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Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1712/Prussia in the Nineteenth Century

From The Contemporary Review.



The history of Prussia during the present century naturally divides itself into five great periods: first, what I shall call the period of fall and humiliation, 1806-1812; then the period of rise and regeneration, 1813-1815; after that the period of reaction and red-tape, 1816-1830; then from 1830 to 1866, an epoch of tentative liberalism and constitutionalism; and lastly, from 1866 to the present hour, the period of nationality and empire. The object of the present paper is shortly to sketch the character and significance of these five epochs in the great drama of European politics.


Among the many external consequences of the military preponderance of France which arose out of the French Revolution, not the least notable was the sudden breakdown of Prussia by the battle of Jena in 1806. Of the accidental causes that may have contributed to this unexpected result, it were of no use to discourse. The essential causes which it is instructive to note were: (1.) The military genius of Napoleon, coupled with the unity of action, energy, and complete organization, which arose out of his political position and the authority with which he was invested. (2.) The democratic inspiration of the French people, and the high spirit and military temper of the French army thence resulting. No doubt that democratic impulse, though strong, was far from pure, and became ever more impure the farther it proceeded from its well-head. But it was unquestionably there; and enabled the most absolute despot that modern history has seen to put himself forward on the great stage of European politics as "the armed apostle of a democratic movement" which there was nothing in old Europe strong enough to resist. (3.) The political division of Germany, which prevented common action among its members; and specially the hereditary hostility betwixt Prussia and Austria, which had enabled the thundering Corsican to strike first one and then the other with a force that, in his hands, was irresistible. The eventful campaign of 1806-7, presenting, in some respects, an exact opposite to the recent campaign, which ended even more suddenly in the humiliation of France, was not a trial of strength between France and Germany; but the real antagonistic powers were France in alliance with one-third of Germany, and inspired by the genius of Napoleon, against one-third of Germany, without a great military head; while the other third — viz., Austria — remained neuter. (4.) The fourth cause that contributed largely to the sudden downfall of Prussia was the entire want of popular institutions and a popular spirit among the Prussian people. When the army did not happen to be commanded by a military genius like Frederick the Great, and once got a sound beating, there was nothing behind to break its fall: no people; only pipeclay and facings; red tape, long pedigrees, and petty privileges; in a word, nobility without noblemen, and soldiership without citizenship.

So much for the first epoch of the fall.


The rise and regeneration of Prussia took place very soon after its fall, chiefly by the happy occasion of the Russian expedition of Napoleon in 1812, and the terrible precipitation which had followed at last as the necessary consequence of his own portentous pride and unblushiug insolence; but the real cause that enabled Prussia so triumphantly to shake off the hated yoke of Gaul is to be sought for in the great political and military reforms which were introduced mainly by the Baron von Stein. Stein was one of those strong and courageous, direct, decided, and altogether manly characters that cannot be present in any age, when there is a call for noble action, without putting their stamp on it. The great need does not always bring with it the great man; but if the great man is there he can scarcely fail to show himself. The great idea which inspired Stein's statesmanship was to create what had hitherto not existed in Prussia, a free people; and this he did by two bold measures, the one of which gave emancipation to the peasant by turning him into a proprietor, and the other created citizenship by restoring the free municipal constitutions which in the Middle Ages had given wealth and enterprise to the towns.

Along with these two great regenerative measures went the new organization of the army under the masterly direction of Scharnhorst, one of those thorough-trained soldiers whose manly forms in the great public places of Berlin so significantly proclaim to the stranger the history of the country. Under his direction, instead of professional drill and pipeclay dressing for a body of mere technical soldiers, the whole people were taught to wield arms in defence of a country in which they now rejoiced to exercise the rights of full citizenship; and there seems certainly to be no more important truth in political economics than this, that if a nation is to be saved from a weighty yoke of foreign oppression, it can only be as Greece and Rome were saved on the great occasions of their world-renowned heroism, by the effective soldiership of the whole people. This system of national arming, which was the main cause of the grand political regeneration of Prussia in 1813-14, as all the world knows, enabled that power, in the recent Franco-German struggle, to bring into the field an embattled array of patriotic citizens, against which even the soldiers of the early French Revolution, under the guidance of the famous captain of those days, might have contended in vain; and I, for one, am decidedly of opinion that a compulsory military drill of the whole people has not only been the salvation of Prussia on two great occasions during the present century, but is the best guarantee for the independence of all nations at all times and at all places, and not less certainly in commercial Britain than in military Prussia. I can have no doubt that the general adoption of the Prussian system in this country would not only afford a stronger bulwark of national liberty than we at present possess, but would work along with our national schools and our national Churches, — I do not mean the Established Churches alone, but all Christian Churches in the land, — in potentiating the patriotism, in improving the physical fibre, and in giving firmness to the reins of a healthy social discipline. But whatever people may think of the application of the system of compulsory soldiership to this native-seat of rank individualism and inorganic liberty, there can be no doubt that it is owing mainly, if not altogether, to this admirable system of national soldiership that Prussia — not two centuries ago a petty electorate on the extreme march of the least lovely part of Germany — is now that great power to whose decision all other powers naturally look, as controlling with firm hand the fortunes of the present, and shaping by its bold and manly policy the destinies of no distant future.

I now pass to the third epoch, which I have called the period of reaction and red-tape.


The battles of Leipzig and Waterloo, which restored Prussia to her old position as a European power of high consideration, had been gained not only by gunpowder, and an accumulation of material forces, but mainly, as just indicated, by the creation of a popular spirit, and the raising of a national and truly German enthusiasm among the people. After the peace it was natural, and indeed necessary, that the fervid enthusiasm which had overthrown the French despotism should occupy itself further with the reconstruction of popular citizenship, and the shaping forth of some sort of political unity for a free Germany. And the then king, Frederick William III. — who was a thoroughly honest man, and a most excellent private character — no doubt sincerely intended, as soon as possible after the blood had been washed from the hands of stern warriors and the tears wiped from the cheeks of weeping mothers, to inaugurate a system of social policy, which should in its salient features be exactly the reverse of that whose woful weakness had mainly caused the downfall of 1806-7. Accordingly, in the articles agreed to by the diplomatic gentlemen who, in 1816, were found assembled round a green table at Vienna, to attempt such a political reconstruction of Germany as seemed possible under the circumstances, we find one which distinctly states that there shall be introduced into all the States of the Fatherland a constitutional government, with freedom of the press. This, for internal liberty; and to secure the common action of all the German States against any future encroachments of France, or other ambitious neighbor, the States were constituted into a board, diet, or confederation, of which Austria was perpetual president. The presidency of Austria did not promise much for the cause of popular freedom; and the action of a body composed as the Diet was, to those who could look beneath the surface, afforded no sure guarantee for the future existence of a strong and a united Germany; but with good-will on the part of the minor States, and a touch of manly decision on the part of Prussia, important movements, both in respect of social progress and political position, might rationally have been looked for.

But this touch of manly decision was just the very thing that was not found. It was not to be expected, indeed, that fair general promises of liberalism and constitutionalism, made at Vienna, under the wing of Prince Metternich, would be in any hurry to ripen into sweet fruits. On the contrary, the great law of reaction, of which the operation can be traced everywhere, so potent in the flow and ebb of social movements, set in almost immediately after the green table, round which the diplomatists had deliberated, was left vacant. The hopeful anticipations of a flaming enthusiasm were met by a host of obstinate old habits in a stout army of official people not to be abolished in a day. Behind and before, and all around the throne of the well-meaning old king, not the prophets of the future, but the office-bearers of the past, were encamped. And not the old men only were there, but the old machinery (for new machinery could not be made in an hour); and so public government in Prussia returned with perfect ease into its old grooves; and the old bureaucracy of red tape, whose motto was stolen from the magnificent French Louis of the seventeenth century, to do everything for the people and nothing by the people, began forthwith to display a most fussy activity in plugging up the vents of the great political volcano, and plastering the rents which the sudden military earthquake that had recently shaken the old foundations of things had left in their old smoothly appointed and trimly furnished domiciles. Bones, after all, are firmer than blood; and so, having the reins in their hands, they contrived with very little trouble at Berlin, and with nods of assenting approval from Vienna, to have things their own way, to make the liberal articles of the Congress of Vienna a dead letter, and to prove to the world once more that the promises of politicians, like the vows of lovers, are made only that Jove may laugh at them. The liberal dog had indeed entered into the house; but it was possible to pull out his teeth, to flog him when he barked loudly; and if he dared to bite, strangle him outright. The pious old king also, who was not made for bold independent action, in the face both of old kingly traditions and a plausible amount of reputable proprieties, on reflection found that in an evil hour he had promised to raise the democratic devil; and, after considering the whole affair seriously, came to the conclusion that it was more pious in this case to break his word than to keep it.

The existence of this pious weakness on the part of the king was soon publicly indicated by some events of a rather grotesque character, but of a very sad significance. An assembly of enthusiastic young students, fresh from the wars, assembled in the Wartburg, where Luther had made his translation of the Bible, and with the imperial tricolor of gold, black, and crimson floating about their caps, and billowing forth patriotic songs about Hermann and Charlemagne, delivered over to the Moloch of a great jubilee bonfire some odious manifestoes of pamphleteering literary police inspectors in Berlin and Vienna. The popular dramatist Kotzebue, also, who had the character of being employed as a Russian spy, was, about the same time, foolishly shot by an excited young student named Sand; and this was signal more than enough to throw all the bureaucratists of Berlin into a series of fits of conservative activity, which issued in throwing some of the finest spirits of Germany into the fortress of Spandau, in banishing others to Paris and New York, and in putting a violent extinguisher on all liberal and constitutional movements for an indefinite period. Of freedom of the press, of course, no more was heard; and as for the unity of Germany, it was soon discovered that the Diet was not a machinery in any way calculated to usher any such new political entity into existence. Practically, the board did not, and, as political nature is constituted could not, represent Germany at all, but either Prussia or Austria; and during this period of old wives, informers, policemen, and red tape, it practically represented Austria. For fifteen years, till 1830, the whole of that cumbrous and dilatory machine was twirled round the little finger of that arch-obscurantist Metternich, with a dexterity and a persistency that must command the admiration even of those who have the utmost abhorrence of the cause in which it was exercised; for the children of this world, we read, are wiser in their generation than the children of light.


The French Revolution of 1830 sent, as French revolutions generally do, an electric shock through the whole of Europe, and not least through Germany, where much combustible matter had been accumulated, and curses, not loud but deep, against princedom and policedom, were eager for a vent.

The first explosion of this popular discontent took place in the trim little metropolis of Brunswick, where Duke Charles, hastening home from the French capital, planted himself before his angry burghers with the air of a man who was born to do something. But his calibre was by no means equal to his conceit. He no doubt doubled his body-guard, and planted sixteen pieces of cannon in front of his palace, with an attitude that looked heroic enough. But it was all in vain. The people rose in revolt; and the palace rose in flames; and the mighty duke was carried off in the smoke like a scroll of paper, and wafted where the wind might carry him. He was a mere braggadocio with a crown — or whatever dukes wear — on his head; a declared incapable pilot in such tempestuous times; so that even Metternich, in whose school he had been trained, pulling the wires of the Diet at Frankfort, could not save him. A new duke was elected, and a constitution proclaimed in Brunswick on the 12th October, 1832.

In Hesse-Cassel, Saxony, and Hanover liberal triumphs of a similar nature were achieved; but a foolish popular outbreak at Frankfort, in the spring of 1831, served no purpose but to give the wily Metternich a just text for preaching his favorite gospel, that all liberalism means mob government, and mob government, of course, means anarchy and ruin and chaos. In Prussia affairs remained quiet. Personally the king was much respected, and there were no abuses in the routine of government so glaring as to vex the eyes of the common spectators into open revolt. Only people felt a strong desire to move their own legs, and their own arms, and their own tongues freely, which under a "paternal government" had hitherto been denied them. It was also a sad humiliation to intellectual and Protestant Prussia to be kept playing second fiddle to the great and proverbially stupid obscurantist people of the south. It was not and it could not be right, that the independence and political unity of the German people, as represented in the Diet, should mean only the subordination of Prussia to Austria, and of both to the pope. Some consolation for this sore affront was afforded by the regulations for freedom of trade among the German States, which Prussia introduced under the name of Zoll-Verein. A certain social and economical preponderance was thus given to Prussia which, under favorable circumstances, might lead to a thorough undermining of the political weight of Austria in the Diet.

In the year 1840 Frederick William III., the royal bearer of the great memories of 1813, died; and with his successor, Frederick William IV., a new era was expected to be inaugurated. The long-promised constitution, with freedom of the press, and other freedoms comprehended under the familiar term liberalism, would now surely at last make its epiphany in Berlin. But the new king, though a man of uncommon accomplishments, and fitted to adorn either a throne or an armchair in quiet times, was not a man to put a commanding bit into the mouth of the stout democracy of the nineteenth century. His ideas of governmental power were borrowed rather from the Middle Ages than from any existing government, whether in England or France. "No power on earth," he declared, "shall ever succeed in persuading me to change the natural relation between king and people into a conventional and constitutional one; and never more will I yield to the demand that, between our Lord God in heaven and this country, a written paper shall interpose itself to take the place of the old sacred ties of loyalty by which people and prince are bound together." So the piece of written paper, called the Acts of the Congress of Vienna, and the vows that accompanied it, were trampled under foot by a second Frederick William; and the Prussian people were obliged to content themselves with the institution of provincial or local parliaments, and the shadow of a sort of national assembly called der Vereinigte Landtag, instituted in 1847, all under the sacred thumb of the old military and bureaucratic absolutism.

But matters could not continue in this state. • The air of Europe was electric with liberalism; even aristocratic old England had had her Reform Bill; and grown-up men, rejoicing to stand on their own legs, would not be forever treated as minors. In 1848 another French revolution broke out, accompanied with the usual portents of fugitive kings and floating coronets, and altogether in a much more startling and explosive style than in the previous affair of 1832. Then only a little duke of Brunswick was blown into smoke; but now the mighty Metternich himself was exploded, and from his firm seat in Vienna, where he had controlled the whole diplomacy of Europe for half a century, wafted over the seas to England, the general house of refuge for the democratic and oligarchic destitute from all quarters. The sweet-blooded Viennese were fevered with a strange astonishment when they saw on one fine morning a mob of students flaming with wild notions, and troops of tatterdemalion artisans, marching through the streets, braying about liberty, and sitting on the seat of government for a year and a day.

But it could not last long: the firm front of Prince Windischgrätz's cannon, and the fair promise of a new kaiser on the 7th March, 1849, brought back the liberal chaos into the old conservative order. In middle and northern Germany outbreaks of the epidemic of democracy equally violent took place. At Baden, where German liberalism had long had its chief seat, even before the outbreak of republicanism in France, Bassermann, a distinguished deputy of the liberal party, had brought in a bill in the Chambers for summoning a general German Parliament in Frankfort, to consider the best means of breaking down the unkindly wall of partition that at present separated the people of Germany from the princes; and in obedience to this bold patriotic summons, the 18th of May saw three hundred and twenty deputies from all parts of Germany assembled in the Paul's Kirche at Frankfort, to deliberate on the political state of the Fatherland, and, out of the ruins of petty princedom, to re-create the splendid mediæval empire of the Othos and the Barbarossas. And no doubt if mere German ideas and German patriotic talk could have produced a new German order of things, a German empire would have leapt into existence at the word of command in those days. But these things are not done by mere ideas, however just, and by mere debates, however eloquent. The Frankfort Chambers drew up a constitution for the new German empire, appointed a chancellor, the Archduke John of Austria, for the nonce; but when the articles of the constitution came to be realized it was found there was no power willing to enforce the decrees; and so the stentorian giant of German liberalism stood powerless in the old imperial city, a helpless trunk, without either legs to stand on or arms to strike with. The Frankfort Parliament, after oceans of wise talk, dwindled into a rump, and the rump, true to the destiny of all rumps, was dispersed into a nonentity by a Stuttgart minister named Roemer, who had a head hard enough and a hand firm enough to do it.

Meanwhile, at Berlin, a notable tragicomedy had been enacted. Mobs of people had started up before the palace in the Schlossplatz, brandishing knives and ropes in red revolutionary fashion; barricades were erected in the Königs Strasse, and grape-shot had been set to rake the citizens. Then suddenly repentance seized the heart of the monarch; and he was seen riding up the Linden with the imperial tricolor of black, red, and gold, and proclaiming with a loud voice, "Von jetzt an geht Preussen in Deutschland auf" (From this moment Prussia is swallowed up in Germany). But this was a rhetorical phrase which any word-monger, actor, or poet, or master of elocution, could use; to do the thing at that moment was possible only to a real king of men; and such Frederick William IV. was not. In the face of this grand speech, he afterwards (28th March, 1849) refused to accept of the imperial crown, when offered to him by the men of the Paul's Kirche in Frankfort.

Nevertheless, the Berlin insurrection remained not without fruit. A constitution, based on the democratic principle, was granted on the 3rd December, 1848; and since that period, Prussia ranks now historically — not, indeed, after John Bull's present ideal, but still in the eye of political philosophy de facto — as one of the great limited monarchies, whose existence forms one of the distinctive contrasts between the social organization of ancient and modern times.


We now wind up this great political drama by a short sketch of the fifth act, which we have designated "Nationality and Empire."

Frederick William IV., with all his fine speeches and romantic sentiments, died in the year 1861; and his successor, the present King William, being a soldier to the backbone according to old Prussian traditions, soon fell into a position of painful conflict with his Parliament, about the period of military service, and the equipment thereto belonging. According to his view of what the defence of the country required, he could not yield; and, according to their view of what liberal policy and economical retrenchment required, they could not yield. So affairs came to a dead-lock; and the king, in 1862, found himself in the same position that, about two centuries before, had cost England a civil war and the loss of a king's head. But Prussia was not England; and, at the very moment when the plot of the political drama seemed most perplexed, a god appeared on the scene, worthy in every way to untie the knot. This god was Bismarck, who, with a firm will and a strong hand, and the aid of favoring circumstances, piloted his sovereign triumphantly through the troubled seas of Parliamentary conflict, carrying on the government of the country on the budget of the previous years without asking Parliament for an annual vote. Bismarck boldly sketched out a line of policy, the success of which will be accepted as the best guarantee of its wisdom. It may be shortly summed in the following five points: (1) to destroy Austrian predominance in the Diet as prejudicial to the interests of Germany, and antagonistic to the spirit of social progress in the nineteenth century; (2) to kick the Diet from off the political stage altogether as an incumbrance and a sham; (3) to give political, unity to Germany in the only practical way, by throwing the political and military guidance of the whole German people into the hands of Prussia — a great Germany could, be made only by a strong Prussia; (4) to give to Prussia a strong and a well-defensible boundary, wherever possible, by the absorption of the petty principalities; (5) to keep a sharp eye on the machinations, and a strong arm ready to strike against the ambitious encroachments of France. And all these points he had made up his mind to carry out, if not in the most scrupulous, certainly in the shortest and most effective way, not by talking or by the votes of majorities, according to the now fashionable democratic style, but by a firm will, a shrewd policy, and, when necessary, by "blood and iron."

And here, as in many similar cases, the old adage found itself true, that "fortune favors the brave." The policy of blood and iron effected more for the German cause in half-a-dozen years than any amount of talk and convocation would have done in as many centuries. The detachment of Holstein from the Danish monarchy, which followed naturally by the law of succession, just as Hanover fell off from England, to prevent which Denmark drew the sword, and Great Britain the pen, afforded Bismarck the desired opportunity at once of humbling Austria, strengthening the boundaries of Prussia, and blowing the Diet into smoke. Schleswig-Holstein was taken possession of jointly in the name of the German Diet by Austria and Prussia; but here the formal right ended and despotic expediency commenced. What any man, acquainted with the traditional policy of Prussia, and the maxims of politicians generally, might have predicted, took place. Holstein was not given to its rightful duke, in whose interest the war was ostensibly carried on; but Austria and Prussia, finding their interests in that quarter irreconcilable, quarrelled about the plunder, divided the whole of Germany into two parties, and went to war. This was exactly what Bismarck wanted, and wisely wanted, as absolutely necessary for the double purpose of diverting the mind of the Prussian people from the stiff struggle between the crown and the Parliament, and as the only feasible way of at once abolishing the cumbrous machinery of the Bund, and placing Austria altogether outside of the great German game. This splendid double stroke Bismarck delivered in the campaign which ended with the battle of Sadowa, 3rd February, and the peace of Prague, 23rd August, 1866, — a campaign made possible, next to his own bold design and firm will, by the military genius of Count Moltke on the one side, and on the other by the inactivity of the emperor of France, whose energy had already begun to be lamed by the difficulties, which never fail, sooner or later, to grow up in the path of an usurper.

Austria was now humbled, and Prussian pride, in the matter of national position in the Fatherland, gratified to the full. But there remained still the internal difficulty of coming to a compromise with the Parliament, whose beard Bismarck had plucked so rudely, not to mention the soothing of the thousands of fretful spirits in the provinces which the red hand of war had so rudely appropriated in the affair of 1866. Out of these difficulties Bismarck and the king were triumphantly helped by the folly of the French, who, with a display of vaporing gasconade unexampled in recent history, insisted on dictating to Germany in a matter of Spanish concern with which they had nothing to do. This insolent dictation arose naturally out of the national vanity of the French people, fostered by the ambition of the great Napoleon, and the soreness which they felt at the territorial aggrandizement of Prussia, as fixed by the peace of Prague. The breach with France, however, was so manifestly in the interest of Bismarck, and so much in harmony with his declared policy of "blood and iron," that French partisans were not slow to endeavor to lay on his shoulders the guilt of the bloody struggle. But it was not so. Bismarck knew that the ambition of the French emperor, the irritation of French politicians, and the vanity of the French people, equally pointed to a war with Germany, for the realization of their favorite dream of the Rhine boundary. He knew well, also, that a war with France, if successful, would tell in his favor with even more force than his recent triumph over Austria; but he was too wise a politician, and I believe, also, too good a man, to throw himself rashly into the risk of so terrible a struggle. The main points of his German policy had been already achieved; and, so far as France was concerned, his only duty was to keep out a habit-and-repute burglar from the German home. Though not, however, seeking war, he was always prepared for it; and in the moment of alarm he pounced upon the burglar in a style which astonished Europe, and himself too, we may well imagine, not a little. For there are always chances in war; and though Bismarck knew France and the emperor well, he never could have predicted that the splendid edifice of Napoleonic ambition would have fallen to pieces, like a castle of cards, so suddenly. But it did fall; and though the chapter of accidents may have been largely in favor of the Germans, yet the main causes of the wonderful campaign, which turned what might have been a bloody defence into a brilliant invasion, were the physical, intellectual, and moral forces on the German side, which, with wise accumulation, did not fail to reap their natural reward.

The completed Prusso-French war of 1870-1 stands now before the world as at once the most brilliant and solid achievement of modern history. Prussia has stoutly asserted herself as the natural head of Germany; German unity has been achieved after centuries of unhappy division by the willing submission to a Prussian hegemony; and Germany now stands firmly in the centre of the European political system, a massive bulwark against the encroachments of Russia on the east, and the aggression of France on the west. And this mighty change will be recorded for posterity as the fruit indirectly of the regenerative policy of the Baron von Stein, but directly of the far-sighted intelligence, manly purpose, firm will, strong hand, and astute management of Prince von Bismarck. John Stuart Blackie.