Can the history of Prussia really be as dreary and barren as most of the books make it sound? Only German specialists can say, but little that they choose to tell us in English suggests that German scholarship is unearthing a new and unfamiliar Prussia bursting with unsuspected colour and vitality. The history of France or our own country has been transformed since the war by the researches of social, economic and cultural historians; and even though the dividends of this work are perhaps now diminishing, and historians returning to more traditional questions, the look of French or British history will never be the same again. During all this time it would appear, however, that the look of Prussian history has scarcely altered. Those who study it seem obsessed, as they always have been, with battles and bureaucracy.
Christopher Duffy’s main preoccupation is with the first. There are 41 pages of battle maps, and the minutiae of every engagement Frederick the Great fought are chronicled and analysed in the loving detail familiar from the author’s other books. In what is explicitly subtitled ‘a military life’ of this odious and capricious martinet, that is no doubt fair enough. This life of Frederick is no worse than many another, agreeably written, and enlivened by plenty of quotations from original sources. Nearly half the pictures, however – another Duffy characteristic – are later, romantic reconstructions devoid of any historical value; and indeed as a contribution on the big, perennial issues of Prussian history the value of the whole book is limited. It will tell you how Frederick won the title ‘great’ on the battlefield. What book on him (and there are hundreds) will not? It recounts many a familiar anecdote, and offers many a sample of the King’s prolix, nostrum-strewn prose and table-talk. But it adds nothing to our understanding of how the German Sparta was achieved, or of how it recovered from the devastation Frederick brought down upon it in the 1750s, once he had been saved from total defeat by the so-called ‘miracle’ of the Russian Empress’s death. It is a book for war-gamers and collectors of militaria – not a negligible market to be sure, but one that includes few serious historians.
An altogether more important enterprise is that of Betty Behrens. Christopher Duffy is nothing if not prolific, but until relatively late in her career Miss Behrens was unknown outside Cambridge. There she had the reputation of a sharp lecturer and scourge of doctoral dissertations and unpublished manuscripts. These critical qualities made her scholarly name overnight in 1963 when she deployed them in a brilliant article on nobles, privileges and taxes in pre-Revolutionary France. It was a frontal attack on the entrenched idea that the nobility paid no taxes. Although its argument has not gone unchallenged, it remains a milestone in the disintegration of the old view of the origins of the French Revolution that had marked the last generation. In 1967 she followed up this remarkable late start with a general essay on The Ancien Régime. Though nothing like as coherently written and argued as the article, it, too, left a permanent mark on its field with its discussion of the issue of privilege. It became required reading for all undergraduates needing an introduction to the Ancien Régime, and went on to achieve the rare distinction of being translated into French with the high endorsement of Professor Roland Mousnier. Though mostly about France, its argument was strengthened by evidence from other countries; and now, long after retirement, its author offers us a full-blown parallel study of France and Prussia in the belief that it will illuminate the history of both. Comparative history certainly has its value, and the century which saw a spectacular revolution in France but not elsewhere in Europe cries out for it. There is a long tradition of British historians reflecting (somewhat smugly) on why their own country avoided France’s chaotic fate. But Prussia, too, avoided that fate, and far more completely, without enjoying any of Britannia’s vaunted blessings. Betty Behrens’s objective is to analyse how.
Or at least almost. For she states her aim in rather more complex terms. It is to discover ‘why the Prussians were able, and the French unable, to remove without revolution the obstacles placed by the société d’ordres in the way of economic development and the growth of military power’. In this way she pre-judges the whole issue at the outset, and the strength of her argument is made to depend upon acceptance of the contention that France was indeed a société d’ordres and Prussia a Ständesgesellschaft. This at least repays Mousnier for his earlier patronage, for he more than anybody is responsible for foisting this implausible idea upon students of Early Modern Europe. It is not that the subjects of the Bourbons or the Hohenzollerns could not be divided by jurists, schematising from their libraries, into functional estates, orders, or Stände. The question is whether these divisions represented any everyday social reality in terms of power and importance. Even Miss Behrens is not certain, it is reassuring to know. On page 16 she tells us that estates were ‘mere legal categories’. One wonders in that case why they should be thought strong enough to impede economic development and the growth of military power in France to the point of precipitating revolution; while seeing perfectly well why they played no such role in Prussia. But of course the real problem lies in the way the question is put. Orders were not a serious social reality in either country in the 18th century. In France those days, if they had existed, were long gone, and what angered the revolutionaries of 1789 was that the adoption of a tripartite Estates-General seemed to be resurrecting them. Behrens cites the Allge-meines Landrecht of 1794 as evidence that orders existed in Prussia, too: but nothing she says elsewhere suggests that they were of much importance before that. One is left with the suspicion that this law code, like the Russian Charter of the Nobility of 1785, was an attempt to create meaningful orders where none had existed before. After all, as she points out, the promulgation of the code was delayed so that it could be amended in the light of the bad news from France. The rejection of the idea of orders had precipitated the Revolution. It was therefore natural to emphasise them as a bulwark of stability.
If we leave aside, then, this question mal posée, what light do her comparisons throw on the simpler one of why the regime broke down in one country and not the other? And is any of it new light? It is clear that she has continued since The Ancien Régime to read widely in French history, although there is not a lot of evidence of the ‘scrupulous rereading of primary sources’ claimed on the dust-jacket. Long hours in the archives have never marked her work, and her reviews (like some passages in this book) are full of scarcely-veiled impatience with those, especially Americans, who approach the subject this way. Instead of grubbing around in remote departmental archives, she appears to think, they would be much better employed absorbing and pondering the conclusions of the great French masters who have already exposed the essential issues for them. Her footnotes are heavy with references to scholars like Marion, Mousnier, Egret, Bluche and Antoine, and in essentials her diagnosis of the ills that killed the Ancien Régime is a retouched and modified version of theirs. Men of the Right, as most of them are, they believe that the basic problem lay in the weakness of authority. If only the king had deployed the plenitude of his power, and brushed aside all resistance, all the unpleasantness that began in 1789 could have been avoided. In this view, those who resist authority are always wrong. There is no difference between protest, opposition and rebellion. The correct response in all cases is to override it. The tragedy was that Louis XV or Louis XVI did not. Instead they gave way – to the financiers, to the office-holders, to the privileged, to the parlements, to the taxpayers, to public opinion. These vested interests prevented the monarchy from organising the country rationally in the interests of economic growth and international power, and from being able to pay its way without borrowing on a ruinous scale.
Contrast this, says Behrens, with Prussia. There, authority was never afraid to act, and it never met any resistance. Unconstrained by parlements or tenured office-holders, undeterred by inconvenient privileges, indifferent to public opinion and determined never to borrow money, Frederick William I and Frederick the Great were able to maintain and support a vast army that was the terror and admiration of Europe. They were able to foster some economic growth, too. These conclusions are framed after wider and deeper reading than those relating to France. This makes the Prussian sections of this book perhaps the best introduction to their subject now available in English. Mercifully there are no battles. The army that fought them, however, still commands the centre of the stage, for its achievements are the main ingredient in the ‘success’ the author is trying to explain. And bureaucracy, as always, is one of the master keys produced to unlock this problem. In short, there is a lot of new information, but little new interpretation. The Prussian case appears to show that if France had changed herself into a military tyranny she, too, could have been successful. Behrens might have added that between 1799 and 1814 she did, and she was. In 1806 she even beat Prussia at her own game.
To have gone that far, however, would scarcely have strengthened the argument, for 1806 raises the obvious doubt about the traditional interpretation. The vaunted strength of the Frederician state was shattered on the fields of Jena and Auerstadt. Christopher Duffy would doubtless argue that this vindicates the study of battles and tactics after all. However that may be, it certainly undermines the Prussian example as a panacea for other countries’ ills. It could be argued, in fact, that Prussia’s ‘success’ in the 18th century owed more to keeping out of wars than joining in them. Between 1713 and 1806 she was only in a state of hostilities for 14 years, and seriously engaged for less than ten. Over the same period France fought for 38 years, all except ten of them on both land and sea. (Behrens mentions that Prussia had no fleet only in passing.) In 1762 even Frederick admitted that he was saved by a miracle, or, as we would say today, a fluke. Between then and 1806 Prussia lived on reputation, bluff, and picking on states like the Dutch Republic and Poland, too weak and friendless to resist her. This was success of a sort, though hardly the triumph of the self-confident autocracy so admired by Miss Behrens. It may well have been enough to convince the educated classes of Prussia that they lived under a system that worked; that they were part, indeed, of such a system, since the vast majority of them seem to have been state employees. Perhaps one key to Prussia’s avoidance of revolution was quite simply that there was nobody to revolt. The educated classes identified with the state because the state was their very raison d’être
Here the contrast with France is glaring. The whole problem there in the late 18th century was that nobody identified with the state. Nobody had any confidence in the way the kingdom was governed. There was, as Behrens points out, no true bureaucracy in the Prussian sense: but there was a vast and rapidly expanding educated class, which watched the conduct of public affairs with an increasingly critical eye. Nor were their discontents groundless – the creation, as the French right-wingers are anxious to believe, of the irresponsible scribblers of the Enlightenment. (Behrens seems totally unsure what to think about the French Enlightenment; emptying churches and full pubs, she muses vaguely at one point, must have meant something.) Taxes rose inexorably, but what the taxpayers got for their money was military failure and a generation of uncertain tinkering with the country’s best-established institutions and customs. Opposition to these policies was dealt with by increasingly draconian displays of authority which left most French subjects believing, by the 1780s, that they lived not under a government of laws but under a despotism. By then, even ministers were coming to believe that public confidence needed to be restored. But Prussia offered no model. The only sphere in which Prussian patterns were followed was in the Army, where they quite understandably created widespread resentment: curiously, Behrens does not mention this one instance of France looking beyond the Elbe for inspiration. France, critics of Prussianisation in the Army protested, was a civilised country peopled by free men. Her soldiers were volunteers, not serf conscripts, prison dredgings and victims of the press gang. They deserved more respectful treatment. And the same applied to her sophisticated, well-educated citizens. The only way to win back their confidence in government was to give them a say in it. The problem was how to achieve this without upheavals on a scale nobody wanted. Failure was not inevitable. At several points between 1778 and 1799 a permanent and stable solution seems to have been within reach, only to evaporate in recrimination and threats of social upheaval. Only after a generation of experiments with representative institutions did the French lose their nerve and turn to a pattern that Miss Behrens doubtless thinks more sensible. But Napoleonic cast iron proved as brittle in 1814 and 15 as the Hohenzollern formula had a few years earlier.
It may be argued that such a view is too superficial. Out of the defeat of 1806 sprang the era of reform in Prussia. Behrens in her conclusion lays a good deal of emphasis on the emergence of this butterfly from the Frederician chrysalis. And Louis XVIII, as has often been said, ascended not his brother’s throne, but Napoleon’s. These are arguments for underlying strength, and if they are valid, then what historians need to look at is its sources. Historians of France, in all those detailed regional monographs on social, economic and regional history that Miss Behrens thinks only breed confusion, have provided plenty of material for mining below the surface in recent years. Historians of Prussia, obsessed with her supposed success, seem hardly to have begun. Yet, despite terrible damage to German archives during the war, exciting and important work is obviously still possible. Joachim Whaley’s analysis of religious toleration in Hamburg over three centuries shows as much. It demonstrates convincingly how study of a particular locality can throw important light on an issue affecting Germany as a whole. Hamburg was not, of course, a Prussian city, but similar work would surely be fruitful on places that were. Toleration, after all, was one of 18th-century Prussia’s most distinctive characteristics, in marked contrast with France. How did it work in practice? How did its application develop? Were the issues the same in Königsberg, Berlin and Breslau? Only detailed work on the ground can answer such questions, in this and other fields of cultural, social and economic history; and only work at this level will put some flesh on the dry bones of a history shrivelled by over-concentration on absolutism, administration and the Army. Perhaps it will add confusion. In history that is surely a sign of life.
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