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162

PRUSSIAN HISTORY.

From Macmillan's Magazine.

PRUSSIAN HISTORY.[1]

Do we ever mean to make ourselves acquainted with the modern history of Prussia and Germany? The complete change which has taken place of late years in our estimate of the Germans as politicians might reasonably lead us to consider whether their politics are not worthy to be studied. Half a century ago our estimate of the German literature and philosophy underwent a similar change. We then discovered, to use the language of an Edinburgh Reviewer, that Germany was not "a tract of country peopled only by hussars and editors of Greek plays," but that it had its poets, its critics, its thinkers and philosophers in greater excellence and abundance, for a time at least, than any other country. But when we had discovered the new German wisdom, we made without delay a serious attempt to master and assimilate it. A considerable part of the literary ability of England has been occupied during the present century with the task of interpreting German thought. After Coleridge, the earliest, and Carlyle, the most industrious, laborer in this field, how many distinguished writers have lent themselves to the work! Is it not time that our second discovery about the Germans should be put to profit as our first was? Then we discovered that "un Allemand peut avoir de l'esprit," but we did not even then imagine that the Germans could have any politics. With the exception of Niebuhr no German politician is ever quoted among us, and the "Life of Niebuhr" is the only elaborate biography of a German politician (later than Frederick the Great) that is known to the English public. We picture to ourselves Goethe, Schiller, Schleiermacher, Kant, Hegel, not with any background of public institutions or public affairs, but as if they moved like heavenly bodies in the empty sky. And we have had some excuse for doing so. We could hardly disregard their politics much more than the Germans seemed to do themselves. They did not tell us of great German statesmen or great German political doings unjustly neglected by us. Rather they were fond of confessing that they had no political life, or that they were not yet out of their political nonage. In their minds as in ours their philosophers and writers had a great precedence over their statesmen. Two or three years ago, when I inquired of a most accomplished German whether there were any news of the "Memoirs of Hardenberg," those very memoirs which are at last before us, he took it for granted that I must be speaking of Novalis. To be sure Novalis is usually spoken of by his nom de plume, but his real name was Hardenberg, and it was intrinsically so probable that I was interested in this young mystic who died — I think — at the age of twenty-eight, and so inconceivable that I could care about Prince Hardenberg, who was only first minister of Prussia at the time of the War of Liberation and for nine years afterwards, that my friend jumped to the conclusion that I had adopted an unusual way of speaking. And for an example of the consciousness of a certain political inferiority which the Germans retained not many years back, we may take Bunsen as we see him in his biography. He looks up to Arnold in politics almost as Arnold looks up to him in learning. Bunsen, the pupil of that Niebuhr who had sat at council with Stein and Hardenberg, and who surpassed Arnold in experience of public affairs even more than in historical knowledge; Bunsen, who was himself by profession a public man, feels it quite natural to look up in political questions to an English schoolmaster, and is converted to Whiggism by him! But all this is changed now. The largest and hitherto the most successful political exploit of the century has been done by the Germans. They have their Parliaments, as we have, in fact too many Parliaments; they have their great orators, and debaters, and journalists, and statesmen, and have no reason any longer to yield the precedence in politics to the most political people on earth. We cannot but recognize this fact; but is it enough to recognize it? Is it not necessary to study it? Should not our readers read and our writers write about it?

I venture to suppose that there are some among my readers who have actually little information on this subject, and may almost be instructed about it as if they were beginners. They know of course in outline the great occurrences of 1866 and 1870; but it will occur to them that successes so sudden, complete, and on so vast a scale must have been prepared by a long antecedent history. As the horrors of the French Revolution lead us when we reflect on them to examine with a new interest the last age of the old régime because the explanation of them must lie there, so do the successes of 1866 and

  1. Suggested by the "Memoirs of Prince Hardenberg," edited by Leopold von Ranke.