1786-1848

1786-1848

THE DEATH OF THE EMPIRE

The American War of Independence, the revolt of the Netherlands against Austrian rule, which led in 1790 to their independence, in conjunction with the French Revolution shattered the foundation of the now ramschackle German Empire. A vigorous breeze blew, as contemporary German authors put it, ‘upon the powdered wigs, tousled them and tore at their pigtails.’ Yet there was some resistance. In 1791 Joseph’s gifted successor, the Emperor Leopold, came to the aid of Maria Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI of France, in alliance with Russia, Prussia, Spain and Sweden. But they tried to avoid war. After Leopold’s premature death, his successor Francis II together with Prussia fought against the French republican armies in a short but fateful campaign in 1792; on 20th September, the day of the declaration of the French Republic, the Prussians suffered defeat at Valmy, retreated from French territory and of history will be dated, and you ma left the task to Austria. Goethe, Germany’s greatest thinker and poet, witnessed the battle of Valmy, in itself unimportant, and said: ‘From today and from here a new chapter of history will be dated, and you may say that you have been present.’

The Prussian ruler, Frederick William II, a debauched and gluttonous anachronism of a king after breaking faith with Austria gladly accepted Catherine the Great’s suggestion to share with her what was left of Poland while Austria was engaged elsewhere; in 1793 he got Danzig and Thorn together with the province of Posnan, in 1795 the whole area around Warsaw including the capital, while Austria was ‘indemnified’ with Cracow with its environs. The success of the young revolutionary soldiers of France against the veterans of the Prussian activities which caused other German sovereigns – the rulers of Brunswick, Hesse and Baden – to place their troops under British command, made the Prussians unwilling to continue the struggle at the side of Austria. They had come to feel a certain element of sympathy with the ideas, if not the political trend, of the French revolution. It was a sort of romanticism that was to repeat itself with every new revolutionary movement, an expression of the deep-rooted human longing for permanent peace. The ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity seemed to promise that Utopia, and a people which had repeatedly suffered devastating wars like the Thirty Years’ and the Seven Years’ Wars may be forgiven a certain short-sighted enthusiasm such as was shown by the Berlin intellectuals around 1795 and again in 1830, 1848 and, in relation to the Bolshevik revolution, after 1018. It is the German form of Pacifism, and likely to revert to militarism as soon as the first disillusionment occurs. Immanuel Kant, Germany’s greatest philosopher and probably the most eminent figure in Prussian intellectual history, wrote his famous treatise ‘On Perpetual Peace’ at this time, and the great patriotic poet Friedrich Schiller, and after him a whole school of minor playwrights and authors, published a number of bold, dramatic plays. It was under the influence of such spiritual currents that the Prussian king Frederick William compromised with the French Republic in 1795, although the conquest of the Netherlands by young, enterprising French generals revealed an aggressive tendency in the idealist and international movement started in Paris. Austria, southern Germany and Switzerland had to bear the brunt, while Britain – where Pitt had realised the small help to be gained from emigres and other allies – opened peace negotiations, and the French Directory, which succeeded the Terror, directed its military activities to Italy.

The result was the triumph and the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Austria was invaded by way of northern Italy; Francis II, already more of an Austrian than a German ruler, made peace at hte expense of Venice, and, in secret clauses, of Prussia. The peace lasted for not much more than a year and ended with an alliance of Austria, Russia and Britain against France. Intrigues of rival courts and leading personalities, military defeats of the leading power, Russia, on foreign battlefields, the creation of Napoleon’s ‘Continental system,’ which was meant as a blockade of Britain, weakened the cause of his adversaries and opened the way for him into the heart of a Germany split by competing dynastic interests and exhausted by vain efforts to uphold feudalism, absolutism and a narrow caste-system. A series of varying coalitions against Napoleon followed, but his brilliant victories – Marengo and Hohenlinden in 1800, Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805, Jena and Aurstaedt (over the Prussians) in 1806 – established his control of Germany. It had been prepared, in Febraury 1803, by the ‘reorganisation’ imposed upon the Empire under French influence: France took the left bank of the Rhine, including Cologne and Teves, the Free Cities were reduced from fifty-six to six, ecclesiastical states were secularised and a few larger German states such as Prussia, Bavaria, Wurttemberg and Baden benefitted by the rearrangement. Nearly half of the 300 ‘sovereign’ powers, states and princelings disappeared, and the spoils handed over to a few of the  western and southern rulers laid the foundation of that Rhenish Confederation which, after Austria’s defeat at Austerlitz, gave Napoleon the better part of Germany as a Protectorate.

The Napoleon broom undoudtedly swept away a great  many of the medieval cobwebs which hung over all Germany, over rulers and subjects, their minds and institutions alike. It struck at the wigs and the pigtails, relics of the Rococo period and the Frederican barrack-square. But it could not transform the fundamental German, and even less the Prussian, mind which regarded the events of the day from the point of view of dynastic, political and military power politics exclusively, and did not see them as the harbingers of a new age demanding co-operation, unification, a European outlook. Frederick William III, who had succeeded his father and was his exact opposite – pedantic, thrifty, correct in his private life, but irresolute and short-sighted – tried for a long time to avoid definite commitments with either of the two main camps set against each other, the British or the French, but only succeeded thereby in falling between two stools. After Trafalgar he accepted a sort of ‘Entente’ with Napoleon; after the foundation of the Rhenish Confederation, which completely surrounded Prussia, he sent the French Emperor an ultimatum, went to war, and was defeated. Notwithstanding belated help given given him by Tsar Alexander I, son of the assassinated, half crazy Tsar Paul, he lost half his territory, had to take refuge in East Prussia and abandon Berlin to the victor and finally, betrayed by his romantic ally, to sign the disastrous peace of Tilsit, 9th July, 1807.

The direct or indirect consequence was the creation of four new kingdoms in Germany: Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Hanover and Westphalia, the latter being given to Napoleon’s brother Jerome, a spend-thrift and voluptuary. On the other hand, reduced and impoverished Prussia found a number of gifted men to work for her restoration, such as the Baron vom Stein, creator of municipal self-government; Hardenberg, who together with Stein put an end to serfdom; Scharnhorst, who reformed the army and created a system of general conscription, at first secret. Philosphers like Fichte and Hegel, developing the Frederican notion of ‘Service to the State,’ lain the foundation of that Prussianism which was to find its apogee in the totalitatianism of the National-socialist Dictatorship a century and a quarter later. In Napoleon’s time it took the form of a violent patriotism which clamoured for liberation and led to the formation of a number of  ‘free corps,’ whose attacks upon French and allied troops still further inflamed the national feelings. German romanticism throve on their brave deeds, which provided material for a whole school of poets, while German volunteers – Hanoverians under Wellington in Spain, Prussians in the Tsar’s service and so forth – continued a fight that had been deemed lost after Austerlitz, Jena and Eylau.

The old Holy Roman Empire was dead. On 6th August, 1806, Francis II had relinquished its crown and confined himself to his Austrian Empire. The Rhenish parts of Germany and her main coast, including Bremen and Hamburg, had been annexed to France; under the name of the Rhenish Confederation, the btter part of the country was a protectorate of the upstart heir of Charlemagne who had transferred his universal monarchy to its western half after a thousand years of German predominance. Prussia, whatever her shortcomings and her essentially non-German character, was the only possible nuclues for a rebirt of Germany, and despite the unwillingness of a weak and hesitating ruler she was finally forced to play that role. When Napoleon broke with Russia, who resented the creation of a Grand Duchy of Warsaw and negotiated with Britain, the foundations of a powerful coalition against the French ruler were laid. Although German, and especially Prussian, troops were forced to march with his ‘Grande Armee’ and to share the catastrophe of the retreat from Moscow and the disaster of the Beresina, and although many of the 140,000 that marched with him into the Russian winter died for a cause that was the reverse of theirs, the coalition, the fourth that was to try its hand in stemming the flood of Napoleonic imperialism, was established as soon as Napoleon embarked on his Russian venture. Frederick William had to be forced into it, which was accomplished mainly by the insubordination of General York who, on 20th December, 1812, deserted with his troops from the French army and concluded the ‘Convention of Tauroggen’ with the Russian general Diebitsch; a wave of patriotism flooded the whole country and provoked the famous later appeal of Prussia’s king to his people.

The Austrians, having been beaten decisively at Wagram in 1809, ceded Trieste and Dalmatia to form Napoleon’s Illyrian Provinces, and having seen a daughter of their Emperor, Marie Louise, become Napoleon’s Empress, were even more reluctant to attack once more the man who had on defeating them ever since he forced the passage of Lodi against heir troops in 1796. It was not until 11th August , 1813, that the Austrian Empire joined in the fight successfully begun by Prussia and conducted by her afterwards famous general Blucher, and the first battle in which the allied forces on both sides met face to face was the decisive one of Leipzig, 16-19 October. 286,000 Russians, Prussians and Austrians were matched against 135,,000 French and Rhenish Germans, but the French had the better artillery and the greater military experience. 120,000 men on both sides lost their lives or limbs in that battle, the anniversary of which was celebrated as a German national holiday for a hundred years.

It is not our task here to record individual battles or treaties. The events that followed belong to military history, and the part played by the Germans in the fight against the collapsing Corsican dictator is so interwined with that of the other nations taking part in the struggle that only a few outstanding names deserve mention: Marshal Blucher; Gneisenau, his Chief-of-Staff; Prince Schwarzenberg, the Austrian commander; Prince Metternich, Austria’s able Prime Minister. Some minor successors Napoleon obtained during his retreat on French soil made them all weary of the great war, and had not Lord Castlereagh, supported by Tsar Alexander, used all his skill and power of persuasion, the fight to a finish and Napoleon;s downfall might never have happened. It is this lack of stubborn determination, this readiness to betray a great cause or faithful allies, that runs like a leit-motif through the whole course of German history. Only a few years before, in October 1809. Francis II had abandoned his faithful Tyrolese, for months victorious in their mountains against Franco-Bavarian forces, without even having the courage to tell them what he had done, with the result that their leader, Andreas Hofer, bearer of the Emperor’s golden chain, was captured, tried as an insurgent and shot by a French firing-squad – betrayed both by his government and by one of his own followers. Baron Stein, the non-Prussian reformer of broken-down Prussia, had to go into exile, abandoned by his king to French rancour; and though he continued to work for the German cause, he died a disappointed man far from the scene of his greatest achievements.

After the downfall of the ‘tyrant’ the German people, which for once had stood up united and in a spirit of common sacrifice, experienced bitter disappointment. Instead of the personal liberty that had been the attraction of the French Revolution and had come to a considerable part of the former subjects and serfs of pretty rulers in the wake of the French armies, narrow dynastic interests triumphed at the peace conference, the famous Vienna Congress of 1814-15. Germany became a Confederacy; Prussia got the Rhineland which France had to surrender, and a large part of Saxony, and was confirmed in the possession of her spoils from the first and second partitions of Poland, while Austria kept Cracow and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was handed over to Russia. Numerous smaller German states were abolished, their sovereigns being compensated by ‘equality of birth.’ i.e., the right to intermarry with ruling houses; thirty-eight independent states and free cities remained loosely tied together in the German Bund. The whole arrangement, a result of much fighting, intriguing, banqueting and dancing, was a blow to the principlles of nationlity and self-determination, a last desperate effort to bolster up ‘legitmacy.’ In order to safeguard it the ‘Holy Alliance’ was set up – an alliance officially directed against disturbers of the new European peace but in fact utilised for the crushing of the democratic spirit and democratic institutions wherever they showed themselves, especially in the German countries.

As far as the German citizen was concerned Leipzig and Waterloo had been fought in vain. He had no reborn nation to be proud of. Austria’s interest was more than ever absorbed by her foreign domains, to which Italian Lombardy had been added; Prussia’s rule was accepted unwillingly in all the western territories assigned to her, and her shortsighted and reactionary government at once began to spy upon ‘demagogues’ and democrats. In a moment of dire distress the King had promised to grant a liberal constitution; victorious, he tried to avoid redeeming his pledge, and the lesser German rulers who had granted such rights to their peoples in 1816 and 1818, mostly reverted to absolute government as speedily as one pretext or another permitted. On the other hand, as in Britain about the same time, the period of peace which followed the defeat of Napoleon and lasted for thirty-nine years – the longest in all German history – was one of economic progress. The Zollverein, a customs union promoted by Prussia and by and by enforced upon all other German states, helped to increase trade within and without the boundaries of the Confederation and paved the way for a new Reich under Prussian domination, Austria being excluded from this growing economic federation.

Prussia-Austrian rivalry did not show itself at once. Prince Metternich, Austria’s aristocratic Prime Minister and, with Talleyrand, the outstanding figure of the Vienna Congress, often backed by the able mediation of the English delegate, Castlereagh, continued to play a dominant part in German politics and closely collaborated with the leading Prussian, Bavarian and other German statesmen for the purpose of reasserting the unrestricted power of the Soveraign. the Universities were especially suspect in his eyes, and professors and students alike were subjected to severe repression. A number of international conferences and congresses took place mainly or exclusively for the purpose of suppressing liberalism and crushing the spirit of revolution which – so the rulers of the day wanted to believe – had been instilled into their otherwise happy populations by the French Revolution and its last exponent, Napoleon. The best thinkers and authors of the time were driven into exile or put in goal, and the rapid development of the United States owes a good deal to the efforts of German rulers and bureaucrats to suppress every movement that savoured of freedom of thought or aspirations after civic rights. The police, including Secret Service, Black Cabinet and Lettres de Cachet, was almighty; a state of affairs very similar, if not so extreme in the means adopted, to that under the later Nazi dictatorship developed, especially in Prussia. A conference of the members of the ‘Holy Alliance,’ joined by many minor German governments, brought about the ‘Carlsbad Decrees’ of 1819, which were to direct policy in all the countries concerned until 1830, and in some of them until 1848.

This policy, designed to prevent revolutions ‘from below’ – Metternich declared every revolution promoted from above legitimate at the Troppau conference of 18820 – reigned supreme during a period which was marked by great progress in other respects, largely due to German initiative. Important inventions and enterprises date from that period: the first railways, Nuremberg to Furth in 1835, Dresden to Leipzig in 1839, were opened, while the first Dutch steamer on the Rhine had appeared in 1816, the first German one in 1825. The astonishing development of German science and scholarship – connected in the post-Napoleonic era with such names as Humboldt, geographer and linguist; the brothers Grimm, folklorists and historians; Thaer, founder of scientific agriculture; Serturner, discoverer of morphine; D. F. Strauss and Baur, theologians; Niebuhr, pioneer of critical history – was due less perhaps to the comparatively long period of peace Germany enjoyed during those decades than to the frequent, enforced contact with the outer world during the preceding period of revolution and warfare. It was undoubtedly aided, in the case of the then famous University of Gottingen, by the personal union of the Hanoverian and British crowns and the ensuing relationship between the two countries, which was, however, broken up in 1837 when Queen Victoria succeeded to the British throne, because the Salic law prevailing in Hanover excluded the succession of a queen.

In apparent contradiction to their general policy of reaction, the German princes, and with them public opinion as far as it was permitted expression, favoured the Greek revolt against the Turks, and with its success the acceptance of the Hellenic throne by Otto, a son of the Bavarian king, started a precedent in favour of Germanic rulers in the Balkans, Bulgaria and Roumania in due course following the example of Greece. This was, however, the only way in which the successful efforts of other great powers to extend their dominions were imitated by the Germans. France acquired her North African colonies, Britain extended her rule in Africa and India, Russia conquered the Caucasus, Turkestan and eastern Siberia, while the powers of the German Confederation quarrelled at their Frankfort Diet. The great national poet Goethe, the ‘Olympian,’ died 1832, too generally admired and celebrated to exercise influence in the direction of human and political progress; Heinrich Heine, of Jewish descent, next to him perhaps the greatest lyric poet of Germany, had to live in exile in Paris, whence he inveighed bitterly against the Prussian censorship; the revolution of July 1830 accomplished nothing except the expulsion of the Duke of Brunswick, and some constitutional changes in Saxony and Hanover. Intellectual and economic fertility went hand-in-hand with political sterility until, under the rule of the feeble-minded Emperor Ferdinand (from 1835) in Austria and the romantic but equally unbalanced Frederick William IV (from 1840) in Prussia, Socialist and Communist ideas began to ferment in the proletarian masses.

Although Frenchmen like Fourier, Saint-Simon and Proudhon had laid the foundations of these movements, it was the Germans Engels and Karl Marx who erected on them a doctrine and created the slogans of ‘Class War’ and ‘Expropriation of the Bourgeoisie,’ and who founded the First International. The mechanisation of industry had created a new social problems in Germany as elsewhere, but it was perhaps more deeply felt in a country split up into many small states, and only just beginning to recover from centuries of war. With this and the general inclination of the German spirit to extremes and to the enthusiastic acceptance of sonorous slogans, the impetus of the French revolution of March 1848 was bound to set in motion the numerous elements of opposition in the German states. It was not only a social revolution that broke out in the spring of 1848; there was a strong element of nationalism in the demands presented to the rulers of the German states, who gave in one after the other. Baden, Wurttemberg, Hanover, Brunswick, Saxony, Hesse – where a particularly unpopular petty tyrant was dethroned – granted constitutions or more liberal laws, freedom of the press and whatever else was demanded from them. In Vienna, where the students played an important part along with the working population, and in Berlin there was bloodshed in fierce street-fights; in Munich an elderly king came to grief over his obstinate attachment to his mistress, a so-called Spanish, in reality Irish-born, dancer called Lola Montez. The Frankfort parliament, assembled in order to rebuild Germany on new, democratic lines under the black, red and gold flag, produced a number of ideas and idealistic resolutions but little in the way of practical results. A diplomacy trained in dynastic intrigues played one ruler, one country off against the other, and when a similtaneous revolt of the originally German Duchies of Schleswig-Holstein against Denmark inflamed the latent patriotism of the 600 deputies, it knew how to turn the situation to its own advantage.

When the revolution settled down, effecting some constitutional alterations in the liberal direction, parliament and people were divided into two camps: the advocates of a Greater Germany embracing Austria, who thereby, on historical as well as political, religious and other grounds, supported the claim of the Emperor at Vienna to the leadership and the crown of a future unified Germany, and those of Little Germany, who wished to exclude Austria as merely the German overlord of an otherwise foreign nation, and accepted Prussia as the dominant power entitled to the crown. The latter view prevailed. The German crown was offered to Frederick William IV, who refused it because he did not wish to accept it from the hands of revolutionaries. The Frankfort parliament had included all the best and most cultured men of the country, a majority of professors, judges, lawyers, and not a few noblemen. It died an inglorious death after some efforts to resist by changing its abode- and with it died the Pan-German Bund.