Was it because of the war?

Rogers Brubaker

  • Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe by Thomas Ertman
    Cambridge, 379 pp, £45.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 521 48222 4

For nearly a millennium, European states have been at war with one another. For as Hobbes observed, war

consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known ... For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.

European states have known no ‘assurance to the contrary’, for there has been no ‘power able to overawe them all’. Thus war has been their chronic condition, their characteristic ‘posture’, as Hobbes again put it:

Kings, and Persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in continuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts, Garrisons, and Guns upon the Frontiers of their Kingdomes; and continuall Spyes upon their neighbours; which is a posture of War.

Europe’s ‘thousand-years war’ has been not only the inescapable condition of the state, but the matrix of its development. War has produced the state as we know it today. The ‘posture of War’ has driven incipient and established states alike to increase their powers, extend their competencies, centralise their operations, deepen their penetration of social life, and enlarge and rationalise their apparatuses of taxation, adjudication, regulation and surveillance. Refined in the crucible of war, the centralised, bureaucratic state first took a recognisably modern shape in 17th and 18th-century Europe and showed the rest of the world ‘the image of its own future’. As Charles Tilly has put it, ‘war made the state, and the state made war.’

But how (and when and where) did war make the state? This question is at the heart of Thomas Ertman’s challenging study. Historians and sociologists have treated Prussia as the paradigm of war-oriented state-building in Europe; yet the Prussian experience was far from typical. Elsewhere, in the Early Modern era, the planning, financing and fighting of war did not directly make the state; more often, as Ertman shows, it made a mess – particularly in the domain of public finance and administrative structures.

Throughout ‘Latin Europe’ – in the Iberian peninsula and Italy, and especially in France up to the eve of the Revolution – the most striking effect of war, and of the urgent need for large sums of ready cash that it occasioned, was not to consolidate and rationalise the state administration, or to make it more efficient and ‘modern’, like the ideal bureaucracy famously described by Max Weber. The effect was rather to irrationalise it, to foster an ever more baroque state edifice built on the shaky foundations of proprietary office-holding, tax farming and other forms of private ‘appropriation’ of public powers. Ertman sharply distinguishes the resulting ‘patrimonial absolutism’ from the ‘bureaucratic absolutism’ of the German territorial states, and seeks to explain these differing paths in terms of a geopolitically determined ‘latecomer’s advantage’ enjoyed by the latter.

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