History of the West - Blog - Historia Occidentalis

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Category: Bourgeoisie

The True Numbers – Europe in 1914 before the War

Army Strength 1914
Contemporary Comparison of Army Strength at the Outbreak of WW I

After the defeat of liberal hopes and the failed revolutions of 1848, a lethal scourge of nationalism, chauvinism and anti-Semitism sweeped the continent.

Not only Germans realized after 1848 and 1871 that the political status quo had not truly changed. The princes remained in control of Europe, the bourgeoisie concentrated on economic progress and the developing socialist movement sought consolidation.

Nationalism had originally been a leftist cause – against the princes – but it was skillfully turned against the burghers and the evolving working class and most effectively reinforced by a strange new ideological concoction – anti-Semitism.

While xenophobia remains one of the apparently ineradicable hobbies of man, and persecution of Jews has happened in history alongside the persecution of every other minority one can imagine, anti-Semitism as a concept is of quite recent origin. The word itself seems to have appeared here and there since the 1860s, notably in an essay Richard Wagner published anonymously 1850 (“Das Judenthum in der Musik” – Jewishness in Music), but only found general attention after 1879, when the German agitator Wilhelm Marr published a treaty named “Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum. Vom nicht confessionellen Standpunkt aus betrachtet (The Victory of the Jewish Spirit over the Germanic Spirit. Observed from a non-religious perspective)” [German text] – the same year in which he also founded the “Antisemiten-Liga” (League of Antisemites).

The High Seas Fleet at Kiel Harbour
The High Seas Fleet at Kiel Harbour

Anti-Semitism found a number of prominent proselytes – Emperor Wilhelm II, the influential political author Heinrich Claß and various men of the cloth, but was by far not confined to Germany. France struggled fifteen years under the Dreyfus-Affair and in Imperial Russia pogroms on Jews belonged to the favourite entertainment of the masses.

Whole books have been written on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, an asinine fabrication cobbled together and first published in Russia in 1903 – a ludicrous conspiracy theory on Jewish world domination – however, the quackbook was taken as holy writ by such usual suspects as Wilhelm II or Henry Ford, who had 500.000 copies printed and distributed.

Nationalism and anti-Semitism were the two major fulcrums of aristocratic domination of political Europe in the second half of the 19th Century until the rise of the socialist movement created an even more suitable bogeyman. Hence the burghers need not only to fear economic ruin by Jewish shylocks and rapine by illoyal border-dwellers – indeed their physical existence was now jeopardized by the threat of revolution from the masses of unwashed labourers who failed to properly profess their gratitude for the wages they were receiving.

It is thoroughly understandable that so much existential peril left the burghers of the continent in grave and present fear – which might best be mitigated by expanding self-defense. What were the numbers on which the glorious undertaking of arming the nation might be based on?

The following statistics, which give us an idea of Germany’s industrial and political developments versus her competitors, are provided by Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vintage Books 1989, ISBN 0-679-72019-7 , pp. 200 ff.):

Kennedy1 Population

It is immediately visible that France is the odd man out in regards to her population growth; while the United States increased its population between 1890 and 1913 by 56.5%, Russia by 48.6%, Germany by almost 36% and Great Britain by a somewhat more modest 23%, the French population remained almost constant, growing only 3.5% in these twenty-three years. Another indicator for economic and industrial development is the percentage of urban versus rural population:

Kennedy 2 Urban Population


Great Britain, whose industrialization had started some fifty years earlier than that of any other country, not surprisingly leads the world, although percentagewise, her urban population grew only by 15.7% between 1890 and 1914, while Germany’s grew by 85.8% and that of the United States by 59.8% France looks better here, with 26.5% growth, while Japan more than doubles its urban population. Italy, Austria and Russia are in between as far as percentage change goes, but their low absolute shares of around or under 10% depict them as underindustrialized as of yet.

The following view centres on the sine-qua-non of early industrial development, the production of steel:

Kennedy 3 Raw Steel Production

These numbers depict the state of the respective country’s industrialization most consequentially, for without steel neither consumer goods nor arms could be built. Taking France’s small population growth into consideration, her increase of steel production between 1900 and 1913 is, percentagewise, an impressive 307%, although her total production of 4.6 million tons in 1913 is dwarfed by the USA’s 31.8 and Germany’s 17.6 million tons. Trendwise, both Great Britain and France lag behind them in industrial expansion, while Russian steel production is beginning to take off. It approximately doubles between 1890 and 1900, and again between 1900 and 1913, although, in absolute numbers, the 1913 output of 4.8 million tons was still meagre if compared to the country’s size. We now take a look at the total energy consumption:

Kennedy 4 Energy Consumption

If one were to combine the data above, and add a few other parameters, the result would describe the changes in relative industrial strength of the Great Powers:

Kennedy 5 Industrial Potential

This picture depicts the relative change in the potentials of the powers, which must be taken in their economic, as related to size and population, and geostrategic contexts, that is, related to their location. Italy and Japan remain struggling to catch up, while Russia is handicapped by her lack of infrastructure and Austria-Hungary by internal tension. If one compares the change of percentage over time, the USA expanded its capacity by 635%, Germany by 501%, and France by 228%, while Great Britain’s industrial power only grew 173%, an indication that her imperial splendour was beginning to fade even before 1914. We now shall compare the absolute market shares, which, over time, indicate relative ascent or decline:

Kennedy 6 Manufacturing Output

This table strikingly reveals the weakening of Western Europe, Great Britain and France, compared to the United States, across the Atlantic Ocean, and Germany, in the middle of the continent. England’s portion in 1913 is only 59% of her share in 1880, that is, a decrease of 41%. France fares a bit better but still loses 27% of her world market percentage of 1880, while the USA increase their ratio by 117, 6% and Germany by 74.1%. The quota of Russia, Austria and Italy remain largely unaltered. If a European war was in the cards, Germany’s continental enemies would be best advised to rush it before they fell further back. Speaking of war, we now shall turn our attention to the military:

Kennedy 7 Military Personnel

Even a cursory review of the table above sends the bells ringing for the burial of a few cherished prejudices. Not only is the German army, the presumptive menace of the continent, much smaller than Russia’s, which one might take for granted given the latter’s vastness, it is smaller than France’s, too. In the case of Austria-Hungary, her men, who are dispersed to cover a hostile border of some 1500 miles length, number only 100,000 more than Italy’s, who, after her entry in the war in 1915, had to defend or attack on a border of far less than a hundred miles; in essence the sites of a few Alpine passes. If we take the hostile coalitions of 1914, the Entente has 2,794 million men under arms, more than twice the number of the Central Powers’ 1,335 million men. All these numbers and many more will, of course, be discussed at length in “The Little Drummer Boy”, in the section on the Great War, from Chapter XIII on.

                A comparison of the great powers’ total military personnel in 1914 vis-a-vis 1890 shows us that, in less than a quarter century, the number of servicemen increased from 2,9 million to almost 5 million, by more than two thirds. How does this compare to the much-made-of naval races of these years?

Kennedy 8 Warship Tonnages

It would seem almost beyond belief, but the naval tonnage of the great powers more than quintupled from 1,533,000 tons in 1880 to 8,153,000 tons in 1914 – growing by 532%. Fish must have begun to feel claustrophobic. As the figures for Japan and the USA make clear, the naval race was not limited to the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea; the latter found it necessary to almost triple the size of her navy in the fourteen years between 1900 and 1914 from 333,000 tons to 985,000; that is, afterthe Spanish-American War and the annexations of the Philippine, Cuban and Hawaiian islands, not before it.

As it would be expected, the different geostrategic locations of the powers decided which service was to become the primary beneficiary of the increasing budgets: the naval power Great Britain had little use for much infantry; her temporary apex in 1900, with 624,000 men under arms, was a result of the ongoing Boer War, not of a sustained increase in army spending. Her senior service, the Royal Navy, primary power instrument and conditio-sine-qua-non of her imperial grandeur, launched into a protracted building spree against the German and American navies (1812 was by no means forgotten) that resulted in a quadrupling of her size between 1880 and 1914.                

There is a rule of thumb in history which holds that the more arms are being stacked upon each other the greater the probability that they will go off one day. It is true that this rule did not pan out during the Cold War, to our all survival, but this was more the result of the impracticability of nuclear warfare than of a sudden increase in human wisdom. In the early twentieth century, however, the focus of our inquiry, every new battleship launched and each new army corps established precariously challenged the balance of power.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

The Metamorphoses of War

Major Battles 1900 - 1950
Major Battles 1900 – 1950

After the protracted period of peace that had followed the Congress of Berlin 1878, the first decades of the new century brought armed conflict back to the headlines – viz. the Russo-Japanese War in 1905/06 and the Balkan Wars of 1912/13. Coincidentally, the introduction of the new British battleship “Dreadnought” started a new round of a feverish naval race in 1906, for her innovative design made all elder ships of the line obsolete – the battleship counters of all nations had been reset to zero. On land, three changes led to the mothballing of most of Napoleon’s and Wellington’s war craft: 1. the invention of the General Staff, 2. the numerical expansion of the armies by conscription, and 3. industrial and technological development. The latter occurred chiefly in gun technology, which in turn invented the breech-loading rifle, the machine gun, and armour-penetrating shell fuses. Railways meanwhile had revolutionized the mobility of troops and the electric telegraph brought almost instantaneous communication to the battlefield.

The brisk pace of population growth due to improved agriculture enabled the maintenance of larger standing armies complete with cheaper, mass-produced weaponry; where formerly thousands had fought, tens of thousands, perhaps more, would now engage in battle. John Keegan (The First World War,Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361) summarizes the changes from the days of yore:

International, which chiefly meant European, policy was indeed, in the opening years of the twentieth century, guided not by a search for a secure means of averting conflict but by the age-old quest for security in military superiority. That means, as the Tsar had so eloquently warned at the Hague in 1899, translated into the creation of ever larger armies and navies, the acquisition of more and heavier guns and the building of stronger and wider belts of frontier fortification.

Fortification, however, was intellectually out of fashion with Europe’s advanced military thinkers, who were persuaded by the success of heavy artillery in recent attacks on masonry and concrete – as at Port Arthur, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905/06 – that guns had achieved a decisive advantage.

Power had transferred, it was believed, from static defence to the mobile offensive as represented particularly by large masses of infantry manoeuvring, with the support of mobile field guns, at speed across the battlefield. There was still thought to be a role for cavalry, in which European armies abounded: the German army, in the years before 1914, added thirteen regiments of mounted riflemen (Jäger zu Pferde) to its order of battle, while the French, Austrians and Russians also expanded their horse arm.

It was on numbers of infantrymen, equipped with the new magazine-rifle, trained in close-order tactics and taught, above all, to accept that casualties would be heavy until a decision was gained, that, nevertheless, the generals counted upon to achieve victory.

The significance of improved fortification – the entrenchments and earthworks thrown up at speed which, defended by riflemen, had caused such loss to the attacker on the Tugela and Modeer rivers during the Boer War, in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War and at the lines of Chatalja during the Second Balkan War – had been noted, but discounted. Given enough well-led and well-motivated infantry, the European military theorists believed, no line of trenches could be held against them.

Among the other great industrial enterprises of Europe in the first years of the twentieth century, therefore, the industry of creating soldiers flourished. Since the triumph of Prussia’s army of conscripts and reservists over the Austrians in 1866 and the French in 1870, all leading European states (Britain, sea-girt and guarded by the world’s largest navy was the exception) had accepted the necessity of submitting their young men to military training in early manhood and of requiring them, once trained, to remain at the state’s disposition, as reservists, into late maturity.

The result of this requirement was to produce enormous armies of serving and potential soldiers. In the German army, model for all others, a conscript spent the first two years of full adulthood in uniform, effectively imprisoned by sergeants too close at hand. During the first five years after his discharge from duty he was obliged to return to the reserve unit of his regiment for annual training. Then, until the age of thirty- nine, he was enrolled in a unit of the secondary reserve, or Landwehr; thereafter, until the age of forty-five, in the third-line reserve, the Landsturm. The effect was to maintain inside European civil society a second, submerged and normally invisible military society, millions strong, of men who had shouldered a rifle, marched in step, born the lash of a sergeant’s tongue and learnt to obey orders.

The days when kings rode to war on horseback leading their vassals were gone – modern war became an industrialized mass product. The sheer number of combatants grew by factors of ten or more.

The extent of Europe’s militarization in the nineteenth century is difficult to convey by any means that catch its psychological and technological dimensions as well as its scale. Scale itself is elusive enough. Something of its magnitude may be transmitted by contrasting the sight Friedrich Engels had of the military organization of the independent North-German city states in which he served his commercial apprenticeship in the 1830s  with the force which the same German military districts supplied to the Kaiser of the unified German Reich on the eve of the First World War.

Engel’s testimony is significant. A father of Marxist theory, he never diverged from the view that the revolution would triumph only if the proletariat succeeded in defeating the armed forces of the state. As a young revolutionary he pinned his hopes of that victory on the proletariat winning the battle of the barricades; as an old and increasingly dispirited ideologue, he sought to persuade himself that the  proletariat, by then the captive of Europe’s conscription laws, would liberate itself by subverting the state’s armies from within.

His passage from the hopes of youth to the doubts of old age can best be charted by following the transformation of the Hanseatic towns’ troops during his lifetime.

In August 1840 he rode for three hours from his office in to watch the combined manoeuvres of the armies of Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck free city and the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. Together they formed a force of a regiment – say, to err on the side of generosity, 3000 – men strong. In the year of his death in 1895 the same cities provided most of the 17th and part of the 19th Divisions of the German army, together with a cavalry and artillery regiment – at least a fourfold increase. That accounts for only first-line troops, conscripts enrolled and under arms. Behind the active 17th and 19th Divisions stood the 17th and 19th Reserve Divisions, to which the Hanseatic cities would contribute an equal number of reservists – trained former conscripts – on mobilisation. And behind the Reserve Divisions stood the Landwehr of older ex-conscripts who in 1914 would provide half of another division again. Taken together, these units represent a tenfold increase in strength between 1840 and 1895, far outstripping contemporary population growth.

In addition, these numbers must be seen under the proviso that Germany conscripted barely 55% of each annual class – chiefly farm boys untainted by socialism or big-city liberalism – while her smaller population and lower birth rate obliged France to conscript almost 90% of her youth. It was the policies described above by John Keegan that made the million- men armies of 1914 to 1918 possible, which in turn necessitated the development of completely new supply systems and mass-production of weapons and ammunitions. More than thirty-five million men were to fight in the Great War, about ten million of which were killed by the latest creations of the vultures of war, Schneider-Creusot, Skoda, Krupp or Enfield, the fertile European steel industry.

A metamorphosis of even more decisive character occurred in the “science” of war. The century of scientific progress and industrialization took the execution of war to a new, more effective level and the visions of ancient generals were replaced by exact computations. In the early nineteenth century, Prussia invented the “General Staff”, a concept subsequently adopted by all states. The idea facilitated enormous improvements in the age-old endeavour of the formulation and execution of war plans, as introduced here by John Keegan:

Armies make plans. Alexander the Great had a plan for the invasion of the Persian Empire, which was to bring the army of the Emperor Darius to battle and to kill or make him prisoner. Hannibal had a plan for the Second Punic War: to evade Rome’s naval control of the Mediterranean by transferring the Carthagian army via the short sea route to Spain, crossing the Alps – everybody remembers the story of the elephants –  and confronting the legions in their homeland.

Philipp II had a plan to win a war against England in 1588: sail the Armada up the channel, load the army which was fighting his rebellious Dutch subjects and land it in Kent. Marlborough’s plan to save Holland in 1704 was to draw the French army down the Rhine and fight it when distance from its bases made its defeat possible.

Napoleon made a plan almost every year of his strategic life: in 1798 to open a second front against his European enemies in Egypt, in 1800 to defeat Austria in Italy, in 1806 to blitzkrieg Russia, in 1808 to conquer Spain, in 1812 to knock Russia out of the continuing war.The United States had a plan in 1861, the Anaconda Plan, designed to strangle the rebellious South by blockade of the coasts and seizure of the Mississippi river. Napoleon III even had a plan of sorts for his catastrophic war against Prussia in 1870: to advance into southern Germany and turn the non-Prussian kingdoms against Berlin.

Much of pre-modern war planning was relegated to an ad-hoc basis, devised when an opportunity presented itself or an invasion had to be repelled. Commanders who did thoroughly plan their campaigns ahead thus often turned out fortune’s favourites – Alexander, Caesar and Charlemagne are examples. To a degree, success could be planned. Yet the emergence of the French “citizen army” following the revolution of 1789, and the resulting coalition and Napoleonic wars, set in motion not only the “division” of armies – to counter threats on multiple fronts or to effect flanking manoeuvres – but the scientification of planning – the diligent work of future General Staffs that was to allow, in Keegan’s often referenced phrase, the planning of war “in the abstract, plans conceived at leisure, pigeonholed and pulled out when eventuality became reality.” The General Staff was invented in Prussia and revolutioned the execution of modern war. Max Boot (War Made New, Gotham Books 2006, ISBN 1-592-40222-4) introduces the topic as follows:

As with so many military renaissances, Prussia’s rise had its origins in defeat. At the battles of Jena and Auerstaedt in 1806, Napoleon shattered the Prussian army and destroyed any mystique remaining from the days of Frederick the Great. The French army then entered Berlin and turned Prussia into a tributary state. The memory of this humiliation was only partially erased seven years later when Prussia joined Austria, Russia and Sweden to defeat Napoleon at the epic Battle of the Nations near Leipzig in 1813.

To a whole generation of Prussians, Jena had shown the rotten underpinnings of the Old Prussian state. The years after 1806 saw a burst of reforms including the freeing of serfs, the emancipation of Jews, the strengthening of government bureaucracy, and the weakening of trade guilds. The changes were especially significant in the military realm.

The overhaul of the army was lead by two officers, General Gerhard von Scharnhorst and Count August von Gneisenau, who sought to replace Frederick the Great’s force of aristocrats and mercenaries with a French- style nation in arms. They stopped recruiting foreigners and instituted a universal draft that did not allow the rich to buy an exception.

They also created a citizen militia called the Landwehr and a substantial force of reserves. After 1813, the army would conscript forty thousand men annually to serve for three years. Upon leaving active duty they would serve a further two years in the reserves and fourteen years in the Landwehr. By 1850 Berlin had around half a million trained soldiers at its beck and call.

And increasingly these soldiers were not the ignorant peasants of old. Starting in 1809, under the direction of Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussia created one of the best systems of public education in the world, offering elementary schooling for all, secondary schools for some, and university education for the elite. …

Special schools were set up to train a corps of non-commissioned officers, the sergeants and corporals who would become the backbone of the Prussian army.

As important as Scharnhorst’s and Gneisenau’s reforms were for the rank and file, they were equally significant for the officer corps. Their goal, in which they were only partially successful, was to break the
stranglehold of the Junker aristocracy (“heartless, wooden, half-educated men”, one reformer called them) on the leadership ranks in the army. They wanted to make merit, not birth, the most important criterion for officer selection, so they put many old warhorses out to pasture and forced every officer seeking promotion to pass an exam.Military academies and staff colleges were set up to train officers, the first one being the Kriegsakademie (War Academy), whose most illustrious early director was Carl von Clausewitz, author of the classic exposition of military philosophy, On War. Under the guidance of Clausewitz and his colleagues, soldiering became a profession, not a pastime for the nobility.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

We know what to do – Why don’t we do it? The Quality of Life

Top and Bottom Cities of the World
Top and Bottom Cities of the World

Homo sapiens is a cooperative group species. The collaboration centers on the provision of the basics, food and shelter, but extends to qualities surpassing the basic needs of existence.

Other such species, famously ants or bees, share the basic collaboratve efforts of providing the basics, they build homes and organize their society to provide the food necessary to guarantee the survival of the species – but nothing more.

Others, mostly mammals, live in social groups, but by the pecularities of their living space, do not need to build homes – elephants, wolves, apes, horses and the like. Their building abilities are impeded for the lack of fingers and thumbs (yes, the elephants’ trunks, and apes’ dexterity) but more by the lack of abstract intelligence. They are perfectly able to perform all the necessary acts to ensure the survival of the species (unless we kill them, of course) – but nothing that transcends biological necessity.

Homo sapies has developed a brain able of deductive reasoning, has the body structure to create most anything he sets his mind to and, given Occam’s Razor, we should expect that similar experiences would lead to similar solutions to intraspecies problems.

Thus it works in the scientific process, who was invented by deductive reasoning to great success. After myriads of years to figure out how to build a flying machine, we have figured it out by discarding all the models that did not work, until we arrived at a solution which does.

Why is so little of this process apparent in the organsation of our societies. Giving first things first, the needs of human societies are rather similar than different. Most people would agree that a preferable organisation of society rest on relatively few desiderata:

It should, simply for reasons of effectiveness, strive to utilize all available intellectual abilities of the members. Such abilities can come to fruition only if the circumstances of living for the prospective assistants in society-building are as conducive as they can be. 

Every child which does not learn to read and write is a poor candidate for the next step in human development. Everybody who dies unnecessarily – that is, not from medical reasons – is a poor candidate for the enlargement of knowledge or experience. 

That is, the desired forms of organization must reflect these basic requirements. Practical deductions from this insight should be derived with little effort and can of course be tested – one civilisation may flourish because of A,B and C, another may fail because of D,E, and F.

We have mentioned the basic requirements of food, shelter and health. Next come, logically, the fundamentals that support cooperation, that is, the collaboration of groups.

Groups must live in proximity of each other to function cooperatively, hence we build towns. A town whose inner workings provide better services and connectivity than the competition simply has a better mathematical chance of prosperity – because talents will hear about it and move there.

This is why we build roads, schools, found and extend services, from police, banks, fire brigades, parks, hotels, airports and the like. These basic ideas are pretty much standard and publicly accepted – but – why do they work in A-Town but not in B-Town? 

Here we come to these imponderabilities which lie in the organisational underbelly – those principles of social engineering, which lay principally in the field we call “politics”. The word itself naturally comes from Greek “polis”, which simply means “town”.

We may take a small detour here on the development of town structures. Towns existed at all times, but many of the most important changes on the road to the development to the modern world occurred in Middle Europe and were based on the evolution of the “rights” of towns – that is, in the first place, a certain legal independence of the town and its magistrates, which, in Western culture, began mostly in the Roman Empire – a recognition of their growing importance amongst the declining significance of agricultural concerns – and was greatly enhanced by the change in the social status of their inhabitants.

Some of the basic occurrences in the downfall of Rome were the widespread abandonment of agricultural land from about AD 200 – indeed, the granting of settlement of Roman emperors to Germanic tribes in the fourth century AD was much eased by the fact that wide provinces of the Empire had fallen into agricultural disrepair – the ruin of the public taxation system which at length robbed the Empire of the means to finance the legions and led on the way to the Middle Ages to the replacement of the standing army of citizens of the Republic to the transfer of defense to the knights of the landed gentry – climate problems as the bad mid-350s and deforestation – changes which led to the weakening of the Empire and its subsequent demise.

Whereby – the “Fall of the Empire” must be taken with many pounds of salt. Many Roman structures remained – the Ostrogothic realm of Theodoric was for practical reasons virtually indistiguishable from Imperial times, and – in general – we must not confuse the maps in an historical atlas with our modern interpretation. That land X is marked blue and Y red did not mean that for the greatest part of the population their life was any different. Borders were often spurious, and the only difference farmers and villagers noticed after a regime-change was the new taxman.

But what changed in the Italian and German parts of the new Frankish – later “German” Reich was the legal status of the townsman. All antique societies kept slaves – although it took Mauretania until 2007 to outlaw it. Contrary to the sandal movies, most slaves were indigenous residents – while estimates differ, most scholars agree that, e.g. in Rome, probably only 5% of slaves were of foreign origin.

Yet slaves could be purchased and used only by a moneyed society, and cash fell into disuse in the Middle Ages and hence out of custom. The greatest percentage of Europeans in the early Middle Ages were sharecroppers, whose situation was slightly different from area to area. These serfs were, in Germany, called “leibeigen”. In general, they had to live on the grounds of the liege-lord, and pay him a share of all they produced – up to 50%. They were his legal subjects – in some areas up to the death penalty for the theft of a chicken – could marry only with the lord’s permission. A certain number of days each year (their number was up to the lord and not limited) they had to provide free labour and/or services.

When the circulation of money revived, these services could, of course, replaced with coin. Smart farmers early found ways the lessen the burden by earning money – which could be made far easier in towns. Many farmers established their residency, so they could, preferentially around religious institutions, where the monks were somewhat refrained by Christian charity and conditions better, or around smaller castles, where their promise of military aid might similarly lead to a social improvement, and slowly towns developed around these places. In addition, if they could not be found, the lord’s rights could not be claimed.

Thus it slowly became legal custom that a serf who escaped the authority of his lord for one year and one day by living in a town, became a townsman, lost his obligations and could not be forced back. Naturally, everybody who could did so.

The economic importance of towns rose greatly with the onset of the Renaissance (craftsmen and service providers) and even more at the onset of industrialisation, and serfdom was gradually given up, except in rural areas.

Especially the ruin of agriculture after the Seven Years’ War (sometimes called French and Indian War in the USA and UK) and the studies and experiments of Hans Graf von Rantzau (who proved that leaseholds were more profitable for the lord than serfdom) lead to the legal abolishment of serdom in the years after 1800 – first in Braunschweig AD 1433 , in Bavaria 1783, last in Hannover 1833. The Russian delay (not before 1861 and then not effective) was one big factor for the following revolutions.

 Industrialisation made towns the economic locomotives of the new age, and a rural exodus took off. 

Growth of Cities
Growth of Cities

Rise of the General Staff

Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German General Staff
Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German General Staff

From the graduates of the Kriegsakademie were chosen the officer students that were to become members of this new and, for a time, unique Prussian institution, the Grosse Generalstab, the Great General Staff. It was set up as a separate department of the Ministry of War and dedicated itself solely to the study of strategies, tactics and supplies deemed necessary to develop plans for likely military scenarios. Its members, who initially numbered a dozen or so men and never exceeded one hundred, were the best and the brightest – as much as possible, for the influence of the old military families could not entirely be neutralized. The General Staff, however, did not exert military command; it made plans, devised strategies, and “shadowed” the line officers: every corps had a staff officer assigned who could supervise the execution of the given plan or effect necessary changes.

The staff’s daily bread was physics, mechanics, mathematics and statistics, but some room was given to the human factors, too – an early exercise in what would one day be called “psychology”. There had, of course, been half- hearted predecessors to the Kriegsakademie; essentially schools for military clerks, in which prospective artillery officers were taught elementary geometry and future quartermasters Accounting 101. Not only had these been mostly shabby affairs, they lacked reputation, which in turn reflected negatively on their graduates’ promotion opportunities and able officer candidates avoided these career traps.

The spirit of the modern scientific approach evidenced itself early in the characteristic bifurcation of the studies: one part of the curriculum was detailed geographically – horizontally, so to say – the students were to evaluate scenarios or devise plans for attacking France or defending East Prussia; the other track ran vertically, as to ways and means: intelligence, logistics and supplies, ammunition, hospitals, food etc., and every candidate had to show proficiency in both inventories.

The curriculum was modelled after the university syllabus of the time: first the classics, then modern works, first menial tasks then intellectual analysis – per aspera ad astra. Twice a year the whole academy went on “staff rides” – on outings to old battlefields strategies were evaluated on the very ground where they had worked or failed; new concepts, deployments and strategies were devised and solutions approximated. Studies were written incorporating the results and became mandatory test material. Models were built of the locations and strategies tested by simulation; in the next summer the results of these indoor games were translated to the manoeuvre areas and evaluated – in short, “War Games” were born and developed. Some of the conventions created in these games have endured into modern times and the age of computer wars – the enemy is red, one’s own forces blue.

The names of four officers are indissolubly bound to the history of the Prussian, later the German Great General Staff, before 1914: the aforementioned Carl von Clausewitz, Helmuth Graf (Count) von Moltke [the “Elder”, ¶], Chief of Staff and author of the plans that succeeded in 1864, 1866 and 1870/71, Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, Chief of Staff around the turn of the century and author of the famous but elusive plan named for him, and Helmuth von Moltke [the “Younger”, not a count, ¶], nephew of the Count and Chief of Staff until his dismissal after the lost Battle of the Marne in September 1914.

[Our header depicts a scene from the Battle of Gravelotte, the attack of Infantry Battalion 9 from Lauenburg]

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

Gutenberg & Luther vs. the Catholic Church

Print Shop in the Middle Age
Print Shop in the Middle Age

We are now closing in on the crucial years between AD 1450 and 1520, in which the mechanical invention of a Saxon tinkerer and the religious theories of a Thuringian monk at length caused the liquidation of the medieval age, together with the use of Latin as the language of church and court and the whole medieval class system. Yet even these pivotal events might have been relegated to minor importance had not the rise of the town as political unit completely upended the economical roundabout of the Middle Ages.

Every former peasant, who left the fields he did not own anyway, and on which generations of his forefathers had toiled in sweat for little gain, and spent a year and a day in the nearest officially recognized Imperial city was freed of his obligations to the liege-lord and absolved from lifelong servitude; he became, in principle, a free man. The sharecroppers flocked to the towns in great numbers and took part in the revolution of the medieval economy: towns, and with them their new and recent citizens, could and did get rich by trade, which a nobleman was prevented to do by ancient Roman law. Before long, the burghers broke the Church‘s monopoly on education; the ancient sciences were taken up by a new generation of students and experienced a rebirth, a Renaissance; a first wave of enlightenment purged the continent of many strictures of the Catholic Church.

The rise of towns established the bourgeoisie as a political class;6 differing from the simple hierarchy of Middle Age society, towns harboured a complex multitude of peoples that defied easy categorization: cobblers and masons, artisans and merchants, doctors and lawyers,7 their helpers and assistants, and soon, philosophers and historians of both the abstract and the natural schools;8 professions the Holy Catholic Church had practically outlawed in her eternal wisdom since Justinian’s closing of the schools of Athens and Alexandria in AD 529.

This is the appropriate place to introduce the originators of the metamorphoses. They were two men from a land not yet called Germany; with a little help from their friends, their pursuits were to elevate the faculties of man to unknown heights of good and evil.

Scribes had sought a mechanical way to duplicate their efforts since the invention of writing. Around the year AD 1050, a Chinese writer named Bi Sheng came up with the first model of what we today call the movable type: he created a clay type for every character he wanted to print. But since the Chinese language requires one type for every symbol of its writing, Bi Sheng quickly faced the problem that he required so many different characters respectively symbols that his printing method proved too clumsy; not user-friendly enough, we would call it today. Eventually, the Chinese replaced the clay types with woodblocks, which worked fine but had a durability problem. They were still far ahead of Europe.

In the Occident, books were still laboriously copied by hand, usually by monks. Copying books was one of the few pastimes granted to the average monk, and a good part of the income of an abbey or cloister depended on the dexterity and dedication of its copyists. The variety and multitude of these copies, however, were humbled by a circulus vitiosus: since all books were copied by hand, they were very expensive, thus only important books were copied at all; important books, by the standards of the Church, were, of course, only such books which supported the teachings of Christianity: hence only such books were copied.

Meanwhile, in a small town of not-yet-Germany, a prospective print-shop owner named Johannes Gensfleisch combined several recent ideas of his into a device which, after protracted tinkering, introduced to a perplexed world the first viable and sturdy printing press. He had formed, much as Bi Sheng had done, separate types for each letter of the alphabet, but of cast metal, not clay, which improved their durability.

He had, of course, the advantage to require only thirty-five or so letters and numbers. He then assembled rows of these types, forming lines, then paragraphs, and soon whole pages which were fixed in a frame against which ink was applied and paper pressed. As far as the inner mechanics of the press were concerned, rumour had it that Gensfleisch had profited from the study of the wine presses he used for the preparation of his libations.

At any rate, a skilled worker could produce three hundred pages a day with Gensfleisch’s machine, a hundred times the daily output of a monk. It was a miracle. Of a sudden, books could be produced at a fraction of their former cost and in unlimited quantities, for instead of expensive parchment simple paper could be used, which was soon produced in bulk. Books became so cheap and ubiquitous that they were, for the first time, written in or translated into the vernacular of the common people, into Teutsch. Naturally, the first bestseller was the Christian Bible. Herr Gensfleisch meanwhile, suitably proud of his achievement, adopted the nom de plume under which he is known to posterity, Johannes Gutenberg.

Before Gutenberg, only members of the clergy or the families of the nobility could afford to possess their own, personal, copies of the Holy Writ: the average man could not afford one, and even if he could buy one, he could not read it for it was written in (a sort of) Latin. This now changed swiftly, and everybody could either buy or at least borrow a Bible written in German and check the contents independently.9

The Church was not truly ecstatic over the sudden development of amateur competition in Biblical exegesis, and for decades defiled printing as a satanic art; but the levee had been broken, and it was too late to turn back the clock. It was bad enough that the Bible was now accessible to the laity; that it was printed in the vernacular was worse, for every literate person could now read, for example, that Jesus had advocated poverty as the natural state of affairs for Christians, and this mandate, one would surmise, would be equally appropriate for the clergy. Yet when concerned Christians learned from the Bible that Jesus had declared not to own any earthly possessions and exhorted his apostles as well as his lesser disciples to follow his example, they dispatched embassies with dire warnings to the princes of the Catholic Church. The deputations explained that material wealth was in fact a handicap, instead of a benefit, in the acquisition of salvation, and recommended that the Church renounce its secular possessions and concentrate on the salvation of their parishioners’ souls instead of amassing worldly treasures. The Church was not amused and summarily declined the spiritually advantageous offer.

Yet the more mere mortals read the holy writings, the more the former spiritual and intellectual monopoly of Catholicism was forced to retreat. It was not only that scripture and reality were at odds: both the spiritual decay and the wealth of the Church, or rather the ways in which this wealth was accomplished, the abuses of simony and the atrocious selling of indulgences, would no longer be accepted by a new, more critical generation of Christians. Sixty years or so after Gutenberg’s invention, the crisis of the Roman Church became acute. A young monk, professor for Biblical Theology at the University of Wittenberg, set out to change the faith of Christendom forever.

Within the confines of the present volume, the complex history of Martin Luther and the Reformation can be presented only briefly. Luther composed ninety-five theses, which summed up his criticism of the orthodox, Catholic exegesis of the Bible and the conclusions he had drawn from his findings [Text, from Wikisource). These theses he had sent to the office of his superior, Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, the Imperial Arch Chancellor, where they might have caused damage or not. But he nailed a copy of them onto the door of his home church in Wittenberg, for public discussion [November 1517]. Perhaps not the primary but certainly the most aggravating cause for Luther’s public admonition was the flagrant indulgence trade. In AD 1515, Pope Leo X approved the sale of indulgences in the archbishop’s domain around Mainz, to finance various clerical projects, one of which, and self-evidently the most sacred and distinguished, was to raise funds for the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Bishop Albrecht did not sell the documents personally; he had an agent, a man named Johann Tetzel, who sold them on a commission basis. Herr Tetzel, a devout believer, explained to his prospective customers that his documents could alleviate the duration or intensity of the purgatorial punishments their sins had purchased, or, for a few dollars more, could accomplish the immediate release of their souls from the sulphurous wells of the devil’s domain. Luther directed his reformatory ire in particular upon such fraudulent practices and composed a stream of theses condemning these theological outrages, and a few other little sins the Catholic Church had allowed herself in one-and-a-half millennia of orthodox rule. Yet soon Luther found himself mired in much more treacherous terrain. James Kugel explains [How to Read the Bible, Free Press 2007, ISBN  978-0-7432-3538-0]:

Well before the early 1500’s, individual Christians had been expressing dissatisfaction with the ways of the church, and their dissatisfaction focused on a broad variety of issues. One of the things that bothered them was what they saw as corruption within its ranks – priests’ sale of indulgences to their parishioners, for example, or the role of money in obtaining high office within the church hierarchy (called “simony”).

Along with these, some Christians objected to the church’s vast holdings of land and its evident concern for furthering its own wealth and political power (accompanied by a lack of concern for the poor): to many, the bishops and cardinals seemed more the servants of Mammon than of God.

In addition to these dissatisfactions, however, were others of a more theoretical and intellectual nature. The very idea of papal authority seemed illogical to some; how could a reasonable person accept a priori that the rulings of the altogether human leader of the church would always be correct?

And why should a human institution like the church, even if its existence was divinely authorized, play such a crucial role as intermediary between God and the individual Christian? Lastly – but probably not last in importance – what about the Bible?

Should the church have the unchallenged authority to say what the Bible means, especially when that meaning seemed to be derived not from the Bible’s own words as much as from old doctrines and questionable methods of interpretation?

Luther’s answer was a resounding “no”. The sole justification of faith, he argued, is the belief in the Divine Promise that Jesus died for the salvation of the sinner; and neither church nor pope are necessary paraphernalia in the achievement of this faith. Sinners, that is, every man who believes in the Biblical message, will be represented at God’s judgement by Jesus Christ and will be absolved, as Jesus is absolved. No purchase necessary.

That was the rub, as far as the Catholic Church was concerned. Orthodox dogma had held for thirteen centuries that the faithful qualify for eternal benefits by the charitable works they donate to the community or the financial endowments they dedicate to the apostolic coffers for the relief of the poor. In other words, good deeds, or equitable pecuniary considerations, open the door to preferred treatment on Judgement Day. Yet if Luther’s findings were correct, such deeds had no relevance whatsoever to redemption or salvation, and the Church’s eagerness in collecting these contributions was nothing but the sign of a parasitic organism’s avarice. Just as useless would be the strange rituals of symbolic cannibalism, performed by men only, who dressed in garish costumes and walked in clouds of frankincense.  If one could indeed find redemption without these follies, independent of such ceremonial ministrations, the Church might be out of business soon.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18

The Relativity of Being “Conservative”

La Liberté guidant le peuple - Painting by Eugene Delacroix
La Liberté guidant le peuple – Painting by Eugene Delacroix

Politics is a field of carefully groomed yet nastily imprecise definitions – none the least because it is the habit of its practitioners to steer clear of commitments, pronouncements or determinations which may face the need of reinterpretation tomorrow or the very next minute.

“Conservative” or “Conservatism” is one of the most popular catch phrases in the political vernacular – yet we might have a closer look at its etymology, inherent relativism and, indeed, rotative meaning as opposed to the more superficial use in common parlance.

It derives, naturally, from Latin “conservare”. “Servare” is the root word for “servus”, the servant, and basically means “to use” in the transitive way – something to be used, as in the English word “serviceable”. The prefix “con” has the basic meaning of “together” (“together with”, more precisely) and we could essentially translate it as “something that serves (well) with”, an idea which quickly developed into the notion of something that serves well hence it should be retained.

This is the more superficial way it is used generally as to denote – in the political domain – an existing structure which should be retained because of its merits.

This is the classic argument of the possessor – not the aspirer – and here we see that there is indeed a basically rotative connotation.

For the revolutionary of every kind – as soon as he, she or they have accomplished the goal, must turn to the preservation of the new achievement and immediately become a “conservative” him-, her- or theirselves.

Thus revolutionaries in due time always become conservatives – we may remember that the industrial conservatism of our time once was a revolution against the feudal system – liege-lords and manors.

Herein also lies the reason for the old adage that all revolutions eat their own children – don’t they?

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

Hitler’s Munich before the War

Munich City Centre

From THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, Chapter XII

“Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

William Blake “Auguries of Innocence”, L. 119

Then as now, the town of München is the capital of Bavaria, one of the oldest German self-governing states – first a duchy, then a kingdom. As European states go, she is of fair to middling size, about 27,000 square miles or 70,000 square kilometres big, slightly smaller than modern Austria or South Carolina but larger than Belgium, Switzerland or West Virginia, and forms the southeastern part of modern Germany. She shares borders with the Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland, and reaches, in the northwest, close to Frankfurt in Hesse. In the south, she harbours a part of the great central European mountain range, the Bavarian Alps, with the Zugspitze peak, at 9270 ft. or 2960 metres her highest elevation (Germany’s too), where, as the saying goes, only eagles dare to fly. . . .

The nineteenth century bestowed on the somewhat sleepy town a protracted period of modernization, a side effect of the industrialisation that much accelerated from the 1830s on. The land changed within two generations from its former almost exclusively rural character into a modern industry state. The first German railway line had been opened between the Bavarian towns of Nürnberg and Fürth in 1835, and only half a century later, in Baden and Württemberg, slightly to the west, Nikolaus Otto, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz worked on building horseless carriages. The company founded by the latter two, Daimler-Benz, is still one of the finest names in automobile manufacture; Bavaria, of course, is home to the fast cars of BMW and Audi.

Cultural cross-fertilization and a strong artistic inheritance from the Italian Renaissance gave München an almost Italian charm: compared to Prussia, Bavaria was almost an anarchy (the royal family was proof enough, as we will see), but a lovely one, and people from near and far came to settle there. The Bavarians still pursue an almost southern tradition of easiness of living, a very un-Prussian flair of dolce far niente. The country prides herself, reminiscent of her tradition, as the purveyor of libertas bavariae, Bavarian Liberty; and the land honoured her commitment when, although staunchly Catholic, she provided refuge to over ten thousand French Huguenot, i.e. Calvinist, families, who fled France and the wrath of Catharina de Medici in the seventeenth century after the Edict of Nantes – guaranteeing freedom of worship – had been revoked. The industrious newcomers were an important gain for Bavaria in general and München in particular; a number of streets named after prominent Huguenot families reminds of the benefits they brought to town.

In the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, the early reign of Ludwig I, the town began to lose her provincial character; before he had met and fallen for Lola Montez, the King had sponsored a public building program in neo-classical style – the results can still be seen on the boulevards of Ludwig Street and Maximilian Street. The genius of architects Leo von Klenze and Friedrich von Gärtner remains visible in the great number of their designs adorning the town which we all rebuilt according to the original plans after the bombing damage of the Second World War.

With Bavarian charm and a much more gregarious social climate than stiff-necked Prussia, provincial Berlin or mercantile Hamburg, München became a centre of international art and culture by the end of the nineteenth century, second only to Paris; leaving Vienna’s imperial fatigue and London’s faux Westminster grandeur easily behind. . . .

Second only to Paris, München, then harbouring about 600,000 inhabitants, attracted artists from all countries and walks of life, and became in particular a vortex for the avantgarde. As far as painting goes, the year 1909 alone had witnessed the establishment of four new artist groups, one of which called itself simply the ‘New Artists Association‘ and included Alexej von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky. In the Café Stephanie at Amalienstraße, one could meet, at any time of day or night, radical intellectuals like Kurt Eisner, Erich Mühsam or Ernst Toller, all of whom rose to prominence after the war. While these artists and philosophers were far too progressive for Hitler’s bourgeois taste, they brought to München artistic flair and fervour unsurpassed until, twenty fateful years later, Berlin entered into the Roaring Twenties. But in 1910 Berlin was a cultural graveyard. Ian Kershaw [Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris (London, 1998), ISBN 0-393-32035-9]observed:

Schwabing, the pulsating centre of Munich’s artistic and bohemian life, drew artists, painters, and writers from all over Germany and from other parts of Europe as well. They turned Schwabing cafés, pubs and cabarets into experimental hothouses of “the modern”. “In no city in Germany did old and new clash so forcefully as in Munich,” commented Lovis Corinth, one celebrated artist who experienced the atmosphere there at the turn of the century.

The theme of decline and renewal, the casting off of the sterile, decaying order, contempt for bourgeois convention, for the old, the stale, the traditional, the search for new expression and aesthetic values, the evocation of feeling over reason, the glorification of youth and exuberance, linked many of the disparate strands of Munich’s modernist cultural scene.

The Stefan George circle; the scourge of bourgeois morality, playwright and cabaret balladist Frank Wedekind; the great lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke; and the Mann brothers – Thomas, famous since the publication in 1901 of his epic novel of bourgeois decline, Buddenbrooks, and whose vignette of homosexual tension, Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) had been published the year that Hitler arrived, and his elder, more politically radical brother Heinrich – were but some among the galaxy of literary luminaries in pre-war Munich.

In painting, too, the challenge of “the modern” characterized the era. Around the very time that Hitler was in Munich, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Alexej von Jawlensky, Gabriele Muenter, and August Macke were leading lights in the group Der Blaue Reiter, revolutionizing artistic composition in brilliant and exciting new forms of expressionist painting. The visual arts would never be the same.

Here revolutionaries of any ilk and calibre peddled their doctrines and, at the Ludwig-Maximilian University, moved to München in 1826 from Landshut (whither it had been moved from Ingolstadt where it had been founded in 1472), a complete spectrum of political designs was brought to the attention of students and burghers alike. The main campus happened to be in Schwabing as well, providing the students – always on the prowl for new and exotic sensations – with a stage for every imaginable and some unlikely forms of artistic impression. The light-hearted spirit in which even the most outrageous or ridiculous doctrines of art or politics found an attentive audience became the modern articulation of Libertas Bavariae. In the juxtaposition of William Blake‘s verse, Schwabing was clearly born to sweet delight, and unconventional souls from all over the globe flocked to München.

One such unconventional soul was Herr Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, who was hearing law and politics at the University, where he had inscribed himself as Herr Meyer. Herr Meyer was domiciled in Schleißheimerstraße 106, only a few blocks west of the campus and was better known in his native Russia under the alias ‘Lenin’.

Another unconventional soul, Adolf Hitler, soon frequented the same cafés, pubs and beer gardens in Schwabing, reading newspapers while slowly sipping on a cup of coffee, or peddling his paintings in art shops or simply on the street. Opposite the main University building, a hundred yards past the Siegestor, a quarter-mile of the Leopoldstraße serves as the artists’ outdoor gallery, and until this day the resident painters sell their works there. Adolf was, as we will find out, a bit of a revolutionary himself, but the year 1913 saw him half-frightened and half-intoxicated by the sheer rush of the artistic scene. . . .

Adolf Hitler and his friend Rudolf Häusler arrived from Vienna on Sunday, May 25, 1913, and immediately set out to find accommodation. They walked down Schleißheimer Straße, northwest of the railway station, and, in the window of a small tailor shop at # 34, noticed a small sign advertising a room to let. They went in, and quickly closed a deal with the tailor’s wife, Frau Anna Popp, to rent a tiny mansard on the third floor. On May 26 respectively 29, they registered with the Munich police, with Hitler estimating the duration of their visit at two years. In Vienna, Hitler had alerted the police to his leaving, as he was required to do, but had left no forwarding address; the police file dryly states “destination unknown”, indicating that Hitler was not keen on his whereabouts becoming known. This would concur with the fact that his earlier ‘disappearance’ in the autumn of 1909 magically coincides with the exact period in which he was obliged to report to the Austrian army. He left Vienna, Sechshauserstrasse 56, c/o Frau Antonie Oberlechner, on September 16, 1909, without providing a forwarding address, and did not re-register with the Vienna police until February 8, 1910, the day he resurfaced and moved into the men’s hostel at Meldemannstrasse. . . .

Adolf Hitler had now arrived in the town that would become his principal residence for the next twenty years; the town he was to christen later the ‘Hauptstadt der Bewegung’, the Capital of the [Nazi] Movement.”

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

The Rise of Prussia

Flag of Prussia

[Our new header is a clipping from an actual photograph of the Battle of Königgraetz (or Sadowa) and shows the attack of Infantry Regiment No. 68]

“Napoleon’s armies had severely defeated the Prussians at Jena and Auerstaedt in 1807 and subsequently occupied most of the country, that is, these portions which Napoleon had not confiscated and given away to his brother Jerome, whom he had made King of Westphalia, or to the newly established Grand-Duchy of Poland.

Yet occasionally, a loss may turn an into an unexpected gain. It was precisely in the years of her humiliation, after the defeat of her proud army, that Prussia initiated the reforms which were to result in making her a modern state which in some respects led the world.

Many things that are nowadays, for better or worse, associated with the workings of a modern state were first introduced in Prussia in the early years of the nineteenth century: communal self-government, freedom of trade and contracts, the income tax, compulsive education and, last not least, military service by conscription.

The feudal system had limited the nation’s entrepreneurial activities along social borderlines: to buy or sell land was the prerogative of the nobility, but to become a merchant or artisan, one had to be a commoner. These limitations fell, and with the eventual abolition of serfdom, the world’s first labour market was created; a necessary condition for Germany’s extremely rapid industrialization.

The economy of feudal Prussia depended on serfs working the extensive farms of the “Junkers”, the local barons. They ruled with a heavy hand, essentially independent from governmental supervision. On their possessions, they were employer, policeman and judge in one. They had the right to inflict corporeal punishment, could grant, or forbid, marriages; in some cases, while technically illegal, whole sharecropper families were bought and sold, in particular at the fringes of the country where the eye of the law was short-sighted.

A feudal right the Junkers were loath to give up was the ius primae noctis or droit de seigneur; the alleged right of the lord to claim the sexual favours of a vassal’s bride on her wedding night. Under the impression of the French Revolution, demands for the abolishment of the old customs surfaced in Prussia as well.

Although the calls for political reform were based, as in France, on the theories of Rousseau, Locke and John Stuart Mill, there was another important theory for the framers of the new Prussian state: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), which described a possible new economical model for the country. Smith’s paradigm was based upon, first, the private right to property, second, the principle of competition, the “free market”, and third, the abolition of trade obstacles like customs, excises or levies.

These basic tenets of Capitalism happened to coincide with the most important invention of the modern age, the partnership of coal and the steam engine, which absolved man from a plethora of manual labours. Industrialization began in the English midlands in the eighteenth century but it took decades for Prussia and the other German states to catch up.

Five distinguished names are eternally united with the Prussian reforms: on the – less important – military side the generals Gerhard von Scharnhorst and August von Gneisenau; on the civil side of the government the Barons von Stein and von Hardenberg; yet none of whom would have effected much without the reforms of Wilhelm von Humboldt, brother of the famous geographer and botanist Alexander von Humboldt.

Any serious reform of the land, so much was clear to reformers and hesitaters alike, had to begin with and centre on the situation of the peasantry. They formed the basis of the population, of agriculture, and of the military, and to improve their lot should have positive repercussions on the rest of the nation.

The first issue the reformers attacked was the social integration of all “Prussians”, for there was a problem. The concept of being a “Prussian” did not come easy to many inhabitants, for the simple reason that they only had recently become Prussians; only a generation or so earlier they had been Brandenburgers, Silesians or Pomeranians, collected as spoils of war.

In the fall of 1807, Minister von Stein convinced King Friedrich Wilhelm IV that agrarian development was the key to progress and received the royal sanction to enact a Reform Act. On October 9, 1807, serfdom was outlawed in the kingdom of Prussia, peasants freed from feudal obligations, tithes were abolished, and sharecropping verboten. About half of the peasantry was freed immediately, and the rest had to wait until St. Michael’s Day, November 11, 1810.

Anybody could now, at least in theory, own land, or move, or marry, without permission. As one would suspect, the nobility was not exactly pleased with the reform package and resisted fiercely. They had been used to enjoy the unpaid labours delivered by their “subjects”, and now complained that they were entitled to a compensation for the loss of it. They organized themselves in leagues and clubs and, for a time, succeeded in watering down essential provisions of the law.

On account of their resistance, it was to take another generation before the changes achieved full effectiveness. Yet a beginning had been made, and food production rose 40% within ten years. Other reforms proved just as decisive.

Gerhard von Scharnhorst was promoted in July 1807 to become the head of the Military Reform Commission, and he developed a few ideas his fellow noblemen could only call “radical”. As it were, only aristocrats had been able to secure officer’s commissions: this tradition was buried without ceremony, as was the custom that promotion depended on the officer’s favours with the ladies-in-­waiting or the king’s game wardens: now advancement would be based upon performance, shocked oldtimers learned.

The gauntlet was abolished, as was hazing, and in the future, so Scharnhorst’s plan, military service would be compulsory. Now that was a brick the king was not willing to swallow yet, and Scharnhorst was fired in 1810. The most crucial reform, however, had already been passed: Wilhelm von Humboldt created the Prussian educational system, the first one to compass a whole nation. He introduced compulsory schooling, and guaranteed the building and maintenance of schools and the employment of secular teachers in every nook and cranny of the land.

But not only were primary schools established, Humboldt also invented the German Gymnasium, a feeder school for colleges and universities. The curriculum was prescribed by law, and schools unwilling or unable to keep up with requirements, as some religious schools did, were closed. Personally, Humboldt also founded the Berlin University that still bears his name.

It is hard to imagine today, but even the simple proviso that a school year starts only once a year had not been considered a necessity until Humboldt ordered it. From now on, school began in September, and all over the world children still obey the regulation of the venerable Prussian scholar. Reform also assailed the ancient privileges of the universities: not only did Humboldt manage to liberate enough funds from the frugal king to run the university, where the teaching staff soon was to comprise names as august as Hegel and Fichte, he also invented the symbiosis of academic teaching and research: professors were required to provide both.

Baron von Stein’s most important innovation regarding the practical aspects of governance was the invention of the minister with portfolio; it sounds like a simple idea yet was unknown. Since the dawn of time, decision-makers had relied on the assistance of advisors, but seldomly had the hired help been systematically organized; the gentlemen might work against each other or ignore each other, and most governments thus depended on a sort of chaos theory.

Stein replaced chaos with a pyramid of power and responsibility: the king as the head of government could rely on a cabinet of ministers with specialized portfolios below him, who, in their turn, could rely on a staff of higher officials that would not change with every new incoming minister and could provide continuity. Thus the (hopefully) knowledgeable ministerial secretary was born, who could serve successive administrations. This system was replicated in every nation.”

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén