Franz Mehring

Absolutism and Revolution in Germany



The Brandenburg-Prussian state

The Beginnings of the Prussian State

Describing the Hansa, a bourgeois historian wrote: ‘Nowhere is the difference between the Upper (South) and Lower (North) Germans more perceptible than in that activity which, above all others, breaks down national limitations. In trade between Upper and Lower Germany, the Mediterranean confronts the North Sea, land trade confronts sea trade, the manufacturer confronts the merchant, and gold confronts silver currency.’ [6] This difference prevented in Germany the rise of a national state, out of the decay of the feudal empire, which happened in France, England and Spain. As soon as the crafts, commerce and trade, in short all the first beginnings of the capitalist mode of production, began to develop out of the medieval natural economy, the conflict of economic interests in Germany prevented what their harmony in those other countries created. If one insists on placing a starting date on the development whose outcomes were the years 1648, 1763 and 1806, then the year 1273 offers itself. The election of the petty Count Rudolf of Habsburg as German Emperor revealed for the first time that the German monarchy was beginning to lead a shadowy existence. It is sufficient to point out that, at the time of his election, Rudolf lay under the Papal ban for, with others, setting fire to and plundering the monastery of St. Mary Magdalene in Basle. He was the puppet of the great territorial princes, who only let him have the crown under their tutelage and only permitted him to found a very insecure dynasty at the expense of an ally who had became too powerful for their taste, King Ottokar of Bohemia. If Rudolf nevertheless became the founder of a race of powerful princes, and his dynasty grew to rule over a world empire on which the sun never set, this only happened because he and his successors made themselves the standard bearers and champions of the Papal universal monarchy. That was the inviolable policy of the House of Habsburg. Rudolf chastised the princes with the same weapon with which they had so often chastised his mighty predecessors. Immediately after the election he subjected himself humbly to the Church for whose earthly goods he had, in his less exalted state, shown such disrespectful greed. From his unconditional subjection to the Pope, however, he gained not only moral, but also, and more importantly, economic power. For half-shares he facilitated the exploitation of the German nation by the Roman Curia. [7] At a convention of the princes at Würzburg he personally defended a Papal Legate who had been found guilty of the most disgraceful usurious practices.

But these usurious practices were eating away at the roots of the Papal universal monarchy. They became all the more superfluous the more commodity production and world trade developed, and following them secular knowledge. But the more superfluous they became, the higher they raised their demands, the more ruthlessly they plundered the nations. A confrontation with Rome became a necessity for all the peoples of Europe. It would be out of place to follow through here how it was carried out in the various other individual European nations in accordance with the level of economic development reached. [8] With the conflict of economic interests that divided the country, this confrontation was only possible in Germany in this form – that one part clung to Rome at any price, while for that very reason the other part had, at any price, to break away from Rome.

For some years it did indeed look as if Germany had found, in the struggle against Rome, the bond that would bring together all parts of the country and all classes of the people in national unity. Papal exploitation and robbery had become so intolerable that peasants, burghers, knights and princes united against them. Indeed, the desire to shake off the Roman yoke resonated deeply within the Catholic clergy, and even the Habsburg Emperor, Maximillian, regarded Luther as a man who could be used at a pinch. But this common goal was merely negative. As soon as it was achieved, the positive contradictions had to appear all the more sharply in the economic and social arena. And so it happened. The defeat of the peasants, whom Luther betrayed disgracefully, and in whose blood the princes waded with merciless cruelty, broke the back of the reformation movement. The princes were left the victors on the social battlefield. That was a historical necessity, for the princes represented the centralization of the modern state as far as that was at all possible given economic conditions in Germany. But for all that it did not bring what people today fondly call freedom of thought, of religion and of conscience, cultural progress and so forth. The Roman Church in the waning Middle Ages did little enough for the care of the sick and the poor, but it was still better than when the princes devoured the Church’s property or squandered it on their whores. Protestant doctrine itself, however, congealed into stone as the reflection of this petty despotism in the dogma of the divine right of the princes, of their omnipotence and omniscience, of the unconditional obedience of their subjects, in short, a dogma previously unheard on German soil and which, above all, had never been taught by the Catholic Church.

All the ingenuity of the ideological school of history founders on this question: How did it happen that the revolutionary movement against the universal power of the Middle Ages turned into the most miserable reaction in the very country where it seemed to achieve its highest development? How did it happen that, as Lassalle puts it, ‘religious freedom’ could only be achieved by ‘sacrificing’ to it ‘for at least three centuries the slightest trace of all national existence, all political freedom, unity and greatness’, whereupon, of course, even ‘spiritual freedom’ ‘had soon to decay into that repulsive sectarian priestly wrangling that filled the 16th and 17th centuries’? The ideological dispute on this between the Catholic and Protestant historians is entering its fourth century and has still got no further than it did on the first day. It will get no further by Judgement Day unless somebody somewhere realizes that in the struggle of religious creeds is reflected at any given time the struggle of economic class interests. Catholicism and feudalism were one and the same in the Middle Ages. Rising capitalism could not vanquish the one without overthrowing the other. The towns had to settle accounts with the priests if they wanted to get their thumbs into the eyes of the Junkers. The economically highly developed towns of Southern France were as early as the 13th century the strongholds of Protestant heresy. With the prophetic vision of the poet, Nikolaus Lenau celebrates the Albigenses as the true ancestors of ‘those who stormed the Bastille and their like’. Like the Albigenses, the Huguenots were later among the economically most developed elements of the French population, and the Frenchman Calvin gave the Protestant heresy the dogmatic form that could and did serve the revolutionary bourgeoisie as a victorious banner against the world monarchy of the Popes and the Habsburgs.

This came about above all in the ‘Germanic lands’ of Holland and England. In Germany proper, the best that the German Luther could manage was a dogmatic form of the Protestant heresy, which for several centuries weighed on the intellectual development of the nation like a terrible incubus. According to the ideological theory of history, the cause of this world of difference would have to lie in the disparity between the Great Men, Calvin and Luther, or, as has indeed been said, in the fact that Calvin had a freer and Luther a stricter conception of Protestantism, so that, if Calvin had lived in Wittenburg and Luther in Geneva, the history of Europe would have taken a completely different course. Unfortunately for this ingenious conception of history, man for man Calvin was probably more narrow-minded and intolerant than Luther, who did not have anything like the burning at the stake of Michael Servetus to his discredit. [9] But the historical Luther in Geneva is as impossible as the historical Calvin in Wittenburg. The rich trading city of Geneva would no more have tolerated the episcopal power of a secular prince than a democratic church constitution would have been possible in the ‘old village’ of Wittenburg, which, according to Luther’s testimony, stood in termine civilitatis – on the frontiers of civilization. The contrast of course emerged most clearly in the main dispute between Calvin and Luther, the question of the communion, which the sect of the ideological school of history most affected by the Enlightenment – its most pretentious but by no means its most profound sect! – is inclined to think a senseless dispute over empty words. Luther’s sacramental words made the priest transform the bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ: they thus made the parson the creator of God and thus the episcopal ruler of a country, the Archpope over many lesser Popes. But the revolutionary bourgeoisie, whose spokesman Calvin already was, thought what Lessing later said, that the many little Popes were more intolerable than the one big Pope, and so they left the communion as a mere commemoration of Jesus’ self-sacrifice.

In other words, Calvinism and Lutheranism were the different religious reflections of the different economic conditions of the bourgeoisie. In the former, its most developed elements triumphed, while in the latter those elements that were only half developed stuck fast. Not only was the development of the bourgeois class in Germany hindered by the conflict of economic interests however, but the great economic revolutions of the 16th century even dashed the German cities down from whatever heights they had reached. The naval supremacy of the Hansa, which alone had torn Northern Germany out of medieval barbarism, was irrevocably lost. The competition from Holland, made mighty by its extensive shipping and its significant fisheries, the economic strengthening of the Scandinavian countries, whose trade the Hansa had more or less monopolized, the removal of the Hansa’s trading privileges in England by Queen Elizabeth; these and other mutually-reinforcing conditions brought about the downfall of the mighty city league. The Lower German cities were almost completely forced out of the traffic with the North East of Europe by the English and the Dutch; only a small part of their trade with England remained to them. The Dutch gave them no opening in the trade with Spain and Portugal. They were totally excluded from traffic with the two Indies and the Levant. Equally, the trade of the Upper German cities had to a large extent lost its importance as a result of the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese and the resulting decline of the trade of the Italian cities. And the more the growth of capitalism led to the extension of its markets, i.e. to the great geographical discoveries of the age of the Reformation, the faster world trade moved away from the Mediterranean and the North Sea to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the faster the well-springs of the prosperity of North and South Germany dried up, the lower the bourgeois class of the German people sank.

The downfall of the German cities however was the downfall of the German Reformation. In the decisive days of the Peasant War, the towns could only bring themselves to adopt a half-hearted and ambiguous attitude, and after that the power lay with the princes. Engels has drawn a very correct parallel between the German bourgeoisie of 1525 and that of 1848. On both occasions it was defeated, partly out of a lack of revolutionary fervour against feudalism, partly out of an excess of reactionary fear of the proletariat. Let us now refer to a contemporary testimony, to a letter of Willibald Pirckheimer, the famous patrician of Nuremberg, who can well be regarded as the classical representative of the German bourgeoisie in the age of the Reformation. Shortly before his death in 1530 he wrote that, in the beginning, he had been a good Lutheran, but that in comparison with the Protestant knaves the Roman knavery was pious. It had only deceived with trickery and cunning, while they openly and unashamedly led a scandalous life. He said that by this gospel the common man could only be educated to think of nothing else but how a common division could take place, and that where there was no great punishment a common plunder would arise, as had already happened in many places. He said that he was not writing because he either wanted to or could praise the ways of the Pope and his priests, but rather that he knew that they were in many ways criminal and needed improving. However, the papists were at least united among themselves: those that called themselves Protestant on the other hand were highly disunited and divided into sects, and must needs be given a free rein, like the fanatical peasants, until in the end they went quite mad. [10] One can see that allegations of ‘divisions’ and ‘splits’ in Social Democracy are nothing new, but for all that one cannot put old Pirckheimer on the same level as the capitalist hacks of today. He was a very learned man, and his half-rueful return to papism did have a more profound significance than the philistines’ miserable fear of ‘splits’. If the more cultured and richer South and West returned early to the old church, if Salzburg, Bamburg and Wüzburg, Trier, Cologne and Paderborn, even Fulda and Eichsfeld became Catholic once more and in peacetime at that, this did not happen, or did not only happen, through the coercion and trickery of the Jesuits, and was not even ‘reactionary’ in the sense that Protestant historians commonly use. Not only did a rejuvenated Catholicism stand head and shoulders above Lutheranism, which rapidly ossified, but a break with Rome meant a break with the then most developed countries of Europe, with Italy, France and Spain. The economic interests of the Upper German cities depended on them, and if their trade received its death-blow precisely from the decay of Italian trade, it is also true to say that a drowning man usually clings all the more convulsively to the planks of the ship with which he is going under.

In Northern and Eastern Germany on the other hand Protestantism retained its ascendancy. Those parts of the country had entered the cultural orbit of Roman Christianity comparatively late. All they had ever experienced of Rome was evil, the most refined and shameless methods of plunder. Their economic connections stretched not to the South and West but to the North and East of Europe. The split in economic interests that divided Northern from Southern Germany was also bound to be felt in the religious reflection of those interests. But if its economic centre of gravity shifted from the markets of the towns to the princes’ courts, then German Protestantism was bound to be completely different from the French, Dutch and Swiss variety. There was indeed a strong community of interest between the bourgeoisie and the princes. If the capitalist mode of production created the nation state, then the nation state was at first only possible in the form of the absolute monarchy. Wherever a unified national economic activity arose, the monarchs were very conscious of the roots of their power. They encouraged the economic interests of their countries: agriculture, the crafts, trade and industry. The Hansa perished precisely because the increasingly powerful princes in Northern and Eastern Europe defended the interests of their own industrial and commercial classes with ruthless harshness. Germany, however, never achieved a unified nation state, but only a great number of partial states, and, as Lassalle makes his Franz von Sickingen say [11], the wind of history could not blow through such little parcels of land. The German territorial princes were more great landlords of the feudal age than absolute monarchs of the capitalist age. In the towns they saw not the sources of their power, but ambitious and dangerous rivals of the Junkers. In a grander style than the rough and ready robber-barons, but in exactly the same spirit, they tried to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. As soon as the decline of the towns decided this struggle in favour of the princes, German Protestantism, from being the creed of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, became the creed of a contemptible and fatal pocket-despotism. Through the rapid impoverishment of her people Germany became a by-word for poverty.

It would be difficult to find, in the whole of world history, a class that was as poor in spirit and strength and as prodigally rich in human depravity for as long as the German princes between the 15th and 18th centuries. One cannot however blame the individual dynasties for this saddening fact. On the contrary. If they are to be just, bourgeois historians cannot but agree that it would have made no difference if the head of any old family of Müllers or Schulzes had sat upon their thrones. It was the economic conditions of their lives that made such a grotesque caricature out of the German princely class in those centuries. Since they lacked the basis that princely power possessed in economically advanced countries, they could only survive by the continual betrayal of their country, their people and, last but not least – particularly where the Protestant princes were concerned – their faith. Since the princes could not live off the industry of their subjects they lived off their blood. What the trade in goods could not yield, they won from the trade in men. Little by little the export trade fell back almost exclusively to one significant article, linen. German linen, a product of rural industry, was produced so well and cheaply that several European countries could not do without it. Its sale was especially encouraged in the 17th century by the extension of the English, French and Spanish colonial trade. Particularly from Lower Saxony, significant quantities of linen cloth went via Hamburg and Bremen to England, France and the Iberian Peninsula, while the sale of linen from Westphalia to Holland and from Swabia to Italy was also not inconsiderable. Apart from the export of certain metal goods, however, that was all, and the amount of foreign goods that could be bought out of the proceeds of this trade was nowhere near sufficient for the needs of princely luxury. The German princes needed other sources of money and found them in the subsidies for which they sold their monarchic rights, particularly their domination over the flesh and blood of their subjects, to foreign interests. Gülich reckons that between 1750 and 1815 alone 33 million thalers were paid by France and 311 million by England, sums which can start to explain how so many territorial princes in a country as poor as Germany could compete with the ostentatious prodigality of the kings of France. [12]

A class of princes whose economic basis is the continual betrayal of all their ideal princely duties must naturally become a breeding ground for all the human vices. As early as the 15th century the register of the sins of the German princes was endless. Even Treitschke had to call the princes of the 16th century a ‘depraved generation’. At the Imperial Election of 1519, all the Electors bar one sold their votes. The sole exception was Frederick of Saxony, who enjoyed from his mineral royalties an economic independence which, it must be admitted, had become somewhat precarious since the discovery of the New World. The Elector of Brandenburg and his brother, the Elector of Mainz, caused a particular scandal by the impartiality with which they auctioned off their votes to the highest bidder, first to the French pretender to the German Imperial throne, then to the Spanish. But Imperial Elections were rare feasts for these dealers. The object of their everyday profiteering was the blood of their subjects. It must be said that they scorned to put forward any ideological pretext to justify this. There is no doubt that the great majority of the secular princes tended towards Protestantism, above all because it allowed them to pocket the rich properties of the church, and the Lutheran doctrine became, with the passage of time, more and more a heavenly glorification of their own very earthly pocket-despotism. But neither they nor the more ‘pious’ Catholic princes were restrained by religious convictions when it came to the sweet trade is human goods. They would have rejected any such suggestion as a truly blasphemous interference in their divine prerogative. In the Huguenot wars the German lansquenets (foot soldiers) and reitres (cavalrymen) fought on one side as much as on the other, and German Catholics and Protestants mixed together cheek by jowl in every French camp. The princes of Baden, the Count Palatinate and many other Protestant princes joined the Catholic League against the Huguenots. The Protestant Eric of Brunswick led his troops to help Duke Alba tame the ‘godless’ Dutch. In the wars of the Schmalkaldic League, Maurice of Saxony and the two Counts of Mark Brandenburg, Joachim II and Hans, supported the Papal Habsburg party and not their Protestant confederates. And so it went, right down to that vile trade in men that the German princes carried out with England at the end of the 18th century, and which we will have to look at in more detail later.

It is easy to see why the Papal Habsburg world power was always trying to eject this nest of ragamuffin royal yokels and re-instate the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. It is also easy to see why all these attempts not only failed but led to the opposite of the desired goal. Miserable as the German princes were, they were rooted in the economic conditions of the country. Moreover, Germany’s enemies stretched out powerful hands to protect the permanent treason of her princes. The greatest of these actions, the Thirty Years’ War, ended with the independence of the German princes officially recognized and guaranteed by France and Sweden under international law. Thus the economic disunity of Germany, which made it a plaything of foreign interests, found its political expression. In the war itself the Protestant princes played a more or less miserable role, and that of the Elector of Brandenburg was so cowardly and dubious that even the official Hohenzollern historians have given up on him, for what that is worth. Be that as it may, the Habsburg monarchy failed in trying to bring together what economic development had put asunder, and from the poorest corner of Protestant Germany arose an opponent who was soon to become more dangerous than France and Sweden, the foreign protectors of the small German states.

This opponent was the Brandenburg-Prussian state. With the Thirty Years’ War it began to dominate Northern Germany as Austria dominated Southern Germany. Even at the time a Habsburg minister said that the Brandenburger would be the man that the ‘Protestant rabble’ were waiting for. But how did it actually come about? The usual answer is: ’It was the work of the Hohenzollerns’. ‘Men make history’, shouts Herr Treitschke; ‘without the Hohenzollerns the Prussian state is unthinkable’. Then he talks of the ‘greed for dominion of a dynasty whose members were in the main stricken with unparalleled incompetence’ – meaning the Habsburgs. This critical analysis of Austro-Prussian dualism is dazzling in its simplicity, and it would certainly be very satisfying if, indeed, abuse and flattery had any place in writing history. Other reliable historians say that Prussia won hegemony over Germany as the champions of Protestant thought. But we have already seen not only what this ‘Protestant thought’ was really all about but also why the Prussian state was happy to let everyone choose their own path to salvation. Those bold minds do indeed come closer to the truth who grasp that Prussia conquered the German Empire little by little as a military state. This, however, is only to clarify the question, and by no means to explain it, for Austria was also a military state. All the European states were or became military states in the 17th century and even the smallest little states were regular boxes of toy soldiers. Absolutism was inconceivable without an army. The first form of modern warfare was the mass levies of Landsknechte but this form died out at the beginning of the 17th century. None of the protagonists in the Thirty Years’ War could strike a decisive blow because their war matériel was inadequate. That is one of the main reasons why it lasted so long and was so devastating, so that it ended not in the victory of one party over another so much as in general exhaustion. The armies were too small and above all they had too little endurance. Every time their pay was held up – and the warring states all soon found themselves in great financial difficulties – they threatened to, and did in fact, fall apart. If one army was victorious on the Isar or the Rhine, a hostile army was already forming on the Elbe or the Oder. The highest art of generalship consisted in the, so to speak, demagogic ability to bind as much cannon-fodder as possible as securely as possible to one’s flag, and the case of Wallenstein [13] shows how dangerous this demagogy could become for the princes themselves. From these experiences and lessons there arose the mercenary standing army, for which the lumpen-proletariat created by the war also provided the necessary raw material.

The Brandenburg-Prussian state therefore was not distinguished from the other states simply by being a military state, but by growing to a certain extent to be the military state among military states, and this arose out of the economic conditions of the parts which made up the country. The origins of the colonization of the land to the east of the Elbe in the second half of the Middle Ages cannot be set out here, nor can the various forms that it took in Brandenburg, Pomerania, Silesia and Prussia. Suffice it to say that Mark Brandenburg, the heartland of the Prussian state, was originally a military colony. Considerations of war formed the basis of all property relations at that time. All land entailed a military obligation. Fees were paid or services performed for that end. The ministeriales, a numerous estate of military vassals, sprang up for feudal service. Its vocation was above all military service and not agriculture. The feudal holding was there to maintain the troops, and only as many hides of land [14] could be held rent-free as were necessary to maintain the equipage required by the fief. In 1280 it was established that the knight could keep six hides free under the plough, but had to pay rent for every additional hide. But this arrangement quickly fell into disuse. The armed power became an economic class which turned its public office into a source of social self-interest. The warrior vassal’s castle set itself up against the Margraves (the military governors of border provinces) as much as it did over the free peasants who were their equals, not their subordinates, and who had emigrated over the Elbe precisely in order to escape seigneurial oppression in the Empire proper.

In the land register of Mark Brandenburg for 1375 there are already knights’ estates of 10, 20 and 25 hides that still only have to afford one horse as feudal dues. There are knights’ estates of more than six free hides that only have to pay a fee of ½, ¼ or 1/8 of a horse. Three knights of Wilmersdorf near Berlin have 10, eight and three free hides and only have to pay one half or one quarter horse each. Instead of the 4,000 knights who lived in the various Marks in the 15th century there were in the 16th century only 600. Instead of the complete ‘lance’ – the knight with two or three squires, an archer and a couple of footsoldiers – came the ‘one-horsers’. Finally, instead of appearing himself, the vassal even sent ‘a coachman, bailiff, fisherman or some such bad and untried rabble’, as it says in a decree issued by the Elector of 1610, on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War. If this neglect of national defence was itself impossible without the complicity of the country’s rulers, who allowed the knights to evade their service obligations by purchase, flattery or simple defiance, then the Margraves, whether of the Ascanian, Bavarian, Luxemburg or Hohenzollern dynasties, bore an even greater burden of guilt for the decay of the free peasantry. For favours and for money they endowed the knights with land rents and with labour obligations, in short with all the services owed to them as sovereigns by the peasants. They opened the door to seigneurial privilege by turning the material obligation towards the sovereign observed by the village authorities, the feudal headman, into a kind of personal dependency upon people who did not belong to the village. They sold both high and low justice over the villages to the knights. They allowed the knights to introduce a profusion of new fees, services and obligations on the part of the peasants they had already sold to them. In order to assure these feudal services in perpetuity the Margraves finally removed the peasants’ freedom of mobility and declared them ‘tied to the soil’. And when the feudal order collapsed with the economic revolutions of the Age of the Reformation, and the ‘common nobleman’ settled on his estates and plied agriculture as a trade, the Elector Joachim II even allowed him to ‘clear’ the peasant holdings for a cash indemnification, to join the independent farm, the sheep-run, the holdings of the peasant and the cottager to the knight’s estate or to turn them into so many knights’ estates for his sons, which, it goes without saying, were free of tax. By the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War a state of affairs had developed in the Mark similar to the aristocratic anarchy of Poland.

This fatal social policy however had yet another bad effect on the country’s military situation. The so-called Landesausschuss, the conscription of every twentieth man in time of war, which, along with the feudal knights, formed part of the armed forces, had also decayed. An official scheme for a new military system expresses in prosaic words that the peasants made, it is true, better soldiers than the burgesses, but that they were overburdened with feudal services and that moreover it was questionable whether the means should be put into their hands to free themselves from their servitude. In fact this possibility was so feared that, despite doubts as to the effectiveness of the town population as soldiers, an attempt was made to form a Landesausschuss from among them and through training make them to a certain extent suitable for guard duties. However, what had been feared did in fact happen and the campaign of regal plunder with which the first Hohenzollerns had pumped the last halfpenny out of the towns of the Mark bore its fruit. Even the burgesses of Berlin refused to perform military service. In a written complaint of November 17, 1610 they declared that some of them had been so severely drilled during exercises that they had died of it, that shooting too was dangerous because it alarmed pregnant women, and all sorts of other heroic grounds for protest. Scarcely any other territorial state in Germany had a military system as decrepit as that of Mark Brandenburg on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War. In the other main component of the then Brandenburg-Prussian state, the Duchy of Prussia (later the Province of East Prussia) things were even more anarchic, for here the power of the prince was itself very insecure, depending as it did not only on the Junker-dominated Estates but also on his Polish vassals. Thus it was the Hohenzollern state which, above all, paid the price for the Thirty Years’ War. Defenceless as it was, the war ravaged its individual parts terribly, depressing them to a condition of barbarism which, according to the contemporary accounts, was too horrible for us to imagine. The poor, small and not very numerous towns of the territory were completely decayed or destroyed. The mouths of the Oder and the Vistula were in the hands of the Swedes and the Poles. The grossly overburdened peasant population vegetated in more animal than human conditions. One must keep these economic conditions in mind to understand how they could give rise to the Prussian state, which was, on the one hand, the most brutal of military states, and on the other hand, as Lessing said, ‘the most servile state in Europe’. The one determines the other as cause and effect, for if, in the shadow of the Prussian military despotism, only slavery could flourish, then the Prussian military despotism could only arise in a part of Germany where the last traces of education and culture, science and prosperity had disappeared, and the mass of the population had lost any independent will through centuries of slavery.

It is of course a patriotic myth when the bourgeois Prussian history books claim that the Elector Frederick William, whose rule started eight years before the Treaty of Westphalia, created an army and broke the power of the Junkers simply by virtue of his genius, all the rest following on naturally from this.

Ever since the Hohenzollerns had come to the country, the class struggles between the princes and the Junkers had raged in various forms, but in the long run always to the advantage of the Junkers. When the first Hohenzollern, with the help of the towns of the Mark and a few neighbouring princes, reduced the Quitzows’ castles [15], it was indeed a very superficial success. Common footpads and vagabonds like the Quitzows did not even satisfy the modest demands that their age placed upon the representatives of the ruling classes. Their own associates washed their hands of them just as today the stock exchange washes its hands of those who steal pocket handkerchiefs instead of speculating in millions. But all the more emphatically did the aristocracy of the Mark force the new rulers to represent its greedy and oppressive class interests in legal forms against the towns and particularly against the peasants. Of the dozen Hohenzollern Electors there was not one who espoused the cause of the peasants, scarcely a single one who did not bend the peasants lower beneath the Junkers’ yoke than his predecessors had already done. Thus it was only in this process that the Junkers really became the lords of the land. The low level of development of the armed forces of Brandenburg was due precisely to their superiority and the weakness of the royal authority, particularly from the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th century, for historically militarism developed step by step with absolutism.

If the Elector Frederick William, who reigned from 1640 until 1688, was to continue to be a prince at all after the Thirty Years’ War, then he obviously needed an army. But it is no less obvious that he could not keep a single company under arms without the Junkers, never mind in the face of Junker opposition. At the beginning of his reign he drew from his domains some 40,000 talers, and this sum did not even cover the expenses of the extravagance of his court. Without taxes there was no standing army, and with the Estates there were no taxes. Now the Elector had no means at all by which to force the Estates of the Mark to approve taxes. He was, it is true, a ruthless and energetic, although according to the foreign diplomats who dealt with him, only moderately gifted despot. Considerations of law, justice and treaty worried him little where the pursuit of his dynastic interest was at stake. Later, when he had a firmer footing in the Mark and commanded a standing army, after he had won sovereignty over the Duchy of Prussia, he broke the resistance of the Estates there with bloody and illegal acts of violence. But directly after the Thirty Years’ War he did not possess the strength to force the Estates to approve taxes, and he knew as well as they did that they would not permit him the miles perpetuus (standing army) merely for the sake of his pretty eyes and the common good, and if he did not know, he could have learnt it from the fates of his ancestors.

Thus it could only depend on whether the Junkers themselves had an interest in setting up a standing army. They had such an interest, although admittedly for different reasons. Above all it suited them, as the ruling class, to maintain the state. They could not let this society, which was for them so idyllic, be swallowed up one fine day by the Swedes or the Poles.

Then again, the peasant population had fallen into a certain ferment as a result of the Thirty Years’ War. Kautsky [16] correctly sees a further cause of the long duration of the war in the fact that, since the great Peasant War, a mass peasant proletariat had existed in Germany, that this proletariat had not been absorbed, as it was in other countries, by industry and the colonies, that it thus offered a rich reservoir for the recruitment of mercenary armies, and that finally the war itself aggravated the poverty of the peasants, thus supplying a new proletariat and fresh recruits until finally it died of general exhaustion. If this was generally true of Germany, it was particularly true of Mark Brandenburg, which had suffered particularly badly in the war. Whatever peasants there were left had learnt to bear arms or still bore arms. Disbanded soldiers settled on the shattered farmsteads and ‘whoever had worn the soldier’s plume in his hat resisted the harsh burdens of servitude’. How heavily this circumstance weighed for the Junkers east of the Elbe is proved by the repeated strict prohibition of the carrying of arms by serfs, and even more by the sovereign decree, enacted in neighbouring Silesia, that whoever had followed the flag was to be personally free of the duties of serfdom. But the more the necessity of the age shook feudal privileges, the more rigidly the Junkers strove to restore them. In the war the peasant population had moved hither and thither in all kinds of directions. Vassals had left their homes without authority and settled elsewhere. Their old masters claimed the right to demand them back like slaves and, if necessary, to fetch them back by force. This often happened in the face of fierce opposition. The shortage of labour also affected the landlords painfully. They were short of servants, and what servants there were had the insolence to demand humane treatment and keep. All villagers were forbidden to let rooms to free men and women. All such tenants had to be reported and were thrown into prison until they decided to take service. But it seems that it was hard for the Junkers to find the number of people they required for service. For a period after the war wages and keep were better than they had been before the war or than they were to be in the following centuries. You will have no difficulty in understanding why the Junkers’ heartbreaking lamentations over the malice and wantonness of their servants continued some decades after the war.

Finally there was a mass lumpen proletariat in Mark Brandenburg after the war. Impoverished soldiers, unused to work, vagabonds and gypsies roamed around in hordes begging for alms and prepared to take them by force. They were a heavy scourge, particularly in the countryside. The slightest refusal to fill their hands turned the beggars into robbers. But perhaps even more burdensome for the nobility of the Mark was another lumpen proletariat which had sprung rampant from their own lap. We have already referred to the way in which the Prussian ‘cabbage’ Junkers had gone to seed before the War. Several of them often squatted in one medium sized village, their estates mostly no bigger than a peasant’s plot. Thus a great part of them had become propertyless through the war. These Krippenreiter – knights on wooden horses – also went round in whole groups, ‘in packs’ as people used to say in those days, around the country to sponge off their noble colleagues who were endowed with estates and even, if necessary, off peasants and burgesses. They too were inclined to pass from begging to theft at the slightest refusal, but it must often have happened that all they received from the lower orders was a backside full of bruises, a most wicked reversal indeed of the divine order. Suffice it to say that it cost the aristocracy a great deal to keep these ‘noblest and best’ in the manner to which they were accustomed, and if the roving beggars made excellent soldiers, then the Krippenreiter were their ‘born’ officers.

These were in general the conditions which made the formation of a standing army appear necessary to the Junkers of the Mark from their class standpoint. So they granted the Elector the army, but only under conditions that suited their class interests. They stipulated that they should have the most all-embracing seigneurial privileges, as was ‘customary’, that is to say ratification by the sovereign of their untrammeled dominion over the peasants. In the desperate situation at the beginning of his reign (in the Landtag Recess of 1653) [17] the Elector purchased from the privileged nobility the possibility of a firm, higher policy, the miles perpetuus, but only by handing the peasants over to them, by allowing them unconditional seigneurial rights in the lower instance. [18] Not only the ‘customary’ services, duties and burdens, that is to say the actual ones, (and in one part of the Mark even they were undefined in law) but also advowson [19], seigneurial courts and the maintenance of public order fell into the hands of the Junkers. The ‘lower instance’ was in reality the only instance, for where was a peasant to find justice against even the vilest injustice a Junker did him? The Elector, for his part, thought only of carefully blocking the few bolt-holes through which a peasant, if he was very lucky, could escape an all-too rabid Junker or even servitude itself. In the renewed Statutes of Servants, Peasants, Cowherds and Shepherds that he decreed in the different parts of his country during his long reign, he always starts by confirming the Landtag Recess of 1653 in order, not to alleviate it, but always to improve it to the advantage of the landlords. He repeatedly forbade the acceptance of other landlords’ vassals, and repeatedly gave the previous landlords the right to reclaim runaways without any regard for the period of their absence. Ruined peasants, even if the landlord refused any assistance in restoring their holdings, were nonetheless not allowed to go away, but had to serve him if only in person. House servants who had settled in one place for three years could afterwards be kept there, indeed, their children too became serfs, even if they had been born before the enserfment of their parents, and so forth. ‘Nothing could be more wrong than thinking that the Great Elector was a friend of the peasants,’ says Roscher [20]. Really? But today’s flourishing school of Prussian historians asserts precisely that. Do we not live to this day in the blessed shade of his wise peasant policy? The Junker privileges in the Landtag Recess of 1653 were only removed very gradually and incompletely, in many ways in their form rather than in their essence, partly in 1808, partly in 1848, partly in the Local District Statute of the 1870s and partly in the Rural Communities Statute of the 1890s.

What is more, however, with the establishment of a standing army, the ‘common nobleman’ secured for himself the exclusive, or as good as exclusive, right to fill the officers’ ranks. It is true that bourgeois officers who had made military reputations during the Thirty Years’ War had to be used as well, but even then it was already the custom to ennoble them to make them worthy comrades of the Krippenreiter whose military abilities they made good. We know how far this Junker privilege still survives. In its earliest origins it was not only a political safety-measure but also a lucrative hand-out from the state to a ‘rankly luxuriating, numerous, abominable tribe of cabbage Junkers’ [21].

The Estates made their right to approve taxes more or less illusory by approving once and for all the funds for a standing army in return for such great advantages, but they at least made sure that there would be no unpleasant consequences for the nobility. They secured the legal right to immunity from taxation for the persons and the property of the nobility. At the time of the medieval feudal system this had served some limited purpose, but it had long since become the most odious privilege. This privilege continued nonetheless into the first half, indeed into a major part of the second half of the 19th century, and was only then bought off at great cost to plebeian taxpayers.

Under such conditions – which amounted to the military, economic and political strengthening of the rule of the Junkers – the Estates approved the Kontribution, by which name were meant the funds and goods the peasant and urban population had to supply for the standing army. These were levied according to land holdings and especially according to houses, and in the impoverished country, continually laid waste in the Elector’s interminable wars, they were naturally hard to find, however small the military budget was in those days by our modern standards. The Elector however exacted them pitilessly. In Berlin the execution cart rolled unceasingly through the streets. In 1667, therefore, the Estates declared that if this went on the country faced complete ruin. The Elector admitted that he was snowed under with ‘whining and pitiful complaints’ from all over the country, but that he needed at least 300,000 talers a year for his army. He proposed to try another tax, the excise, raised on the consumption of food and luxuries and for which every inhabitant of the country was to be liable. It was an attempt to tax the Junkers at least for their personal consumption, but the Junkers were a match for this rather crass artfulness. They declared that it made their privileges a mere empty name, and that they would be unable ‘to raise their children in the noble virtues and the good arts’. The Elector was powerless against an opposition based on such honourable motives, and retained the Kontribution from the peasant population. The towns however eagerly seized the Elector’s proposal, which for them meant transferring the tax from the propertied class to the propertyless class, and the excise became the urban army tax.

These foundations of the Brandenburg-Prussian military state were extended and made permanent under King Frederick William I, who reigned from 1713 to 1740. Under the Elector Frederick William and his son, who ruled as the Elector Frederick III from 1688 until 1701 and as King Frederick I from 1701 until 1713, the standing army had, so to speak, only had one leg to stand on. The eternal shortage of money made the wholesale disbandment of the paid soldiers necessary in peacetime, and the extravagant courts of both Princes, but particularly of the new-baked King, swallowed the subsidies which came, in the noble custom of the German petty princes, from the hiring of the army to foreign interests. During his reign Frederick I received no less than 14 million talers in such subsidies, which he squandered in the most senseless manner. He was a weak and incompetent man, of whom his grandson, King Frederick II, always spoke with the utmost contempt. His princely class-consciousness went no further than the emptiest inanities of courtly etiquette, and he thus inevitably became the puppet of a parasitical court aristocracy. But however eager the Junkers were to exploit this prince’s criminal frivolity for their own benefit, they did not, so sound was their class interest, neglect the foundations of their power: even under Frederick I, 2½ million talers of the state income, which by then had risen to four million talers, were spent on the army.

But in his son there came to the throne a ruler who was determined to throw off the yoke of the Junkers, whose pricks he had already painfully experienced as Crown Prince. Uncouth tyrant that he was, he was still called the country’s ‘greatest domestic King’ by Schön, the most liberal statesman Prussia has ever had. The King never tired of repeating ‘We are Lord and King, and We do what We wish’, but in between whiles he also called himself a ‘good republican’. He beat any citizen who accidentally wandered within range of his cane, but most of all he beat his haughty and aristocratic heir, because he was ‘arrogant, stuck up and would speak with no man who was friendly and affable’. The solution of these apparent contradictions lies in this King’s class-consciousness as ruler, for whom the Junker was no greater than the peasant and the burgess, but the peasant and the burgess were no more than slaves of the monarch. His conception that all his subjects were equal in the face of his cane was extremely republican. He took up the struggle against the Junkers more forcibly than any Hohenzollern before or after him, and in this connection he can well be called the Prussian state’s ‘greatest domestic King’. But for that very reason he was also that military state’s most noted soldier-King, for he had no hope of overthrowing the Junkers’ political power without destroying their hold on the army.

But for that very reason it is empty flattery to say of this King, as the Prussian historians do, that he, as it were in a flash of prophetic genius, plucked the idea of universal conscription out of the empty air, or as Treitschke puts it in his pompous way: ‘His unsuspecting mind, mighty in its very narrowness, paved the way for a strict loyalty to the state akin to the civic feeling of ancient times ... the Canton Regulations of 1733 enunciate the principles of universal military obligations.’ These Regulations never existed; they are nothing but legend, although it must be admitted that this particular Prussian legend has a more honest origin than its countless sisters. That brilliant peasant’s son Scharnhorst invented it in 1810 to persuade the narrow-minded King Frederick William III, whom Napoleon’s thoroughgoing educational methods had still not converted from his feudal-despotic fantasies, to agree to universal conscription through the ‘glorious’ example of his ‘glorious’ ancestor. In the same way Gneisenau had to discover, or rather invent, an old regulation of the Teutonic knights that forbade officers to beat their men before the King would allow him to combat the terrible ill-treatment of the soldiers. By its very nature, militarism is always trying to expand, and by the beginning of the 18th century it had already grown so strong that voluntary enlistments were no longer sufficient for the standing army, even though they were actually forcible impressments. A regular system of conscripting the sons of the Fatherland had to be adopted. This happened everywhere on the continent, but nowhere did this innovation find greater resistance than in the possessions of that very King Frederick William I, who, on his assumption of power, immediately suppressed the remnants of the territorial militia and strictly forbade any application of the words ‘militia’ or ‘military’ to the Prussian soldiery. He wanted an army of hirelings in the literal sense of the word, an army dependent solely on the person of the prince, and he had very good reasons for this. He wanted to use the army to break the power of the Junkers, and as long as the Junkers stood like a wall between him and the peasants, that is the majority of the population, he could not hope to introduce regular conscription among his subjects, at least not for the purpose he had in mind.

So when, as soon as he came to the throne, the King sent the parasitical court aristocracy to the devil and enlarged the army from 38 battalions and 53 squadrons to 66 battalions and 114 squadrons, he could only hope to get sufficient soldiers by purchase, or preferably, because cheaper, by kidnap. It was precisely under this prince, the alleged creator of universal conscription, that ‘foreign enlistments’ (i.e. the systematic kidnapping of men from those German states whose princes were weaker than the King of Prussia) took on that terrible form and extent whose dark shadows are still recognizable in the patriotic storybooks. Suffice it here to quote documentary evidence, a Decree of the Hanoverian government dated December 14, 1731 against the Prussian recruiting sergeants, in which it is ordered: ‘that such recruiting officers, without regard for rank or dignity, must immediately be arrested, and if they are present in large numbers, they must be pursued by sounding the tocsin and calling out the militia, if available. They must be treated as highwaymen and kidnappers, as enemies of the national peace and national freedom and, if they are found guilty, must be punished by death. But if they offer resistance they must be struck dead or shot down.’ And a no less harsh spotlight is cast on the press-gangs inside the Prussian state by the plea from Advocate-General Katsch that excessive bloodshed should be avoided during enlistment. But the King could not go anything like as far in impressment in his own country as he could abroad. The despot’s will shattered like glass on the power of economic circumstances. Wherever they could, the younger men escaped over the frontier. There was a shortage of labour everywhere. The royal authorities declared that the income from the Kontribution was continually falling. The towns blustered that trade was no longer flourishing. What was more serious, the Junkers were arming their retainers and sending the royal recruiting officers home with broken heads. As early as 1714, scarcely a year after his accession, the King had publicly to forbid all forced recruitment. He only dared to continue it by the use of very unroyal subterfuges, telling his recruiting officers to use ‘all possible ruses’ and to avoid ‘gross acts of violence’ that could ‘give rise to protests’. Indeed, what was more, three years later he even had to grant ‘exemptions’ from enlistment. Woollen workers, craftsmen, manufacturers, the children of civil servants and prosperous people, in general any inhabitant of the towns, and particularly of the big towns where capital was accumulated, could not be enrolled.

The change is explained by the fact that the Junkers succeeded in their own way in doing what the King had failed to do his way. They had no objection at all to an increase in the size of the army, provided that their class interests were maintained in the process. Every new company was as good as a new estate as far as they were concerned, and often a better one than their sandy patrimonies in the Mark and Pomerania. The company commander was ‘a capitalist at the head of armed partnership’. He had to keep his men out of the lump sum for Other Ranks that the royal war treasury paid him. Furthermore he could send part of his company away on leave for part of the year in order to save from their wages the money necessary to enrol replacements for the men who died or went missing. Whatever he could save from the lump sum by sharp practice went into his pocket. Even without swindling it was always a good annual income of a few thousand talers. A big increase in the size of the army therefore meant a big increase in the number of sinecures for the Junkers, and they grabbed it with both hands. But the thing had to be done in their way, so that the political and economic profit fell undiminished in their pockets. They could arm their retainers against the King, but the King could not arm their retainer against them. They had cut across his big, noisy recruitment, but he could not prevent their quiet little recruitment. The Junkers began to mobilize their own serfs, to enrol the rising generation, insofar as it was able-bodied, at a very early age. The peasant recruits were accustomed to the Junkers’ rod almost from the moment they could walk, received no bounty and nonetheless did not desert so readily as the foreigners. Anyone who did desert was easily replaced by a member of his family. The Junkers, it is true, lost a portion of their rural labour in the process, but this was easily made good, and even turned to greater profit. The furlough system only had to be applied to an ever-greater part of the year and an ever-greater part of the company. Then the landlord-Junkers had their retainers back and the Company Commander Junkers saved all the more out of their pay to put in their pockets. Lastly, these soldiers were much less demanding than the homeless rabble who would otherwise have been recruited. They were much easier to cheat out of the money, clothing and food the Company Commander was supposed to supply them with, another way of saving a few pennies, which taken together amounted to a useful sum.

This makes clear the significance of those ‘exemptions’ from ‘enrolment’ that Frederick William had to grant so hurriedly after he had tried to carry out a policy of forced enlistment throughout the country. He had to protect those classes that carried on the crafts and trade, the urban population, and in addition whatever officials, clerics and teachers he needed, from the greedy hands of the Junkers. He was thrown back completely from the offensive to the defensive. He was lucky if the Junkers respected his ‘exemptions’, but in all other matters he had to ratify their unilateral action by dividing the country into separate cantons for the different regiments. For that he now enjoys, if he ever wanted it, the praise of Herr von Treitschke for being, alongside Macchiavelli and Spinoza, the pioneer of universal conscription. By drilling the troops most brutally and by closely supervising the officers, he tried to maintain the army’s fighting capacity, continually undermined by the Junker officers’ exploitative tendencies. The King’s orders in council testify to this unending struggle. He set certain limits to the furlough system under pain of severe punishment. He ordered a regular period of manoeuvres, the so-called Exerzierzeit, from April to June, to make sure that the companies were up to strength at least part of the year. He complained that the Company Commanders marked each soldier down for two groats when they had only cost them one groat. He forbade them to divide the credit lost by the death or desertion of a soldier equally over the whole company, and even to detail off newly enlisted recruits for compensation. One can understand Frederick William’s preference for a purely professional army simply from the military standpoint. Without foreign recruits, who naturally could not be let out of sight for a moment, but who still made up at least half of the troops, he could never have brought the Prussian army to the level of training that he and his friend, Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Dessau, actually achieved. But Junker exploitation even ate away at this, the heart of the army. They began to send the foreigners ‘on furlough’ within the garrison walls, and towards the end of his reign Frederick William I had to prohibit the pursuit of trade, peddling and handicrafts by the Berlin garrison.

As with recruiting, a class skirmish developed between the King and the Junkers over the financing of the army. Prussia, which in surface area was the tenth largest state in Europe, but in population took the thirteenth position, strove to be the fourth largest military power in the world, (with 80,000 troops against 160,000 French, 130,000 Russian and 100,000 Austrian troops, although it must be said that the figures for Prussia are a good deal less questionable than those for Russia and Austria). Therefore military taxes, the Kontribution and the excise had, of course, to be stretched to the utmost, or, as the Prussians say, ‘reformed’. In fact Frederick William increased the state income to seven million talers, of which about six million were used for the army. Naturally the Junkers had no objection to this as an increase in their sinecures, on the contrary! But they did resist all the more violently the King’s intention to make them also to a certain extent liable to taxation. This intention is all the more meritorious in that Frederick William made no blood-money by hiring his troops to foreign powers. But all he could impose on them was one tiny little tax, the so-called fee-horse money. He offered to cancel the nexus feudalis (feudal connection), to release them legally from their vassalage against an annual payment of 40 talers for every knight’s horse previously due in time of war. But since vassalage had long since fallen into decay and the Junkers in fact held their fiefs as hereditary possessions, they raised a hue and cry over the King’s plan, appealed to the Emperor and the Empire, and only agreed to this tiny burden after many years of struggle. The assessment of the tax burden was never ‘reformed’. It was not reckoned at one knight’s ‘horse’ for every six hides of land, as had been originally intended, but the kind of assessment remained that had developed in the cases of knightly fee-service that we have already seen. Thus many knight’s estates had to pay more than one ‘horse’, but there were many on the other hand that only had to pay half a ‘horse’ or only one ‘foot’, or indeed only a half or a quarter of a ‘foot’, towards the annual rate of 40 talers.

Small as this success was, it was all that the King managed to impose on the Junkers in the way of taxes. All, or as good as all, for the famous story of how this King is supposed to have built up his royal authority as a ‘rock of bronze’ against the Junkers was far less heroic in practice than in the patriotic story-books. The whole business was limited to East Prussia for a start. For one thing, the aristocracy there, first under the Teutonic knights and then under Polish rule, had not been able to achieve the same tax immunity as in Mark Brandenburg under the Hohenzollerns. On the other hand the Elector Frederick William had broken the constitutional resistance of the Prussian Estates to his rule by acts of illegal violence without however in any way destroying the economic ascendancy of the nobility. The assessment of the different taxes, chief among which was a cattle-tax, remained a matter for the Estates. A terrible state of affairs now became general. Bribery of the tax officials of the Estates and countless tax frauds were the order of the day. Thousands of head of cattle were fraudulently concealed in the tax-registers. In order to escape the cattle-tax the aristocracy got rid of all their cattle and exacted so much feudal labour-service in such an intolerable manner that a continual stream of their retainers fled to Poland. Nevertheless this economic system of theft continued for decades, and would have continued to exist presumably if it had not given the bigger nobility a certain predominance over the lesser, thus creating a class division within the ranks of the Junkers themselves. Between 1690 and 1714 forty poor Junkers were bought up by their richer colleagues, and on this basis Count Truchsess von Waldburg, as the spokesman of the lesser nobility, demanded from the King the transformation of the different taxes into one fixed general cattle-tax graduated according to the size of holding.

The King understandably seized this chance eagerly and set up a commission under Count Truchsess to assess and promulgate the new tax according to his plans. Naturally the great aristocracy resisted this and sent a deputation of four members to Berlin to protest against the setting up of the commission and to demand the calling together of the Estates General to discuss the tax question. In reply to their request the King ordained: ‘The commission will continue. I will achieve my purpose and stabilize my sovereignty and establish my crown as firm as a rock of bronze and leave to the Herren Junker the wind of the Landtag’. [22] Orally however he gave the representatives of the Estates the reassuring declaration that he would not introduce the tax in such a way as to ruin the nobility, and that, if their cause was just, the nobility would always get redress from him. Above all however, despite his miserliness, he had 5,500 talers given to the deputation on its departure as expenses ‘for their trouble and losses due to their absence from home’, which resembles bribery as much as one egg resembles another. Yet one more protest came, from Field Marshal Dohna, in which the new tax was described as the ruin of the whole country, and to which the King replied: ‘Strange, the whole country is about to be ruined. I don’t believe it, but I do believe that the power of the Junkers will be broken. Trux is to carry out his responsibilities, the Estates are to raise the taxes, and I stand by that to my dying day.’ The King, or rather Count Truchsess, did indeed then impose the general cattle tax on the East Prussian nobility. But one can see that the much-praised ‘stabilization of sovereignty’ really had nothing to do with it. The lesser nobility in East Prussia were merely regulating the liability to taxation of the aristocracy in that part of the country, which had existed legally from time immemorial, with the help of the King in a way that meant they could no longer be oppressed by their economically stronger colleagues, and that is all. The King had not dared to touch the nobility’s immunity from taxation, apart from the trifling fee-horse money, in any other part of his country. Nor had he squeezed the nobility east of the Elbe any harder than Truchsess, that is the petty nobility, wanted, or than was tolerable for the great nobility. According to an official Memorandum written by the President of the Oberrechenkammer (Upper Accounts Dept.) in the days of Frederick II, the Junkers east of the Elbe paid the Kontribution at not quite 2 talers per hide of land by the Magdeburg measure (1 hide equals 30 morgen, Magdeburg measure), while the Brandenburg peasant paid eight talers for the same area. In addition to this the annual fee-horse money was reduced to 10 talers for knights’ estates east of the Elbe [23].

So the whole force of the tax increases made necessary by the strengthening of the army fell upon the peasant and urban population. And as the Kontribution reached intolerable heights for the former, the excise was a real badge of slavery for the latter. This is how Schmöller described it: ‘We can characterize the Brandenburg-Prussian excise as a system of taxes which, falling exclusively on the towns, besides a moderate land, craft and poll tax, involved essentially indirect taxes on drink, corn, meat, victuals and merchandise. It was raised in various manners, partly on entry into the town, partly at the point of production and partly at time of sale. The individual rates of taxation were relatively very low, but they were all the more numerous for that and extended to as many articles and goods as possible.’ To collect these extensive taxes however a trained bureaucracy was necessary, and therefore Frederick William I created the new state administration as it was to remain in essence until 1806 and as it survives in principle today. It is hard to see any special creative genius at work in this process, since the civil administration arose spontaneously out of the conditions of life in this military state.

The lowest levels were the War and Taxation Councils in the towns and the Landräte in the countryside, with above them the Chambers of War and of the Domains, the modern County administration, and as supreme head the General Supreme Directory of Finance, War and the Domains, which is nowadays the Ministry. The names of these departments usually expressed what they were there to do: to raise and administer the state income, revenues from the royal domains on the one hand and the war taxes, the Kontribution and the excise on the other, both for military purposes. All other branches of domestic administration, agriculture, industry, trade, transport, the church, education, justice and so forth, were only considered insofar as they offered the prospect of increasing revenues and thus expanding the army. They arose out of the fiscal administration. As Schmöller says, the Prussian Civil Service grew up principally out of the excise.

It must nonetheless be recognized that in this area, too, the King took up the fight against the Junkers. He promoted as many bourgeois elements as possible into the higher and highest Civil Service posts. He particularly tried to wrest the post of Landrat, practically the most important post in the whole administration, away from the Junkers. Recent Prussian historians have tried to glorify this office, in its peculiar Prussian, form as the last remnant of ancient Germanic liberty. Frederick William however, and here we can only agree with him, saw in the right of the local landlords of each area to nominate its chief executive from their own ranks only a further source of power for the Junkers, who used it to reinforce their class rule over the peasant population, dressing that rule in the glamour of state authority in order to oppose the King all the more effectively. Nor did the King get very far in this tussle with the Junkers. He was quite often able to break the Estates’ right to nominate particular Landräte, but always on individual grounds and never in principle. He was on many occasions able to replace the Junkers’ candidate with one more favourable to himself, but he always chose his candidate from the ranks of the local Junkers. The King understood very well what a weapon against the Junkers he could forge in the Civil Service. In an Instruction to his son he openly says that an official who tries to serve his King loyally will have to face many obstacles, particularly the nobility. This old antagonism indeed found a living expression in our own times in the Junker Bismarck’s simmering hatred of bureaucracy. But Frederick William himself blunted the weapon that he could forge and did begin to forge in the bureaucracy against the Junkers by an only partly-concealed sale of offices for the benefit of his recruiting funds. Essentially it makes no difference if the King’s decision on individual instances of the appointment of Civil Servants read ‘whoever pays the most’, or whether in a general royal Instruction for the General Directory this principle is toned down to ‘whoever is cleverest and pays the most’. No office, not even as a judge, could be obtained without a settlement with the recruiting fund. Thus the door was opened to the worst abuses, and the Junkers were well able to exploit their opportunities. Time after time the King was forced to complain that the Civil Servants were ‘ganging up with the nobility, and, what is worse, in league against ourselves.’

This was then, in its general features, the Magna Carta of the Prussian military state, whose text is partly hidden in rotting old tomes and partly was never written down at all, but whose effectiveness has proved to be more permanent than that of the ‘sheet of paper’ which so presumptuously ‘thrust itself between the Lord God in Heaven and this country’. As King Frederick William IV stated in a speech to the Provincial Landtage in 1847 against real popular representation based on a constitution: ‘I will never permit a sheet of written paper to thrust itself between the Lord God and this country, to rule us with its paragraphs and to supplant the old, holy loyalty.’ The Prussian state could only exist as the Prussian army; it was determined thus by its economic foundations. The army was the state: ‘Consistently from the time of the Great Elector until the death of Frederick the Great the major part of every increase in revenues in Prussia was used to increase the size of the army, and for preference revenues were increased in order to increase the size of the army.’ The economic foundations of the army formed the Prussian constitution, and no Prussian King, however absolutely he ruled and however brilliant a pose he struck, could dare the slightest ‘revolutionary’ leap over that, leave aside ‘revolutionary insurrections’ with the army. What Lassalle calls ‘revolutionary insurrections’ was the conquest of a stretch of land that spelt life and death to Prussian militarism. The Elector Frederick William was clear on this point as soon as he had the first tiny Prussian army on a warlike footing. The plan for the acquisition of Silesia, written in his own hand, has since been published from the Hohenzollern archives by Ranke. Here he anticipates to the hour and to the minute, ‘since the whole world now knows how weak the House of Habsburg is, and that that same House may disappear by dying out and leaving no heirs’, the invasion of Silesia that Frederick II, born more than 20 years later, carried out more than fifty years later. And with that alone the question of ‘insurrection’ and ‘revolution’ is exhausted.




6. Gustav Freytag, Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit, Volume 2, p.232.

7. Curia – The Papal Government.

8. Cf. Karl Kautsky, Thomas More and his Utopia.

9. Servetus (Miguel Serveto, 1511-1553) – Spanish scholar, geographer, mathematician and doctor, who discovered the pulmonary transit of the blood. Condemned as a heretic by the Catholics, he was burned at the stake by the Swiss Calvinists, chiefly at the insistence of Calvin himself, because of his writings attacking the concept of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

10. Letter from Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530) to Johannes Tscherte, Master Builder and Bridge-Builder to Charles V in Vienna. In Murrs, Journal zur Kunstgeschichte, Volume 10 p.36 et seq.

11. Franz von Sickingen (1481-1523) – German knight and freelance commander who became a follower of Luther and attempted to form a league of the lesser nobility and townspeople against the German princes.

12. Gülich, Geschichtliche Darstellung des Handels, der Gewerbe etc., Volume 4, p.353.

13. Wallenstein, Duke of Friedland (1583-1634) – Commander- in-chief of the imperial forces in the Thirty Years War, a brilliant soldier who in the end disobeyed the Emperor and was murdered by his own Generals at Eger in Bohemia.

14. A hide of land – The amount of land, normally 100 acres, required by one family and its dependents, being as much as could be tilled with one plough in a year. A morgen is the amount of land that could be ploughed in one morning (morgen) – about two acres.

15. Quitzows – One of the oldest and most powerful noble families in the Mark Brandenburg in Prussia, they rose to power in the 14th century, when the Emperor was weak, and terrified both the peasantry and the townspeople. Put down by force of arms in 1414, they nonetheless remained an important family up to the 19th century.

16. Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) – Leading Marxist theoretician of the Second International. A centrist who supported the imperialist war in 1914 and opposed the Bolshevik Revolution. [He later called for a negotiated peace and was expelled from the Social Democrats in 1917 becoming the leader of the right wing of the Independent Socialist USPD. Note by transcriber]

17. Landtag Recess of 1653 – Agreement between the Elector and the Landtag (Estates) on the terms described here.

18. Schmöller, Die inhere Verwaltung des Preussischen Staates unter Friedrich Wilhelm I. Preussische, Jahrbücher, Volume 25, p.587.

19. Advowson – the patronage of an ecclesiastical office.

20. Roscher – German 19th century political economist who based his work on historical methods.

21. Rüstow, Die preussische Armee and die Junker, containing a wealth of historical and statistical material on the social significance of privilege which is supposed, in the patriotic slogan, to arise from a ‘stupid hatred of the nobility’. [note by Mehring.]

22. Landtag – Regional diet or parliament formed from the medieval Estates of Prussia.

23. East of the Elbe – German expansion in the Middle Ages had taken place across the Elbe, to the East of which lived heathen Slav peoples who were made subject to the Christian Germans.


Last updated on 16.2.2004