Franz Mehring

Absolutism and Revolution in Germany



The French Revolution

Historically speaking, the great French Revolution that broke out in 1789, through its effects on Europe, restored the vitality of a Germany that had degenerated in the swamp of feudalism.

In this revolution, the warring classes and parties stripped off for the first time all religious disguise and struggled against one another in purely secular forms, openly proclaiming their purely secular aims. Thus Christianity entered its last phase as a world-historical phenomenon. Incapable of serving any longer as the ideological banner of any historically progressive class, it became more and more the exclusive possession of the ruling classes. From then onwards they used it as a naked instrument of rule, in which sense it made no difference to them whether or not they believed in the religion they insisted on preserving amongst the people.

In the very period that absolute monarchy revealed itself in Germany as merely a deterrent caricature, it developed in France from 1648 to 1789 the highest form it ever achieved historically. In it, state power did not appear as a direct instrument of class rule but led an existence apparently independent of the economic classes and political parties, none of which was strong enough to seize power for itself. Absolute monarchy held each of the existing classes in check by the others, offered them all a truce and made use of all of them.

All the same, its independence was only apparent. For all that it played the feudal classes off against the modern and the modern classes off against the feudal, it remained as dependent on the former as it was on the latter. It could permit none to become too powerful, but for that very reason it could condemn none to become too completely powerless. It had to encourage agriculture, trade and industry, all the capitalist forces of production, if only to sustain its own bureaucratic apparatus and standing army, but it was also not permitted to break with the feudal estates that it needed as a counterweight to the bourgeoisie, particularly since the absolute monarch was usually the greatest landowner in his country and thus had interests in common with the other great landlords, the aristocracy and the Church.

Thus absolute monarchy was to a certain extent a body with two souls, one enlightened, bourgeois, which took pains to develop the capitalist forces of production as much as possible, and one feudal, medieval, which only thought of extracting as much as possible out of the nation in order to consume the booty in the interests of the feudal classes of society. But in the long term these two souls could not coexist. The absolute monarchy could not satisfy the aristocracy without harming the bourgeoisie and, vice versa, the more historical progress altered the balance between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie to the detriment of the aristocracy and the benefit of the bourgeoisie, the more the absolute monarchy tottered, since it rested on precisely this balance between the ruling classes.

The absolute monarchy became completely intolerable for the lower classes. The rural and urban workers lived in the most terrible misery under French absolutism even in its golden age. According to bourgeois historiography, the absolute monarchy arose out of the protection it afforded the weak against the strong. All this meant, however, was the intervention of the absolute monarchy in economic conditions, an intervention that was intended to increase the so-called national wealth, that is, commodity production. This intervention did not benefit the working classes but the capitalist mode of production, partly directly through monopolies, protective tariffs and financial support, partly indirectly through the abolition or the mitigation of serfdom, the improvement of schools and so forth. For the working classes as such absolutism never spared a thought. Insofar as it did appear to show a certain interest in them, it was never a question of making slaves into men, but much more of converting feudal objects of exploitation into capitalist ones.

Condemned to lifelong hunger, the peasants soon learned to stop trying. Ever greater stretches of cultivable land were left fallow; by 1750 a quarter of the arable land was already no longer cultivated. The town labourers lived in similarly degrading conditions. Throughout the realm industry and trade were under the strict legal control of the guilds. Bit by bit even the simplest branches of employment were bureaucratically converted to guild crafts. The monopolization of the crafts made it impossible for countless journeymen ever to become masters. They travelled all over France without finding a place to settle down, until in the end they returned home to work at their trade secretly and furtively, harassed and persecuted by the police. In the end it simply had to be accepted that loopholes were constantly being made in this unjust and senseless organization of national labour, and this acceptance came in a highly characteristic manner. Just as there were sanctuaries for debtors and even criminals, where the writ of the law did not run, so it seemed appropriate to set up sanctuaries for homeless and outlawed labour. In Paris there were two such refuges, the Temple area and the Faubourg St. Antoine. In the Faubourg particularly 70,000 workers had settled before the outbreak of the revolution. Here every hole and corner was thickly sown with the disinherited, who could find no space in the soil of official society. The Faubourg St. Antoine became the real hearth of the revolution; from its womb streamed the stormers of the Bastille, and it was the rampart that broke every blow of the counterrevolution.

If the condition of the rural and urban workers sufficiently characterizes absolutism’s so-called paternalism, it also shows why the bourgeoisie benefited less and less from this form of state. The progressive decay of agriculture hindered the development of the so-called national wealth, whose continuous increase was a vital question for the bourgeoisie, and the ever-increasing ossification of the guild system limited their free access to the labour force from which they extracted their surplus value. While they were thus hindered in developing their productive forces, the absolute monarchy increased its claims upon the purses of the bourgeoisie to a degree that was unparalleled and unheard of in the conditions of the time. The longer they went on, the less the French Kings were able to recognize the bourgeois side of absolute monarchy. They became more and more caught up with the feudal estates, the aristocracy and the church, and pursued a courtly extravagance that brought the French state to the verge of bankruptcy.

To avoid this bankruptcy, the monarchy was forced, early in 1789, to convene the Estates General, the representatives of the aristocracy, the clergy and the bourgeoisie. But here the bourgeoisie had already such an overwhelming predominance that they were very soon able to transform the corporation of feudal estates into a modern National Assembly, in doing which, it is true they were admirably assisted by divisions among the aristocracy and clergy. It is a familiar experience that the more reactionary classes and parties decay internally, the more they are driven apart externally, which as a rule makes the advance of the revolutionary parties easier. In the night of August 4-5, 1789, the National Assembly swept aside all the rottenness of feudalism and of the guilds, along with serfdom, seigneurial courts, tithes, surplice fees, the purchase of offices etc.

That night has gone down in history, as indeed it deserves to, since in a few hours it removed the junk Germany has needed no less than sixty years to clear away. On the other hand, it is wrong to talk of the ‘spirit of sacrifice’ that the privileged estates are supposed to have manifested on the night of August 4. They were only giving up what the hundreds of peasant revolts that raged throughout the country in the summer of 1789 had already completely destroyed, and they only did so to preserve at least some claim for compensation.

It is true that the peasants on their own were not enough to assure victory for the bourgeoisie. They were too scattered, too badly organized, too distant from Paris, where political movements were concentrated, to be able to intervene at times of sudden decision. Thus the Paris suburbs became the main camp of the revolution. Here the most relentless and active elements in the country were packed tightly together: petty bourgeois and workers and also a lumpen proletariat that still possessed enough primitive strength to throw itself with enthusiasm into the revolutionary stream.

For polemical purposes this revolutionary mass has been compared with modern Social Democracy. This is, in itself, complete nonsense, since all the prerequisites of a proletarian workers’ movement were missing in those days. But Social Democracy has no need to be ashamed of this comparison. Even if the sans-culottes, so called because of their proletarian dress, or the Jacobins, as they were named after their most powerful organization, were not modern socialists, they were indeed true revolutionaries.

They annihilated all the counter-revolutionary assaults of the court and of the feudal estates and saved France when the European powers carried war into the country to strangle the revolution.



The Revolutionary Wars

The revolutionary wars that were to transform the whole of Europe over the next twenty years broke out in 1792.

Their origins lay in the decisions of that August night of 1789. By those decisions the feudal privileges of German Imperial estates, which had large possessions in Alsace, were also removed at a stroke, although the injured Imperial estates could claim that their feudal rights had been guaranteed by international treaty at the time of France’s annexation of Alsace. [67]

The French National Assembly, however, had no intention of acting provocatively. They could obviously not think of preserving for the German Junkers and priests what they had wrenched away from the French nobility and clergy, particularly since the very abolition of feudal dues, services and statute labour effectively welded Alsace to France. They declared themselves willing, however, to pay any financial compensation, so nothing could have been easier than to solve this international conflict. If this did not come about, it is entirely the fault of the German Imperial estates in Alsace, who insisted on the unrealizable claim that all their feudal rights should be restored.

They found ready helpers in the German dwarf despots, who now tried in their own way to kick against the pricks of the French revolution. In particular the ecclesiastical princes of the Rhineland, contrary to all international law, permitted the mob of emigrés that had fled from the revolution in France, to arm on German soil for a war against those who had expelled them. Even if these preparations were not dangerous, they still outraged French national feeling, all the more since the French King, and particularly the Queen, who was an Austrian Princess [68], tried through unpatriotic intrigues to incite foreign powers to an armed attack on France. So when, in the summer of 1791, the royal pair even made an unsuccessful attempt to escape, an elemental wave of agitation broke out in France. It was assumed, not incorrectly, that the King had intended to return to France at the head of a foreign army and restore the absolute monarchy. From then on he had to suffer the most painful humiliations.

Thus the great powers in Germany were mobilized, in their front rank the German Emperor, Leopold II, a brother of the French Queen. There was King Frederick William II of Prussia, too, who had at first flirted with the French revolution, and even formed secret links with the democratic party of the National Assembly through his ambassador in Paris – not out of enthusiasm for the aims of the revolution, but out of jealous and malicious pleasure at the misfortunes of the French monarchy, in the attempt to bring the pot of Hohenzollern dynastic policy to the boil on the fire of the revolution. But as soon as he saw that this fire permitted no liberties to be taken, he fell into the opposite mood and played the knight-errant, riding out with his rusty lance against the revolutionary dragon. Nevertheless, all the sabre-rattling with which the Austrian Emperor and the Prussian King entertained themselves had as yet no very serious intent. But now the lust for war also grew in the Paris National Assembly, which had been newly elected in the autumn of 1791 and was dominated by the Girondins, a republican bourgeois party whose main base was the trading towns of South Western France and which was very dissatisfied with the growing authority of the Parisian Jacobins. They stoked up the warlike mood that the German challenge had aroused in the French nation with the intention and hope of directing the most active elements of the petty-bourgeois and proletarian population away from the hot-bed of revolution into the war, and thus of getting rid of them. On March 1, 1792, they forced the King to declare war on the German Emperor.

The ultimate responsibility for the war lay neither upon the one side nor upon the other; the deepest origins of the revolutionary wars were rooted in the fact that a bourgeois and a feudal Europe could not exist side by side without at some time or another, for one reason or another, getting getting at cross purposes. As long as only the French monarchy was threatened, the other monarchies, above all the Prussian, looked on their hated rival’s difficulties with a certain malicious pleasure. But the ‘reactionary mass’ of them started to come together when the painful humiliations that the French King suffered because of his unpatriotic activities pointed to a danger that threatened all European thrones. At first the feudal powers had overwhelming superiority on their side, but, historically outmoded and rotten as they were, they were much too consumed by mutual hatred and envy to be able to close ranks and march against the common enemy. They were more interested in securing their share of the spoils of victory than in victory itself. They wanted to divide the bearskin among themselves before they had even killed the bear; so Prussia and Austria watched each other, growling softly like two suspicious carnivores, when, in July, they set about their first joint assault on revolutionary France.

This was immediately revealed for the wretched feudal adventure which it was when the Prussian army commander, the Duke of Brunswick, issued a war manifesto that promised to raze Paris to the ground. This brazen threat aroused a storm in the French nation down to the last man. In Strasburg the immortal strains of the Marseillaise rang out for the first time, calling all citizens to arms; before the Prussian army had reached the frontier of France, the French Monarchy was abolished on August 10, 1792, and the King and his family imprisoned. The Prussian army did actually penetrate into France, but hesitated and turned away when, at Valmy, it met forces able to offer serious resistance, although it was still far superior to them. It lost half its men to the deep mud of Champagne, to the harsh autumn weather and epidemics before it arrived back on the Rhine in complete disorganization.

In France, however, after the fall of the monarchy, the National Convention was elected. From then on it was the sole sovereign power, which with unparalleled energy, released all the resources of the nation to destroy the traitor within and the enemy without. It put the guilty King on trial and, on January 21, 1793, had him executed. By means of the Red Terror it held down all the reactionary feudal elements, and by means of mass conscription it held in check the hostile armies which, in 1793, almost the whole of Europe sent against the young republic. The feudal armies’ technical military superiority was balanced by new tactics developed by the French volunteers. They were workers, peasants and craftsmen fighting for their own vital interests who, unlike the mercenary armies, did not have to be driven into battle with blows, kept together in closed camps, and supplied from depots. They could advance rapidly, fight in scattered ranks and attack on any terrain. They could maintain their own supplies by obtaining food directly from the people, and mass desertions, that cancer of all mercenary armies, were completely foreign to them.

These new tactics enabled the French revolution successfully to withstand feudal Europe. Fatally exhausted, the Prussian state was the first to quit the mighty struggle. When, on April 5, 1795, it made its peace with the French Republic at Basle, it was already in complete dissolution and morally and materially equally bankrupt.

In this treaty the Prussian state betrayed its feudal allies, particularly the Austrians. It gave up any claim to its possessions on the left bank of the Rhine, which had already been taken by the French, but made sure that, should a general peace be signed, it would receive some compensation. What was more, it was the unspoken assumption of both sides that the ecclesiastical states of the right bank of the Rhine were to be seized for that purpose. Finally, a so-called demarcation line was drawn in the Peace of Basle, which enclosed northern and central Germany. The French promised to respect this line if, for their part, the German states it circumscribed would observe strict neutrality.

The Prussian state was the first member of the feudal coalition against revolutionary France to run out of breath. It withdrew from great world affairs to carry on a semblance of life under the shield of a cowardly neutrality, hated and scorned by all. After a short struggle against the revolution, which the other feudal powers were able to sustain a good while longer, it was utterly finished, intellectually and morally, financially and militarily.



The Break-Up of the German Empire

Even before the Peace of Basle, the domination of the Jacobins in Paris had been broken. The war had helped them to power, but they were by no means inclined to fight a war for a society that was hostile to them. The more ruthlessly they had abolished feudal exploitation, the more pressure they brought to bear on capitalist exploitation, which grew all the more brazenly after the fall of feudalism. To stem the advance of capitalist exploitation and to abolish its foundations became, next to the combating of foreign enemies, the main aim of the Parisian revolutionaries.

But in this they were attempting a task that could not yet historically be solved. The capitalist mode of production was still in its ascending phase; there was no possibility of replacing it with a higher mode of production. So the Jacobins had to make do with forcible intervention in economic life, pegging food prices and beheading exploiters, stock-jobbers and speculators. However, the more heads they cut off the Hydra, the more grew in their place. It was of no help to the Jacobins that they declared the permanent revolution and intensified the Red Terror which the war had imposed on them. This brought them into an ever-sharper conflict with the other classes in the nation. When victory over the foreign enemy had been assured and the Red Terror had ceased to be a necessity for the salvation of the revolution, it was felt to be an increasingly intolerable barrier to economic development.

Under these conditions the fall of the Jacobins could no longer be postponed. In July 1794 and May 1795 they suffered decisive defeats from which they never recovered. [69] But they still have the merit in terms of world history of having saved the revolution and swept away the feudal state with a thoroughness unparalleled in any country in the world.

Now the French bourgeoisie had a free hand and set up their government by transferring the management of the state to a Directory of five people. But now that there was no longer anyone to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them, they had to act on their own, showing a political incapacity that threatened to give the feudal powers the advantage after all. This bourgeois regime was marked by rapid deterioration at home and abroad.

That is why the whole nation greeted with great rejoicing the coup d’état of the 18th Brumaire November 9, 1799, with which General Napoleon Bonaparte dispersed the government of the Directory and made himself military dictator, initially as First Consul of the French Republic and then, in 1804, as Emperor of the French. To say, in the manner of current liberalism, that the 18th Brumaire was simply a betrayal of liberty, and to seek its origins in the ambition of an adventurer of genius, is too superficial. Napoleon drew his strength much more from the heritage of the French revolution, and he began to cash in on it at home and abroad. However great his military genius, he was under no illusion as to where his right of conquest was historically rooted. Wherever he planted his victorious eagle he introduced bourgeois reforms.

He succeeded first, in 1801, in forcing the German Emperor to sue for peace. In this treaty, signed on February 9, 1801 in the little town of Lunéville in Lorraine, the Emperor, in the name of the whole German Empire, relinquished the left bank of the Rhine, as the Prussians had done in the Treaty of Basle. The bed of the Rhine was to henceforth to form the frontier between the French Republic and the German Empire. An area of 1150 square miles and almost 4 million inhabitants (about one seventh of its population) was thus lost to Germany. But the Treaty of Lunéville also obliged the Emperor to sacrifice the existing constitution of the Empire; the secular princes of the left bank of the Rhine were to be compensated at the expense of the ecclesiastical states in the interior of the Empire.

Now the German princes began a shameful process of haggling over territory. In Treitschke’s phrase, they hurled themselves upon the bleeding wounds of the Fatherland like a swarm of hungry flies. Forgetting all shame and honour, they rushed to Paris to secure the biggest possible scraps of land by bribing French ministers. The Prussian state, too, took part in this miserable trade, while Austria, trying to save as much as possible of the ecclesiastical states, proposed to throw the Imperial Free Cities, too, into the hands of the receivers in bankruptcy. This highly delighted the mob of princes but did nothing to assuage their greedy appetite for Church property.

Bonaparte watched these repulsive activities for more than a year, but once the German Imperial Diet at Regensburg had shown itself completely incapable of controlling the ravening wolf-pack, he reached an agreement with Russia about the reorganization of German affairs. In obedience to a Franco-Russian Diktat, the Diet of Regensburg, in the so-called Principal Resolution of the German Delegation of February 23, 1803, abolished no less than 112 German states. Only pitiful remnants of the ecclesiastical states and the Imperial towns remained – three of the former and six of the latter. Of the booty, Austria received only as much as it had lost, while Prussia was more richly provided for, since it was in the interest of the French and the Russians to keep this thorn in Austria’s flesh. Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden fared best of all, since Napoleon wished to turn them into compliant vassal states through whom he could dominate southern Germany.

In the same year, 1803, however, French troops had already occupied a portion of North Germany, the Electorate of Hanover, which was linked by a personal union to the United Kingdom. England and France were still at war, although there was a short respite after the Treaty of Amiens (October 11, 1801). England and France, as the economically most developed nations, were struggling for domination of the world market. This conflict of interests could not be resolved by a treaty, but only by one nation or the other winning. French troops occupied Hanover in order to prevent this German territory being used as an entrepôt for English goods on the continent, but in doing so they obviously crossed the demarcation line that France had promised Prussia she would respect in the Treaty of Basle. However, Berlin lacked the courage to raise any serious objection to this brazen breach of the treaty.

The English government, on the other hand, was able to incite Austria and Russia to a new war against France. This new coalition, which was as reactionary as its predecessors, was formed in April 1805. But the three powers had in the meantime learnt how hard France was to beat, and they made an effort to win the Prussian state as a fourth member of their league. Now the Prussian government was in a quandary; it did not want to fall out either with France or with the coalition of England, Austria and Russia. Constantly unable to follow a clear and consistent policy, it took refuge in a lamentable juggling act.

It mobilized the army in response to the Tsar’s threat to march his troops through Prussian territory, but when Napoleon, without asking Berlin, did what the Tsar had only threatened to do by actually marching his troops through Prussian territory, the King of Prussia promised the Tsar his help. He sent Count Haugwitz with a threat of war to Napoleon, but by the time the ambassador had reached his destination, Napoleon had already decisively beaten the allied Austrians and Russians at the battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805; now the Prussian ambassador fell over himself to sign an offensive-defensive pact with Napoleon, which the Prussian King immediately ratified. No state has ever pursued such a miserable, cowardly and worthless policy.

Its first result was that Austria had to sign the Treaty of Schönbrunn on December 26, 1805. In it, Austria agreed to cede 1,140 square miles of territory with almost 800,000 inhabitants. Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden received a large part of it. In addition Napoleon granted a royal crown to Bavaria and Württemberg. They, and the Electorate of Baden, were allowed the same complete sovereignty within the new frontiers as they had enjoyed in their old possessions.

This was the beginning of the Confederation of the Rhine, the end of the German Empire. Napoleon kept his army in southern Germany to nip in the bud any opposition from Austria or Prussia. Then he set about destroying whatever remnants of the Imperial constitution the Principal Resolution of the German Delegation had left behind, sweeping away the countless small Princes, Counts, Lords and Knights of the South and West, who had previously been subject to the German Emperor only, for the benefit of the medium-sized South German states, which could never be dangerous as France’s rivals but could always be useful as her vassals. The beggars’ pilgrimage of the German sovereigns to Paris began for a second time, and many of the dwarf despots succeeded in saving themselves by bribing French ministers. But the bulk of them got short shrift. Whatever still remained in the way of tiny imperial estates in the South and West ceased to exist. All in all, an area of 550 square miles with almost a million and a quarter inhabitants was divided up between the sixteen German princes who, in 1806, renounced the Empire, declared all Imperial law to be null and void as far as they were concerned, and formed the Confederation of the Rhine, recognizing the French Emperor as their protector. In the forefront of these states stood Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt. Thus the old German Empire passed peacefully away. On August 6, the German Emperor Franz declared that the ‘office of head of the Empire’ was abolished, at the same time proclaiming himself Emperor of Austria.

The break-up of the old Prussian state followed immediately upon the break-up of the Empire. It had made itself so contemptible that it was greeted everywhere with kicks, not least by its new ally Napoleon. After a particularly blunt slap in the face, the Prussian King thought he could scare his persecutors by mobilizing, but by doing so merely plunged to his own destruction. After the preparations for the war had exposed the inner dissolution of the Prussian state in a pitiable manner, it was totally annihilated at the double battle of Jena and Auerstädt on October 14, 1806.

There followed the ignominious capitulation of the Prussian fortresses. Almost everywhere, with very few exceptions, the Junker commanders displayed the same cowardly, treacherous outlook. The state bureaucracy collapsed just as ignominiously as the officer corps, and even the King begged for the mercy of the victor in letters full of dog-like servility, which failed to halt the irresistible advance of French arms.

The first to perish were the petty North German princes, however much they begged for grace. All the same, they fared better than the South and West German princes before them. Almost all of them saved themselves by joining the Confederation of the Rhine. Absorbed in the world-wide plans he was pursuing in his continuing war with England and Russia, Napoleon had little time for such incidental matters. He probably felt later that he had been cheated: if he had really known all there was to know about Lippe and Reuss and Waldeck he would have chased them out altogether, which would doubtless have been one more service on his part to the German nation. [70]

Best of all these North German princes fared the ruler of Saxony, who had been able to earn Napoleon’s goodwill by deserting Prussia in good time and received from him the title of King.



The Prussian Reforms and the Wars of Liberation

Inwardly decayed and incapable of reforming itself, the Prussian state collapsed irredeemably under the blows of the French conqueror. With this the foreign domination over Germany was completed, but it showed itself to be more beneficial for Germany than all the Prussian victories of Fehrbellin and Sedan. It introduced Germany into the circle of modern civilized nations.

However, bourgeois historians really go too far when they claim that the Prussian monarchy and the Junkers were filled with shame and repentance when the consequences of their century old sins were revealed, and voluntarily began work on the Stein-Hardenburg legislation. [71] These, they go on to say, gained all the advantages of peaceful, legal reform without the tumultuous purge of the French revolution. The reality was nothing like that. On the contrary the King, fleeing to Memel, on January 3, 1807 drove Baron von Stein from his service in ignominy and dishonour – the only one of his ministers who had pushed for internal reform even before Jena, and who had then behaved coolly and bravely in the catastrophe.

For the time being the Prussian despot leant on the aid of the Russians, which the Tsar gave willingly, even if more for his own sake than for that of the King. The Tsar had reason to be worried, since the French army, victoriously pursuing the Prussian troops, had advanced to the Russian border, and he waged war in East Prussia only to turn the Prussian frontier province into a desert that would hinder the French armies from crossing the Russian border. On the other hand Napoleon, with the overthrow of Germany now complete, had reached the summit of his victorious career. He had marched in triumph through the whole of civilised Europe and stood on the frontiers of a huge empire whose primitive barbarism had never yet been broken. The heir of the French revolution was tempted to his fall. He took the fateful step that was to lead him downwards from now on. In the Treaty of Tilsit (July 7, 1807) he signed peace and friendship with the Tsar to share the domination of the world with this exponent of Asiatic despotism.

The Prussian King was the first to bear the cost of this new friendship. He was betrayed by his Russian allies as much as he was mauled by his French enemies. The Treaty of Tilsit forced him to give up half of his territory. Napoleon turned the former Polish portions into the Duchy of Warsaw and gave them to the King of Saxony, and the provinces west of the Elbe, which formed the nucleus of the Kingdom of Westphalia, were handed over to Napoleon’s brother, Jerome. Such were the two sharp spurs that the conqueror dug into the panting flanks of the old Prussian state. In both new creations bourgeois reforms were introduced; bondage and serfdom in particular were abolished. In this connection Napoleon ordered the Prussian King to recall Baron von Stein, whom he had just driven out of his service in ignominy and dishonour, and to entrust him with supreme control of Prussian affairs.

Stein (1757-1831) spent only a little over a year at the head of the Prussian state, from October 1807 until November 1808. He was no revolutionary, and not even a liberal in the modern sense of the word, basically not only a noble but also a friend of the nobility. But he came from the civilized West and had, to a certain extent, seen the world. He had found his ideal of aristocratic self-government in England, so that he stood head and shoulders above the clod-hopping Junkers east of the Elbe. And if his reforms did not go too far, he did possess the necessary strength and energy to impose them at all in the face of the King’s stupidity and the obstinate class selfishness of the Junkers

There were, principally two of them: new Municipal Statutes and the so-called October Edict of October 9, 1807. The Municipal Statutes were rather progressive for their time. They restored to the towns control over their finances, the poor and the school system. They shifted the center of gravity of municipal administration to an assembly of town councillors who were to be elected by a franchise which, if not universal, was not significantly limited, and was secret and equal. And it limited state supervision essentially to the authority to check that municipal elections were properly conducted. In these points, which were decisive from Stein’s point of view, his Municipal Statutes were even superior to those of today, which have in fact in the intervening century only been revised in a retrograde way, in terms of both the legal chicanery involved in extending state supervision and the fact that the urban bourgeoisie have not only still not won the universal franchise, but have allowed the secret, equal ballot to be taken from them.

The October Edict contained two major stipulations. First it abolished the encapsulation of the Prussian state into hereditary social estates by permitting the Junkers to carry on industry and trade while allowing the bourgeoisie and the peasants to purchase aristocratic land. This did no more than transform the caste state into a class state whose classes rest on economic interests. But then the October Edict abolished the hereditary serfdom of the peasants, which did not mean the liberation of the country labourer from feudal chains so much as his transformation from an object of feudal exploitation into an object of capitalist exploitation. While the legislation of the French Revolution had secured for the peasant not only his personal freedom but also his freedom of property, the October Edict stopped short at personal freedom, which was anyway painfully limited both by the notorious Statute of Servants, which, scandalously, is still with us, and by the continuing control of the police and the courts by the landlords. On the other hand, peasant property was to remain laden with all the legal burdens, with compulsory labour and socage, with dues in money and in kind, in short with the whole lumber of feudal rubbish that over the centuries the Junkers had imposed on the peasants by force and trickery.

From the point of view of the emancipation of the peasants, the October Edict limped miserably behind the equivalent legislation in Britain, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Denmark and (within Germany) Austria, Schleswig-Holstein and Baden. Above all, there can be not the slightest comparison with the legislation of the French revolution. This timid start to the emancipation of the peasants was actually rather more favourable than otherwise to the Junkers. A recent historian was not far wrong when he said that the Edict put the peasants in a more precarious position than ever. The peasants could make very little use of their personal freedom, while the Junker could now drive them from their soil and add it to his own acres. The Edict turned the serfs into propertyless labourers.

Nevertheless, the Junkers, in their stubborn selfishness, were outraged by the Edict, particularly since they knew that Stein was by no means prepared to leave it at that. Stein was bitterly opposed to clearances of the peasants. He used to compare the castles of the nobility east of the Elbe, who cleared their peasants off the land instead of improving their conditions, with the lairs of predators who created a desert around themselves and were content only with the silence of the grave. Such a dangerous outlook in a minister could not be tolerated, and the Junkers removed him by the base method of leaking to the French police a letter in which Stein expressed his hostility to France. Covered thus against Napoleon’s anger, the miserable King for the second time dismissed the minister whom he feared as much as did his Junkers.

Thus the Junkers were on top again, but they could not go on running their heads against a brick wall. A ministry of mediocrities that was set up after Stein’s dismissal was bankrupt within the year. It could no longer find the money to pay the war contributions to France, and the Kingdom of Westphalia was becoming a dangerous neighbour and rival because of its bourgeois reforms. In June 1810, Hardenburg (1750-1822) became chief minister. Like Stein he was not born a Prussian, and he possessed a certain measure of bourgeois culture. He could even be called more of a liberal, in the modern sense of the word, than Stein. Superficial and pliant, in the second period of bourgeois reforms which now began, he simply copied the example of the Kingdom of Westphalia; his trade and tax legislation, his Gendarme Edict, his emancipation of the Jews, etc., imitated the Westphalian laws to an often grotesque degree. King Jerome, the eternal optimist, became the pattern for this Prussian reformer. Hardenburg, too, was a thorn in the Junkers’ flesh, but they tolerated him, since he was able to look after their interests for all his liberal manner.

This was particularly so in the Regulatory Edict of September 14, 1811, which was supposed to fix the relationship between landlord and peasant. In this, the privileges of aristocratic property were completely untouched, although some easy promises were made to the peasants about the arrangement of their tenancies. However, the sole aim of this legislation was to arouse them to fight against the French. Scarcely had the enemy been thrown out of the country, than the peasants suffered all the more severely from the 112 Articles that were issued on May 29, 1816 in a ‘Declaration’ on the Regulatory Edict. By these Articles, all the peasants not possessing draught animals, that is the great mass of them, were delivered over bound hand and foot to the Junkers, while the minority of spannfähig peasants (who did possess draught animals) were allowed, by a colossal sacrifice of land and money, to purchase a portion of the land their ancestors had held as free men. It took the revolution of 1848 to finish off finally all feudal privileges, and in fact the Prussian peasant movement did not end until 1865. Two generations were needed to achieve in a miserable and inequitable manner what the French revolution had done in one night. But the great profits that the Junkers made out of the Regulatory Edict of 1811 and the Declaration of 1816 go some way to explain why they showed a certain forbearance for the liberal peccadilloes of their originator.

Miserable and full of holes as the Prussian reforms were after the Battle of Jena, not an atom of what was good in them has anything to do with the voluntary insight of the Monarchy and the Junkers. Grinding their teeth, they submitted to the relentless force of circumstance. Foreign domination weighed down on them with overwhelming strength. Between 1807 and 1812, Prussia had to pay more than a thousand million in war contributions to France, an almost incredible sum for a population of three million who were as poor as church mice. But if foreign domination was ever to be shaken off, military reforms were necessary, and bourgeois reforms were in turn an inevitable precondition for that.

Scharnhorst (1755-1813) was the leading representative of military reform. He was no more of a born Prussian than were Stein and Hardenburg, and he was not even a Junker. On the contrary, he came from a family of Hanoverian peasants, and one could say that, as a peasant, he had a native understanding of the modern methods of war. The Junkers did not like him either, but, more patient than Stein, although less pliant than Hardenburg, he was able with his Lower Saxon toughness to impose his plans and reorganize the Prussian Army, creaking and groaning, with countless difficulties, after the pattern of the French Army.

In the countries belonging to the Confederation of the Rhine, bourgeois reforms were introduced much more thoroughly than they were in Prussia, and they were introduced most thoroughly of all on the left bank of the Rhine, which had been under direct French rule. But to the extent that foreign domination led to bourgeois rule, its own historical justification disappeared. Napoleon himself had forfeited the right to call himself the liberator of the nations once he allied himself with the Russian despot to share world power. It was hardly a meeting of true minds. When they finally got to the bottom of the matter, the Franco-Russian war of 1812 broke out, which then led to the wars of liberation. In these, a united Europe finally broke Napoleon’s military dictatorship. He was deposed in 1814 for the first time and in 1815 for the second and final time. France had to give up all her conquests, and the twenty-year era of revolutionary wars closed with the victory of the old Europe.

Nevertheless, it was no longer the old Europe. The plough of revolution had turned the soil too deeply, even to the edge of the Russian taiga. A return to the conditions that had obtained in Europe before 1789 was impossible. A striking proof of this were the intoxicating slogans of freedom with which both the Russian and the Prussian despots had driven their troops to war. In the proclamation of the Treaty of Kalisch, they promised to create a free and independent Germany, and the King of Prussia even pledged his subjects a real constitution if they would save him his throne.

Admittedly, the fact that the princes could break their promises in the most shameless manner once the victory had been won proves the dual nature of the wars. If the people had overthrown the foreign despot, the princes had overthrown the heir of the bourgeois revolution, and if what followed was not the reconstruction of the old Europe, it was indeed a stale and desolate reaction.




67. Alsace – Province on the Rhine which became French in 1789. Annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, returned to France in 1918. Annexed by Germany once more in 1940 and returned to France in 1945.

68. Marie Antoinette.

69. July 1794, the Jacobin Club where the radical wing of the French revolutionary movement met was closed down. This virtually marked the end of the Revolution. In May 1795, the Paris working class rose demanding bread and the revolutionary constitution of 1793 and were put down by the opponents of the Terror.

70. Lippe, Reuss, Waldeck – German princedoms.

71. Freiherr von Stein (1757-1831) – Prussian statesman responsible for bourgeois reforms, particularly in local government, after the Napoleonic wars. Prince von Hardenberg (1750-1822) – Prussian Chancellor who collaborated with Stein.


Last updated on 16.2.2004