Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 135.pdf/179

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

170

PRUSSIAN HISTORY.

there is no patriotic nation below, there must be an energetic will above. But the great race of Prussian kings seemed to have come to an end when Frederick the Great died in 1786. His successor, the hero of Valmy and of the Treaty of Basle, had had something grandiose and generous about him, and got through his reign of eleven years without any conspicuous disaster. But he had dissolved the strictness of discipline and broken the spell of success, when he delivered over the government to the young Frederick William III. in 1797. The reign which now began lasted forty-three years, and resembles that of George III. in English history. In the course of it there were great disasters and glorious successes, and the king had good qualities of a homely kind enough to justify those who chose to attribute the successes not less than the disasters to him. Moreover the successes, coming later, effaced the disasters, and thus King Frederick William III. has preserved a fair reputation in history. We cannot but be glad of it, considering how respectable and well-intentioned a king he was; and indeed he had this merit, that as George III., after bringing himself near to ruin in his first twenty years, saved his reign by committing himself to William Pitt and remaining faithful to him, so did the Prussian king repair most of his mishaps by confiding, after 1806, in two meritorious statesmen, Stein and Hardenberg. But the mishaps themselves were due very much to his own mistakes, and this all the more because of the immense prestige which in Prussia had gathered round the crown.

Though the sudden collapse of the renowned Prussian army in 1806 took the world by surprise, yet the decline of the Prussian government had been recognized by all the world long before. In the long neutrality between 1795 and 1806 its reputation had suffered so much that it had come to be regarded with contempt, and in some sort may be said to have begun to despise itself. Hardenberg in these memoirs makes no defence of its foreign policy in the years 1804, 1805; and he defends himself by saying that his advice was not taken. The mistrust of Prussia by other powers, and her own self-mistrust, were among the leading causes of her overthrow, and for this the king himself was responsible. At least Hardenberg here throws it in pretty plain language on the king. That ruinous neutrality when all the world was in arms — what was the cause of it? People said at the time that the king was a coward, and though this was not true, yet Hardenberg himself traces it to fear. In speaking of one of Napoleon's encroachments, he says, after remarking that the king would not see it in its proper light: "I say he would not, for there was no doubt that he understood it all perfectly, but he could be inexhaustible in plausible arguments when the object was to maintain an unsound principle once adopted, and in such cases repugnance to a decisive measure outweighed his better reason. Mistrust of his own power to encounter the formidable Napoleon, a foreboding of the misfortune which afterward came so heavily upon him, were the grounds of this repugnance. Often perhaps did Frederick William curse his own high position, and wish for the unobserved life of a subject!" In other words, it was not a cowardly fear of the battle-field, but it was the fear of a war in which he felt himself certain to be worsted — yet in which, as a near successor of Frederick the Great, he would be regarded by the people as responsible for the campaign — which was the secret motive of his neutral policy. This weakness in the king concurred with a disturbance in the administrative system which had been caused by the restless personal government of Frederick the Great to throw the foreign department into the strangest confusion. In the first place the king found it necessary always to have a foreign minister who would advise unlimited concession when his favorite neutrality was endangered. He had such a minister in Count Haugwitz, whose conduct during the Austerlitz campaign has not been forgotten by history. In the summer of 1804 the count desired to retire in order to look after his estates in Silesia, which required the master's eye, and Hardenberg was to take his place. But the king did not feel sure of Hardenberg because he was a man of spirit, and accordingly it was arranged that Haugwitz should still receive a part of his salary, should be always ready to resume the duties of his department, and "particularly in the winter when he would wish to reside in Berlin, should receive information of all affairs, and be present at all conferences." Here was a pretty confusion of responsibility! And Hardenberg complains that he could never with all his exertions get his relations to Haugwitz properly defined. But how this arrangement served the king's purpose he makes perfectly clear by an example. In the matter of Sir George Rumbold, who had been seized by French soldiers near Ham-