Franz Mehring

Absolutism and Revolution in Germany


PART TWO (§2b-2)

The Brandenburg-Prussian state

Frederick’s enlightened despotism
(Part II)

One of the few German officials who enjoyed Frederick’s confidence right up to their death was Johann Rembert Roden. A good organizer, he had distinguished himself at the headquarters of Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, who after the war recommended him to the King. Frederick used him in a variety of ways during the restoration of the country, entrusting him particularly with the organization of West Prussia after the first partition of Poland in 1772, and made him president of the Supreme Accounts Office. As such, Roden was commissioned, in 1774, to initiate the Heir Apparent into the financial administration of the Prussian state in a series of lectures, and at the end of his course of instruction he handed over to the Prince a ‘Brief Report on the Financial System’. This informative document, based throughout on authentic material, has fortunately been brought unmutilated into the light of day by old Preuss who, unlike today’s researchers, with their privileged access to the archives, had not yet eaten of the apple of knowledge. It is not without big gaps, for Roden skates over the excise system in a few sentences; the fate of Privy Councillor Ursinus must have hovered as an awful warning before his eyes. All the more thoroughly and exhaustively does he deal with the Kontribution system, that is to say, with the direct taxes that the peasant population had to pay, and he thus casts a very interesting light upon their situation.

The Kontribution was apportioned according to the productivity of the different estates, such that they amounted to a certain portion of what the peasant harvested for his own use and for sale. This portion was not fixed at the same level in every Province. In the Mark and West Prussia it was 331/3 per cent, in Silesia 34 per cent, in Pomerania it was 42% per cent and in other parts of the country even higher. Roden explains how this tax worked in the case of a peasant in the village of Tempelhof near Berlin, who had to pay a Kontribution of 8 talers 3 groats for every hide of 30 Magdeburg morgen of land (in those days the taler was reckoned at 24 groats). Now apart from what he needed for his own use, the peasant could only sell 13 bushels of the produce of his hide of land, which, at 18 groats a time, brought him 9 talers and 18 groats. After a thorough description of these matters Roden then continues:

... the peasant therefore, after subtracting the payment of the Kontribution, has from the produce of his hide only 1 taler 15 groats, out of which he cannot possibly pay his other dues. These are:





His hereditary or juridical Lord
(if it is the King, to the office,
if he belongs to a noble, to him)
rent and duties per hide

at least




Tithe to the Priest 1 bushel corn





To the Sexton ¾ bushel





To the smith 1 bushel





Cattle tax










Magazine fund for military defence










He has left from harvest





He is therefore short





The peasant also has to meet the Fire Office money, money for extra beasts needed for carting, the carriage of building materials, other carting expenses, village rates, and all sorts of other dues and labourer’s wages, since he has to keep special servants because of the many feudal labour services that are such a burden to him: to which end he must also keep extra horses, for which reasons a limitation of these services would be a splendid thing.

Here we interrupt Roden to note that among those ‘sorts of other dues’ there were yet more very oppressive burdens, such as the system of putting the cavalry horses out to graze on the village common meadows between the months of June and September, when the cavalrymen imposed a brutal rule in the peasant’s house. In addition, for the remaining months of the year, there were forage deliveries, for which it is true a small sum was paid, but which often had to be brought several miles and which, if it was to be accepted without further difficulties being made, had to include a hefty surplus for the Captain. Finally there was also, as we have already mentioned, an indirect contribution to the excise. Roden then continues:

The peasant would not be able to exist, given the circumstances we have mentioned, if he did not support himself in other ways, for example by sowing almost ¾ more to the hide than he is assessed for in the Kontribution, by making money out of his livestock and by trying to get by in other ways. But he must apply all his industry and help himself as best he can if he wants to feed himself honestly and get by, particularly if he possesses nothing but his house and farm buildings, which he also has to keep in good repair, besides the land that goes with it. He cannot therefore survive any catastrophe such as a failed harvest, damage due to hail or to vermin, flooding etc. unless some of his burdens are immediately remitted to give him assistance and help at least in something. In ordinary cases he is aided from the County treasury, in extraordinary cases however the sovereign intervenes and makes the cash over to the county or gives corn in kind for bread and for sowing.

In this account we can see the real truth about those so loudly-praised tax abatements, money subsidies and corn supplies, with which Frederick is supposed to have improved the lot of the peasantry. Their sole purpose was to keep the peasants, without whom of course neither the King nor the Junkers could live, above the narrow boundary between a life of starvation and a death by starvation. From here we can see Frederick’s equally-praised corn magazines in the correct light, that ‘finest flower of Frederick’s economic policy’, in which he ‘came closest to his ideal as the father of the nation’, as even quite impartial researchers say. Frederick forbade the export of grain to keep its price as low as possible. In one of his Instructions to the General Directorate he demands that the price of rye should always be kept at betweeen 18 groats and one taler the bushel. That happened so that he could have cheap bread for his army and full granaries in case of war, but if he also used these granaries to supply the peasant population with seed-corn and bread as soon as a natural catastrophe threatened to turn their life of starvation into a death by starvation, we are obliged to moderate our admiration for such ‘socialism’.

It would, moreover, be wrong to take the peasant from Tempelhof, whom Roden describes, as the poorest type of peasant under Frederick. The percentage payable towards the Kontribution was at its lowest in the Mark. Where it rose, as it did for example in Frederick’s Westphalian possessions, to more than 50 per cent, the position of the peasant population was correspondingly worse. On this Roden writes:

The principles of the Kontribution are applied in the Minden area in the following manner: first of all, all the estates, meadows and gardens are evaluated under oath by tax officials, according to their annual yield; then the Kontribution is so assessed that, of every taler of annual yield, 13 groats are paid in. The average yield of a hide of 30 Magdeburg morgen is in all 19 talers 5 groats and ½ pfennig, though much of the land is very bad; in this way the countryman has 11 groats left out of every taler. Out of this he has to keep himself and his family, manage his household, pay his labourers’ wages, pay rent to his landlord and pay all the other charges, which would be simply impossible if the peasants did not try to get by in other ways. In the Minden and Ravensberg areas he and his wife, children and servants, whenever he has even only an hour free from agriculture, particularly in the autumn with the long evenings and right through the winter, are busy spinning yarn for linen, and thus he tries to feed himself; otherwise he would have to run away, for there are there many farms which pay more taxes than the farms can make even in the best years.

These are the words of the most knowledgeable official administrator in a most official document, the report in which, on the King’s orders, he initiated the Heir Apparent into the Monarchy’s financial affairs.

To be fair, we will not leave out of Roden’s account the fact that, at least in the two provinces that he conquered, Silesia and West Prussia, Frederick forced the nobility to pay the Kontribution. Here the Junkers had not inherited of old the power to oppose him, and, because of their loyalty to Austria and Poland, he had to keep them on a tight rein. But even in this, comparatively the brightest area of Frederick’s taxation policy, the tendency was not, as it is claimed, towards relieving the burden on the poor at the expense of the rich, but increasing the burden on the poor to the advantage of the rich. Thus in West Prussia – where the fee-horse money had almost completely disappeared -the Protestant nobleman paid 20 per cent, the Catholic 25 per cent, but the peasant 331/3 per cent towards the Kontribution. And it was the same in Silesia. [41]

If one contrasts that burdensome oppression of the peasants with the anxious care with which Frederick generally defended the tax immunity of the nobility, then one has to admire the noble audacity of those court historians who chatter about the ‘peasant King’ Frederick and call the Hohenzollerns ‘great’ for their protection of humble folk, and one can measure the true value of that ‘school reform’ which seeks to wail that refrain to all the history teaching in German schools. We ‘soulful’ and ‘profound’ Germans can only hide ourselves in shame from the ‘frivolous’ and ‘superficial’ French, of whom, as early as 1869, Marx could say in praise that they had used every weapon of research, of criticism, of satire and of wit to drive out the legend of Napoleon. And how different the legend of Napoleon is from the legend of Frederick! In all its essentials, in the Army, in its internal administration, in finances justice and education, the Napoleonic state still exists as the First Consul founded it in 1804 – not, of course, as a Great Man but as the heir of the Convention – and a civil constitution which has survived three dynasties, three invasions and even three revolutions can be expected to make a hero of the man in whose name it was baptised. But Frederick’s state, which at the Battle of Jena was smashed into a thousand pieces with the stormy approval of the bourgeois and working classes who were condemned to live under it, and a feudal, militarist constitution, whose disorderly remains weigh down upon all healthy life today like a stupefying incubus, are permitted to become more and more shameless legend the longer they persist; even the most timid criticism being treated as high treason and lesé majeste in this pious and god-fearing country.

It would be wrong, of course, to place responsibility for this on Frederick himself. He is completely innocent of this century’s boldest untruth, the so-called ‘social monarchy’, and would not even understand this humbug if he were to read his admiring modern biographers. The ‘monarchist social policy’ that is ascribed to him was simply determined by his military policy. In itself, the abolition of peasant serfdom was one of the tasks of the absolute monarchy, not out of humanity, which was necessarily completely foreign to its nature, but because of the class interests of the princes. Serfdom stood like a wall between the despot and the majority of the population. As long as it lasted, the Junkers could do what they liked with the peasants, but the King could only act insofar as he had the Junkers’ permission. We have seen how this conflict of interest between the King and the Junkers had grown and sharpened since the development of the standing army. The first two Prussian Kings were already undermining serfdom, and Frederick William I in particular declared, ‘what a noble thing it would be if my subjects boasted of freedom instead of serfdom’. He was, it is true, honest enough to add, in the Orders in Council where he recommended to the authorities the ‘conservation’ of his ‘subjects’: ‘so that the sovereign will receive his taxes’. In the highly peculiar improved form of the old German language used in the modern Empire this translates into: ‘the Hohenzollern social monarchy’. In his writings, Frederick himself speaks of serfdom with lively aversion as a ‘barbaric custom’ and an ‘abhorrent institution’, but he also confesses openly that it does not lie in his power to do away with it. That is, it is true, no reflection on him. He really could not have abolished serfdom, even if he had wanted to. It was the economic cell of the society whose political representative was the Prussian military state, and the ‘first servant’ of that state could no more think of finding fault with it than the battlement on a tower can think of insolently casting down the walls on which it rests.

Although this conception suggests itself from the whole situation, there is fortunately documentary proof of it. For on one occasion Frederick’s despotic megalomania overcame his sober common sense, and on May 23, 1763 he decreed from Kolberg: ‘All forms of serfdom, in royal and noble villages and also those belonging to towns, are from this hour on to be abolished, absolutely and without the slightest argument, and all those who oppose it will be removed, as far as possible by kindness but if necessary by force. Let this idea determined by His Royal Majesty be put into effect for the benefit of the entire Province.’ Thereupon the Land Estates of Lower Pomerania assembled on June 29 in Demmin and sent the King a Memorandum in which they on the one hand posed as aggrieved innocents and as the misunderstood benefactors of the peasants, and on the other hand threatened ‘the depopulation of the country and desertion from the military, since no peasant is in a position to pay for his farm, his breeding cattle and farm implements, but no one is likely to let him keep them without paying, as a consequence they will all be determined to move.’ Silly and brazen as it was – the Junkers had no right to the peasants’ farms, and what good was the farm if there was no peasant to run it? – this threat was still enough to bring the King to a standstill. Neither force nor law could help him, since the Junkers ran the army and they administered justice in the courts. He therefore climbed down, although usually one of his most important principles was never to retract an order, to protect his despotic infallibility.

Thus Frederick had to limit himself to maintaining his military policy as best as he could in an endless guerrilla war in the face of the landlord-peasant relationship. There are many Orders in Council in which he strives for this goal. He fought against the clearances, ‘the eviction of the peasants’, and took pains to secure for the peasants the right to hereditary possession of their land. One must even recognize that in this connection he was more far-sighted than the modern military state. While the latter stands by in incredible tranquillity and watches the mass of the working population being crippled in the great factory districts, Frederick often declaimed passionately against the debilitating ill-treatment of the peasants by the Junkers and the lessees of the royal domains. If the modern military state obstinately refuses to limit the excessive working day by a legal norm because, in its sublime wisdom, it fears that this will damage industry, Frederick understood as early as 1748, as he says in an instruction to his General Directorate, that ‘the onerous and quite intolerable services are often small use to the landlords but obviously complete ruin to the peasant.’ The King therefore demanded ‘a serious investigation of whether subjects of my offices as well as of the towns and the nobility could not be liberated from these conditions that are so ruinous to the peasant and whether the matter could not be so arranged that the peasant need not, as he does now, serve for the whole week, but need only serve three or four days in the week. This will of course cause an uproar at first, but since it is intolerable for the common man to serve five or even six days a week, and since, in the bad circumstances in which it places him, he is obliged to do the work very badly, we will have to take vigorous action and hope that all sensible landlords will accommodate themselves to accepting this alteration in the service days without any difficulty, especially when they will see in fact that, once the peasant has had a chance to recover, he will work as much and perhaps better in the few days than he previously did in the many days.’ A homespun but splendid truth which, as we know, the ‘genius’ Herr Bismarck could never grasp and which the New Course in the German Empire still seems incapable of grasping.

Although this and similar Instructions by Frederick not only sound but actually are sensible, there is a lot in them that must not be overlooked. First of all the King is not fighting for the peasants against the Junkers, but against the Junkers over the peasants. He wanted a different distribution of the surplus value squeezed out of the peasants, one that was more favourable to him and thus less favourable to the Junkers, but if the proletarian perchance ever aimed to increase his wages at the expense of surplus value, then Frederick was always on the side of the most exhaustive exploitation. Thus in his Statute of Servants he threatened with gaol not only the recipient of a wage that exceeded his wage controls but also the donor, whereas ‘it went without saying’ that payment of wages that stayed lower than the controls was allowed. And when the peasants even became discontented with their ‘intolerable services’ and ‘ruinous condition’, then Frederick was the same as all Great Men under such conditions, the same as Luther in the sixteenth century and Bismarck in the nineteenth. When, a year before Frederick’s death, the Silesian workers began to grow restless, the King wrote to the Silesian Provincial Minister, von Hoym: ‘The best contribution to pacifying the people, since most of those in the mountains are Protestant, would be if the preachers talked to them and explained everything properly to them ... also the village headmen too, especially there in the mountains, much keep a sharp look out in case a rabble of strangers appears, holding meetings and putting all sorts of things into peoples’ heads. These they must pursue and, as soon as they notice the slightest grounds for suspicion, take them by the ears and hand them over to the courts.’ This Order was, as I have said, issued in 1785. Otherwise one could almost believe that it dated from 1878, when first of all ‘religion had to be maintained amongst the people’ and then the Anti-Socialist Laws came marching along behind.

In the second place, however, Frederick did not achieve much in that guerrilla war, or at the most a little in the two conquered provinces of Silesia and West Prussia, where the King had less trouble with the Junkers. Thus he forced the Silesian landlords to repair the peasants’ cottages and barns and to equip the peasant farms with cattle and implements. But his own interest, his concern for his finances and his recruits, here too formed a boundary that he did not overstep. And even then it is obvious how little it meant in theory, never mind in practice, to grant the Silesian peasants the right to complain to the government over cases of severe corporal punishment, or to insist, in West Prussia, that the ‘Polish slavery’, the ‘harsh Polish yoke’ should be alleviated ‘in the Prussian manner’. The more honest bourgeois historians make no attempt to disguise the lack of success that attended these efforts. ‘The old conditions remained ... despite everything the peasant remained a bondsman, for the most part bound to the soil’ (Preuss); ‘In practice all this bore almost no fruit at all, not even on the royal domains, where it would have been so easy after all to achieve success’ (Roscher). When, fourteen days before his death, the King enquired of the senior royal official in Königsberg whether ‘all the peasants of my domains’ could not be released from serfdom, he wrote the aptest verdict on his own peasant policy.

Thirdly and finally, however, even if we wanted to value Frederick’s alleged services to the liberation of the peasants as highly as do the Prussian Byzantines, these services were nevertheless more than outweighed by Frederick’s laws enclosing the commons, the enclosures of the common pastures, which are strangely enough conceived of, even by the better bourgeois historians, as some kind of social reform. In fact their main feature was, as Rudolf Meyer put it, ‘to join the common pastures to the big estates, thus robbing the poor, although there was in some cases compensation of free pasture for their cattle, so that they were forced to become servants of the estates.’ This ‘zealous removal of all such obstacles to the free possession of land, which derive from the medieval system of communes’ really amounted to a proletarianization of the peasant population, and if Roscher sees in it the bright side of the ‘Janus face’ that he says Frederick’s agrarian policies represent, then we are very hard put to imagine how dark their dark side must have been. [42]

Under such conditions it is easy to explain the decay of Prussian agriculture under Frederick, which even the Prussian historians recognize, despite the generous gifts of money that he always had at hand for ‘necessitous agriculture’, that is, the Junkers, and despite his ‘colonization’ which has been so highly praised. In themselves, his land improvement schemes, flood control along the rivers Netze and Warthe, and land reclamation by the Drömling, the Oder marshes and many other swampy areas in Pomerania, the Mark and the Magdeburg region, were certainly the best part of his economic policy, and the King could well say with a justified self-satisfaction that here he had conquered a new province peacefully. But when his admirers impute to him a Faustian longing to stand on free ground among free people, this is a tragi-comic misrepresentation of the situation. It sounds much more prosaic, but is much more correct, when Roden writes: ‘His Royal Majesty’s most all-gracious intention was that, if there were in the possession of towns or of noblemen waste land and swamps, but they were not in a position to make them productive, the sovereign would then have to step in, make them fruitful at his own sublime expense, build houses and fill them with families. The revenues still go, it is true, to the towns and the noblemen, but the land nonetheless becomes more and more populous and per indirectum (indirectly) the royal funds and the state profit from it.’ It was the nobleman who took the main benefit, for next to the possessions of the noblemen those of the towns were negligible. The King did not have much luck with the settlement of colonists. He did not take the younger sons of native peasants for the purpose, which even then writers were advising, but sought, in his one-sided mercantilist population policy, to bring as many foreigners as possible into the country. But since his despotism by no means enjoyed an inviting reputation in Germany and elsewhere, he had to promise immigrants the greatest privileges in the matter of peasant, military and fiscal obligations, without however attracting much better than incorrigible scum. Instead of real peasants there came, as he once said, ‘wig-makers and actors’ or, as he complained on another occasion, ‘barbers, distillers, apothecaries, cooks, pastrycooks and hucksters’. On a third occasion he even tried to attract the Turkish Tartars, promising to build them mosques. Old Schlosser wrote of the colonies in East Friesland: ‘Every kind of rabble came streaming in. The author of this document has seen with his own eyes how insecure the in any case inaccessible districts became as a result, how the King’s meagre money was wasted and how those who came to live in his costly installations after a mere twenty years become the terror of the old inhabitants for their poverty, laziness, dirt, begging, robbery and murder. [43] The 300,000 colonists whom Frederick is supposed to have settled were therefore a very dubious addition to the population and the King’s attempt, well-meaning in itself, to ‘correct by new blood the ways of the peasants made lazy and sleepy’ by serfdom, ‘and to give the country an example of better management’ does not completely merit the patriotic historians’ hymns of praise.

It is precisely in those areas where, as a philosopher and poet, one would have expected from him a better understanding of his duties, that the short-sightedness of Frederick’s domestic policies emerges most sharply. His father had a philistine contempt for culture and science, but he still had some inkling that intellectual knowledge contributed to the increase in prosperity and thus to the improvement of the finances. He founded military academies and elementary schools and introduced universal compulsory schooling, at least on paper. It was different and much worse under Frederick. He cared very little or not at all about the elementary schools; to mince no words, he simply destroyed them. Shortly before the Treaty of Hubertusberg he sent eight schoolteachers to Prussia from Saxony, in its way the classical centre of German education. Four were given positions in Courland and four in Upper Pomerania. But then the King ordained that his invalid soldiers should have the teaching posts, with the result that ‘if his predecessor had not been a complete ignoramus, the teacher, grown old in arms, knew less than the pupils.’ None of this has prevented the modern Byzantines from celebrating Frederick as the ‘Hero of the Enlightenment in education’. [44] At least the King did not discriminate between his lucky subjects in this. It was just as bad with the universities as it was with the elementary schools. One need only cast a glance at the four National Universities’ pitiful budgets. Duisburg had an income of 5,678 talers, Königsberg 6,920, Frankfurt an der Oder 12,648 and Halle 18,116. The professors’ salaries were downright wretched and the faculties almost all in the worst state of decay. Of the only first-class man among all the Prussian university teachers, of Kant in Königsberg, Frederick knew nothing, although it must be remembered that Kant’s main epoch-making work did not appear until 1781 and did not achieve general recognition until 1789, after Frederick’s death. We would on the other hand know very little of the one university teacher to whom Frederick gave an important, even a brilliant, position, Privy Councillor Klotz in Halle, had not Lessing bestowed on him an unwelcome immortality as an ignorant intriguer of the first rank. Furthermore, the subjects of Prussia had to be satisfied with those four tainted springs of scientific knowledge. In numerous decrees Frederick forbade study at foreign universities, even for a term, on pain of lifelong exclusion from all church and civil offices, and in the case of nobles, on pain of the sequestration of their property.

There is only one aspect of domestic administration that Frederick really reformed or at least tried to reform, and that was that supremely important aspect, the administration of justice. He abolished torture immediately on his accession. He also abolished the ‘infamy’ of the purchase of offices for all civil servants but particularly for the judiciary, although he retained the tax on their salaries. He also ordered that all the perquisites of the courts should not go to the individual judge who levied them but to a common fund. Moreover he much accelerated the procedure of the courts, setting as a standard that every case should arrive at a legally-binding conclusion in the course of one year. Finally he also wished to guarantee the independence of the courts. He repeatedly spoke out against any form of intervention from the royal power. But it must be admitted that even in this things by no means had that ideal appearance lent to them by that the French fable of the miller of Sanssouci [45]. Frederick wrote, it is true, ‘the laws must speak and the sovereign must keep silent’, but he often acted on the opposite principle. As a philosopher he saw in the maintenance of the law the strongest root of princely sovereignty, but as King he thought he had, for that very reason, to intervene everywhere he thought the courts did not apply the law properly, so that his father’s system of palace justice was happily restored.

It lies in the nature of enlightened despotism that the enlightened despot is caught in a vicious circle even when, or rather precisely when, he really wants, for once, to pioneer a cultural advance. Frederick hated ‘the old kind of justice’, which he rightly claimed had always favoured the rich, the half-venal and half-childish justice of his father, who had appointed judges partly in return for donations to his recruiting funds and partly according to the principle that applicants for high office in the administration should be ‘stupid devils’, but fair-minded. Frederick also felt very correctly that he had a Herculean task to perform, a real Augean stable to clean out, if he wanted to have ‘a prompt and impartial, brief and sound, justice administrated’. But the conclusion that he drew, and from the standpoint of enlightened despotism not incorrectly, that is to say that he would have to ‘get mixed up in it himself’, that he himself would have to be on the lookout and would have to intervene at the slightest sign of collusion, led necessarily back to a ruinous palace justice.

One cannot really reproach the King for having left the lower instance of justice in the system of seigneurial justice, the jurisdiction of the Junker over the peasant, in which, according to a saying of the time, ‘the birch supplemented legal knowledge’. For reasons that we have already explained, he could not change this. But even in the crown courts of higher instance Frederick never provided for independent justice. He always rejected the principle that judges can only be dismissed by a legal finding and never by royal fiat. Thus Cocceji [46], the King’s right hand in legal matters, once threw out the entire Supreme Court, except for two Counsellors, but including men who had carried out their duties irreproachably for decades, without any legal finding, indeed without even any accusation, simply in order to fill the empty places with his creatures. Frederick’s healthy distaste for the law’s delays gradually became his obsession that the completion of every case within a year was the hallmark not only of ‘prompt’ but also of ‘sound’ justice. The trial procedure that Cocceji had to draft was actually entitled: ‘The Draft of a Codex Fredericianus Marchicus’ (Code of Frederick of the Mark), by which all cases can and must be tried in all instances within a year’. In order to achieve this goal, Frederick circumvented the regular courts and introduced Commissions of Summary Justice. ‘With real pleasure’, he established in an Order in Council of May 11, 1747, that in the period of one year such a Commission, under the Presidency of Cocceji, had ‘disposed of 1,600 cases at the High Court at Stettin and 720 at the High Court at Köslin. How this summary justice was dispensed is sufficiently made clear in Justice Minister Jarriges’ laconic words: ‘Marsch! Was fällt, das fällt’. (‘Quick march! What’s done is done.’) Not without reason, Frederick saw the origin of many of the law’s delays in the legal profession of the day, which had been cruelly persecuted by his father and as a result had plenty of dubious characters in its ranks. But Frederick surely did not help raise the level of the profession when, besides other more sensible measures, he kept the threat of being struck-off hovering constantly over the head of every advocate as his chief cure. If proper grounds were lacking, he still removed a few from time to time as an awful example. In 1775 this happened to seven of them. The King maintained that he was the supreme judge, who had only transferred a portion of his judicial authority to others because of the practical impossibility of deciding every case himself. In his royal will he saw the spring which alone to a certain extent fructified the blasted heath of statute and common law. It was above all in the area of criminal law that he sought to impose this outlook as much as he possibly could. In all important cases judgement had to be passed by a crown court and where more serious penalties were involved they had to be confirmed by the sovereign. Convicts could only be accepted into fortress arrest on the basis of a royal Order. Frederick never permitted this to be altered. He thought that this was the best way to protect his subjects from oppression. Doubtless he also wanted to reserve the right to soften the terrible punishments laid down in the ‘Carolina’, which was still the Prussian Penal Code. [47] But the Minister of Justice, von Arnim, who, as head of the Criminal Department, had the most exact knowledge of the matter and moreover was a lively admirer of the King, described immediately after the latter’s death in a detailed paper just how little had been achieved in this way. Through not wanting to be tied down to any principles, the King succumbed to moods and generally made worse the evil that he was trying to abolish.

Thus it was with his most important legal reform, the abolition of torture. Torture was not simply a senseless and pointless cruelty that had been invented by evil or stupid men and just needed to be abolished by wise or good men. On the contrary, it formed the highest point of the criminal trials of the day, which could not impose a legal penalty without a confession from the accused and thus had to use torture to wrench a confession out of what were, in the opinion of the court, convicted criminals. For that reason even Thomasius had not dared to reject torture unconditionally, and if Frederick really wanted to break with this barbaric custom, he would have had to reform trial procedure legally. But he did not have the least intention of doing this. He decided each case separately, certain that his decision in each case would be correct. A case which aroused a lot of attention, in which the innocence of the accused was discovered at the very moment that he was to be put to torture, moved the King to instruct the courts not to pass sentence on the basis of torture any longer. But then in another case, where the sentencing of an undoubtedly guilty criminal seemed likely to be prevented by his denial, the King ordered that the missing confession should be – beaten out of him. Thus torture was restored in a new and more dangerous form. Previously, it could only be applied on the basis of a formal verdict in a crown court, but from now on any investigating magistrate could beat prisoners to his heart’s content. ‘Investigators required no higher authority in order to do so, and they applied the recommenced methods so energetically that there were soon complaints of several blatant cases of judicial murder.’ [48]

Making the King’s will the highest legal authority had some curious results. Either it arrogantly sought to disrupt the organic relationships of historical development and failed, or destroyed where it sought to create, or it satisfied itself in those areas where princely authority had always exerted itself, and then it proved to be in no sense at all the child of super-terrestrial wisdom, but the very earthy product of class interest. Whoever doubts that the forms of intellectual life are determined by the material conditions of life ought to study Frederick’s administration of the law. The example is all the more striking for the fact that the King was deadly serious about his judicial reforms and strove more energetically here than in any other field to realize his philosophical view in his princely handiwork. His moral criminal code in the matter of the so-called ‘crimes of the flesh’ reflect his population policy to an almost grotesque degree. He forbade the church to impose penance upon ‘fallen women’, and would not let anyone criticize them for their slip. He did agree that, if someone erred where sex was concerned, two preachers could try to persuade him of the error of his ways, but he added, ‘without blustering and scolding’, and no parson was allowed to divulge anything about it at the risk of being unfrocked. It all took place in the same secrecy as the confessional. Any cases of incest that nevertheless reached the courts he pardoned completely, or rather – which is even more revealing – when a husband had sinned with his daughter while the wife was still alive, he refused to pardon him with the words: ‘that is too gross’. His views on crimes of carnality thus became so broad-minded that he cancelled the death sentence imposed on a cavalryman for sodomy with the classical marginal note: ‘The fellow is a swine; put him in the infantry’. He abolished the death penalty for abortion so that the mother could make up for her crime by later births. Not only did he leave bigamy unpunished, he even recognized it legally, as in the case of General Favrat. As we know, Frederick was not interested in women, and it would be ludicrous to ascribe his juridical and moral broad-mindedness in sexual matters to any personal depravity. It must be noted that the King’s broad-mindedness did not mislead him into becoming entangled with the Catholic Church over Church penalties imposed for the breaking of Church marriage laws. Frederick was much too clever to try to anticipate the ‘genius’ of Herr Bismarck in his Kulturkampf. [49] When his officials exceeded their authority in this matter he redressed it immediately, decreeing: ‘When they (the Catholic priests) refused absolution and the communion to the above-mentioned Berkmeier, this represented no interference in the rights we possess to grant dispensations in the matter of marriage, but they are only excluding the supplicant from a gratification which he has forfeited through a marriage forbidden by the Roman Church, upon which he cannot insist as long as he is a member of that Church.’

The barbaric cruelty of Frederick’s administration of justice, when it concerned not the supply but the training of human material for despotic purposes, stands in sharp contrast to this broad-mindedness, and yet is in complete harmony with it. No miscarriage of justice, be it ever so fearful, was too much for Frederick where military and political crimes were concerned, even if they were only ‘crimes’ against his political aims at the time. Here he regarded himself as the unconfined lord over the lives and liberty of his subjects. Here he imposed whatever penalties of death or imprisonment he saw fit on the authority of his own might, and made monstrously more severe the legal verdicts that required his confirmation. When a Colonel once asked for a relaxation of the bloody articles of war in a single case with strongly mitigating circumstances, he roundly refused. He had Privy Councillor Ferber beheaded in Spandau, and his head displayed on a stake, without any process of law, for the alleged spreading of treasonable reports. Particularly as the King grew older, his palace-justice became more and more predominant. In order to regulate it to a certain extent the Supreme Court avoided sentencing prisoners to fortress arrest as much as it could. In one case it could only avoid a blatant judicial murder the King had ordered it to carry out by delaying the procedure until after Frederick’s death.

In the case of miller Arnold [50], the most famous instance of Frederick’s palace justice, several aspects are mixed up together. A legal system that appeared to protect the peasants relentlessly against the Junkers was a marvellous way of attracting peasant settlers from abroad and was a sharp reprimand to the all-too patriarchal justice handed out by the Junkers. But in this matter Frederick was nonetheless reminded in a very painful manner of the limits of his power. He bent the law in order to help one individual peasant in one individual case, but when swarms of peasants surrounded his palace and handed up to his windows legal verdicts in which they thought they had suffered much worse injustices than the miller Arnold, he could not help them. And military policy played a role in this famous affair as well. Miller Arnold had been able to bring his complaint to the ears of the King through military channels, and Frederick had entrusted some ignorant old war-horse of a Colonel with the investigation of the matter. On receiving his report, Frederick in the most shameful manner dismissed the judges of the Supreme Court that had decided against the Miller, and wrote to the minister, von Zedlitz, who refused to countenance this act of force: ‘The pen-pushers understand nothing. When soldiers receive orders to investigate something they go straight to the heart of the matter. You may be sure that I trust an honest officer who has some honour in him more than all your advocates and judges’.

Thus we have depicted Frederick’s enlightened despotism, in its inner interconnections, in broad outline in its possibilities and in what it could not do. If in doing this we could not avoid going into a certain amount of detail, we can be all the briefer in telling the moral of the tale. It hardly needs saying that this enlightened despotism simply had nothing to do with the age of German humanism pioneered by Lessing. On that thorn no figs could grow.

It only remains to investigate Frederick’s diplomacy and his wars from the same point of view.




41. In a note in Capital, Marx mentions the miserable conditions of the peasants under Frederick, quoting a few sentences by Mirabeau, for which he has been charged with bias by Prussian historians. For reasons already stated we have completely ignored the works of Mirabeau-Mauvillion, but we would like to note that the sentences from Mirabeau casually quoted by Marx do not give such a blatant description of the situation as Roden’s official report. All in all, the few words that Marx dedicated in passing to the Frederician ‘governmental mish-mash of despotism, bureaucracy and feudalism’ do that singular formation too much honour rather than too little. When, for example, Marx says that Frederick secured for the peasants the right of tenure in most of the Prussian provinces, that was actually only true of the peasants on the royal domains. On February 20, 1777, Frederick decreed ‘that in all places where it has not already happened, peasant holdings in fee to my offices are handed over to the subjects to possess and to inherit.’ See the Order in Preuss, Volume 4, pp. 466 seq. [Note by Mehring]

42. See Rudolf Meyer, Das nahende Ende des landwirtshaftlichen Grossbetriebs in Neue Zeit 11, Volume 1, p.304, and Roscher, p.399.

43. Schlosser, Geschichte des 18. Jahrhunderts, Volume 2, p.246.

44. Weber calls the King this in his Weltgeschichte. [Note by Mehring]

45. Presumably a reference to the case of Miller Arnold. The historian Otto Hintze writes of Frederick’s interference with the courts: ‘A particularly crass case of this kind was the famous case of Miller Arnold, whose complaint against his landlord had been rejected by the courts. The King was of the opinion that an injustice had been done to the man and that the judges had bent the law. He used his supreme legal authority to dismiss the judges and sentenced them to pay the miller damages. In doing so, of course, he obviously indirectly intervened in a civil trial. Famous legal experts of today are of the opinion that what we have here is a legal error on the King’s part, that the judges fulfilled their office without regard for persons and without fearing any man, and that the miller whom the King protected was a litigious crank.’ (Die Hohenzollern and Ihr Werk, Berlin 1915) Sanssouci was the royal palace in Potsdam, near Berlin, built by Frederick the Great in 1747.

46. Freiherr von Cocceji (1679-1755) – Prussian lawyer, President of the Supreme Court of Appeal, Minister of Justice and High Chancellor. Reformed the Prussian legal system.

47. Carolina (Constitutio Criminalis Caroli) – Criminal code of Emperor Charles V; its 219 articles deal with serious offences and their punishment. Till the mid-18th century it was the dominant penal code in Germany and lingered on in places until the 19th.

48. Alte and neue Rechtszustände in Preussen in Preussische Jahrbücher, Volume 5, p.390.

49. Kulturkampf – Literally a culture battle; the term applied to the struggle between Roman Catholic Church and the Prussian State over state power as opposed to the rights of the Roman Curia.

50. See note 45.


Last updated on 16.2.2004