Works of Karl Marx, 1856

The Divine Right of the Hohenzollern

Published: The People's Paper December 13, 1856;
Source: The Class Struggle Vol. II, No. III, May-June 1918;
See Franz Mehring's Preface to this article;
Transcription: Sally Ryan, July, 2002.

Europe, just now, is interested in only one great question—that of Neuenburg. That is to say, if we are to credit the Prussian newspapers. The principality of Neuenburg, even if we include the county of Valangin, covers the modest area of about 220 square miles, but the royal philosophers of Berlin maintain that not quantity but quality is the determining factor in the greatness and smallness of things, which stamps them as sublime or ridiculous.

The Neuenburg question, to them, embodies the eternal dispute between Revolution and Divine Right, and this antagonism is influenced by geographical dimensions as little as the law of gravitation by the difference between the sun and a tennis-ball.

Let us see of what the Divine Right consists to which the Hohenzollern dynasty lays claim. It is based, in the case before us, on a London protocol under date of May 24, 1852, in which the plenipotentiaries of France, Great Britain and Russia "recognize the rights over the principality of Neuenburg and the county of Valangin belonging to the King of Prussia according to the stipulations of Articles 22 and 76 of the Vienna agreement, and which from 1815 to 1848 existed simultaneously with those rights which are allowed to Switzerland by Article 73 of the same agreement.

By this "diplomatic intervention" the divine right of the kings of Prussia is determined within the limits of the Vienna treaty. This treaty, however, refers back to the claims which Prussia acquired in 1707. What was the situation in 1707? The principality of Neuenburg and the county of Valangin, which in the middle ages belonged to the Kingdom of Burgundy, became members of the Swiss Confederation after the defeat of Charles the Bold, and continued in that capacity under the direct protectorate of Berne, even in the course of subsequent changes that occurred in its feudal "sovereignty" up to the time of the Vienna agreement which made it sovereign member of the Confederacy. The sovereignty over Neuenburg was conveyed first to the house of Chalons-Orange, then through the mediation of Switzerland to the house of Longueville, and finally, at the extinction of this line, to the widowed sister of the Prince, the Countess of Nemours. When she tried to assume power, William III., King of England and Duke of Nassau-Orange, entered a protest and conveyed his right and title to Neuenburg and Valangin to his cousin Frederick I. of Prussia; this agreement was hardly given any notice during the lifetime of William III. But upon the death of the Duchess Marie of Nemours, Frederick set up his claim. As fourteen other candidates came forward, however, to assert their claims, he, with wise moderation, submitted his claim to the local nobility, not, however, without first having assured himself of the support of the judges by bribery. Thus by bribery the King of Prussia became Prince of Neuenburg and Count of Valangin.

The French Revolution annulled these titles, the treaty of Vienna restored them, and the Revolution of 1848 removed them again. Over against the revolutionary right of the people the King of Prussia set up his Divine Right of the Hohenzollern, amounting to nothing more than the divine right of bribery.

All feudal conflicts are characterized by pettiness. In spite of this there are distinctions among them. History is always willing to occupy itself with the innumerable petty intrigues, quarrels and betrayals by means of which the Kings of France managed to overcome their feudal vassals, for they enable us to study the origin and development of a great nation. This is not the case in Germany. On the contrary, it is most tiresome and monotonous to trace how one vassal after another managed to gobble up greater or smaller portions of the German Empire for private gain. Unless some particular set of circumstances happen to enliven the scene, as is the case for instance in the history of Austria. In the case of the latter we see one and the same prince as chosen head of the empire, and as feudal lord of a province of the same empire, by descent, intriguing against the empire in the interest of the province. His intrigues are successful, for his successes towards the south seem to revive the inherited conflict between Germany and Italy, whereas his expansion to the east leads to a continuation of the bitter fight between the German and Slavic race, and the resistance of Christian Europe against the Mohammedan Orient. Finally, by shrewd family alliances his personal power attains such an eminence that for a time it not only threatens to engulf the whole empire, which he managed to surround with an artificial glamor, but to bury the whole world under the domination of a universal monarchy.

In the annals of the Margraviate of Brandenburg (now a province of Prussia and originally the home and possession of the Hohenzollern family) we do not meet with such gigantic characteristics. Whereas the history of her rival appeals to us as a mephistophelian epic, that of Brandenburg creates the impression of a dirty family squabble in comparison. Even where, in view of the identity of interests, we would be led to expect similar tendencies, there is a tremendous difference. The original importance of the two border states — Brandenburg and Austria (Eastern Margraviate) — is traceable to the fact that they were the advance guard of Germany against the neighboring Slavs, whether for defensive or offensive purposes. But even from this point of view the history of Brandenburg lacks color, life and dramatic action, for it comprises only actions on a small scale with unknown Slavic races scattered over a comparatively small strip of territory between the Elbe and the Oder, none of which ever attained historical importance. The Margraviate of Brandenburg never subdued or Germanized a single Slavic race of historical importance, and in fact succeeded only once in reaching out as far as the confines of Brandenburg. Even Pomerania, whose feudal lords were the margraves of Brandenburg from the time of the 12th century, had not been entirely incorporated in the kingdom of Prussia in the year 1815, and by the time the electors of Brandenburg tried to appropriate it piecemeal, it had long since ceased to be a slavic state. Even the Credit for having transformed the southern and southeastern seaboard of the Baltic sea was due partly to the mercantile enterprise of the German trader, and partly to the sword of the German knight, and belongs to the history of Germany and Poland, not to that of Brandenburg, which came only to reap where it had not sown.

We may be so bold as to claim that among the numerous readers who are interested in the importance of the classic names Achilles, Cicero, Nestor, and Hector, very few will have come across the fact that the sandy soil of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, which today produces only sheep and potatoes, gave birth to four electors who enjoyed the proud titles At brecht Achilles, John Cicero, Joachim I. Nestor, and Joachim II. Hector. The same glorious mediocrity which is responsible for the fact that the Electorate of Brandenburg matured so slowly to what we will politely call a European power, shielded its internal history from any indiscreet curiosity on the part of the outside world. Based on this, Prussian statesmen and historians have tried their utmost to get the world to accept and understand that Prussia is the military state par excellence, from which it follows that the Divine Right of the Hohenzollern is the right of the sword, the right of conquest. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is possible to assert, on the contrary, with perfect accuracy, that of all the provinces which the Hohenzollern possess today, only one was conquered — Silesia. This fact is so isolated in the annals of the history of the house that it earned for Frederick II. the surname of "Peerless." The Prussian monarchy comprises 107,578 square miles; the Province of Brandenburg at present contains 15,514, and Silesia 15,748 square miles. How, then, did she manage to acquire Prussia with 25,035, Posen with 11,391, Pomerania with 12,050, Saxony with 9,776, Westphalia with 7,778, Rhenish Prussia with 10,180 square miles? By the divine right of bribery, of open purchase, of petty thievery, of legacy hunting, and traitorous partition agreements.

In the beginning of the 15th century the Margraviate of Brandenburg belonged to the house of Luxemburg, at the head of which was Sigismund, who at the same time wielded the scepter of Imperial Germany. Sigismund was always in financial difficulties, and was hard pressed by his creditors. He found in Count Frederick of Nuremburg, of Hohenzollern descent, a friend who was both agreeable and helpful. At the same time, as security for the sums loaned to the Emperor at various times, the administration of Brandenburg was conveyed to Frederick by the Emperor in 1411. After the shrewd creditor had managed to secure temporary possession of the property of the spendthrift, he continued always to involve Sigismund in new debts; in the year 1415 upon final accounting between creditor and debtor, Frederick was invested with the hereditary title of Elector of Brandenburg. In order that there should be no doubt as to the nature of the agreement, two clauses were inserted: the one contained the condition that the house of Luxemburg had the right to buy back the Electorate for 400,000 florins, and in the other, Frederick and his heirs bound themselves in the case of all subsequent elections in Germany to cast their vote for the house of Luxemburg. The first clause shows that the agreement was a bit of bargaining, the second that it was pure bribery. In order now to acquire complete possession of the Electorate, it was merely necessary for the avaricious friend of Sigismund to get rid of the option to repurchase, and it did not take long before a favorable opportunity for undertaking this operation presented itself.

At the Council of Constance, when Sigismund was once again unable to raise the necessary funds to defray the expense of Imperial attendance, Frederick hurried to the Swiss border and bought with his purse the cancellation of the fatal clause. Such is the nature of the methods employed by the Divine Right, by virtue of which the ruling dynasty of Hohenzollern acquired possession of the Margraviate of Brandenburg. That is the origin of the Prussian monarchy.

Frederick's successor, a weakling, who was given the surname "iron" because he had a preference for going about in armor, bought an additional section from the Order of Teutonic Knights, just as his father had done before him. Just as the Roman senate had once been accustomed to serve as arbitrator in the internal disputes of neighboring countries, so a policy of acquiring by purchase the lands of principalities overloaded by indebtedness, became the customary method of the Hohenzollern princes.

We shall not dwell further on these dirty details, but shall proceed to the time of the Reformation. It would be absolutely wrong to suppose that, because the Reformation proved to be the mainstay of the Hohenzollern, the Hohenzollern were the mainstay of the Reformation. Quite the contrary. Frederick I., the founder of the dynasty, at the very outset of his reign, led the armies of Sigismund against the Hussites, who rewarded him for his trouble by giving him a sound thrashing. Joachim I. Nestor (1493-1535) was an adherent of the Reformation until he died. Joachim II. Hector, while he was an adherent of Lutheran protestantism, refused to draw the sword in defense of the new creed, and this at a time when it was in danger of being overcome by the overwhelming power of Emperor Charles V. Not alone did he refuse to participate in the armed resistance of the Smalcaldic League, but he offered his services to the Emperor surreptitiously. The German Reformation therefore met with open animosity on the part of the Hohenzollern at the time of its origin, false neutrality during the period of its initial struggles, and at its terrible conclusion through the ThirtyYears War, weak vascillation, cowardly inactivity, and base perfidy. It is a known fact that the Elector Georg Wilheltn tried to block the way of the liberating army of Gustavus Adolphus so that the latter had to drive him by force into the Protestant camp from which he afterwards tried to steal away by means of a separate peace with Austria. But even if the Hohenzollern were not the saviors of the Reformation, they certainly were its beneficiaries. Even though they hadn't the least ambition to fight for the cause of the Reformation, they were only too willing, and in fact eager, to commit plunder in its name. The Reformation, to them, was merely a religious pretext for secularizing church property, and the greatest part of their conquests in the 16th and 17th centuries can be traced back to a single great source: the blunder of the church, a further curious emanation of Divine Right.

In the genesis of the Hohenzollern monarchy, three events stand out prominently: the acquisition of the Electorate of Brandenburg, the addition of the Dukedom of Prussia, and finally the elevation from a Duchy to a Monarchy. We have seen how the acquisition of the electorate was accomplished. The Dukedom of Prussia was acquired by the following three measures: first, through secularisation; secondly, by marriage, and moreover, in an equivocal manner: the Elector Joachim Frederick married the younger daughter, and his son, John Sigismund, married the older daughter of the insane Duke Albrecht of Prussia, who had no male heirs. The third measure was bribery. And, moreover, he bribed the court of the Polish king on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the parliament of the Polish republic. The corruption was full of complications and lasted a number of years. A similar method was used to convert the Prussian Dukedom into a monarchy. In order to obtain the royal title, the Elector Frederick II., who subsequently became King Frederick I., had to secure the consent of the Emperor, whose Catholic conscience, however, was an obstruction. Frederick thereupon bribed the Jesuit father Wolf, the confessor of Leopold I, and added in trade 30,000 sons of Brandenburg who were slaughtered in the Austro-Spanish war of the Succession. The Hohenzollern Elector went back to the old Germanic institution of employing living beings as money, save for the difference that the Germans of old paid with cattle, and he with human beings. Thus it was that the Kingdom of the Hohenzollern was founded by the grace of God.

From the beginning of the 18th century, as the power of the Hohenzollern grew, they improved their methods of expansion; in addition to bribing and bargaining, they also used the system of division of spoils by partnership with confederates, against countries which they themselves had not defeated, but which they plundered after defeat. Thus we see them, together with Peter the Great, partitioning the Swedish provinces, and with Catharine II taking part in the partition of Poland, and with Alexander I. in that of Germany.

Whoever, therefore, opposes the claims of Prussia to Neuenburg by contending that the Hohenzollern acquired them by bribery, commits a grievous error. He quite forgets that Brandenburg as well, and Prussia, and the royal title were obtained purely by bribery. No doubt they possess Neuenburg by the same Divine Right as their other territory, and they cannot waive the former without risking the latter.