1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bernstorff, Andreas Peter, Count von
BERNSTORFF, ANDREAS PETER, Count von (1735-1797), Danish statesman, was born at Hanover on the 28th of August 1735. His career was determined by his uncle, Johann Hartwig Ernst Bernstorff, who early discerned the talents of his nephew and induced him to study in the German and Swiss universities and travel for some years in Italy, France, England and Holland, to prepare himself for a statesman’s career. During these Wanderjahre he made the acquaintance of the poets Gellert and Jacobi, the learned Jean-Jacques Barthélemy, the duc de Choiseul, and Gottfried Achenwall, the statistician. At his uncle’s desire he rejected the Hanoverian for the Danish service, and in 1759 took his seat in the German chancery at Copenhagen. In 1767, at the same time as his uncle, he was created a count, and in 1769 was made a privy-councillor. He is described at this period as intellectual, upright and absolutely trustworthy, but obstinate and self-opinionated to the highest degree, arguing with antiquaries about coins, with equerries about horses, and with foreigners about their own countries, always certain that he was right and they wrong, whatever the discussion might be. He shared the disgrace of his uncle when Struensee came into power, but re-entered the Danish service after Struensee’s fall at the end of 1772, working at first in the financial and economical departments, and taking an especial interest in agriculture. The improvements he introduced in the tenures of his peasantry anticipated in some respects the agricultural reforms of the next generation.
In April 1773 Bernstorff was transferred to the position for which he was especially fitted, the ministry of foreign affairs, with which he combined the presidency of the German chancery (for Schleswig-Holstein). His predecessor, Adolf Siegfried Osten, had been dismissed because he was not persona grata at St Petersburg, and Bernstorff’s first official act was to conclude the negotiations which had long been pending with the grand-duke Paul as duke of Holstein-Gottorp. The result was the exchange-treaty of the 1st of June (May 21 O.S.) 1773, confirming the previous treaty of 1767 (see Bernstorff, J. H. E.). This was followed by the treaty of alliance between Denmark and Russia of the 12th of August 1773, which was partly a mutually defensive league, and partly an engagement between the two states to upset the new constitution recently established in Sweden by Gustavus III., when the right moment for doing so should arrive. For this mischievous and immoral alliance, which bound Denmark to the wheels of the Russian empress’s chariot and sought to interfere in the internal affairs of a neighbouring state, Bernstorff was scarcely responsible, for the preliminaries had been definitely settled in his uncle’s time and he merely concluded them. But there can be no doubt that he regarded this anti-Swedish policy as the correct one for Denmark, especially with a monarch like Gustavus III. on the Swedish throne. It is also pretty certain that the anti-Swedish alliance was Russia’s price for compounding the Gottorp difficulty.
Starting from the hypothesis that Sweden was “Denmark-Norway’s most active and irreconcilable enemy,” Bernstorff logically included France, the secular ally of Sweden, among the hostile powers with whom an alliance was to be avoided, and drew near to Great Britain as the natural foe of France, especially during the American War of Independence, and this too despite the irritation occasioned in Denmark-Norway by Great Britain’s masterful interpretation of the expression “contraband.” Bernstorff’s sympathy with England grew stronger still when in 1779 Spain joined her enemies; and he was much inclined, the same winter, to join a triple alliance between Great Britain, Russia and Denmark-Norway, proposed by England for the purpose of compelling the Bourbon powers to accept reasonable terms of peace. But he was overruled by the crown prince Frederick, who thought such a policy too hazardous, when Russia declined to have anything to do with it. Instead of this the Russian chancellor Nikita Panin proposed an armed league to embrace all the neutral powers, for the purpose of protecting neutral shipping in time of war. This league was very similar to one proposed by Bernstorff himself in September 1778 for enforcing the principle “a free ship makes the cargo free”; but as now presented by Russia, he rightly regarded it as directed exclusively against England. He acceded to it indeed (9th of July 1780) because he could not help doing so; but he had previously, by a separate treaty with England, on the 4th of July, come to an understanding with that power as to the meaning of the expression “contraband of war.” This independence caused great wrath at St Petersburg, where Bernstorff was accused of disloyalty, and ultimately sacrificed to the resentment of the Russian government (13th of November 1780), the more readily as he already disagreed on many important points of domestic administration with the prime minister Höegh Guldberg. He retired to his Mecklenburg estates, but on the fall of Guldberg four years later, was recalled to office (April 1784). The ensuing thirteen years were perhaps the best days of the old Danish absolutism. The government, under the direction of such enlightened ministers as Bernstorff, Reventlow and others, held the mean between Struensee’s extravagant cosmopolitanism and Guldberg’s stiff conservatism. In such noble projects of reform as the emancipation of the serfs (see Reventlow) Bernstorff took a leading part, and so closely did he associate himself with everything Danish, so popular did he become in the Danish capital, that a Swedish diplomatist expressed the opinion that henceforth Bernstorff could not be removed without danger. Liberal-minded as he was, he held that “the will of the nation should be a law to the king,” and he boldly upheld the freedom of the press as the surest of safety-valves.
Meanwhile foreign complications were again endangering the position of Denmark-Norway. As Bernstorff had predicted, Panin’s neutrality project had resulted in a breach between Great Britain and Russia. Then came Gustavus III.’s sudden war with Russia in 1788. Bernstorff was bound by treaty to assist Russia in such a contingency, but he took care that the assistance so rendered should be as trifling as possible, to avoid offending Great Britain and Prussia. Still more menacing became the political situation on the outbreak of the French Revolution. Ill-disposed as Bernstorff was towards the Jacobins, he now condemned on principle any interference in the domestic affairs of France, and he was persuaded that Denmark’s safest policy was to keep clear of every anti-French coalition. From this unassailable standpoint he never swerved, despite the promises and even the menaces both of the eastern and the western powers. He was rewarded with complete success and the respect of all the diplomatists in Europe. His neutrality treaty with Sweden (17th of March 1794), for protecting their merchantmen by combined squadrons, was also extremely beneficial to the Scandinavian powers, both commercially and politically. Taught by the lesson of Poland, he had, in fact, long since abandoned his former policy of weakening Sweden. Bernstorff’s great faculties appeared, indeed, to mature and increase with age, and his death, on the 21st of June 1797, was regarded in Denmark as a national calamity.
Count Bernstorff was twice married, his wives being the two sisters of the writers Counts Christian and Friedrich Leopold zu Stolberg. He left seven sons and three daughters. Of his sons the best known is Christian Günther, count von Bernstorff. Another, Count Joachim, was attached to his brother’s fortunes so long as he remained in the Danish service, was associated with him in representing Denmark at the congress of Vienna, and in 1815 was appointed ambassador at that court.