Franz Mehring

The Lessing Legend

2. The Prussian Monarchy

The historians who represent King Frederick as being related in mind and spirit to the bourgeois classics, and particularly to Lessing, usually adduce some of his utterances such as the following: “The sovereign is the first servant of his state”; “I will be a king of the poor;” “There should be no restriction on the Press;” “In my state each can find salvation after his own fashion.”

However, those principles stand in more or less glaring contrast to Frederick’s whole reign, one is tempted to take them as a product of the noted liberalism of crown princes. The more so if it is borne in mind that these nice phrases were uttered shortly before or immediately after his accession to the throne – that is, at a time when the dreadful pressure under which his father had held him from infancy was released. As a matter of fact Carlyle takes them as such, and in spite of all his hero worship he remains a practical Englishman, saying: “This beautiful language aroused in the world of that time an admiration which is not immediately intelligible to us, since we have long been accustomed to it and know its usual outcome.” Obviously it did not occur to Carlyle then, in the fifties, that this unintelligible admiration would in the nineties be made the proper duty of every patriotic German!

Even Carlyle’s conception is still too favorable to the bourgeois Prussian historians, and far too unfavorable to Frederick himself. It is scarcely necessary to state that scientific historical research has as little to do with the anti-Prussian mythologists as with the pro-Prussian ones. To see in Frederick the source of all evil is the opposite pole of the same folly, namely, to see in his person the source of all good.

Whoever studies the history of this sovereign according to scientific principles will discover as his outstanding talent, as the main cause of his successes, a quality which should be especially appreciated by adherents of the materialist conception of history. Frederick was fully aware that he could not advance even one step more than the economic conditions under which he lived and reigned allowed. Not that his judgments surpassed his time; rather they lagged far behind it, and were anything but inspired. Not that he never was deceived regarding economic conditions; he was, often enough, and always paid the price for it.

During the Seven Years War he wrote to his always despondent brother Henry that he will win who has the last thaler in his pocket; he called the finances the “nerves” of the state, and in his description of the Prussian state put them above everything else, even above the army. So we see that from the very first day to the last of his reign he adhered to this fundamental conception. It is difficult to say when this was most evident: on the day of his accession, when as a man not yet thirty he changed within a moment from an oppressed slave to an absolute despot, or on the last day, when after all his successes and fifty years of despotic reign he remained undeceived as to the limits set by the conditions of his time.

When he said that “the sovereign is the first servant of his state,” he did not mean to submit himself to this ideal, nor did he intend thereby to gain a cheap popularity. He was merely concerned with the free disposal of the country’s economic means of power. For this expression – uttered first by the emperor Tiberius – does not imply a limitation but an extension of absolutism, and although this might be a deep secret to the narrow vulgar minds of today, Frederick’s contemporaries were well aware of it. So writes Heinse in his Ardinghello:

“How can he be a servant whom nobody commands, who does not recognize a master above him, who makes laws as he likes, issues them and does not accept any, who punishes arbitrarily without law?”

In effect, when Louis XIV said “I am the State,” a moral responsibility towards the state on the part of the sovereign was still recognized, and this was yet to be shown by the execution of Louis XVI. But if the sovereign makes himself only a servant, but the first servant of the state, this means, in an absolutist state, that he renounces such responsibility. For one cannot make oneself the slave of one’s own property, and how far Frederick considered the “state” as his property can be seen from his testament, in which he bequeaths to his nephew not only his “gold and silver vessels, library, picture gallery,” etc., but also “the Kingdom of Prussia,” as if it were an ordinary farm.

In asserting that he was the first servant of the state, Frederick pursued very practical aims. He made this remark about six times, first when he was crown prince, when he opened his Anti-Macchiavell with the statement that there are two kinds of sovereigns: those that see all with their own eyes, and govern their states themselves, and those that rely on the honesty of their ministers and are ruled by whoever gets power over their minds. The first kind are absolute masters, as if they were the souls of their states, they are the first keepers of justice, the high commanders of the fighting army, the directors of the financial administration, in short, the first servants of the state. These Frederick will emulate. The others refer obviously to his father, who in the tragedy of young Frederick had been the blindly raging tool of the Austrian partisans Grumbkow and Seckendorf. And, in general, however strange a tyrant Frederick William I [1] might have been, he created and favored the civil service class, allowing them a more or less important part in the government. Frederick detested the civil servants, considering them an obstacle to his enlightened despotism, and was always trying to remove them.

We shall later deal with the question whether he really succeeded in this or whether his father did not prove the more enlightened despot. Here it only matters to know what Frederick intended. It was his desire that all civil servants blindly execute his despotic will, and the phrase that the sovereign is the first servant of the state was his guide to action. In this he always remained faithful to himself. Forty years after the Anti-Macchiavell he writes that although the sovereign is a “human being” like “the lowest of his subjects,” yet he is at the same time “the first judge, the first financier, the first minister of society,” and has the same interest as the people. This, Frederick argued, would not be the case with an aristocracy of generals and ministers, if he were to surrender to them. Frederick governed without the civil servant class altogether; he saw the ministers officially only once a year at the so-called “Review of Ministers” in June; he disposed of all government acts himself, using three so-called Chamber Secretaries, whom he chose almost without exception from subaltern clerks, condemning them to a life of monk-like solitude, or even, as a foreign diplomat said, holding them under guard like state prisoners.

It is somewhat different with “the king of the poor,” for a documentary attestation of this sentence does not exist at all. Treitschke, too, is not quite right when he says: “The most human of the royal duties, the protection of the poor and oppressed, was for the Hohenzollerns a commandment of self-preservation; proudly they carried the name ‘kings of beggars,’ bestowed by French scorn.” This “most human of the royal duties” had no meaning for Frederick. The wealthy and oppressing class, the large landowners and Junkers, were subsidized by the exchequer and were granted licentious privileges. And as for “French scorn,” it really has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject. It rather refers to a remark which Frederick made some months before his accession to the throne at a dinner of the Duke of Brunswick in Berlin: “If once I mount the throne, I shall be a real king of beggars.” By this he sought either to pave his way with good intentions, or – what is more likely – to hit back at his father’s financial art in fleecing the people. It was in this sense that his father himself interpreted the remark; when informed of it, it brought on his last fit of fury against his son. In any case, this utterance had no practical consequences: financial methods under Frederick remained where Frederick William had left them, and after the Seven Years War they were made infinitely more oppressive.

We come now to the “gazettes,” which “must not be embarrassed” [2], and here we shall witness a little interlude of foreign policy. Through his attitude towards the press Frederick wished to secure for himself another weapon against the European powers. That this is so is apparent from the fact that the historical source of this saying is a letter written by the cabinet minister Count Podewil on the 5th of June 1740, the sixth day of Frederick’s reign. It runs as follows:

“His Royal Majesty, after rising from the table, ordered me most graciously to make known in His High name to the ministers of State and War, that an unlimited liberty shall be granted to the Berlin journalists, to write in their articles on the events here, whatever they like, without being censured; for this pleases His Highness, and then foreign ministers would not be able to complain if they encountered occasionally in the local press passages that might displease them. I took the liberty to suggest that the Austrian court would be very ‘particular’ on this subject; but His Majesty replied that gazettes, to be interesting, must not be embarrassed.”

This glorious “liberty of the press” was nothing but an old and yet eternally new diplomatic trick, making it possible to say all sorts of unpleasant things to foreign powers and yet disclaim responsibility. Besides, the strict press law, repeatedly insisted upon by Frederick, remained, and stipulated “that in public nothing may be printed without higher permission,” and any criticism of the government or administration, even “any discussion of public conditions,” was considered “absolutely impermissible.” In the political sections of the Berlin journals of that time one finds only news of fires, earthquakes, monsters, etc. ...

On principle, Frederick always professed to be opposed to liberty of the press, even in his literary correspondence with French writers, to whom he was wont to display his liberalism; as, for example, in his letter to d’Alembert dated April 7th 1772: “One has to suppress everything in books which endangers the general security and the welfare of society.” Even at the close of his life, in a cabinet order issued October 14th 1780, the king rendered homage to liberty of the press in his own peculiar way, by inflicting military service as punishment for “unauthorized journalism that stirred up the subjects and caused insolent vexations.”

Actually there is no more classical witness against the press system of Frederick than Lessing himself, who in the bitterest poverty of his early years was averse to editing a political paper in Berlin under a censorship which suppressed every independent expression; and who in his mature years characterized with bitter words “the Prussian liberty to think and to write” as being “only and exclusively the liberty to make as many gibes against religion as one likes. The honest man should be ashamed to use this liberty.”

Here we come to the religious policy of Frederick and to the most famous of his winged words. In the phrase: “All religions must be tolerated, and each one must find salvation after his own fashion,” Stahr sees the “fundamental idea of Nathan,” and who knows how many have credulously repeated his wisdom. One might wonder why Stahr and his followers did not prefer to quote another cabinet order issued at the same time on the same question, an order that might even remind one of the parable of the three rings, namely his reply to the request of a Catholic for citizenship in Frankfort: “All religions are equally good, if only the people that profess them are honest people, and if Turks and heathens would come and populate the country, then we would build mosques and churches for them as well.” This indeed would be something like the “three rings,” but – the despairing phrase “and would populate the country” prevented this cabinet order from being developed into another patriotic fable. Frederick wanted to “populate” his poor and sparsely-settled country in order to get recruits for his army and taxes for his exchequer; and for this purpose Christians, Turks, heathens and – for financial purposes at least – even Jews were highly welcomed, and were granted immediate recognition of their service and protection of religious liberty. As a matter of fact, he never dreamed of granting equal civil rights to all religious bodies; nothing was ever further from his thought than to consider the Jew, the Turk, the Mohammedan as being equal to the Protestant. Such equality was demanded by Locke in his book on tolerance, and after him by the whole school of bourgeois rationalism.

The Protestant clergy considered Frederick’s accession to the throne to be a convenient opportunity to get rid of the Roman Catholic schools established for soldiers’ children by Frederick William I. They asked the king to suppress these schools, referring to a report of the chancellor of the exchequer accusing their clerical teachers of subversive propaganda; but Frederick wrote on the margin of this petition: “The religions must all be tolerated, and the only thing the chancellor has to keep in mind is that no religion prejudices the other, for in this country each one must find salvation after his own fashion.” The so-called “fundamental idea of Nathan” consists thus in nothing more than the maintenance of an institution already established by his father, a sovereign of the most limited church-faith, who did not even recoil from ill treatment of his oldest son, the later king Frederick, for having a different view of some subtle Calvinist dogma than he should have had according to the paternal will. Nevertheless Frederick William I established Roman Catholic schools for soldiers’ children, and also maintained in the town of Brandenburg a Russian pope for the Russian soldiers in his army; he even allowed them, no matter where they were stationed, to journey to Brandenburg for the satisfaction of their religious needs, thus incurring the risk of desertion, which he feared like the pest. It actually happened once that twenty costly-gained Russians took advantage of this to desert from their regiment, which was garrisoned at Halle under the “old Dessauer.” [3] What Stahr and his blind followers took for “the fundamental idea of Nathan” was nothing other than the first commandment of the Prussian military state. The foreign recruiting, in itself already difficult, would have become altogether impossible if the resistance of the governments and the people had been backed by the churches. This was especially true in the case of Prussia, whose chief fields of recruiting were the clerical states of Southern and Western Germany. The Roman Catholic clergy considered Prussia the most heretical state not so much on account of the pronounced “Protestant convictions of the Hohenzollerns,” as represented by the obliging historians, but rather because the kingdom of Prussia proper – the province of East Prussia of to-day – had been expropriated from the Catholic church. The military state of Prussia had every reason to treat the Catholic church delicately, for its very existence depended upon it; and Frederick, who saw this quite clearly, protected the Catholic soldiers’ school from Protestant persecutions and prohibited any attack on Catholicism by Protestant chaplains. He decreed that every regiment should have regular services for the Catholic soldiers and ordered that in all field hospitals a Catholic priest should be present to give religious comfort to his adherents. In 1751 he made known to the “Holy Father” that the Catholics were not only tolerated in his states, but even preferred.

There was another very important military consideration. In spite of every vigilance, and the bloodiest of articles of war, desertion continued rife among his hired troops, and against so obstinate an evil even religious means were not to be despised. The military regulations decreed that “the boys should fear God,” that on Sundays they were to be led to church twice, and they “should always silently and with reverence listen to God’s word.” To make the military oath effective, its “holiness” had to be pumped into “the boys” by a clergyman of their own faith. It is characteristic that Frederick held the Jesuits, with their strict discipline, in highest esteem; and he cruelly punished a priest of this order who dared to doubt the “holiness” of the military oath. After the abolition of the Jesuit order Frederick sent word to Pope Clemens XIV through his Roman chargé d’affaires: “I never found better priests than the Jesuits, in any respect.” He maintained the Jesuits without frock as “priests of the royal schools” in his country. Perhaps the liberal Jesuit-haters and culture-mongers of to-day call this “Frederickian tradition”! But when a certain recaptured deserter declared that the Jesuit father Faulhaber had explained to him in Glatz at confession that although desertion was a great sin still it was a sin that could be forgiven, then Frederick without trial, even without confession, ordered that this priest be hanged next to a deserter who had already been rotting for half a year.

Frederick treated the Protestant clergy more contemptuously. He used them also for his military and educational purposes, to keep the army and the people in humility, obedience and ignorance; but he had a much lower estimate of their efficiency, and whenever these poorly-paid people asked for a small increase in salary or any other improvement of their situation, he used to fob them off by pointing to the apostles who had preached for nothing – in short with remarks that Lessing might rightly call “gibes at religion.”

To the superficial observer Frederick’s religious policy presents a contradictory picture, but in fact it is linked up logically with the possibilities of existence of the Prussian state of that time.

The development of the Prussian state brought Frederick into the strongest opposition to the Catholic church, and accordingly, Frederick took care that those admitted to the important administrative posts of the state and municipalities were Protestants; but the maintenance of this state forced upon him a military and population policy the first condition of which was the toleration of all religious faiths, and even to a certain degree the favoring of the Catholic church. And as supports of his despotism he preferred the Jesuits to all other priests.

In all this there is not to be found the least shred of Frederick’s personal liberalism.

But what has this to do with Nathan, what has Frederick to do with Lessing? About as much as, or even less than the emperor William II had to do with Lassalle and Marx. In a narrow sense parallels can be found between Frederick and the young William II: “The sovereign is the first servant of his state” – William dismisses Bismarck; “King of the beggars” – February decrees; “Freedom of the press” – abolition of the anti-socialist laws; “Each one must find salvation after his own fashion” – Prussian draft of law for primary schools. In each case there was a peaceful separation of the faiths, but every faith in its realm had to hold spiritual domination over the masses.

However, nowadays one who called the emperor William II a “collaborator and fellow-combatant of his great contemporaries” Lassalle and Marx would be entrusted to the care of a lunatic asylum, provided he did not find himself within prison walls for lèse-majesté.

It is still more absurd to paint Frederick and Lessing as being akin in mind and spirit. They had nothing in common; being the most gifted representatives of their respective classes, they embodied the most acute differences of their time in the most acute way. Frederick deeply despised the “roture,” whose advocate Lessing was, and with his own hands expelled every bourgeois element from the ranks of his officers. Lessing, in absolute agreement with his spiritual kinsmen Herder and Winckelmann, loathed Frederick’s state as “the most servile country in Europe.”



1. Frederick II’s father.

2. Frederick’s literal words.

3. Leopold of Dessau, Prussian general.


Last updated on 9.2.2006