Two German Giants - John Lord

Stein, Hardenberg, Scharnhorst

Between Frederic and Bismarck

Before presenting Bismarck, it will be necessary to glance at the work of those great men who prepared the way not only for him, but also for the soldier Moltke,—men who raised Prussia from the humiliation resulting from her conquest by Napoleon.

That humiliation was as complete as it was unexpected. It was even greater than that of France after the later Franco-Prussian war. Prussia was dismembered; its provinces were seized by the conqueror; its population was reduced to less than four millions; its territory was occupied by one hundred and fifty thousand French soldiers; the king himself was an exile and a fugitive from his own capital; every sort of indignity was heaped on his prostrate subjects, who were compelled to pay a war indemnity beyond their power; trade and commerce were cut off by Napoleon's Continental system; and universal poverty overspread the country, always poor, and now poorer than ever. Prussia had no allies to rally to her sinking fortunes; she was completely isolated. Most of her fortresses were in the hands of her enemies, and the magnificent army of which she had been so proud since the days of Frederick the Great was dispersed. At the peace of Tilsit, in 1807, it looked as if the whole kingdom was about to be absorbed in the empire of Napoleon, like Bavaria and the Rhine provinces, and wiped out of the map of Europe like unfortunate Poland.

But even this did not complete the humiliation. Napoleon compelled the King of Prussia—Frederick William III.—to furnish him soldiers to fight against Russia, as if Prussia was already incorporated with his own empire and had lost her nationality. At that time France and Russia were in alliance, and Prussia had no course to adopt but submission or complete destruction; and yet Prussia refused in these evil days to join the Confederation of the Rhine, which embraced all the German States at the south and west of Austria and Prussia. Napoleon, however, was too much engrossed in his scheme of conquering Spain, to swallow up Prussia entirely, as he intended, after he should have subdued Spain. So, after all, Prussia had before her only the fortune of Ulysses in the cave of Polyphemus,—to be devoured the last.

The escape of Prussia was owing, on the one hand, to the necessity for Napoleon to withdraw his main army from Prussia in order to fight in Spain; and secondly, to the transcendent talents of a few patriots to whom the king in his distress was forced to listen. The chief of these were Stein, Hardenberg, and Scharnhorst. It was the work of Stein to reorganize the internal administration of Prussia, including the financial department; that of Hardenberg to conduct the ministry of foreign affairs; and that of Scharnhorst to reorganize the military power. The two former were nobles; the latter sprung from the people,—a peasant's son; but they worked together in tolerable harmony considering the rival jealousies that at one time existed among all the high officials, with their innumerable prejudices.

Baron von Stein, born in 1757, of an old imperial knightly family from the country near Nassau, was as a youth well educated, and at the age of twenty-three entered the Prussian service under Frederick the Great, in the mining department, where he gained rapid promotion. In 1786 he visited England and made a careful study of her institutions, which he profoundly admired. In 1787 he became a sort of provincial governor, being director of the war and Domaine Chambers at Cleves and Hamm.

In 1804 Stein became Minister of Trade, having charge of excise, customs, manufactures, and trade. The whole financial administration at this time under King Frederick William III. was in a state of great confusion, from an unnecessary number of officials who did not work harmoniously. There was too much "red tape." Stein brought order out of confusion, simplified the administration, punished corruption, increased the national credit, then at a very low ebb, and re-established the bank of Prussia on a basis that enabled it to assist the government.

But a larger field than that of finance was opened to Stein in the war of 1806. The king entrusted to him the portfolio of foreign affairs,—not willingly, but because he regarded him as the ablest man in the kingdom. Stein declined to be foreign minister unless he was entirely unshackled, and the king was obliged to yield, for the misfortunes of the country had now culminated in the disastrous defeat at Friedland. The king, however, soon quarreled with his minister, being jealous of his commanding abilities, and unused to dictation from any source. After a brief exile at Nassau, the peace of Tilsit having proved the sagacity of his views. Stein returned to power as virtual dictator of the kingdom, with the approbation of Napoleon; but his dictatorship lasted only about a year, when he was again discharged.

During that year, 1807, Stein made his mark in Prussian history. Without dwelling on details, he effected the abolition of serfdom in Prussia, the trade in land, and municipal reforms, giving citizens self-government in place of the despotism of military bureaus. He made it his business to pay off the French war indemnity,—one hundred and fifty million francs, a great sum for Prussia to raise when dismembered and trodden in the dust under one hundred and fifty thousand French soldiers,—and to establish a new and improved administrative system. But more than all, he attempted to rouse a moral, religious, and patriotic spirit in the nation, and to inspire it anew with courage, self-confidence, and self-sacrifice. In 1808 the ministry became warlike in spite of its despair, the first glimpse of hope being the popular rising in Spain. It was during the ministry of Stein, and through his efforts, that the anti-Napoleonic revolution began.

The intense hostility of Stein to Napoleon, and his commanding abilities, led Napoleon in 1808 imperatively to demand from the King of Prussia the dismissal of his minister; and Frederick William dared not resist. Stein did not retire, however, until after the royal edict had emancipated the serfs of Prussia, and until that other great reform was made by which the nobles lost the monopoly of office and exemption from taxation, while the citizen class gained admission to all posts, trades, and occupations. These great reforms were chiefly to be traced to Stein, although Hardenberg and others, like Schon and Niebuhr, had a hand in them.

Stein also opened the military profession to the citizen class, which before was closed, only nobles being entrusted with command in the army. It is true that nobles still continued to form a large majority of officers, even as peasants formed the bulk of the army. But the removal of restrictions and the abolition of serfdom tended to create patriotic sentiments among all classes, on which the strength of armies in no small degree rests. In the time of Frederick the Great the army was a mere machine. It was something more when the nation in 1811 rallied to achieve their independence. Then was born the idea of nationality,—that, whatever obligations a Prussian owed to the state, Germany was greater than Prussia itself.

This idea was the central principle of Stein's political system, leading ultimately to the unity of Germany as finally effected by Bismarck and Moltke. It became almost synonymous with that patriotism which sustains governments and thrones, the absence of which was the great defect of the German States before the times of Napoleon, when both princes and people lost sight of the unity of the nation in the interests of petty sovereignties.

Stein was a man of prodigious energy, practical good sense, and lofty character, but irascible, haughty, and contemptuous, and was far from being a favorite with the king and court. His great idea was the unity and independence of Germany He thought more of German nationality than of Prussian aggrandizement. It was his aim to make his countrymen feel that they were Germans rather than Prussians, and that it was only by a union of the various German States that they could hope to shake off the French yoke, galling and humiliating beyond description.

When Stein was driven into exile at the dictation of Napoleon, with the loss of his private fortune, he was invited by the Emperor of Russia to aid him with his counsels,—and it can be scarcely doubted that in the employ of Russia he rendered immense services to Germany, and had no little influence in shaping the movements of the allies in effecting the ruin of the common despot. On this point, however, I cannot dwell.

Count, afterward Prince, Hardenberg, held to substantially the same views, and was more acceptable to the king as minister than was the austere and haughty Stein, although his morals were loose, and his abilities far inferior to those of the former. But his diplomatic talents were considerable, and his manners were agreeable, like those of Metternich, while Stein treated kings and princes as ordinary men, and dictated to them the course which was necessary to pursue. It was the work of Hardenberg to create the peasant-proprietorship of modern Prussia; but it was the previous work of Stein to establish free trade in land,—which means the removal of hindrances to the sale and purchase of land, which still remains one of the abuses of England,—the ultimate effect of which was to remove caste in land as well as caste in persons.

The great educational movement, in the deepest depression of Prussian affairs, was headed by William Baron von Humboldt. When Prussia lay disarmed, dismembered, and impoverished, the University of Berlin was founded, the government contributing one hundred and fifty thousand thalers a year ; and Humboldt—the first minister of public instruction—succeeded in inducing the most eminent and learned men in Germany to become professors in this new university. I look upon this educational movement in the most gloomy period of German history as one of the noblest achievements which any nation ever made in the cause of science and literature. It took away the sting of military ascendency, and raised men of genius to an equality with nobles; and as the universities were the centers of liberal sentiments and all liberalizing ideas, they must have exerted no small influence on the war of liberation itself, as well as on the cause of patriotism, which was the foundation of the future greatness of Prussia.

Students flocked from all parts of Germany to hear lectures from accomplished and patriotic professors, who inculcated the love of fatherland. Germany, though fallen into the hands of a military hero from defects in the administration of governments and armies, was not disgraced when her professors in the university were the greatest scholars of the world. They created a new empire, not of the air, as someone sneeringly remarked, but of mind, which has gone on from conquering to conquer. For more than fifty years German universities have been the center of European thought and scholastic culture,—pedantic perhaps, but original and profound.

Before proceeding to the main subject, I have to speak of one more great reform, which was the work of Scharnhorst. This was that series of measures which determined the result of the greatest military struggles of the nineteenth century, and raised Prussia to the front rank of military monarchies. It was the levee en masse, composed of the youth of the nation, without distinction of rank, instead of an army made up of peasants and serfs and commanded by their feudal masters. Scharnhorst introduced a compulsory system indeed, but it was not unequal. Every man was made to feel that he had a personal interest in defending his country, and there were no exemptions made. True, the old system of Frederick the Great was that of conscription ; but from this conscription large classes and whole districts were exempted, while the soldiers who fought in the war of liberation were drawn from all classes alike: hence there was no unjust compulsion, which weakens patriotism, and entails innumerable miseries.

It was impossible in the utter exhaustion of the national finances to raise a sufficient number of volunteers to meet the emergencies of the times; therefore if Napoleon was to be overthrown it was absolutely necessary to compel everybody to serve in the army for a limited period. The nation saw the necessity, and made no resistance. Thus patriotism lent her aid, and became an overwhelming power. The citizen soldier was no great burden on the government, since it was bound to his support only for a limited period,—long or short as the exigency of the country demanded. Hence large armies were maintained at comparatively trifling expense.

I need not go into the details of a system which made Prussia a nation of patriots as well as of soldiers, and which made Scharnhorst a great national benefactor, sharing with Stein the glory of a great deliverance. He did not live to see the complete triumph of his system, matured by genius and patient study; but his work remained to future generations, and made Prussia invincible except to a coalition of powerful enemies. All this was done under the eye of Napoleon, and a dreamy middle class became an effective soldiery. So, too, did the peasants, no longer subjected to corporal punishment and other humiliations. What a great thing it was to restore dignity to a whole nation, and kindle the fires of patriotic ardor among poor and rich alike!

To the credit of the king, he saw the excellence of the new system, at once adopted it, and generously rewarded its authors. Scharnhorst, the peasant's son, was made a noble, and was retained in office until he died. Stein, however, whose overshadowing greatness created jealousy, remained simply a baron, and spent his last days in retirement,—though not unhonored, or without influence, even when not occupying the great offices of state, to which no man ever had a higher claim. The king did not like him, and the king was still an absolute monarch.

Frederick William III. was by no means a great man, being jealous, timid, and vacillating; but it was in his reign that Prussia laid the foundation of her greatness as a military monarchy. It was not the king who laid this foundation, but the great men whom Providence raised up in the darkest hours of Prussia's humiliation. He did one prudent thing, however, out of timidity, when his ministers waged vigorous and offensive measures. He refused to arm against Napoleon when Prussia lay at his mercy. This turned out to be the salvation of Prussia. A weak man's instincts proved to be wiser than the wisdom of the wise. When Napoleon's doom was sealed by his disasters in Russia, then, and not till then, did the Prussian king unite with Russia and Austria to crush the unscrupulous despot.

The condition of Prussia, then, briefly stated, when Napoleon was sent to St. Helena to meditate and die, was this: a conquering army, of which Blucher was one of its greatest generals, had been raised by the levee en masse,—a conscription, indeed, not of peasants alone, obliged to serve for twenty years, but of the whole nation, for three years of active service; and a series of administrative reforms had been introduced and extended to every department of the State, by which greater economy and a more complete system were inaugurated, favoritism abolished, and the finances improved so as to support the government and furnish the sinews of war; while alliances were made with great Powers who hitherto had been enemies or doubtful friends.

These alliances resulted in what is called the German Confederation, or Bund,—a strict union of all the various States for defensive purposes, and also to maintain a general system to suppress revolutionary and internal dissensions. Most of the German States entered into this Confederacy, at the head of which was Austria. It was determined in June, 1815, at Vienna, that the Confederacy should be managed by a general assembly called a Diet, the seat of which was located at Frankfort. In this Diet the various independent States, thirty-nine in number, had votes in proportion to their population, and were bound to contribute troops of one soldier to every hundred inhabitants, amounting to three hundred thousand in all, of which Austria and Prussia and Bavaria furnished more than half.

This arrangement virtually gave to Austria and Prussia a preponderance in the Diet; and as the States were impoverished by the late war, and the people generally detested war, a long peace of forty years (with a short interval of a year) was secured to Germany, during which prosperity returned and the population nearly doubled. The Germans turned their swords into pruning-hooks, and all kinds of industry were developed, especially manufactures. The cities were adorned with magnificent works of art, and libraries, schools, and universities covered the land. No nation ever made a more signal progress in material prosperity than did the German States during this period of forty years,—especially Prussia, which became in addition intellectually the most cultivated country in Europe, with twenty-one thousand primary schools, and one thousand academies, or gymnasia, in which mathematics and the learned languages were taught by accomplished scholars; to say nothing of the universities, which drew students from all Christian and civilized countries in both hemispheres.

The rapid advance in learning, however, especially in the universities and the gymnasia, led to the discussion of innumerable subjects, including endless theories of government and the rights of man, by which discontent was engendered and virtue was not advanced. Strange to say, even crime increased. The universities became hot-beds of political excitement, duels, beer-drinking, private quarrels, and infidel discussion, causing great alarm to conservative governments and to peaceful citizens generally.

At last the Diet began to interfere, for it claimed the general oversight of all internal affairs in the various States. An army of three hundred thousand men which obeyed the dictation of the Diet was not to be resisted; and as this Diet was controlled by Austria and Prussia, it became every year more despotic and anti-democratic. In consequence, the Press was gradually fettered, the universities were closely watched, and all revolutionary movements in cities were suppressed. Discontent and popular agitations, as usual, went hand in hand.

As early as 1818 the great reaction against all liberal sentiments in political matters had fairly set in. The king of Prussia neglected, and finally refused, to grant the constitutional government which he had promised in the day of his adversity before the battle of Waterloo; while Austria, guided by Metternich, stamped her iron heel on everything which looked like intellectual or national independence.

This memorable reaction against all progress in government, not confined to the German States but extending to Europe generally, has already been considered in previous chapters. It was the great political feature in the history of Europe for ten years after the fall of Napoleon, particularly in Austria, where hatred of all popular movements raged with exceeding bitterness, intensified by the revolutions in Spain, Italy, and Greece. The assassination of Kotzebue, the dramatic author, by a political fanatic, for his supposed complicity with the despotic schemes of the Czar, kindled popular excitement into a blazing flame, but still more fiercely incited the sovereigns of Germany to make every effort to suppress even liberty of thought.

During the period, then, when ultra-conservative principles animated the united despots of the various German States, and the Diet controlled by Metternich repressed all liberal movements, little advance was made in Prussia in the way of reforms. But a great advance was made in all questions of political economy and industrial matters. Free-trade was established in the most unlimited sense between all the states and provinces of the Confederation. All restraints were removed from the navigation of rivers; new markets were opened in every direction for the productions of industry. In 1839 the Zollverein, or Customs-Union, was established, by which a uniform scale of duties was imposed in Northern Germany on all imports and exports. But no political reforms which the king had promised were effected during the life of Frederick William III. Hardenberg, who with Stein had inaugurated liberal movements, had lost his influence, although he was retained in power until he died.

For the twenty years succeeding the confederation of the German States in 1820, constitutional freedom made little or no progress in Germany. The only advance made in Prussia was in 1823, when the Provincial Estates, or Diets, were established. These, however, were the mere shadow of representative government, since the Estates were convoked at irregular intervals, and had neither the power to initiate laws nor grant supplies. They could only express their opinions concerning changes in the laws pertaining to persons and property.