative leaderships in Berlin and Vienna periodically back into collaboration. This is what happened in the spring of 1832, when, in the aftermath of the federal army crisis, a wave of radical agitation broke out in the south-west of Germany. Berlin and Vienna quickly reverted to cooperative mode, working together with representatives of other German states to reinforce the Confederation with new powers of censorship, surveillance and repression. Only with the marginalization of radical politics after the revolutions of 1848–9 would this constraint be overcome.

In any case, the men in Berlin still laid their plans within the mental horizons of a politically divided Germany under the captaincy of the Austrian imperial throne. When the Austrian envoy General Heinrich von Hess was granted an audience with Frederick William IV in Berlin at the height of the French war scare of 1840, he was surprised and slightly bewildered by the strength of the new monarch’s sentimental attachment to Austria: ‘Oh how I love Vienna,’ the king told him. ‘What I would not give to live there for some time as a private person! The Imperial Court is so gracious and a unique humanity shines from every one of its members.’17 The king’s advisers still saw (according to the Austrian envoy) ‘the salvation of Germany not in a one-sided Prussiandom, but in close union with Austria’.18 The unitary designs of radical nationalists held no attraction for Prussia’s statesmen, or for the Hohenzollern dynast on its throne. Prussia thus continued to operate – as the British envoy to Berlin put it in 1839–‘within that timid and passive system which marks Her political course’.19 Austria remained – the Customs Union of 1834 notwithstanding – in a position of fragile hegemony. It could still play impressively upon the complicated registers of the German Confederation.

To a surprising degree, then, Prussia remained an object, rather than a subject, of the international system after 1815. It was by some margin the least of the European great powers. Indeed, given the very limited room for an autonomous Prussian initiative, even within Germany, there are grounds for supposing that Prussia occupied a lesser category, somewhere between the concert of the real great powers and the lesser continental states. Prussia’s leaders acquiesced in this state of affairs and the kingdom entered another of its long phases of foreign-political passivity. Throughout the forty years of European peace between the Vienna Congress and the Crimean War, Berlin strove to be on the best possible terms with all the powers. It sought consensus wherever possible. It avoided irritating the British by staying on the sidelines of every major international crisis. It steered away from direct conflict with Austria. It was Berlin’s established policy, the British envoy reported in 1837, ‘to satisfy all parties by conciliation and thus preserve the peace of Europe’.20

Above all, Prussia appeased and propitiated Russia. During the Napoleonic Wars, Russia had mobilized an army of over one million men, establishing itself as the eastern hegemon of the European continent. The Polish territorial settlement of 1815 pushed the western salient of the Russian Empire deep into Central Europe. In the post-war years, the uncomplaining acceptance of Russian hegemony became an axiom of Prussian foreign policy. The memory of 1807 and 1812–13, when Prussia’s future had rested in Russian hands, was still vivid. The relationship between Prussia and its eastern neighbour deepened in 1817 with the marriage of Frederick William III’s daughter Princess Charlotte to Grand Duke Nicholas, heir to the Romanov throne. After his accession in 1825, Tsar Nicholas I exercised a profound influence on his Prussian relatives. He was involved in efforts to block constitutional reform and to bind the Hohenzollern monarchy to an absolutist system.21 The merest hint of his displeasure was enough to deter the Prussians from any course of action that would conflict with Russian interests.22


At five o’clock in the afternoon of 23 March 1819, the 24-year-old Karl Sand, son of an official from the formerly Prussian principality of Bayreuth and a sometime student of theology, rang the doorbell of the playwright August von Kotzebue in Mannheim.23 Frau Kotzebue was receiving some female guests, so Sand waited near the stairs until he was invited into the living room by the playwright, who greeted him cordially. The two struck up a conversation. Suddenly Sand drew a dagger from the sleeve of his jacket and declared: ‘I take no pride in you at all. Here, you traitor to the fatherland!’ He stabbed his 57-year-old host twice in the chest and slashed him across the face. Kotzebue collapsed and was dead within minutes. As commotion filled the household, Sand staggered back to the front steps, drew a second dagger from his jacket and stabbed himself twice in the abdomen, saying ‘Thank you God for the victory!’ before he too collapsed.

The murder of Kotzebue by Sand was the single most sensational political act of the post-war decades in Germany. This was exactly what Sand had wanted. He had planned the murder long in advance and took care to endow it with the maximum symbolic charge. When he arrived at Kotzebue’s door, he was dressed in the exotic ‘Old German Costume’ designed and popularized by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and associated after 1815 with the aspirations of the radical nationalist movement. A contemporary engraving shows him taking leave of his hilly Franconian homeland, his features composed in seraphic tranquillity, with long blond hair falling artlessly from beneath the soft ‘German cap’, and the handle of a dagger peeping ominously out from under the lapel of his jacket. Sand fashioned the murder weapon himself from a French hunting knife he had picked up on the battlefield at Leipzig. His victim, too, was carefully chosen. Kotzebue had long been a hate figure for the fierce young men of the patriotic movement. His popular sentimental melodramas featured women in prominent roles, attracted numerous female spectators and often played teasingly on ambiguities in the prevailing code of bourgeois sexual morality. The nationalists viewed his plays as effeminate and immoral, and denounced him as a ‘seducer of German youth’. Kotzebue, for his part, was critical of the chauvinism and coarseness of the young patriots. In an article he published in March. 1819–one of the last things he wrote – he ridiculed the philistinism and unruliness of the student fraternity movement, with whose radical wing Sand was closely affiliated.


37. An idealized portrayal of Karl Sand on his way to Mannheim to murder Kotzebue

Thanks to these sharp symbolic polarities, the brutality of the murder was eclipsed in the awareness of many contemporaries by profound excitement at the radicalism of Sand’s action and the purity of his motivation. Having recovered from his self-inflicted wounds, Sand convalesced in prison, where, it was said, the other inmates lifted their chains as they passed his cell in order to spare the sleeping hero. By the time of his execution by beheading at five o’clock in the morning on 20 May, Sand was a celebrity. Crowds lined the streets as he made his way to the scaffold. After his decapitation, spectators surged forward to drench their handkerchiefs in his blood, a new patriotic twist on the traditional practice of collecting the blood of the condemned for medicinal and magical purposes. Relics, including locks of his famed blond hair, circulated within the nationalist networks. It was even reported that the executioner, having dismantled the blood-stained scaffold, used the wood to build a small shed on his vineyard, where he later welcomed pilgrims who had come to honour the memory of the dead patriot.

In the aftermath of the assassination, a mood of paranoia gripped the Prussian political authorities. Sand’s act seemed to have laid bare the implacable core of the emergent nationalist movement. Even more alarming was the unwillingness of many contemporaries sympathetic to the patriot cause to come out with ringing denunciations of the murder. The most famous case of such equivocation was that of a professor of theology at the University of Berlin, Wilhelm de Wette. One week after the assassination, he wrote a letter of condolence to the murderer’s mother, copies of which were read widely within the fraternity movement. De Wette acknowledged that Sand had committed a criminal act that was ‘punishable by the worldly magistrate’, but argued that this was not the yardstick by which his deed should be judged.

Error is excused by steadfastness and sincerity of conviction, and passion is sanctified by the good course from which it flows. I am firmly convinced that both of these were the case with your pious and virtuous son. He was certain of his cause; he believed it was right to do what he did, and so he was right.

In an oft-quoted passage the professor concluded that Sand’s act was ‘a beautiful sign of the times’.24 Unfortunately for de Wette, a copy of his letter found its way into the hands of Prince Wilhelm Ludwig Georg von Wittgenstein, head of the Prussian police. On 30 September 1819, de Wette was dismissed from his professorial post. There was a wave of arrests, as suspects were rounded up in the police action known as the ‘persecution of the demagogues’ (Demagogenverfolgung). New and tougher censorship and surveillance measures were introduced under the Carlsbad Decrees drafted by Metternich with Prussian support and ratified by the entire Confederation in Frankfurt on 20 September.

Among the victims of the conservative turn was Ernst Moritz Arndt, now a professor of history at the University of Bonn. During an early-morning raid of Arndt’s house, a crowd of fraternity students gathered to shower the police with whistles and catcalls as they left the patriot’s home with armfuls of confiscated papers. Despite the objections of Provincial Governor Solms-Laubach, Arndt was suspended from his post in November 1820.25 Friedrich Ludwig Jahn was another suspect. His gymnastic societies were closed, the elaborate stadium established on the Hasenheide was dismantled, and the wearing of the gymnastic uniform and of the ‘Old German Costume’ was made illegal. Jahn himself would later be imprisoned in Kolberg fortress.

A less prominent victim of the crackdown was the excitable young nobleman Hans Rudolf von Plehwe, a lieutenant in the Guards and a passionate disciple of Jahn. Plehwe had attended the festivities on the Wartburg in 1817 and was often to be seen in the streets of Berlin sporting his Old German Costume. He was renowned among his contemporaries for the rigour and regularity of his exercising – an early pioneer of jogging, he was in the habit of running all the way from the centre of Berlin to Potsdam and back; when this became too easy he took to running the same route with cobblestones packed in the pockets of his gymnastic jacket. After taking part in a rally in support of Jahn, he was arrested and transferred to garrison duty at Glogau in Silesia.26

The Prussian crackdown of 1819 was the work of a conservative camarilla that had coalesced around the monarch during the French occupation. After the death of Queen Luise in 1810, Frederick William III had fallen under the influence of a ‘substitute family’of courtiers. Among them was the Hugue not preacher Ancillon, who became one of the first advisers to provide the monarch with consistent arguments against the constitutional designs of the reformers. Any form of national representation, Ancillon warned, would in evitably curtail the powers of the monarch. The dangers implicit in such a scheme were illustrated by the course of the French Revolution, which had begun with a national assembly, and then proceeded via the abolition of monarchy to the dictatorship of an illegitimate usurper. Another figure who loomed large after Luise’s death was Countess Voss, a kindly older woman of conservative views whose company was important to the king during the raw early months of his bereavement. It was Countess Voss who brought her family friend, Prince Wittgenstein, into the king’s inner circle.27

This curious trio, an 81-year-old countess and an aristocrat and a preacher both in their forties, formed the core of an influential court faction. Their indispensability to the king, and thus their power, derived from the fact that they provided him with a counterweight to the growing power of Hardenberg. The king had become deeply dependent on his chancellor and he sought, in characteristic fashion, to compensate by balancing Hardenberg with his own advisory clique. When Hardenberg submitted proposals painstakingly drawn up by his subordinates in the chancellery, these were passed to the intimate circle for comment. It was a return, in effect, to the ‘cabinet government’ that the reformers had set out to abolish in 1806.

The men of the camarilla worked at many levels to secure their political influence and neutralize that of their opponents. Prince Wittgenstein, Ancillon, and the cabinet councillor Daniel Ludwig Albrecht acted as informal intermediaries between Metternich and Frederick William III, driving a wedge between the king and Hardenberg and exploiting the increasingly conservative international climate for their own ends. They also launched a sotto voce campaign of denunciations within the Prussian administration, in which politically moderate senior figures were accused of having harboured, sympathized with or even encouraged political subversion. Among those singled out for suspicion by Wittgenstein and his energetic deputy Karl Albert von Kamptz were Justus Gruner, now a senior civil servant in the Prussian Rhineland, the military reformer General Neidhardt von Gneisenau and the provincial president of Jülich-Kleve-Berg, Count Friedrich zu Solms-Laubach, an old friend of Stein.

In the hawkish atmosphere that now prevailed in Berlin, anyone who did not zealously toe the new line was suspect. In the first week of October 1819, when the ministry of state met to discuss the implications of the Carlsbad decrees, Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the most progressive figures of the reform era, presented his colleagues with a draft resolution objecting to the decrees. Humboldt argued that by vesting new repressive powers in the Confederation, the decrees compromised the sovereignty of the Prussian monarchy. That this liberal-minded minister should have chosen to argue the case in this way shows how difficult it had become to invoke progressive principles of governance in the new climate. Humboldt failed to win a majority in the ministry, but he was supported by two weighty figures, Minister of Justice Karl Friedrich von Beyme and Minister of War Hermann von Boyen. All three men had been deeply implicated in the reforms implemented after 1806. Humboldt and Beyme were both dismissed on the last day of 1819, although the king stipulated that they were to keep their ministerial salaries of 6,000 thalers (Humboldt turned this offer down in disgust). Hermann von Boyen was also dismissed after a bitter quarrel over the declining status of that fetish of the military reformers, the Prussian Landwehr. Among those who also left their posts over this issue were the reformers Grolman and Gneisenau.

Hardenberg himself cannot be absolved entirely from co-responsibility for the conservative turn. His obsessive concern with the consolidation of his own power as chancellor and senior minister alienated colleagues and subordinates, driving them into opposition and thus strengthening the hand of the conservatives. Humboldt’s departure in 1819, for example, was as much the work of Hardenberg, who saw him as a rival and opponent, as it was of the conservative faction. By struggling so nakedly for power and attempting to suppress the independence of those around him, Hardenberg ensured that ideological tensions were amplified by bitter personal rivalries. Tactically, too, Hardenberg played into the hands of the camarilla, by supporting the censorship and surveillance measures ordered by Wittgenstein. He had always been an exponent of authoritarian enlightenment, rather than a ‘liberal’ in the present-day sense, and thus favoured the use of illiberal means to achieve progressive ends. He was also genuinely alarmed at the spread of subversion within Prussia.28 He may have calculated that repressions would produce a more stable political climate and that this in turn would be favourable to the achievement of his most cherished objective, the creation of a ‘national’ representation of the Prussian people.

If this was his hope, it was deluded. The conservatives had long been warning against the concession of a ‘national’ representation of any kind. In their view, any workable form of representation had to be tailored to the interests and privileges of the existing, historically grounded corporate bodies within society. By contrast, a constitution that aimed to represent the Prussian nation as an undifferentiated whole was guaranteed to produce insurrection and disorder. For this reason, Metternich advised Wittgenstein in November 1818 that the King of Prussia should ‘never go further than the establishment of provincial Diets’.29 Encouraged by the camarilla and by his own fears and uncertainties, the king distanced himself from the beleaguered Hardenberg. A committee established to resolve the constitutional question in December 1820 was stocked with conservatives and the chancellor was sent away on a foreign mission early in 1821 to ensure that he did not interfere with its work. He died on 26 November 1822, having lived for long enough to see his project ruined. By the General Law of 5 June 1823, the government announced its intentions to the public. Prussia was to receive no written constitution and no national parliament. Instead, the king’s subjects would have to make do with provincial diets.

The diets convened under the General Law were elected and organized along corporate lines, with the nobility, the cities and the peasantry separately represented, a measure intended to suggest continuity with the traditional estate representations of the old regime. Corporate quotas ensured that the regional nobilities enjoyed numerical preponderance, though the precise numbers varied from province to province. Together, the noble deputies could veto any proposal from the assembly. To ensure that they would not pose a challenge to the central administration, the responsibilities of the diets were very narrowly defined. They were convened only once every three years and they were granted no legislative or revenue-approving powers. Their deliberations were secret in order to prevent their becoming focal points for political agitation, and it was illegal to publish their proceedings. In short, they were not intended to function as representative organs in a present-day sense, but rather as advisory bodies that would also take on various administrative chores, such as the supervision of major publicly funded institutions in the regions.30

In the eyes of an even moderately progressive observer, the diets appeared outlandishly retrograde. They failed, among other things, to reflect the structure and power relations of provincial society. This was particularly the case in the Rhineland: the nobility, which had traditionally played a marginal role in most of the region, was grossly over-represented, a fact that grated with a society in which bourgeois values and cultural preferences were dominant. Deputies from the major industrial and commercial cities found themselves representing 120 times as many constituents and thirty-four times as much taxation revenue as their colleagues from the noble Estate. The whole process was further encumbered by the indirect election of deputies for the third and fourth estates. Voters from the respective social groups were required to nominate electors, who in turn elected district electors, who in turn elected the deputies who sat in the diet. It was a system designed to shield the assembly as far as possible from the currents and conflicts of provincial society.31 An effort was also made to prevent the diets from becoming a forum for politicization: deputies were assigned to seats by lot, so that like-minded factions could not form partisan blocks within the assembly.32 By contrast with Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria, Prussia thus remained a pre-parliamentary state.


The conservatives had won the day. But their victory was less fundamental, less final, than it appeared. A process of political change was under way that could no longer be reversed.33 The acquisition of the Rhineland in 1815 irrevocably altered the political chemistry of the kingdom. With its large and confident urban middle class, the Rhineland introduced an element of dissent and turbulence that energized Prussian politics throughout the post-war decades. The Rhenish elites were sceptical of the ‘Lithuanian’ administration in Berlin and they strenuously resisted wholesale integration into the kingdom. Rhenish Catholics looked with suspicion on the new Protestant administration and Rhenish Protestants fought a twenty-year battle with Berlin in defence of their (relatively democratic) synodal constitution.34 There was also a struggle over the Napoleonic legal system, whose egalitarian social presumptions and powerful endorsement of private property rights were far better suited to conditions in the Rhineland than the Prussian General Code. The efforts of the conservatives to impose Prussian law in the west met with determined local opposition and the idea was ultimately abandoned. The Rhineland thus remained a foreign country in legal terms, with regulations, institutions – including, for example, jury service – and judicial training facilities of its own. Indeed, as the Rhenish Napoleonic system gained adherents among jurists from the East-Elbian provinces, it became an important force for change. The new law code introduced in the Kingdom of Prussia after 1848 was modelled on the Rhenish system, rather than the old Frederician code.35

The same progressive momentum can be observed in the domain of customs reform. The process of economic deregulation and customs harmonization continued after 1815 with the customs law of 26 May 1818, which established Prussia’s first homogeneous territorial customs regime (the eastern and western provinces initially received different schedules but these were unified in 1821). From the late 1820s, the same process of customs harmonization was projected beyond the borders of the kingdom as ministers and officials worked to create a German customs union under Prussian auspices. Here was a policy domain that engaged the interest of some of the most resourceful individuals within the senior administration.

Education was another area in which improvement and modernization continued after 1815. The expansion and professionalization of teacher training proceeded apace and by the 1840s, over 80 per cent of Prussian children between six and fourteen were attending primary schools, a figure unmatched anywhere in the contemporary world except for Saxony and New England. Literacy rates were correspondingly high.36 Prussian education was noted and admired abroad not just for its effectiveness and near-universality of access, but also for the liberal tone of its institutions. The appointment in 1821 of Ludolf von Beckedorff as director of the Prussian public school system looked at first as if it might herald a reactionary turn in Prussian education policy – Beckedorff was an opponent of the liberal Pestalozzian pedagogy that had informed the designs of the reformers. But he was unable to halt the process of bureaucratic reform, because the responsible minister, Karl von Altenstein, still supported the progressives within the education system. In any case, Beckedorff was, like many conservatives of the era, an essentially pragmatic figure who was prepared to work with and expand the structures he had inherited from his predecessors. In the 1840s, when the American educational reformer Horace Mann visited Berlin, he was surprised to observe that school children in Prussia were taught to exercise their mental faculties for themselves by teachers whose techniques were anything but authoritarian. ‘Though I saw hundreds of schools and [… ] tens of thousands of pupils,’ Mann wrote, ‘I never saw one child undergoing punishment for misconduct. I never saw one child in tears from having been punished, or from fear of being punished.’37Liberal visitors from Britain frequently expressed their surprise that such a ‘despotic’ political arrangement should have produced such a progressive and open-minded educational system.38

As Beckedorff’s case suggests, conservatism did not imply an implacable opposition to all that had changed since the crisis of 1806. It was far too fluid, unfocused and open-ended to attempt a comprehensive restoration of the pre-reform status quo, or even to halt the reforming state in its forward path. Moreover, the conservatives themselves gradually adopted and internalized many of the ideas central to the reform project, such as the notion that the Prussian ‘nation’ constituted a single coherent entity (rather than an assembly of distinct and privileged orders).39 There were in any case still significant progressive power centres within the administration, not only in the departments of finance and foreign affairs, but also in the ministry of education, health and religious affairs, itself a product of the reform era. Its presiding minister after 1815 was the enlightened rationalist Karl von Altenstein, a friend, collaborator and sometime protégé of Hardenberg. The king – himself in many respects a child of the enlightenment – was never especially consistent in his appointments policy and no effort was made to impose a uniform ideological approach on the various branches of government.


The provincial diets created in 1823 may not have been the robust organs of representation the radicals had wished for, but as they grew into their role, they became important focal points of political change. Although they looked like traditional Estate bodies, they were in fact representative institutions of a new type. Their legitimacy derived from a legislative act by the state, not from the authority of an extragovernmental corporate tradition. The deputies voted by head, not by Estate, and deliberations were held in plenary session, not in separate caucuses as in the corporate assemblies of the old regime. Most importantly of all: the ‘noble Estate’ (Ritterschaft) was no longer defined by birth (with the exception of the small contingent of ‘immediate’ nobles in the Rhineland), but by property. It was the ownership of ‘privileged land’ that counted, not birth into privileged status.40 The bourgeois estate buyers whose purchasing power had been transforming the social landscape of the Prussian lands since the mid eighteenth century were now admitted into the dress circle of the political nation (provided they were not Jewish, in which case they had to depute a proxy to represent them).

This was a point where forces for social and political change intersected, for the transfer of formerly noble estates into middle-class hands continued at an even greater pace after the reformers deregulated the market in rural land. In 1806, 75.6 per cent of noble estates in the rural hinterland of Königsberg were still in noble hands. By 1829, this figure had fallen to 48.3 per cent. The decline was even more extreme in the East Prussian district (Departement) of Mohrungen, where the proportion sank from 74.8 per cent to 40.6 per cent. East Prussia was a relatively extreme case, because of the devastating impact of the crises of 1806–7 and the Napoleonic blockade on the grain economy of the province, but the figures for Prussia as a whole bear out the general trend: by 1856 only 57.6 per cent of noble land remained in the hands of noble landowners. The diets, then, were more plutocratic than they looked. Their elaborate estatist trappings concealed the beginnings of a property-based franchise.

From the outset, tentatively at first and later more emphatically, the diets sought to expand the role assigned to them. The draft resolutions submitted by deputies were often openly political in character and aimed to test the boundaries the state had set for the work of the diet. There were calls for the circulation of printed transcripts of the diet’s proceedings – a measure forbidden by the government’s censorship regulations petitions demanding that the diet’s remit be widened to encompass an ‘ever more diverse and comprehensive’ range of affairs, and calls for a general (i.e. all-Prussian) assembly.41 Freedom of the press was another recurrent theme frequently broached in the diets. They began, in other words, to channel liberal political pressures in the provinces. They performed this role not only for the deputies themselves, but also for a broader politically literate public. From the late 1820s, there were numerous petitions to the diet from the towns of East Prussia. One submission presented in January 1829 by signatories from the town of Mohrungen in the south-west of the province, criticized the administration in Berlin for neglecting the economic problems of the region, rebuked the impotence of the diet, and proposed that the Estates should ask the monarch to honour his promise to grant a constitution. Another from the sleepy little town of Stallupönen, due east from Königsberg and not far from the Polish border, reiterated the demand for a constitution and a national assembly, and backed up its plea with a reference to the province’s contribution to the war of liberation against Napoleon.42

The striking thing about these petitions, which grew increasingly numerous in the 1830s and 1840s, is not simply that they hailed from all over the province, including the conservative, noble-dominated Oberland area in the west, but also that they represented a relatively broad social constituency. The signatories to a submission of 1843 from Insterburg, an administrative town in the centre of the province, included not just merchants and communal officials but a very substantial contingent of craftsmen: carpenters, stonemasons, locksmiths, bakers, belt makers, a furrier, a glass-blower, a bookbinder, a butcher, a soap maker and others. This diverse group requested not just a national assembly and public proceedings, but also a ‘different mode of representation’ that would give less weight to landed property.43 In other words, the government’s efforts to shut the diets off from their social and political hinterland were not successful. A multitude of informal connections between deputies and the political milieus of urban and small-town society ensured that the deliberations of the diet resonated across the province. These networks were supported by a modest but growing provincial press.

The diets also became a focal point for political aspirations and dissent in the Grand Duchy of Posen, the segment of Poland transferred to Berlin after 1815. In this region, constitutional issues were overshadowed by the question of Prussian policy vis-à-vis the Polish nationality. In a proclamation issued on 15 May 1815 and frequently cited thereafter, Frederick William III assured his Polish subjects that they, too, had a fatherland, and that they would be incorporated in the Prussian monarchy without having to relinquish their nationality. Their language, together with German, would be used in all public functions.44

In the early post-war years an effort was made to appease the Polish elite in the region. A viceroy (Statthalter) was appointed to mediate between the central executive and the local gentry (an arrangement unique to the Grand Duchy), and a credit society was founded in 1821 to alleviate the burden of gentry debt. Polish remained an official language for communications with the bureaucracy and in court proceedings, and Polish was the language of instruction in elementary and secondary schools, except for the final years of Gymnasium, when German was introduced to prepare students for university. The aim was not to ‘Germanize’ the Poles, but to ensure that they became loyal Prussian subjects.45 Yet by the later 1820s, disappointment had already accumulated over developments in the Grand Duchy. There was unhappiness over the government’s failure to form a separate Polish division of the Prussian army – a scheme warmly supported by the Posnanian gentry. At the first session of the diet in 1827, petitions were presented protesting against the use of German in the upper years of secondary school and objecting to the fact that many Prussian officials in the region could neither speak nor understand Polish. So strong were the emotions aroused by these issues that the supporters of one petition challenged the opposing deputies to duels.

Conditions deteriorated considerably after 1830. The Polish rising of that year was concentrated in the Russian, not the Prussian, area of Poland, but it awakened the enthusiasm of liberals across the kingdom. The Königsberg professor Burlach later recalled how he secretly crossed the border in order to ‘dream of [Poland’s] liberation and bring the flowers of Polish liberty back to our homeland’.46 The Polish rising also had a predictably disturbing effect on politics within the Grand Duchy, as thousands of Poles crossed the border to fight in support of the national cause, including over 1,000 absconders from Prussian military service. Alarmed at the prospect of a nationalist mobilization, the Berlin government abandoned the policy of conciliation. The Grand Duchy was demoted to the mere ‘province’ of Posen. The Polish viceroy, whose office signified the special status of Posen within the Prussian composite state, was dismissed without a replacement. Eduard Heinrich Flottwell, the new provincial president appointed in December 1830, was a hardliner who saw little point in appeasing the Polish gentry. ‘Most of the male youth of this nobility,’ he declared, ‘have been duped by the academic swindles of fatherland and freedom, which united in the illogical head of a Pole with the proud insolence of a Sarmatian magnate in the most marvellous way.’

The notion that Posen constituted a Polish fatherland and the Poles a separate nationality was put aside in favour of a policy of outright assimilation. The Slavic inhabitants of the province were not ‘Poles’, Flottwell claimed, but ‘Prussians’. All pretence of neutrality was abandoned as Flottwell launched a policy encouraging German peasant settlement, strengthened the organs of urban self-government so as to give a stronger voice to the substantially German burgher elites, and extended the use of German in school instruction. Bankrupted Polish estates were bought up and sold off to German buyers. These changes prompted a swift radicalization of Polish opinion in the province. At the diets of 1834 and 1837, there were bitter protests at the advancing use of German. Poles resigned in droves from Prussian civil service posts. In the mid-1830s, patriotic activists among the Polish gentry became involved in the Organic Work movement, a network of gentry clubs that aimed to enhance Polish cultural and social life in the province through the gradual improvement of agricultural methods and the creation of a Polish cultural infrastructure.47

In the Rhineland, too, the provincial diets became important focal points for liberal (and conservative) mobilization. Political activists in the west could draw on a living memory of corporate co-determination that reached back into the eighteenth century.48 Here too, the diets were used after 1830 to confront the government with the demand for a general Estates assembly and fulfilment of the constitutional promise.49 And in the Rhineland, as in the east, the diet was the focus for numerous petitions. In the Rhineland, as in East Prussia, the quickening of political expectations in provincial society bestowed a heightened status upon the diet and its members: in December 1833, the exclusive Casino Club in Trier even held a banquet to welcome the town’s returning deputies.50 Slowly but surely, this energizing commerce around the diets was bound to expand their pretensions. As the nineteenth-century liberal historian Heinrich von Treitschke put it: ‘Diets that abandoned themselves to the judgement of public opinion could not long remain content to submit unbinding recommendations; they had to demand that they be given some power of decision.’51


In religion as in politics, this was an era of differentiation, fragmentation and conflict. Revivalist movements mobilized the faithful in ways that unsettled the equilibrium of the religious communities. The state intervened more aggressively in the confessional life of the kingdom than at any time since the reign of the Great Elector, so that the boundaries between religious nonconformity and political dissent were blurred. Confessional networks became incubators for partisan political affiliations. Religion was more than a reservoir for the language and arguments of political discourse; it was a powerful motive for action in its own right. Its dynamism as a social force was greater in this era than at any time since the seventeenth century.

In December 1827, an Englishman returned from Berlin to London with ‘pleasing testimonies to the increase in religion amongst influential persons in the Prussian dominions’. This evangelical traveller told a prominent London missionary society of a prayer meeting in Berlin where he had met ‘30 persons of the first rank’. He reported that the king and his ministers were at one in the pursuance of pious projects and told of numerous meetings with army officers of ‘truly Christian spirit’.52 The English traveller had witnessed in Berlin one of the centres of the ‘Awakening’, a socially diverse movement of religious revival that swept across the Protestant north of Germany during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Awakened Christians emphasized the emotional, penitential character of their faith. Many of them experienced the transition from unbelief or a merely nominal Christian commitment to the fullness of awakened religious awareness as a traumatic moment of ‘rebirth’. One participant in a nocturnal prayer meeting that took place in Berlin in 1817 recalled that at the stroke of midnight ‘the Lord appeared, living and personal, as never before or since, in front of my soul. With a deep inward shock and hot stream of tears, I recognised my sinfulness, which stood before my eyes like a mountain.’53

This kind of religious commitment was personal and practical rather than ecclesiastical; it expressed itself in an astonishing range of social initiatives: voluntary Christian societies sprang up dedicated to the distribution of charity, the housing and ‘betterment’ of ‘fallen women’, the moral improvement of prisoners, the care of orphans, the printing and distribution of Bibles, the provision of subsistence labour for paupers and vagrants, the conversion of Jews and heathens. The Silesian nobleman Hans Ernst von Kottwitz, for example, a central figure in the early Awakening, set up a ‘spinning institute’ for the city’s unemployed; a new mission to the Jews was founded in Berlin in 1822 and patronized by key figures within the elite, including close associates of the monarch himself.

To the west, in Prussian Westphalia, the pious Count Adalbert von der Recke founded the Düsselthal Salvation Institute in 1817 to provide a refuge for the orphaned and abandoned children whose numbers had risen after the Napoleonic Wars; he later added a workhouse for Jews seeking conversion to Christianity. Like many awakened Christians, the count was driven in part by a sense of millenarian expectation – he believed that he was working to build God’s kingdom on earth. Sin and vice were given no quarter. An entry from Recke’s own orphanage diary dated January 1822 relates that a young girl called Mathilde had to be ‘slapped some forty times’ before she would follow Recke in reciting a prayer.54 Two weeks later a deaf mute boy who had been apprenticed out to a master blacksmith had to be ‘thrashed thoroughly’ for having defended himself while being beaten by his master.55 On a Sunday morning in March, the boys of Düsselthal were treated to the public whipping of Jakob, who had bored a hole into a barrel of the brandy brewed on the premises in order to drink the contents. He was urged between strokes to repent of his misdeed, but remained ‘unconverted’ and had to be imprisoned for a week with his legs shackled into a pair of ‘wooden boots’. Meals, school lessons and bedtime were signalled by trumpet blasts and inmates were marched to their respective tasks in military order. The Salvation Institute was a grim place for those who fell foul of its Dickensian discipline, but, like many other such voluntary foundations, it provided an indispensable supplement to the minimal social provision of the state authorities. By 1823, it had become an official clearing house for abandoned children in the area around the city of Düsseldorf.

The Protestant missions, institutes and pious societies of the post-war era represented a diverse social constituency. Wealthy individuals from the social (and often the political) elite loomed large among the founding fathers, mainly because they alone had the capital to acquire premises and equipment and the influence to secure privileges from the authorities. There was also a far-flung network of supporters in the lesser towns and villages of the Prussian provinces, in which artisans formed the overwhelming majority. They organized themselves in auxiliary societies that met for prayer, Bible-reading, discussion and the collection of donations for Christian purposes. The prominence of voluntary associations – Vereine – in the landscape of nineteenth-century evangelical Protestantism was something new and significant. This may not have been the sceptical, critical, contentious, bourgeois ‘public sphere’ idealized by Jürgen Habermas, but it did represent an impressive self-organizing impulse capable of feeding into proto-political networks and affiliations. It was part of that broader unfolding of voluntary energies that transformed nineteenth-century middle-and lower-middle-class society.

Protestant revivalism in Prussia tended to seek expression outside the confines of the institutional church. The church service was esteemed as one possible route to edification, but Awakened Christians preferred, in the words of one of their number, ‘the private devotional meeting, the sermon in the house, the barn or the field, the conventicle’.56 Some Awakened Protestants openly disparaged the official confessional structures, dismissing church buildings as ‘stone houses’ and church pastors as ‘men in black gowns’.57 In some Prussian rural areas, local populations refused to patronize the services of the official clergy, preferring to congregate in prayer meetings. On the noble estate of Reddenthin in Pomerania, prayer meetings of this kind began in 1819, where they were encouraged by the landlords, Carl and Gustav von Below. Among the participants was a shepherd by the name of Dubbach, who became famous for his impromptu sermons. Dubbach is reported to have leapt into the audience after one sermon and kicked the kneeling faithful – the lord of the estate included – in the napes of their necks, crying ‘Get deeper down into humility!’58These charismatic occasions were intended not merely to supplement, but to replace the services provided by the official church; Awakened Christians on the estate were urged not to attend the sermons of the local clergyman or to seek his pastoral advice. In its more radical guise, in other words, revivalist evangelical Protestantism was driven by an open hostility to the structures of official religion. ‘Separatist’ revivalists were those who wished to sever themselves entirely from the body of the official church and refused to allow it any involvement in their lives, even in such areas as the baptism of infants, where clerical officiation was compulsory by law.

There was abundant potential here for conflict with the secular authorities. After 1815, the Prussian state began to intervene more aggressively in the religious life of the kingdom. On 27 September 1817, Frederick William III announced his intention to merge the Lutheran and Calvinist confessions into a single Prussian ‘evangelical-Christian church’, later known as the Church of the Prussian Union. The king himself was the chief architect of this new ecclesiastical entity. He designed the new United liturgy, cobbling together texts from German, Swedish, Anglican and Huguenot prayer books. He issued regulations for the decoration of altars, the use of candles, vestments and crucifixes. The aim was to create a composite that would resonate with the religious sensibilities of both Calvinists and Lutherans. It was a further, final chapter in the long history of efforts by the Hohenzollern dynasty to close the confessional gap between the monarchy and the people. The king invested immense energy and hope in the Union. This may in part have been a function of private motivations: the confessional divide had prevented the king from taking communion together with his late Lutheran wife, Luise. Frederick William also believed that the Union would stabilize the ecclesiastical fabric of Protestantism in the face of the greatly enlarged Catholic minority in the post-war Prussian state.59

The pre-eminent motive was the desire to bring order and homogeneity into the religious life of the kingdom and to forestall the potentially anarchic effects of religious revival. Frederick William III had an instinctively neo-absolutist a version to the proliferation of sects. Through out the 1820s, Altenstein, chief of the new Kultusministerium (the ministry of religion, health and education founded in the same year as the Church Union), kept a close eye on sectarian developments both within and beyond the borders of the kingdom. Of particular interest were the Swiss valley sects of Hasli, Grindelwald and Lauterbrunn, whose adherents were said to pray naked in the belief that clothes were a sign of sin and shame. The ministry assembled lists of sectarian publications, subsidized the dissemination of counter-sectarian texts and closely monitored religious groups and associations of all kinds.60 Frederick William expected the edifying and accessible rituals and symbolic culture of the Prussian Union to arrest the centrifugal pull of sectarian formations, just as Napoleon had hoped that the Church of the French Concordat founded in 1801 would close the rifts that had opened among French Catholics since the Revolution.61

One finds at the heart of the unionist project an obsessive concern with uniformity that is recognizably post-Napoleonic: the simplification and homogenization of vestments at the altar as on the field of battle, liturgical conformity in place of the plurality of local practices that had been the norm in the previous century, even modular Normkirchen (standardized churches), designed to be assembled from pre-fabricated parts and available in different sizes to suit villages and towns.62 The king appears to have seen the restoration of religious life in the kingdom as inextricably connected with the elimination of ecclesiastical pluralism: ‘If every mindless priest wants to come to market with his unwashed ideas…’ he told his confidant and collaborator Bishop Eylert, ‘what will – or can – come of it?’63

The early consolidation of the Union Church proceeded harmoniously enough, but opposition increased dramatically in the 1830s. This was partly because the Prussian administration gradually extended the scope of the Union to the point where its liturgical regulations became binding for all Protestant public worship across the kingdom. Many Protestants objected to this element of compulsion. A more important factor was the changing character of Protestant revivalism. Having begun as an ecumenical movement, Protestant revivalism tended from around 1830 to develop a more sharply confessional profile. Lutheranism in particular experienced a major efflorescence, triggered in part by the 300th anniversary celebrations of the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the key doctrinal text of Lutheranism. Under the pressure of this Lutheran confessional revival, an Old Lutheran movement formed which demanded the right to secede from the church of the Prussian Union.

The emotional core of the movement was a deep attachment to the traditional Lutheran liturgy that had been modified under the auspices of the Prussian Union. At the height of the Old Lutheran agitation in the Kingdom of Prussia, some 10,000 active separatists were known to the police authorities, most of them concentrated in Silesia, where the influence of neighbouring Saxony, the heartland of Lutheranism, was especially strong. The king was enraged and genuinely bewildered by this resistance. He had conceived his Church Union as a broad church in which all Protestant Christians could find a comfortable home – how could anyone object to that? Urged on by their monarch, the Prussian authorities made all the usual mistakes. They presumed, above all, that the Old Lutherans were merely the hapless dupes of malevolent agitators. A report of June 1836 described the 600 separatists in the Züllichau district as persons ‘of limited mental capacity’ who had ‘nothing to lose in the way of material goods’, and were thus vulnerable to the ‘exertions of a fanatical preacher’.64

Convinced that the Old Lutheran movement would subside once its ringleaders had been neutralized, the Prussian authorities bore down heavily on separatist preachers, imposing draconian fines and terms of imprisonment, and quartering troops on areas where congregations refused to see the government’s sense. These measures were predictably futile. Silesian separatism was a movement with deep roots in the religiosity of the populace. The petitions submitted during the early and mid-1830s by groups of Lutherans, inscribed with the jagged signatures of crofters and day labourers, reveal a profound attachment to the words and spirit of local Lutheran tradition: ‘what we seek is nothing new; we hold steadfastly to the teachings of our fathers.’65 Repression merely stimulated sympathy for the beleaguered Lutherans, so that the movement steadily spread during the 1830s from Silesia into the neighbouring provinces of Posen, Saxony and Brandenburg. As the pressure increased, the Old Lutherans went underground, holding secret synods at which the rules and procedures were drawn up for an illegal church administration. In 1838, the dismissed separatist pastor Senkel was still travelling up and down Silesia in a variety of disguises performing illegal sacramental acts for his followers. The Neue Würzburger Zeitung reported in June 1838 that Senkel had recently been in Ratibor dressed as a woman in order to administer communion to some Lutherans in a cellar.66

In addition to difficulties of enforcement, the government faced a far more fundamental obstruction: uncertainty about the legal basis for anti-separatist measures. Prussian administrators in the late eighteenth century had generally been concerned to uphold the autonomy of the existing confessional communities. Wöllner’s Edict of Religion of 9 July 1788 affirmed the right of ‘the three main confessions of the Christian religion’ to the protection of the monarch. Under the General Code of 1794, there was no explicit provision for an initiative by the state in religious affairs. The inviolability of conscience and the freedom of belief were defined as fundamental and inalienable rights; the state renounced any role in influencing the religious convictions of the individual. The tolerated ‘religious parties’, as they were called in the General Code, stood equally under the protection of a state that was, in theory at least, confessionally impartial. It followed that the state had no right to ‘impose symbolic books as binding doctrine’ or to take the initiative in dismissing preachers on the grounds of doctrinal unsoundness. As the jurist Carl Gottlieb Svarez had explained to the future Frederick William III in 1791–2, the authority for such action rested not with the state, but with the individual religious community. Codified Prussian law thus provided no foundation for the action taken by the Prussian state against the Lutheran separatists in the 1830s.

The foundation of new sects did require official permission under Prussian law, but the Lutherans could hardly be accused of founding a new sect. From the standpoint of the separatists, it was the state, not the Lutheran dissenters, that had created a new confession in Prussia. Lutheranism had been a recognized and publicly tolerated confession in the German states since the Peace of Augsburg. The right of Lutherans to tolerance in the province of Silesia had been guaranteed by Frederick the Great in 1740 and confirmed by Frederick William III in 1798. The separatists were well aware that the legality of government repression was questionable. Separatist petitions frequently cited key passages in the General Code defining the rights and legal autonomy of publicly tolerated religious organizations. They presented their oppositional stance as grounded in the dictates of conscience (Gewissen), thereby laying claim to the fundamental guarantees furnished by the code.

For all these reasons, the efforts of Interior Minister von Rochow and his colleagues to put an end to the Old Lutheran movement were a failure, although they did cause several thousand separatists to seek their fortunes in North America and Australia. Prussians living along the banks of the river Oder were thus treated to an astonishing sight: barges full of law-abiding, hymn-singing Lutherans on their way to Hamburg for transfer to London and thence to South Australia, fleeing the religious persecution of the Prussian authorities. It was as if the great drama of the Salzburg Protestants (also Lutherans!) were being played out in reverse. The exodus was widely reported in the German press. It was all deeply embarrassing. The conflict was defused only in 1845 when Frederick William IV offered a general amnesty and granted the Lutherans the right to establish themselves within Prussia as an autonomous church association.


38. Old Lutheran settlement at Klemzig, South Australia, by George French Angas, 1845

The sharpening of confessional identities also unsettled relations between the state and its Catholic subjects, whose numbers were greatly increased by the territorial settlement of 1815. Catholicism, like Protestantism, was transformed by revival. The rationalism of the enlightenment made way for a heightened emphasis on emotion, mystery and revelation. There was a surge in popular pilgrimages – the most famous occurred in 1844, when half a million Catholics converged on the city of Trier in the Rhineland to view a garment believed to have been the robe Christ wore on the way to his crucifixion. Closely associated with Catholic revival was the rise of ‘ultramontanism’ – the term referred to the fact that Rome lies ultra montes or beyond the Alps. Ultramontanes perceived the church as a strictly centralized and transnational body focused firmly on the authority of Rome. They saw the strict subordination of the church to papal authority as the surest way of protecting it from state interference. This was a novelty in the Rhineland, whose bishoprics had traditionally been proud of their independence and sceptical of Rome’s claims. The ultramontanes strove to bring the diverse devotional cultures of the Catholic regions into closer conformity with Roman norms. Thus the ancient liturgies of Rhenish episcopal cities such as Trier, with their passages of local dialect, were phased out and replaced with standardized Roman Latin substitutes.

The potential for conflict in this new ‘Romanized’ Catholicism became apparent in 1837, when a major fight broke out in the Rhineland over the education of children in Catholic-Protestant mixed marriages. Under Catholic doctrine, the priest officiating at the marriage of a mixed couple was obliged to obtain a signed undertaking from the Protestant partner to the effect that the children would be educated as Catholics before he could administer the sacrament of marriage. This practice was at variance with Prussian law, which stipulated (in the spirit of inter-confessional parity) that in such marriages the children were to be educated in the religion of the father. In the early post-war years the state authorities and the Rhenish clergy agreed on a compromise arrangement: the officiating clergyman would merely urge the Protestant spouse to educate any future children as Catholics without requiring a signed contract. In 1835, however, the appointment of an ultramontane hardliner to the archbishopric of Cologne made further compromise impossible. Supported by Pope Gregory XVI, the new archbishop, Clemens August Count Droste-Vischering, unilaterally reintroduced the mandatory education contract for non-Catholic spouses in mixed marriages.

As the head and ‘supreme bishop’ of the Prussian Union Church, Frederick WilliamIIIinterpretedthis changeof policyasadirectchallenge to his authority. After efforts to negotiate a settlement had failed, the monarch ordered Droste-Vischering’s arrest in November 1837–it was a matter, as his ministers put it, of ‘demonstrating the fullness of the royal power in the face of the power of the Catholic church’.67 Additional troops were secretly transferred to Cologne to handle any local unrest and the archbishop was escorted from his palace to an apartment within the walls of the fortress of Minden, where he remained under house arrest, forbidden to receive official guests or to discuss ecclesiastical issues. After royal decrees were issued criminalizing the practice of requiring the contract, the Prussian hierarchy hardened its position. On the eastern periphery of the Prussian dominions, where there was also a large Catholic population (including many Poles), the archbishop of Gnesen and Posen, Martin von Dunin, formally reintroduced the marital education contract; he too was arrested and incarcerated in the fortress of Kolberg.

In the course of these dramatic interventions, there were demonstrations in the streets of the major Catholic towns and clashes between Prussian troops and Catholic subjects. After the publication of an official papal declaration condemning the Prussian government, resistance to the new measures quickly spread to Paderborn and Münster, whose bishops likewise announced that they would return to demanding the marital contract. By the early months of 1838, a major controversy had blown up over the issue. There was extensive press coverage throughout the German states (and across Europe) and a flood of pamphlets, of which the best known and most widely read was the polemical Athanasius, a hard-hitting denunciation of the Prussian government by the sometime Rhenish radical and ultramontane Catholic Joseph Goerres. Across the western provinces, the events of 1837–8 produced a lasting radicalization of Catholic opinion. One Protestant contemporary who observed this struggle with mingled fascination and indignation was Otto von Bismarck, the future Prussian statesman, now in his early twenties.

The official churches and the various sectarian or separatist movements did not entirely monopolize the spiritual life of Prussians. On the margins of the churches, and in the numerous interstices of religious belief and practice there flourished a rich variety of eccentric variations on the norm, in which the tenets of licensed dogma blended seamlessly with folk belief, speculative natural philosophy and pseudo-science. These were the hardy weeds that shot up ceaselessly between the paving stones of official religion. They fed to some extent upon the energies released by the religious revivals. In Catholic rural or small-town communities, the post-war turn towards mystery and miracle could easily tip over into credulity and superstition. Late in the summer of 1822, there were reports of a ‘miraculous fiery light’ over an image of Mary in the little Catholic church of Zons, a small town on the banks of the Rhine between Cologne and Düsseldorf. When pilgrims began descending on the town, the church authorities in Cologne and Aachen mounted an investigation, which found that the light was due to refraction of the sun’s rays through a window, and efforts were made to dissuade further pilgrims from congregating in the church. Such unruly local enthusiasms demanded constant vigilance on the part of the church authorities.68

The Catholic ecclesiastical and the Protestant secular authorities found it easy to agree on the case of the Zons ‘fiery light’; other forms of miraculous belief were more problematic, because they lay in the grey zone between folk magic and popular piety. The practice – well established in the Prussian Rhineland – of ‘healing’ persons stricken with rabies by laying a thread from the shrine of St Hubertus into an incision on the forehead was deplored by the state authorities but tolerated by (most of) the local church leadership. One characteristic feature of the awakened Rhenish Catholicism of the 1820s and 1830s was an aspiration to build bridges between theology and the more outré varieties of contemporary speculative science and natural philosophy, including mesmerism and animal magnetism.69

On the Protestant side, too, religious belief could interact with folk magic in ways that the authorities found unsettling. In 1824, it was reported that the former stable-boy Johann Gottlieb Grabe in Torgau (in Prussian Saxony) was ‘healing’ over 100‘patients’ per day through a combination of prayers, incantations, magical movements and animal magnetism. A government investigation at the Charité Hospital in Berlin refuted Grabe’s claim to possess healing powers, but this did nothing to diminish his charisma as a healer. One Torgau merchant was even reported to have purchased Grabe’s leather trousers, so that he might strengthen himself with the residual magnetism still inhabiting them.70 In 1842, intense public controversy surrounded the Rhenish Catholic shepherd Heinrich Mohr of Neurath, whose feats of healing attracted as many as 1,000 persons per day, many of whom crossed the region to be seen by him. Figures such as Mohr filled a need that was not satisfied by contemporary medical practice, which stood helpless in the face of most chronic illnesses. But it was his ‘blessing’ above all that patients were after, a detail that particularly alarmed the Catholic church authorities because it implied the usurpation of one of the ordained clergy’s definitive powers.71

Harder to place is the ‘sect’ that gathered in Königsberg around the maverick preachers Johann Wilhelm Ebel and Heinrich Diestel in the late 1830s. These two provided what we would now call marital counselling based upon an eclectic practical theology in which ideas drawn from pre-Christian natural philosophy were cobbled together with chiliastic expectation, humoral theory and mid nineteenth-century preoccupations with marriage and sexuality. Drawing on the teachings of the East Prussian millenarian mystic Johann Friedrich Schoenherr, Ebel and Diestel posited that the act of coitus between a man and a woman was essentially a re-enactment of the moment of creation, when two vast balls, one of fire and one of water, had collided to form the universe.72 The sexual act between man (fire) and woman (water) thus had an intrinsic cosmic significance and value and should be accepted and cultivated as an essential feature of any harmonious marital relationship. Male participants in the circle were advised to make love to their wives with the lamp lit, rather than in darkness, so that erotic fantasies were banished and ‘blind lust’ was transformed into ‘conscious affection for the spouse’.73 Members of the circle – including the women – were urged to take positive pleasure in the sexual act. The two clergymen attracted a circle of high-status Königsbergers, including men and women from some of the city’s leading families.

What with all the colliding of fire and water, the mood within the circle grew rather steamy, there was an unexpected pregnancy and rumours spread that the preachers were encouraging licentiousness and extra-marital sex. It was claimed – fancifully – that men and women attended the ‘conventicles’ of the sect in a state of nudity, that initiates received something called the ‘seraphic kiss’, ‘with which the most abominable excesses were connected’, and that ‘two young ladies had died from the consequences of excessive libidinous excitement’.74 To his great embarrassment, Theodor von Schön, who knew several of the participants personally, was obliged to mount an investigation. The resulting trial, known across Protestant Germany as the ‘Muckerprozess’ (trial of the fanatics) received intense and controversial press coverage.75 We are used to thinking of religion as an ordering force but the boundary between the collective, external canonized identity of the official confessional parties and that untidy package of private human needs and inclinations that we call ‘religiosity’ became highly unstable during the decades between the revolutions.


The close identification of the secular authority with the religious life and practice of the Protestant majority had far-reaching consequences for the Prussian Jews. In the debate triggered by Dohm’s famous emancipationist essay Concerning the Civic Betterment of the Jews (1781), most commentators had shared the author’s secular conception of the state’s tasks and responsibilities; none was prepared to argue that religion provided adequate grounds for civic discrimination against the Jews, and none saw conversion as either the sole or a necessary means of resolving the problem of Jewish status. Hardenberg’s Edict of Emancipation had likewise been conceived in a secular spirit. What the reformers sought in 1812 was not the religious conversion of the Jews (to Christianity), but their secular conversion to an unconditional membership of the Prussian ‘nation’. Things changed thereafter. Thanks to the edict, the Jews of the core provinces were no longer ‘foreigners’ dwelling on Prussian soil on His Majesty’s sufferance, but ‘citizens of the state’ along with their fellow citizens of Christian faith. The question now was: should the Jews, having already been allowed to participate on an equal footing as private individuals in the sphere of the economy and society, be admitted to participation in the public life of the state? Answering this question involved making claims about the purposes for which the state and its organs existed.

The most striking feature of Prussian Jewish policy after 1815 – and it sets Prussian developments apart from those in most of the other German states – was a new emphasis on religion as the key to the question of Jewish status. In the course of debate over these matters within the council of ministers in 1816, the ministry of finance submitted a long memorandum that opened with some general reflections on the role of religion as the only true foundation for a confident and independent state: ‘A cohesive, independent people’, it argued, should consist of members who share the same ‘basic ideas that are most dear to them’; religion was the only bond powerful enough to transform a people into a ‘unanimous whole’ capable of unified and determined action in ‘times of external threat’. The report went on to recommend that ‘the conversion of Jews to Christianity should be made easier and should entail the granting of all civil rights’, but that ‘as long as the Jew [remained] a Jew, he must not be permitted to take up a position in the state’.76 The same theme was taken up in the provinces: in a report of 1819, the district government of Arnsberg in the Rhineland affirmed that religion was the main hindrance to emancipation and proposed that the state should introduce measures to encourage Jewish conversions. A report of 1820 from the district magistrates of Münster recommended mandatory Christian adult education for Jews and special benefits for converts to Christianity.77

Frederick William III endorsed these views. When the Jewish mathematician David Unger, a citizen of Prussia, applied for a teaching position at the Berlin Bauakademie (a position in the pay of the Prussian state), he was advised by the monarch personally that his application would be reconsidered after his ‘conversion to the Evangelical Church’(i.e. the Prussian Union). A similar case was that of the Jewish Lieutenant Meno Burg, who had joined the Grenadier Guards in 1812 as a volunteer rifleman and had performed with distinction ever since. In 1830, when Burg was due to be promoted to the rank of captain, the king issued a cabinet order in which he expressed his conviction that, in view of his education and experience of life among Prussian officers, Burg would have the sense to recognize the truth and redeeming power of the Christian faith, and thereby ‘clear away any obstacle to his promotion’.78 In addition to such ad hoc interventions, Frederick William III actively encouraged conversion by introducing a royal bounty for Jewish converts who had the name of the sovereign entered in the church baptismal records as their nominal ‘godfather’. A concerted effort was also made by the state authorities to prevent women who were planning to marry Jewish partners from converting to Judaism, although the legal basis for such action was very fragile, given that the Prussian General Code permitted conversion from or to any tolerated ‘religious party’ after the age of fourteen.79

Other related initiatives included an order forbidding Christian clergymen from attending Jewish festivities (such as weddings and bar mitzvahs) and repeated attempts (in 1816, 1836 and 1839) to prevent Jews from carrying Christian first names, so as not to blur the socio-legal boundaries between the two communities. Finally, the king supported the work of the Berlin Society for the Propagation of Christianity among the Jews, its daughter-societies in Königsberg, Breslau, Posen, Stettin and Frankfurt/Oder and the network of auxiliary groups in lesser towns. Missionary free schools in Posen – the area of densest Jewish settlement – exploited the new laws on elementary education to lure Jewish children into the classrooms of the missionaries. The Prussian state had become a missionary institute.80

The trend in his policy after 1815 suggests that Frederick William III gradually moved away from the functional conception of religion he had imbibed from the enlightened tutors of his youth towards a belief that the state might exist to pursue ends defined by religion. ‘However strong the claim to tolerance may become,’ he observed in 1821, ‘a borderline must be drawn wherever this implies a step backwards on the road to the redemption of mankind.’81 By the 1840s, the term ‘Christian state’ was in wide use; in 1847, following a debate in the United Diet over the admission of Jews to state office, Friedrich Julius Stahl, a conservative professor of law at the University of Berlin and a convert from Judaism, attempted to endow the idea with a measure of theoretical coherence. His book, The Christian State, argued that, since the state was ‘a revelation of the ethical spirit of the nation’, it must itself express the ‘spirit of a Christian people’. It was thus unthinkable that Jews (and other non-believers) should occupy state office.82

Understandably enough, Jewish journalists denounced ‘the phantom of the Christian state’ as merely ‘the very latest pretext for denying us our rights’.83 Yet there was more to it than that. The Christian statism of the post-war era took root because it provided an outlet for the activist, utopian, evangelizing strand in contemporary Protestantism. Moreover, it generated an account, however limited, of the state’s ultimate moral purpose. It invoked an identity between state and society that was religious, rather than ethnic and thus offered an alternative to nationalism, whose arguments were so threatening to the territorial sovereignty of the German princes after 1815. For pursuing these elusive benefits, the Prussian monarchy paid a heavy price. The aggressive confessional statism of the post-war era blurred the boundaries between religious and political dissent. Theological debates and affiliations were politicized. Political dissent acquired a theological flavour – it became both more absolute and more diffuse.


In 1831, there were 13,151,883 subjects in the Kingdom of Prussia. Of these, about 5,430,000(or roughly 41 per cent) lived in the provinces of Saxony, the Rhineland and Westphalia, areas that had been Prussian only since 1815. If we add the inhabitants of the Grand Duchy of Posen, annexed by Prussia following the second Polish partition of 1793, incorporated into the Napoleonic Duchy of Warsaw after the Peace of Tilsit in 1807 and only ‘returned’ to Prussia in 1815, then the proportion of new Prussians rises to nearly 50 per cent. The task of making Prussians had to begin anew. This problem was not unique to Prussia – Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria also emerged from the upheavals of the Napoleonic era with substantial new territories. In these states, however, the integration of new subjects was facilitated by the creation of territorial parliaments and the imposition of a unitary administrative and judicial structure. Prussia, by contrast, acquired no ‘national’ parliament and no ‘national’ constitution.

The kingdom also remained fragmented in an administrative sense. There was still no unitary legal fabric. The Berlin administration attempted to homogenize the system piecemeal in the 1820s, but Rhenish (i.e. Napoleonic) law remained valid in the western provinces, with the result that candidates for the judiciary there had to be trained within the Rhineland or Westphalia. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, there were, in addition to the Geheime Obertribunal in Berlin, four other supreme courts, including one for the Rhineland, one for Posen and one in Greifswald for formerly Swedish Pomerania.84 The formerly Swedish part of Pomerania kept its own traditional legal code, its own institutions of communal and urban self-government, and its own distinctive municipal constitutions.85 The Rhineland, too, retained the relatively liberal system of local governance introduced by the French.86 The use of the Prussian General Code in most of the other provinces concealed the great variety of local laws and regulations. The Emancipation Edict of 11 March 1812 was not extended to the provinces acquired in 1815, so that the Jews of the kingdom lived under no fewer than thirty-three different legal codes. One district authority spoke of the state’s having capitulated – in this sphere at least – to the provinces and localities.87

Prussia was therefore less juridically homogeneous in 1840 than it had been in 1813. It is worth emphasizing this fragmentation, because Prussia has often been perceived as the very model of a centralized state. Yet the thrust of the Stein municipal reforms had been precisely to devolve power upon what became a widely admired system of urban self-government. Even the more conservative Revised Municipal Law introduced in Westphalia in 1831 provided the towns with more autonomy than they had enjoyed under the Napoleonic system.88 Throughout the post-war era, the organs of the central state adopted a deferential attitude to the grandees of the Prussian provinces, and the provincial elites remained strongly aware of their distinctive identities, especially in the peripheral areas of east and west. This tendency was amplified by the fact that whereas each province had its own diet, the kingdom as such had none. One effect of the constitutional settlement of 1823 was thus to magnify the significance of the provinces at the expense of the Prussian commonwealth. East Prussia was not ‘merely a province’, one visitor to Königsberg was told in 1851, but a Landin its own right. Prussia was in this sense a quasi-federal system.89

A devolved, pragmatic approach to government went hand in hand with an implicit acceptance of cultural diversity. Early nineteenth-century Prussia was a linguistic and cultural patchwork. The Poles of West Prussia, Posen and Silesia accounted for the largest linguistic minority; in the southern districts of East Prussia, the Masurians spoke various agrarian dialects of Polish; the Kashubians of the Danzig hinterland spoke another. Until the mid nineteenth century, the Dutch language was still widely used in the schools of the former Duchy of Kleve. In the Walloon districts of Eupen-Malmédy – a small east-Belgian territory that was transferred to Prussia in 1815 – French remained the language of schools, courts and administration until 1876.90 The ‘Philipponen’, communities of Old Believers who settled in Masuria as refugees from Russia in 1828–32, spoke Russian – traces of their distinctive wooden churches can still be seen in the area today. There were communities of Czechs in Upper Silesia, Sorbs in the Cottbus district, and speakers of the ancient Slavic dialect of the Wends scattered across villages in the Spreewald near Berlin. Eking out an existence on the long spit of Baltic coastal land known as the Kurische Nehrung were the Kuren, inhabitants of one of the barest and most melancholy landscapes of northern Europe. These hardy fishermen spoke a dialect of Latvian and were known for supplementing their monotonous diet with the flesh of crows they caught and killed with a bite to the head. Some areas, such as the district of Gumbinnen in East Prussia, were trilingual, with substantial communities of Masurian, Lithuanian and German speakers living in close proximity.91

Prussian policy in the eastern provinces had traditionally been to treat these settlements as ‘colonies’ with their own distinctive cultures; indeed, the Prussian administration helped to consolidate provincial vernaculars by supporting them as the vehicle of religious instruction and elementary education. Protestant clerical networks were also important. They disseminated hymn books, Bibles and tracts in a range of local languages and offered bi-lingual services in minority language areas. The first Lithuanian-language periodical in the kingdom, Nusidavimai, was a missionary journal edited by a German-speaking pastor working among the Lithuanians.92 German-speaking Prussians, such as the statesman and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt and the Königsberg theology professor Martin Ludwig Rhesa, played a crucial role in establishing Lithuanian and its folk heritage as an object of wider cultural interest.93 Not until 1876 did a general law define German as the official language of all parts of Prussia.

Prussia thus remained, in the words of a Scottish traveller who toured the Hohenzollern provinces in the 1840s, a ‘kingdom of shreds and patches’. Prussia, Samuel Laing observed, ‘has, in ordinary parlance, only a geographical or political meaning, denoting the Prussian government, or the provinces it governs – not a moral or social meaning. The Prussian nation is a combination of words rarely heard, of ideas never made [… ]’94 Laing’s comment, though hostile, was insightful. What exactly did it mean to be ‘Prussian’? The Prussia of the restoration era was not a ‘nation’ in the sense of a people defined and bound together by a common ethnicity. There was not, and never had been, a Prussian cuisine. Nor was there a specifically Prussian folklore, language, dialect, music or form of dress (leaving aside the uniforms of the military). Prussia was not a nation in the sense of a community sharing a common history. Moreover, ‘Prussianness’ had somehow to define itself on grounds that had not already been occupied by the powerful competing ideology of German nationalism. The result was a curiously abstract and fragmented sense of identity.

For some, Prussia meant the rule of law; hence the confidence with which Old Lutheran separatists in Silesia cited the Prussian General Code in their defence against arbitrary action by the state authorities.95 To these humble subjects of the Prussian Crown, the code was a safeguard for freedom of conscience, a ‘constitution’ curtailing the state’s right to intervene in the life of the subject. The law that guaranteed certain individual liberties also held out the promise of public order, another cherished feature of Prussian governance. In a Protestant song that circulated during the ‘Cologne events’ of the late 1830s, the anonymous author contrasted the arrogance and despotism of the Catholic clergy with the orderliness of the Prussian way of life:

For us who live in Prussia’s land

The King is always lord;

We live by law and the bonds of order,

Not like some bickering horde.96

‘Prussianness’ thus came to imply commitment to a certain order of things. The ‘secondary virtues’ of Prussophile cliché – punctuality, loyalty, honesty, thoroughness, precision – were all attributes of service to a higher ideal.

To what ideal precisely? The time was past for the kind of king-cult that had thrived after the reign of Frederick the Great. The government did its best to propagate monarchist patriotism in the 1830s, but with limited success. The ‘Prussia Song’, adopted by the government as a kind of territorial anthem in the later 1830s, articulated an officially condoned version of Prussian patriotic sentiment. Written by Bernhard Thiersch, a teacher at the Halberstadt Gymnasium, and set to a jaunty marching tune by Heinrich August Neithard, director of music of the II Grenadier Guards Regiment, the song opened strongly with the words ‘I am a Prussian, do you know my colours?’ but soon lost itself in servile monarchist effusions. An imaginary Prussian – stoical, reserved and masculine – approaches the throne ‘with love and loyalty’ and hears from it the mild voice of a father. He swears filial allegiance; he feels the king’s call vibrating in his heart; he observes that a people can really flourish only as long as the bonds of love and loyalty between king and subjects remain intact etc. etc. The ‘Preussenlied’ was a good marching ditty, but it never took off as a popular song, and it is not difficult to see why.97 Its field of reference was too narrowly military, the monarch at its centre too disembodied, the tone too grovelling to capture the boisterous aspirations expressed in popular patriotism.

The one institution that all Prussians had in common was the state. It is no coincidence that this period witnessed an unprecedented discursive escalation around the idea of the state. Its majesty resonated more compellingly than ever before, at least within the milieu of academia and senior officialdom. No individual did more to promulgate the dignity of the Prussian state after 1815 than Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the Swabian philosopher who took up Fichte’s vacant chair at the new University of Berlin in 1818. The state, Hegel argued, was an organism possessing will, rationality and purpose. Its destiny – like that of any living thing – was to change, grow and progressively develop. The state was ‘the power of reason actualising itself as will’;98 it was a transcendent domain in which the alienated, competitive ‘particular interests’ of civil society merged into coherence and identity. There was a theological core to Hegel’sreflections on the state: the state had a quasi-divine purpose; it was ‘God’s march through the world’; in Hegel’s hands it became the quasi-divine apparatus by which the multitude of subjects who constituted civil society was redeemed into universality.

In adopting this approach, Hegel broke with the view prevalent among Prussian political theorists since Pufendorf and Wolff that the state was no more than a machine engineered to meet the external and internal security needs of the society that fashioned it.99 Hegel vehemently rejected the metaphorical machine-state favoured by theorists of the high enlightenment, on the grounds that it treated ‘free human beings’ as if they were mere cogs in its mechanism. The Hegelian state was not an imposed construct, but the highest expression of the ethical substance of a people, the unfolding of a transcendent and rational order, the ‘actualization of freedom’. From this it followed that the relationship between civil society and the state was not antagonistic, but reciprocal. It was the state that enabled civil society to order itself in a rational way, and the vitality of the state depended in turn upon each of the particular interests that constituted civil society being ‘active in its particular function – equipping itself for its particular sphere and thereby promoting the universal’.100

Hegel’s was not a liberal vision – he was not a champion of unitary national legislatures, having seen what they were capable of in Jacobin France. But the progressive orientation of his vision was undeniable. For all his misgivings about the Jacobin experiment, Hegel celebrated the French Revolution as a ‘splendid dawn’ that had been greeted with joy by ‘all thinking people’. Hegel’s Berlin students were told that the Revolution represented an ‘irreversible achievement of the world spirit’ whose consequences were still unfolding.101 The centrality of reason and a sense of forward momentum suffuse his reflections on the state at every point. There was no place in the Hegelian polity for privileged castes and private jurisdictions. And by elevating the state above the plane of partisan strife, Hegel brought into view the exhilarating possibility that progress – in the sense of a beneficent rationalization of the political and social order – might simply be a property of the unfolding of history, as embodied in the Prussian state.102

It is difficult, from a present-day standpoint, to appreciate the intoxicating effect of Hegel’s thought on a generation of educated Prussians. It was not a question of Hegel’s pedagogical charisma – he was notorious for standing hunched over the lectern reading out his text in a halting and scarcely audible mumble. According to an account by his student Hotho, who attended Hegel’s lectures at the University of Berlin, ‘his features hung pale and loose upon him as if he were already dead.’‘He sat there morosely with his head wearily bowed down in front of him, constantly leafing back and forth through his compendious notes, even as he continued to speak.’ Another student, the future Hegel-biographer Karl Rosenkranz, recalled laborious paragraphs punctuated by constant coughing and snuff-taking.103

It was the ideas themselves and the peculiar language Hegel invented to articulate them that colonized the minds of disciples across the kingdom. Part of the explanation lies in the context. Hegel’s appointment was the work of the sometime Hardenberg protégé, enlightened reformer and Minister of Education Karl von Altenstein. The philosopher’s writings provided an exalted legitimation for the Prussian bureaucracy, whose expanding power within the executive during the reform era demanded justification. Hegel steered a path between doctrinaire liberalism and restorationist conservatism – in an era of deepening political uncertainty, many found this via media enormously attractive. His writing balanced opposing standpoints, often with dazzling virtuosity. His dialectical wizardry, combined with an oracular and sometimes obfuscating mode of delivery, opened the work to diverse interpretations, enabling Hegelian language and ideas to flow seamlessly into the political ideologies of both right and left.104 Finally, Hegel appeared to offer a means of reconciling the fact of political and social conflict with the hope for an ultimate harmony of interests and purposes.


39. Hegel at the lectern, surrounded by students. Lithograph from 1828 by Franz Kugler.

‘Hegelianism’ was not the stuff that popular identities are made of. The master’s work was notoriously difficult to read, let alone understand. Richard Wagner and Otto von Bismarck were among those who attempted without success to make sense of him. Moreover, his appeal was confessionally coloured. Hegel hailed from a Protestant Pietist milieu, whose imprint can be discerned in his attempts to assimilate the earthly to the divine order. Catholic students responded ambivalently to his teachings. In 1826, a group of Catholic students at the University of Berlin even made a formal complaint to the ministry of education: it seems that Hegel had made light of Catholic doctrine, observing that if a mouse were to nibble at a eucharist wafer after its consecration, then, by virtue of the sacramental miracle of transubstantiation, ‘God would exist in the mouse and even in its excrement.’105 Asked by the ministry to explain himself, Hegel invoked the principle of academic freedom and added that Catholics were free to stay away from his lectures if they so wished. Even without such irritations, it was clear that Hegel’s sacralization of the state held a more immediate appeal for Protestant adherents of the Prussian state church than for Catholics, whose relationship with the Protestant secular authority was more problematic.

Within the Protestant mainstream, however (not to mention assimilated Jewish circles), Hegel’s influence was profound and lasting. His arguments diffused swiftly into the culture, partly through the students who crowded into his lectures and partly through the patronage of Culture Minister Altenstein and his privy councillor Johannes Schulze, a sometime Hegel student, who supported the candidacy of Hegelians for key academic posts, especially at the universities of Berlin and Halle. Hegelianism – like post-modernism – became ambient, infiltrating the language and thinking even of those who had never read or understood the master’s work.

Hegel’s influence helped to establish the modern state as a privileged object of enquiry and reflection. No one better exemplifies the discursive escalation that took place around the concept of the state during the years of realignment that followed the French Revolution. The state was no longer just the site of sovereignty and power, it was the engine that makes history, or even the embodiment of history itself. This distinctively Prussian intimacy between the idea of the state and the idea of history left abiding traces on the emergent cultural disciplines of the universities, not least history itself. Leopold von Ranke, the founder of history as a modern scholarly discipline, was no enthusiast of Hegel, whose philosophical system he denounced as unhistorical. Worlds lay between Hegel’s metaphysical understanding of the ‘history of human consciousness and spirit’ and the obsessive quest for authentic sources and the insistence upon accurate description that were the hallmark of the nascent Prussian historical school. Yet the young Ranke, a Saxon who came to Prussia in 1818 at the age of twenty-three and was appointed to an academic post at the University of Berlin in 1825, did not entirely escape the contagion of Prussia’s statist idealism. In essays published in 1833 and 1836, Ranke declared that the state was a ‘moral good’, and an ‘idea of God’, an organic being with its ‘own original life’, which ‘penetrates its entire environment, identical only with itself’. Throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the ‘Prussian school’ of history would remain overwhelmingly focused on the state as the vehicle and agent of historical change.106

After the philosopher’s death during the cholera epidemic of 1831, Hegelianism disintegrated into warring schools and passed through swift ideological mutations. Among the raucous ‘Young Hegelians’ who coalesced in Berlin in the late 1830s was the youthful Karl Marx, a new Prussian from the Rhineland and the son of a Jewish convert to Christianity, who had moved to Berlin in 1836 to continue his studies in jurisprudence and political economy. For Marx, the first true encounter with Hegel’s thought was a revelatory shock akin to a religious conversion. ‘For some days’, he told his father in November 1837, his excitement made him ‘quite incapable of thinking’; he ‘ran about madly in the garden by the dirty water of the Spree’, even joined his landlord on a hunting excursion, and found himself overpowered by the desire to embrace every street corner loafer in Berlin.107Marx would later reject Hegel’s understanding of the state bureaucracy as the ‘general estate’, but it stayed with him none the less. For what else was Marx’s idealization of the proletariat as the ‘pure embodiment of the general interest’ than the materialist inversion of the Hegelian concept? Marxism, too, was made in Prussia.

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