Franz Mehring

Absolutism and Revolution in Germany


PART TWO (§2b-1)

The Brandenburg-Prussian state

The Brandenburg-Prussian state

Frederick’s enlightened despotism

Frederick II reigned from 1740 until 1786. His enlightened despotism is held to have been the highest form of modern absolutism in both senses of the word, meaning both that his princely power was unlimited and that this power was used to the benefit of the people. Both claims, however, must be modified by the qualification: ‘within the bounds set by the economic foundations of the system’. The Prussophile mythologists would do well to convert themselves to at least this scientific conception, for in their friendly conflict with their Prussophobe opponents they will suffer a hundred defeats for every victory if they fight on the basis that Frederick’s power was unlimited and that it was his duty to use that power in the interests of the mass of the people

The bounds to absolutism set for example in France and Austria by the court and the Church did not, it is true, exist for Frederick. But he was all the more caught up in the iron shirt of a militarism that had grown up on feudal foundations. His versatile and lively, if rather superficial, mind was as if created for literary and philosophical work. Frederick took more after his mother than after his father, was more of a Guelph [24] than a Hohenzollern. Particularly in his youth, foreign ambassadors emphasized his ‘Hanoverian’ characteristics. Literary tendencies have been a hereditary trait of the Guelphs at least since the Middle Ages. Henry the Lion had at his court the precursors of the courtly poets of the Middle Ages. Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick, a contemporary of Shakespeare, kept a troupe of English actors at his court and himself wrote plays. Duke August founded the Wolfsbüttel Library. Duke Anton Ulrich wrote hymns and novels. Leibnitz lived under the protection of the house of Guelph and Frederick’s grandmother, Queen Sophia Charlotte, who had all the good and bad features of the true Guelph, brought him to Berlin for a while. It may be worth noting in passing that among Frederick’s great-grandmothers there was a French noblewoman, Eleonore d’Olbreuse, the wife of a Guelph Duke, who brought some drops of fresh and lively blood into that old race. Frederick and his father regarded one another with quite unnatural hatred; a hatred that was repeated between Frederick and his brother August Wilhelm, who took entirely after his father and whose offspring were to become the later Kings; a hatred that ended tragically in the one case in August Wilhelm’s death and, in the other, in the execution of Frederick’s friend, Katt. This can only be explained in physiological terms, although we are not referring here to the slanderous court gossip about Frederick’s mother, to which even his father at times paid heed. Out of all the intermarriage between the Hohenzollerns and the Guelphs, only Frederick, his sister Wilhelmine and his brother Heinrich seem to have reverted to the Guelph type. Frederick’s ambitions ran in the first place to the laurels of the poet and author. This is what he strove for as a man all his life. He would rather have written Racine’s Athalie than have won the Seven Years’ War. But as King he was absolutely clear all his life as to the conditions that permitted him to rule at all. Thus he led that double life that produced an often quite incredible contradiction between his words and his deeds, which laid him open to the apparently undeniable charge of hypocrisy and which has been no less often explained away with the most outrageous sophistry on the part of his admirers. But Lessing described the meaning of this life very aptly in those words that Herr Erich Schmidt and others have misused for their own Byzantine purposes: ‘If I study it correctly, I envy all the Kings of Europe at present ruling, except only the King of Prussia, who is the only one to prove in deed that the rank of King is only glorified slavery’. Indeed, Frederick recognized from the very beginning that, according to the Prussian constitution, every Prussian King had resolutely to steer the old course, and his claim to historic fame – or if we have to use the word just once – historic greatness, is rooted in the fact that he not once tried to kick against the pricks, although his character and inclinations made him the most likely of all the Prussian Kings to do so.

Precisely because they would have required an extraordinary character and mind, it is obvious in advance that what Lassalle called ‘Frederick’s domestic reforms’ never happened and were never even planned. Frederick’s accession to the throne was a day of disappointment, as was described by one of those who was most bitterly disappointed. That ‘flute-player and poet’, whom his father had so badly maltreated and who had called his uniform a ‘shroud’, decreed the following short and sweet programme of government: ‘Everything remains as my father ordered it. My only change is to increase the size of the army by so many battalions and squadrons.’ He found the means to do this by disbanding the regiment of giants that his father, a rather foolish connoisseur, had formed from human colossi brought from all ends of the earth by cruel violence and at insane expense. Frederick changed nothing else, or rather nothing else of importance, in what Frederick William I had set up because, despite all his enthusiasm for philosophy and poetry and despite his sharp antagonism with his father, he knew very well that he could change nothing, and that either the Prussian state continued as it was or it would perish.

Frederick does, however, seem to have undertaken one single important change in the system of government he inherited. As we have heady mentioned, he increased the absolute power of the prince, which found its ideological expression in that inspired conception of the prince as the ‘first servant of the state’. Here indeed it appears as if the superior will of a powerful ruler took a great slice out of the state constitution resting on economic foundations. But this appearance is completely deceptive. The process that took place here was similar to that a century previously under Frederick’s great-grandfather. Then the Junkers had apparently given up their political privileges by permitting the establishment of princely absolutism, with the standing army and perpetual taxation. But what they had forfeited in the Estate’s rights they won back tenfold in the economic, social and military privileges that absolutism had to grant them, before they gave it their blessing. In the same way Frederick II ruled the state from his private office with a few junior clerks, while under his rule that very system of noble government flourished that met its doom at the battle of Jena [25], a fate it deserved a hundredfold, even if unfortunately it was not final.

The ideological school of history has as yet been unable to analyse how enlightened Frederick’s despotism really was. They have only been able to grope round it with phrases that may be of praise or of blame, flattering or critical, but still remain general and empty. But we know from the materialist conception of history that ‘the history of all previous society is the history of class struggle’ (Communist Manifesto). Frederick William I had understood this very well in his way, but Frederick did not understand it. If by ‘enlightened’ despotism one means enlightenment about the historical possibility and therefore the historical justification of despotism, then Frederick William I was a much more enlightened despot than his son. By combating the Junker ruling class as much as he could, by trying to create a princely army and a princely Civil Service for himself, by bringing as many bourgeois elements as possible into the administration, he represented a despotism that was possible according to the general conditions of the age and was a historical advance over the feudal system of the Middle Ages. Although Frederick possessed that Guelph consciousness of sovereignty which, as old and new examples show, is even more developed than that of the Hohenzollerns, he nevertheless did not have enough of his father’s princely class-consciousness. With his good class instinct, Frederick William I sensed in his son an ‘arrogance’ that spelt a great danger to princely despotism. It promised the Junkers, whom he himself had tried to root out, a new heyday. Even when his father put him in prison in Küstrin – a period of the harshest humiliation – Frederick still commented rudely on the fact that noble Landräte had to make their reports to the bourgeois Kammerdirektor [26] Hille as their superior. With apt irony, Hille replied that the world was obviously upside-down: how otherwise could princes, who were not exactly clever or only concerned themselves with trifles, give orders to sensible people? This sharp lesson bore as little fruit as his father’s blows. Frederick never grasped the fact that the despotic power his forefathers left him had been conquered in the fight against the Junkers, and thus could only be maintained or extended in that fight.

This, indeed, is the salient point that explains Frederick’s despotism insofar as it differs from his father’s despotism. The King was not so stupid as to try to play the personal ruler in the way he is supposed to have done according to the modern admirers of his enlightened despotism. He was much too clear-sighted to impose himself on the real relations of forces with a sic volo sic jubeo (‘thus I wish, thus I order’). If he wanted to be the first servant of the state, if he wanted to free himself from the advice and collaboration of the Civil Service, he had to keep the nobility happy. He knew that very well and respected it. He most unphilosophically heaped upon the nobility all possible privileges and favours. He favoured the rule of the Junkers in a way that would have been totally foreign to his father. While Frederick William measured the worth of his officials by their abilty to resist the interests of the Junkers, Frederick recommended his General Directory to make the maintenance of the nobility one of the main aims of state administration. Whereas Frederick William had been concerned to take the office of Landrat away from the Junkers, Frederick not only turned the Estates’ right of nomination into an actual right of election by granting confirmation more and more readily, but also excluded the royal domains, administrative towns and estates belonging to towns from the election of Landräte. And it was the same in everything. Frederick William had sought class struggle with the nobility; Frederick avoided it. The latter tried to buy what the former had tried to conquer. But the father understood much better than the son what this conflict of class interests was all about. If Frederick William achieved comparatively little in his war on the Junkers, it was still, in reality, by comparison a great deal more than the status that the greatest personal ruler of the eighteenth century apparently achieved. The increase in sovereignty that Frederick tried to buy from the nobility was for that very reason insubstantial. He gave away the essence of power in return for the appearance. In addition, or rather, because of the differences in the class-consciousness of the two Kings, Frederick William, who ruled over a population of little more than two million, worked for five or six hours daily with his Kabinett Councillors, the General Directorate, while Frederick II, under whose rule the population figures rose to six million, settled everything, apart from military inspections, in an hour and a half each day without consulting the Ministers and indeed assiduously despising and maltreating his officials. It is understandable from the human point of view that a man of lively intellect will flee as quickly as possible from the sad and monotonous machinery of this state to his poets, musicians and philosophers. But from the political point of view it is clear that Frederick, who believed that he was thus supervising and running the affairs of the state in the minutest detail, actually supervised and ran very little. The actual business of government fell all the more securely into the hands of the nobility by virtue of the fact that Frederick, again in sharp contrast with his father, allowed them all the important positions in the civil administration. The brilliant appearance of his enlightened despotism merely concealed a highly profitable Junker regime. Thus the more men of ‘genius’ despise the dialectic of economic development, the more relentlessly and fatally it imposes itself.

So we cannot talk of ‘Frederick’s domestic reforms’, for on the contrary under his rule the Prussian military state declined from the high point it had reached under Frederick William. When Frederick ascended the throne he had concerned himself with all sorts of literary and philosophical questions, but even by the standards of his day his knowledge of state affairs and economics was incomplete and full of gaps. There is a patriotic myth about the practical course of such matters that he is supposed to have studied during his imprisonment in Küstrin, but the most loyal of historians have had to abandon it in the face of the documentary evidence. He did not learn, and did not want to learn, all the minute details of administration that his father wanted him to study at Küstrin. The complaints of the authorities at Küstrin are inexhaustible on this topic, and Kammerdirektor Hille comforted himself with the thought that as ruler he would not concern himself with details [27]. However, as is well known, as the first servant of the state Frederick concerned himself with every trifle, and the very immature views with which he had ascended the throne ossified under his peculiar kind of personal regime. A bourgeois economist rightly emphasizes the fact that Frederick, just as he and his servants still went around in 1786 dressed in the same sort of clothes that they had worn in 1740, ‘continued for the whole of his life to hold the views that he had formed as a Crown Prince in other, more important, matters’ [28]. In the twelve hundred Orders in Council, whose texts Preuss has published in his documentary history of Frederick’s life, one can follow how, from year to year, the King became, not actually more limited – the narrow-mindedness is invariable – but more stubborn and contemptuous of the progressive learning of the day. The much-praised ‘wit’ of these Orders consists really only of jokes, some good, some bad and all painful. Lessing has already passed a final judgement on them: ‘God has no wit, and a King should have none, for if a King has wit, who will protect us from the danger that he will pass an unjust sentence merely as a joke?’ Frederick succumbed again and again to this temptation. One reason that a sigh of relief went up from the whole population when he died was that, narrow-minded and tough as his despotism basically was, its application was capricious and arbitrary. On a visit to Berlin, Goethe heard ‘the great man’s very varlets discussing him’. It is a pity that he did not spend a few years under Frederick’s rule; he would have had a more thorough understanding of ‘varlets’ on the one hand and ‘Great Men’ on the other.

In the first place the army, the backbone of the military state, decayed under Frederick. It is instructive to see that here too, unlike his father, he was more concerned with the appearance of power than with the essence. Whereas Frederick William I tried with all his strength to prevent the economic spoliation of the army by the Junkers, but treated the officers as comrades and encouraged the spirit of comradeship between them, his son gave free rein to the exploitative activities of the Junkers while he tried to impose himself on the officers as an unapproachable warlord. Following the motto ‘divide and rule’, he intrigued against them in every way. Immediately after his accession, he appointed a new Field Marshal, Count von Schwerin, to oppose his father’s Field Marshal, Prince von Dessau. By favouring first the one and then the other and slighting first the one and then the other, he goaded them so successfully that an Anhalt party and a Schwerin party formed throughout the officer corps and continued even after the deaths of their respective heads. A split similar to that between the leaders of the whole army developed between the leaders of each regiment, since Frederick created, in the relations between the head of the regiment and its commanding officer, ‘an imprecisely defined mixture of subordination and so-called collaboration’ [29]. It is notorious that Frederick persecuted with jealous envy any General who seemed to outshine him in war. How often did Schwerin and Seydlitz have to suffer his ‘disfavour’! But his admirers do him too much honour when they try to explain away as a weakness of his personal character what was, in fact, only a weakness of his social position. Frederick was by no means a miles gloriosus (boastful soldier). In his writings he speaks with decent modesty of his warlike successes and with decent frankness about the mistakes as a military leader. But he thought that the only way he could play the unconfined warlord was by not letting any Junker achieve a dominant position in the army. After the Seven Years’ War, he appointed no more Field Marshals and scarcely any more Generals. At the time of his death there was only one General on the active list, Lessing’s famous friend, old Tauentzien, and he was on half pay.

While the King thus reduced the military effectiveness of the officer corps, he gave the freest rein to its economic degeneration. He did not understand his father’s conviction that the King’s soldier had to be better-off than the Landlord’s labourer. He let the officer exploit the soldier to the same extent that the Junker exploited the labourer. In the first half of his reign, tradition, the necessities of war and perhaps, too, the King’s fresher powers still held the army together to a certain extent, despite all the abuses that were already spreading. But once the Seven Years’ War had swallowed the old army, all Frederick could create was a new army that failed miserably at the first test, the War of the Bavarian Succession of 1778 [30]. In that one campaign, he lost more men through desertion than he had in the entire Seven Years’ War. Frederick was amazed, but he learnt nothing from this bitter setback. He was undeniably ready and willing when it came to cashiering individual officers, but that changed nothing in his unsound system. Even in his day, perceptive observers realized that the army could not help falling into decay because it was more and more exploited by a privileged class. Frederick, however, simply threw out the bourgeois officers whom he had had to commission in those last lean years of the Seven Years’ War as soon as peace came, despite all their merits. He filled the gaps with noble adventurers from abroad. In his view, giving commissions to bourgeois officers was ‘the first step towards the break-up of the state’. [31]

But here lay the root of the evil. The Junkers’ military system based on Companies, which Frederick William had tried to keep within bounds as much as possible, took the following form under Frederick. Year by year the King paid for the whole nominal strength of the Company at a monthly rate of three talers and five groats for each private. But the period for annual manoeuvres had already been cut from three months to two, so for ten months of the year the Commander could send fifty or sixty of the approximately seventy native-born Prussians in the Company on furlough and pocket the appropriate sums out of the total pay. In return they were responsible for maintaining the full strength of foreigners in the Company, fifty or sixty men who had, moreover, to be of a particular size – no less than five feet ten inches. In general, the annual wastage of foreigners in the Company was reckoned at four men, for whose replacement some 500 talers were needed. In addition, the Company commander was responsible for maintaining the small items of equipment issued and the replacement of those that were missing. A significant amount of clear profit was always left over, however [32]. The Regimental Clothing Fund, for which every NCO and private had a portion of his monthly wage deducted, provided the major items of equipment (coat, trousers, waistcoat, hat or cap, stockings and boots). One taler and five groats were deducted from each month’s wage towards the cost of clothing and other regimental expenses.

This Company system was still, essentially, as it had been in the days of Frederick William, but under Frederick it became worse because there was nothing to check the Junkers lust for exploitation, which was aroused again and again throughout the system. After the Seven Years’ War, however, the King decided on a ‘reform’ that knocked the bottom out of the barrel. He deprived many of the regiments, particularly those which had aroused his dissatisfaction during the war, of the right to carry out their own recruitment. He allowed the Company Commanders in question 30, 20 or even as few as 10 soldiers on leave to their credit and took the rest onto his own account. The wastage of foreigners was replaced out of the ‘Great Enlistment’ which he himself carried out.

The first result was a considerable drop in the quality of the human material. As long as they were still responsible for their own enlistments, the Company Chiefs had still had a certain interest in looking for as strong and reliable a type of man as possible. The fewer foreigners they lost, the bigger were their profits. The King’s recruiting officers, on the other hand, found it to their advantage to drum up the most disreputable human sweepings from the ends of the earth, for they were the cheapest, and the cheaper they recruited the more they profited from the enlistment money. ‘There are officers who understand the trade in men better than the Jews who supply the English and the French with the slaves for their colonies’, wrote the Prussian Lieutenant Rahmel, after he had taken service with the Americans. Boyen said of the ‘Great Enlistment’ that without exaggerating up to a half of the annual intake of foreign recruits were not serious but not completely hopeless, while the other half consisted of completely useless beings who made a living out of deserting and re-enlisting from service to service in order to obtain the enlistment money, and who in between supplemented their income by fraud and theft [33]. The most violent treatment was necessary to tame this mob, whose continual excesses gave the military the worst possible reputation, and to keep it with the colours. Such treatment, however, had the most demoralizing effect on the better elements among the troops. To mention only one thing, bad soldiers were put in the same room as good soldiers so that they could be supervised, particularly at night. But if the bad soldiers still succeeded in deserting, the good soldiers had to run the gauntlet as punishment. The ill-treatment of soldiers became intolerable. It was in those days that those ‘abominable barrack punishments’ first earned their unholy notoriety. Any recruits who still had some honourable feelings were lost to suicide and madness [34]. The list is endless. This also ruined recruitment at home. Military service was the most dishonourable and painful punishment in Prussian lands, and in the end the King used it as such, for example for offences against the press laws. The natural result was that all classes of the population who still had anything at all to lose had to be exempted from military service. There was no question of imposing the Prussian conscription regime on the more advanced western parts of the country, an economic necessity whose bitter taste Frederick tried to sweeten by the claim that the population of Rhineland-Westphalia ‘lacked loyalty and perseverance in military service.’ But even in the provinces East of the Elbe the exemptions included all workers ‘who followed a trade’. The only elements left for recruitment were, on the one hand, mendicant and criminal trash, and on the other the poorest of the poor who lacked any means of escape or resistance. Some mutilated themselves by cutting off their thumbs – which caused the King to frame special prohibitory Edicts – and others claimed exemption on the grounds that they were employed by slaughterers and public executioners, an infamous invention which did not save them from enrolment in the Volunteer Corps during the War of the Bavarian Succession. Boyen rightly calls recruitment under Frederick ‘a crime of violence committed upon the poor’.

The King’s ‘reform’ had one further disastrous aspect. He limited the incomes of the Junker officers by his ‘Great Recruitment’, but these brave patriotic gentlemen were by no means inclined simply to see their profits drop. What their warlord had taken off them they won back from their subordinates. The Company Commanders ran their conscription districts like private estates. Despite all the exemptions, the populace’s horror of military service gave them a welcome opportunity for blackmail. The inhabitants of the Cantons, even those not liable for military service, were forced to pay cash to enjoy the civil rights of citizenship and marriage. Also a new form of the furlough system was developed. In 1763, the King had decreed that at least 76 so-called servicemen had to stay permanently with the colours, but he soon had to relent and agree that of this 76 another 26 could be sent off as Freiwächter (ticket-of-leave men), that is, since they were mainly foreign recruits, within the walls of the garrison town. However, the Captains often turned this 26 into 40, so that, for ten months of the year, 30 to 40 men at most in each Company were serving with the colours. The wages of the Freiwächter, who had to find their own work, went into the Captains’ pockets. In the same way, Prussian recruits, who were supposed to stay under arms for a year after their entry into the army, were already sent on leave after a single Exerzierzeit without any consideration given to their military training. What was more, the Clothing Funds became real gold mines for the Junker officers. They supplied equipment of inferior quality to save money for their own pockets. They shortened the coats, thus saving a significant amount of material. The soldiers’ waistcoats were bit by bit completely eaten up by the Junkers’ lust for profits. They began by cutting off the sleeves and ended up merely indicating a waistcoat by sewing a strip of cloth between the two front-pieces. The soldiers’ footwear was also a tasty meal for the Captains. ‘If Dido’, says that Lieutenant Rahmel whom we have already encountered, ‘could cut enough out of the hide of one ox to cover the land on which to build a city [35], then the Captains try to cut the land for a few Knights’ estates out of their Company’s boot soles.’ Further details of this highly refined system of swindling, how the peasants were cheated during the collection of forage for the cavalry, how dead soldiers lived on in the nominal rolls, how the camp hospitals were emptied to fill up the ranks for inspections, all this we will pass over. What we have already mentioned will be enough to explain why Boyen called the officers of Frederic’s army not soldiers but ‘profiteers’.

The King complacently countenanced all these abuses. At the most he decreed an Order from time to time against the excessive use of Freiwächter, but when it had no effect he showed no dissatisfaction. There was no control at all within the army itself, since the Captain kept his company when he was promoted Colonel or General. This was a honeypot that he took with him right to the highest rank. Since all the senior officers thus had the same itch, they all scratched each other’s backs. It is obvious what happened to the officers’ warlike spirit in all this. The Prussian historians are accustomed, when singing the praises of Frederic’s army, to quote as a drastic contrast the troops of the Bishop of Hildesheim, who had ‘Peace in our time, O Lord’ written on their hats. Now this pious wish may not have been legible on the hats of the Prussian Captains and Colonels, but nevertheless that was their motto after the Seven Years’ War. For, since the ‘profiteer’ could only make his profits in peacetime, one can understand how much the ‘martial zeal’ of this ‘heroic army’ was fired by war. Only the economic premises of Frederic’s army explain the whole shame of 1806, explain the cowardly treachery of the Junker officers, explain the sigh of relief with which thousands of soldiers quit the colours after the defeat, explain finally the grim joy of the population at the crushing blows with which the ‘feathered crests’ were punished for decades of profiteering. But it is questionable whether the army at the time of Jena was entirely as bad as it had been in the last years of Frederick’s reign. Something of the spirit of the French Revolution had penetrated over the Elbe, and individual officers like Scharnhorst, Blücher and Gneisenau, and even the best of the Junkers, like York, had greatly improved its state.

While Frederick gave the Junker officers a completely free hand to administer the army, he waged a truly suicidal war in the civil administration against the Civil Service, which his father had tried to secure for himself as a basis of support for the royal power against the Junkers. The senior posts in the bureaucracy in any case were purged of bourgeois elements. During his whole reign Frederick only appointed one bourgeois minister. The National and Provincial Collegia, too, were the preserve of the nobility. The only post to which Frederick promoted members of the bourgeoisie was, significantly enough, the Presidency of the Supreme Accounts Office. Nonetheless a certain consciousness of class and of duty was maintained in the bureaucracy, and it is to the honour of the General Directory that, after the Seven Years’ War, they decisively opposed the King’s intention of raising another two million talers in annual tax revenues for military purposes and declared that any new burden on the population would be intolerable. Schmöller describes the situation in the country at that time: ‘At the end of the war the Prussian provinces were in a terrible condition. The losses of men, beasts and capital were immeasurable. A third of all Berliners lived on poor relief. It is notorious that, in the New Mark, there was scarcely a beast left alive. Thousands of houses and cottages had been burnt down. An economic crisis of the worst sort followed the war and lasted for several years.’ Thus the General Directorate was right to refuse new taxes, over and above the existing burdens, in a country that was exhausted to death. Perhaps the bureaucracy’s sensitivity to the population’s sufferings was sharpened, too, by the fact that, during the last years of the war, officials had received so-called Treasury Certificates instead of their salaries. Money-changers would only accept them at a discount of one fifth, and, after the peace, the royal treasury would only exchange them for the debased wartime currency, which represented an enormous loss in value.

Instead, however, of paying heed to the dutiful and pertinent demands of the General Directorate, the King used this welcome opportunity to deliver a final crushing blow to the Prussian Civil Service. He summoned from France a rabble of customs and tax officials, ‘a band of ignorant delinquents’ as Hamann called them; ‘ill-mannered Robber-Marquises brought in to farm the taxes’, as Bürger sang in a ballad; ‘nothing but a pack of rascals’ as the King himself called them after an acquaintanceship of nearly twenty years. He transferred to them the administration of the excise and of the customs, for not a drop more could be squeezed out of the direct taxation – and we will see in a moment why. As is the ancient custom in Prussia, this increase in the tax burden was trumpeted as a ‘reform’. The King said to the Frenchman de Launay, the head of the ‘General Administration of the Royal Revenues’, briefly known in common parlance as the Régie: ‘Only take from those who can pay; I give them over to you.’ In a letter to de Launay, he presented himself as a workers’ and soldiers’ advocate, whose interests he had to protect in the tax administration. This is how he explained the tax ‘reforms’ in a public Letter Patent: ‘the rich with their surplus contribute in a certain way to relieve the burden of the poor, so that between the two a just and reasonable relationship exists’. These are the words upon which rests the beautiful legend of Frederick’s ‘socialism’. It is only a pity that the apostles of this legend, lost in wonder at Frederick’s words; always forget to add that his deeds always followed his words like a regiment of heavy cavalry in a china market.

This ‘workers’ and soldiers’ advocate’, for example, called for the highest possible increase in the wine-tax, since ‘the poor cannot afford that sort of thing’, but a cut in the tax on spirits and at the most a tiny increase in the duty on beer. In actual deeds, however, the King ordered a small increase in the wine duty, an increase of one half in the spirit duty and the doubling of the duty on beer. The only advantage the mass of the population gained from the Régie was a partial moderation of the bread tax. On the other hand, it raised the taxes on meat and drinks to a more or less considerable degree, added an equally oppressive tobacco and coffee monopoly to the already oppressive salt monopoly, and imposed excise duties on anything and everything that mankind needs to live and die. The tariff of articles on which excise was payable in Berlin totals 107 folio pages, each of which contains on average 30 to 40 items. Then as earlier, the richest class, the nobility, remained free from all these burdens. Not in vain, indeed, had the ‘ill-mannered Robber-Marquises’ been told that the wealthy classes had been delivered over to them, Moreover, they showed a regrettable lack of historical understanding for the tax immunity the Junkers had won by lying and deceit, and tried to bleed the nobility too. Here, however, the King intervened with a very decisive veto. Nominally the countryside was free from the excise; but since for that very reason the pursuit of industry and the crafts was, with very few exceptions, forbidden in the countryside, the rural population had to take whatever clothing and food, tools and luxury items it did not itself produce from the towns, and pay the tax on consumption in the price that they paid there. Here therefore the ‘legal’ tax immunity of the nobility had to be especially armoured against the lusts of the Régie, and so Frederick ordered that whatever wine, beer and other taxable items the Junkers imported onto their estates should be freed from the excise. The peasant, on the other hand, had to pay tax on the plough with which he worked, on the coat that he wore to church and on the glass of beer or the pipeful of tobacco with which he drugged for a few moments his nagging cares.

Despite all this the King did not achieve his purpose. The Régie did not bring the increases in annual revenues he wanted. By the most favourable calculation, in the 21 years of its existence it only produced an increase in the revenue of as many millions, and according to the most likely reckoning only some 700,000 to 800,000 talers each year. Loyal old Preuss has already correctly emphasized that, in the long years of peace from 1766-1787, broken only by one year of war, the same increase in income could have been achieved ‘through increased prosperity and higher population coupled with decent administration’. The causes of the failure are obvious. Thanks to the Régie, the expenses of the excise and customs administration rose from 300,000 to 800,000 talers; moreover the French officials were rewarded with a percentage and most of them made something on the side for their own pockets. In addition, such a refined and oppressive system of taxation produced continual tax evasion. The King, it is true, threatened tax evaders with very severe punishments, and a truly horrible system of spying and denunciation grew up to prevent them, but as is usual in such cases all this helped little or not at all. The mass of the population simply supported the smugglers, and any conscientious scruples were blunted by the fact that that the smuggling of Prussian goods out through the customs barriers of neighbouring territories possessed no more zealous protector than the King himself. Under these conditions, the fact that at least the chief of the French officials was by no means an ‘ignorant delinquent’ was a sort of unexpected bonus. Not that de Launay had any sudden attacks of sentimental sympathy with so miserably exploited a population, but his views on the technical feasibility of squeezing the people were more realistic than Frederick’s own. He secured an almost unconditional carte blanche to direct the customs and excise administration and its officials. For himself and the three subordinate Régisseurs he started with, he took annual salaries of 15,000 talers each, while the Minister nominally his superior, in the beginning von Horst, only drew 4,000 talers. But when, in order to calculate their percentage, the King offered de Launay and his comrades 25 per cent of any surplus they achieved over the net income for excise in the budget year 1764-5, de Launay pointed out that, because of the effects of the war, the excise income for that year, at nearly 3½ million talers, was less than normal. He set the norm at the 4½ million talers net brought in by the excise in 1765-6 and of the sums aimed at in excess of this he only claimed a cut of 5 per cent. De Launay also successfully insisted that at least the junior posts in the Régie should be filled by Prussian officials, whereas the King wanted to have local officials hermetically excluded from it. [36]

The Prussian bureaucracy then made one final dutiful and necessary assault upon the whole fearful oppression of the Régie, which Frederick was wont proudly to call ‘all my own work’. The country was thinly-populated and the demand for labour great, so the increase in the tax burden on mass consumption caused an increase in labour wages. The capitalists raised the inevitable cry of complaint over this, and from the General Directory the King demanded official information on the ‘still continuing complaints of the manufacturers and merchants’. In a ‘Dutiful Notice’ that ministry referred to the ‘impediments on commerce in the royal lands’. In the calmest and most matter of fact manner it laid bare the damaging nature of the Régie, pointed out that ‘the various monopolies introduced into the country, particularly the great oppression from the farming out of the tobacco trade’, was ‘highly damaging to trade in general’ and explained the increase in wages out of the increased tax burden on drink, meat and so forth. But scarcely had the King received this memorandum when on October 2, 1766 he noted on the margin in his own hand: ‘I am amazed at the impertinent report they send me, I excuse the ministers for their ignorance, but the malice and corruption of the authors must be punished in an exemplary manner, or I will never bring this canaille to heel.’ On the next day then there follows the Order in Council in which HRH instructs his General Directorate ‘as a matter of urgency to cashier Financial Counsellor Ursinus and convey him to the fortress at Spandau’ and in which all those who let themselves tread the same path as Ursinus are threatened that ‘HRH will arrest them himself, be they Counsellors or Ministers, and have them conveyed to fortress arrest for the rest of their lives’. With this act of violence the backbone of the Prussian bureaucracy was broken for the rest of Frederick’s reign.

We have depicted the King’s two great interventions in the financial and military conduct of the state in somewhat greater detail, not only because they show most clearly what this Prince’s enlightened despotism was really all about, but also because in them can be studied the nature of all those Great Men who regularly do enormous mischief when they start to ‘make history’. As we have already seen, however, Frederick had a good deal more sense in general then his admirers, and was quite capable of finding his way in the economic conditions of life imposed on him. In accordance with these conditions he subscribed, in his economic policies, to a crass mercantilism. The mercantile theory was the ideological economic system of princely absolutism, which had developed out of the production of and trade in commodities. The economic conditions which it reflected were the source of its emphasis on trade and the manufacturing industries, its over-estimation of population density and of cash as the commodity of all commodities and finally the requirement that the newly arisen state power should encourage all those things out of which and because of which it has arisen, that is, trade and industry and the increase in the population and the supply of money. However, not only does the hammer strike the anvil, but the anvil also strikes the hammer. Practice first of all always gives rise to theory, but theory then shapes practice. The mercantile system became, for absolutism, a lever for achieving its dynastic interests. The system made possible the sophism that the possession of money and the national wealth were one and the same, and thus laid open the door for the fiscal exploitation of the people. The more money the princes could bring into the country and keep in the country for their armies and the courts, the richer the people became, and even the most senseless squandering was unobjectionable ‘as long as the money stayed in the country’.

Wherever the trade in and the production of commodities had developed naturally to a significant degree, as for example in France, the mercantile system could not degenerate so easily because the practice kept the theory within bounds. Colbert, the most important mercantilist statesman, knew that ‘there is nothing more valuable than the labour of men’ and the construction of roads to encourage commerce was a brilliant aspect of his administration. The origins of absolutism in Germany on the other hand were more feudal than capitalist, and thus economic sense could, or had to, much more readily degenerate into absolutist nonsense. Frederick maintained the view, ‘as obvious as it was true’, that ‘if you take money out of a purse every day and put nothing back in, it will soon be empty’, which was the very crassest conception of mercantilism, and he let the roads fall into decay so that foreign travellers would be detained all the longer and thus would have to spend all the more money. Even more characteristic than the comparison of Frederick with Colbert is his correspondence of 1765 with the Electress Regent Maria Antonia of Saxony on the subject of mutual trade barriers. Saxony was economically the most developed of the German territorial states. The Leipzig merchants were already demanding complete free trade, and so the Electress wrote to Frederick: ‘Our great principle is the freedom of trade and the sharing of the advantages.’ But Frederick knew no better than to write in reply a few sentimental phrases on the bad aspects of gold and silver, which, he said, had unfortunately become necessary evils. And, he added, such necessities laid on him the duty of collecting these, in themselves, base and contemptible metals. He continued to hold de Launay’s view that what is damaging to those abroad is good for one’s country, a view which, it must be admitted, Voltaire still represented, but which Mirabeau [37] already called ‘monstrous and worthy of a statesman of the eleventh century’.

Precisely in the Brandenburg-Prussian state mercantilism did not arise out of economic development, but the attempt was made to guide economic development according to mercantilist teachings. At a time when mercantilism had long been at its peak in Western Europe, the expulsion of the Huguenots from France gave the Elector Frederick William, shortly before his death, the first opportunity worth mentioning of attracting a significant amount of capital into the country. His motive in inviting his exiled co-believers into his state was not religious but economic. He had already experimented in a small way with a soap factory, a sugar refinery and a porcelain factory, but the first large-scale factories and manufactories date from the time of the French immigration. On this feudal-agrarian soil however, with its decayed little towns, it remained an artificial growth which needed careful tending in the hot-house of mercantilist theory. The growing military state’s continual cry for more money and more men agreed splendidly with this theory, but that same military state devoured the growth in money and men, which the mercantile system needed to stimulate trade and industry, for its cannons and its recruits. Little or nothing was left over for trade and industry, whereas it was precisely to them that everything ought to have been applied if they were to flourish in the ungrateful soil East of the Elbe. But to keep this exotic plant alive at all costs, Prussian absolutism lavished loving care on it in any way that did not mean spending money: in monopolies and privileges, in bans on exports and imports, in wage and price controls, in technical regulations of industry, in short in that confused chaos of a degenerate mercantilism, completely alienated from its original sense, which found such an eloquent critic in Mirabeau. He cannot criticize bitterly enough the fact that, in 1766, the King simply prohibited the import of no less than 490 articles, or that in 1774 he made the export of wool punishable by death, but he overlooked the fact that this particular form of mercantilism was and had to be the ideological economic form of this particular military state. Even if Frederick’s economic insights and knowledge had been incomparably deeper than they were, it would have changed nothing. The King understood this much, that the fine textile industry was the highest point of the economic development of the day – it was for the eighteenth century what the iron and coal industries are for the nineteenth century – and he was acting in the true spirit of mercantilism when, immediately after his accession, he set up his own Department of Commerce and Manufacture in the General Directorate. He especially ordered it to introduce a new silk industry, the production of French gold and silver cloth, etc. But whereas France and England made the greatest sacrifices for their silk industries, in his whole reign Frederick only spent about two million talers on this pampered favourite. [38] He gave it very little to eat and drink, but in return he protected its thin thread of life all the more anxiously by keeping it in leading-strings behind tightly closed doors. In the case of this industry, which was so close to his heart but which finally died, it is clear that the King did not do more for it, not because he did not want to do more for it, but because he could not do more for it. He lacked the means, not the insight. In the feudal military state of Prussia, mercantilism had to fall back on the medieval law of prohibition and compulsion, just as in bourgeois industrial Britain it had to develop into free trade.

Basically the Frederician legend is bitterly unjust to the King when it tries to count the unfortunately countless millions that, particularly after the Seven Years’ War, he is supposed to have given ‘in paternal solicitude’ for raising the level of general welfare. If the King really had such important means at his disposal, it would be difficult to acquit him of unusual narrow-mindedness in economic policy. In fact, however, in the 23 Years from 1763 to 1786, according to the calculations of the Minister von Hertzberg, relatively the most expert judge, he spent no more than 24,399,838 talers for that purpose. We say ‘relatively the most expert judge’ because, even though von Hertzberg was the most important and experienced Minister of Frederick’s later years, it was one of the most invariable rules of the first servant of the state that no Minister got full insight into the condition of the state finances. All surpluses of the annual state revenues over budgetary spending, as well as certain royalties and taxes, went into the Privy Purse, which the King alone administered through a few subordinate tools. A numerically accurate overall view of Frederick’s financial affairs is thus rendered very difficult, if not impossible. The only question which concerns us here, however, the question of this enlightened despot’s expenditure on what his admirers call his ‘socialist state-assistance’, can be answered with relative, if not absolute, accuracy, at least for the period after the introduction of the Régie.

He himself puts the state’s annual revenues for this period at 21,700,000 talers. Nobody puts them any higher and most observers – and they are experts like Boyen, Krug and Riedel, etc. – estimate them considerably lower. Anyway, they only rose to that level in the last years of his reign, leaving aside the sharp drop in the excise in the famine years of 1770 and 1771 and the war year 1778. But let us stick to Frederick’s figure for the whole period. He calculates that 5,700,000 talers of this income was a surplus which he could use for his war treasury, the construction of fortifications, land improvements or other exceptional expenses. This sum is also put as high as it possibly could be, for the regular budget laid claim to at least 16 millions. The army cost 13 millions annually, the Hofstaatskasse, which today we call the Civil List, received 492,000 and the administration of the Régie devoured 800,000 talers, so that there remained only around 1,700,000 for all the remaining administration of the state, an unbelievably small sum, even if you take into sufficient account the miserably low pay of German Civil Servants. In no case could Frederick have had more than the 5,700,000 talers surplus that he claims. On the other hand his claim that he regularly put 2 million out of that into his war treasury is absolutely certain. Since he could scarcely have begun building up a new treasury before 1776, there ought to have been 40 millions in it at the time of his death. All other calculations, however much they vary, and Krug and Riedel put it at 55 millions while Lombard puts it at 76 million, all agree that the King left a considerably bigger treasury than could be expected from his own accounts. Let us meanwhile stick to his figure of 2 million a Year!

There would then remain annually 3,700,000 talers for exceptional expenses, which in 20 years would make 74 million talers. Now in this period he used about 8 million for the construction of fortifications, for artillery and so forth. The war of the Bavarian Succession cost 29 millions. Finally Frederick paid 3 millions in subsidies to the Empress Catherine for her war against the Turks. Altogether that makes 40 millions. But in addition the King, although personally he was opposed to all the extravagance of the court, and although he states in his will that he never spent personally more than 220,000 talers a year, still had some very expensive passions. Among his effects were found some 130 boxes set with diamonds and other precious stones, which represented a total value of some 1½ million. Much more weighty is the fact that he shared the mania for building that all despots have to a very great degree. The single fact that he started building the New Palace at Potsdam – which was as expensive as it was useless – immediately after the war, with the country’s misery at its very height, should stop honest people from swallowing all the talk about his ‘paternal solicitude’. According to Retzow, its construction cost 11 millions and its internal furnishing as much again. [39] Let us assume that Retzow, who was not sympathetic to the King, exaggerates greatly. A knowledgeable and sympathetic witness, one of Frederick’s master builders, still gives the total cost of just of what was built in and around Potsdam at more than 10½ millions. [40] Let us leave out what Frederick spent on building in Breslau, Königsberg and Berlin (the library, the great churches on the Gendarmenmarkt, several colonnades, and so on): Manger’s 10½ million and the 1½ million spent on the boxes give a further 12 million to subtract from the 74 million that Frederick had at his disposal in the last 20 years of his reign for exceptional expenditures. There thus remain only 22 millions for raising the people’s level of welfare, and to arrive at Hertzberg’s figure at all one has to include the approximately 2½ million which Frederick claims immediately after the Treaty of Hubertusburg, he spent out of money held in reserve for his next campaign on the most immediately necessary reconstruction of the country.

It must be emphasized once more that these figures have no absolute value. It would take an entire book to give an exhaustive and accurate picture of Frederick’s finances, what with the confusion of the King’s book-keeping and the highly biased accounts of it that have been published. But for our purpose, which is to determine how much, under the most favourable conditions, Frederick could possibly have used for the improvement of his country, it is permissible to calculate on the basis of uncertain figures since, where the various sources disagree, we always take the highest figures for his total income and the lowest figures for his other expenditure. We have done this throughout, even where it has not been apparent. Thus we could not bring ourselves to cut Frederick’s military budget from the 13 million which older and more impartial authors give to the 12,100,978 that a more recent historian calculates. This same historian meanwhile puts the war treasury that Frederick left at 63 million, while we, following Frederick’s account, have set it at 40 millions. A simple calculation shows that we thus still calculate his expenditure on the army and the war treasury at a lower figure than that historian. And thus, with all the certainty that is possible under the circumstances, one can say that after the Seven Years’ War Frederick spent, in the form of presents, allowances, subsidies, indemnities and industrial enterprises, for the population of the Prussian state approximately the 24 to 25 millions that Hertzberg calculates – and that in the most favourable and unfortunately not in the most likely event.

This sum itself is just one fifth of the ransom in cash alone that the country had had to pay to its foreign enemies. That would not be much, but it would at least be something. Unfortunately the way in which this sum was spent on the different classes of the population greatly dims whatever glow of patriarchal good-living it seems to cast. The towns and the urban industries received little enough, and the peasants a good deal less, but the lion’s share went to the Junkers. Compare the 25,000 talers which Frederick gave the Westphalian towns after the signing of peace for the reconstruction of their houses and streets, or even the 100,000 talers that Frankfurt an der Oder, the Mark’s most important trading town, received at the same time and for the same purposes, with the 2½ million that were spent on the nobility of Pomerania and the New Mark after the Seven Years’ War, two provinces that together make up about one sixth of Prussian territory, partly as a present to enable them to pay their debts and partly as capital for the improvement of their estates. This capital was in the form of a permanent loan, and if interest was payable at one or two per cent, it was destined for ‘pensions for the poor widows of officers and nobles’. We will not however go into detail in this matter, but will rather spend more time on what Frederick did for the great mass of the working population, that is to say the peasants. On the one hand this casts the most penetrating light on Frederick’s ‘paternal solicitude’, on the other hand we have detailed information on this subject from the most impeccable source.





24. Guelphs – Italian version of Welfen, the name of a German princely family which in the Middle Ages fought on the side of the Pope against the Holy Roman Emperor.

25. Battle of Jena (1806) – Where the Prussians suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Napoleon.

26. Landrat – District president; Kammerdirektor – Chamberlain, an official who dealt with taxes and finance.

27. Koser, Friedrich der Grosse als Kronprinz, 1886, p.91 seq.

28. Roscher, Geschichte der Nationalökonomik in Deutschland, p.414.

29. Fouqué, F. de la M., Lebensbeschreibung des Generals Fouqué, p.55.

30. War of the Bavarian Succession, 1778 – Austria attempted to annex Bavaria; the Bavarian heir apparent was supported by Prussia, and finally Austria gave way.

31. Frederick, Oeuvres, Volume 9, p.186.

32. Jahns, Volume 3, p.2259. According to Pertz, Gneisenau, Volume 1, p.51, even Gneisenau, who is in no way suspected of sharp practices, made as much as 2,000 talers annually out of his company. [note by Mehring.]

33. Erinnerungen aus dem Leben des General-Feldmarschalls Hermann von Boyen, Volume 1, pp.195 seq. Boyen is the famous pupil of Scharnhorst, friend and co-thinker of Gneisenau, Grolman and Clausewitz, the Prussian Minister of War from 1814 to 1819, who resigned after the final victory of Junker reaction in the Carlsbad Decrees.

34. How the Imperial Chancellor, von Caprivi, after the appearance of Boyen’s book, not to mention any other contemporary documentary evidence, could deny in the Reichstag that the ill treatment of the soldiers was the hallmark of Frederick’s army, the cement that held it together, is a complete enigma. The cane was as integral a part of it as the shadow is of the body, and if it still plays, unfortunately, a miserable role in the German army, then this happened precisely because it is not a ‘Nation in Arms’, but unites universal conscription with essential features of the Frederician military system. [note by Mehring.]

35. Dido – Queen of Carthage in Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid. Was said to have acquired as much land as would go within an oxhide by cutting the latter into a long strip, and in this way to have founded the city of Carthage in North Africa.

36. The above details have been taken from archive sources. See Walter Schulze, Geschichte der Preussischen Regieverwaltung, pp.40 seq. In Neue Zeit 10, Volume 2, p.769 seq., it is shown in greater detail how Herr Schulze succeeded, despite everything, in proving that the ‘socialism’ that Frederick showed in setting up the Regie was ‘more profound, more idealistic, more heroic’ than the proletarian socialism of today. [note by Mehring.]

37. Mirabeau (1749-1791) – French aristocrat. At the beginning of the French Revolution he was a representative of the Third Estate; he refused to obey orders from King Louis XVI to disperse the meeting of the Estate. This was a crucial point in the early days of the bourgeois revolution. Mirabeau wanted a constitutional monarchy.

38. Schmoller, Die Preussische Seidenindustrie im 18. Jahrhundert, p.35.

39. Retzow, Charakteristik der wichtigsten Ereignisse des Siebenjährigen Krieges, Volume 2, p.455.

40. Manger, Baugeschichte von Potsdam, Volume 3, p.825.


Last updated on 16.2.2004