In this lecture we will want to consider how “enlightenment” left an ambiguous and complicated legacy, rather than a simple revolutionary one. In general, I have argued so far that the Enlightenment’s ideas about reason, God, and man’s role in the universe had a political impact. In the last lecture we considered the connection between the Enlightenment and political revolution in Britain’s colonies. In the next lecture will consider the Enlightenment’s connection to the French Revolution. I want to stress today, however, that characteristically “enlightened” ideas were deeply rooted in different national contexts. Recognizing this fact should complicate our view of the Enlightenment’s political effects. Enlightenment did not always lead to revolution. In fact, in some ways, enlightened discussion prevented political revolution by making states stronger and more efficient. This happened in two ways. First, as a result of enlightened ideas some states became more powerful and proved able to suppress political uprisings. Second, enlightened reform led some states to become very good at providing public services, which had the effect of mitigating discontent.
In this context, we want to concentrate on a strange creature that appeared during the eighteenth century, the enlightened despot. In some places in Europe, such as Italy, Germany, Austria, Denmark, and Russia, rulers appeared who wanted their states to break with the old regime. This did not, however, imply a shift toward greater political freedom or participation. In fact, in some cases, it led to the development of a state apparatus that functioned well enough to prevent the rise of significant dissent. In this lecture we are going to consider two such princes Frederick II of Prussia (1740-1786), and Joseph II of Austria (1765-90). I will discuss Prussia first, before moving on to the Austrian situation.
I will begin with a brief overview of Prussian history. Prussian history dates well back well into the Middle Ages. In 946, King Otto I (936-973) founded the bishoprics of Brandenburg and Havelberg, which were east of the river Elbe. By 1134, these bishoprics had become an administrative unit known as a Mark, and one Count Albert the Bear (1134-1170) was put in charge of the region. (In German Albert’s title is rendered as Mark Graf. The French and English version of this title is Margrave.) Thus, from this point (1134), we can begin talking about the Margraves of Brandenburg. The Margraviate had a long history of its own, but we can’t go into it here. For our purposes, you need to understand that Prussia in the modern sense only appears in the 18th-century, and this is the direction in which we are heading.
So with that, we will now take leave of medieval Brandenburg and turn our attention to the fifteenth century. In 1415, King Sigismund I (1411-1437), future Holy Roman Emperor, named Count Frederick I of Nuremberg to be Margrave of Brandenburg (1415-1440). Frederick was not a particularly important king, but he is important to us, in so far as he was the first Hohenzollern to become Margrave of Brandenburg. (I should note here that the Hohenzollern were an old medieval family with deep roots in the nobility of southwestern Germany. One their descendents will appear in a future lecture. Others still live in the ancestral castle in Sigmaringen (Württemberg).) From this point on, until 1918, a Hohenzollern prince would rule Brandenburg Prussia, and there is a straight line that runs from Frederick I’s appointment as Margrave to Frederick II, King of Prussia.
Frederick II was born in 1713, the second son of Frederick William I. (How the Margraviate of Brandenburg became the Kingdom of Prussia is a complicated tale. Suffice it to say that Frederick II’s grandfather Frederick I was crowned king in 1701.) Frederick William was not an especially cultivated person. He had no interest in the arts or sciences, and he regularly beat his subordinates, whenever he believed that they were slacking off. Frederick was, however, a more sensitive soul. Devoted to the arts and philosophy, he spent as much time away from his boorish father as he could. (In fact, in 1730, Frederick tried to run away from home, but was caught. His punishment included not only a brief period of imprisonment but also having to watch his best friend’s execution.) Frederick read widely, particularly in enlightened French literature, and kept up a significant correspondence with philosophes such as Voltaire. He even set up an alternate court in his castle at Rheinsberg, where a version of French salon life flourished. I say version, since Frederick did not like women and excluded them from his company. At Rheinsberg Frederick prepared for the moment when he would bring enlightenment to Prussia, playing the flute, reading plays with his friends, and publishing various works, one of which was the Anti-Machiavel, a now famous text in which he argued that leader should always be motivated by honor, and should never act rapaciously and out of concerns for power, as Machiavelli had suggested.
On May 31, 1740, Frederick William I died and the enlightened Frederick became King of Prussia. In December of 1740, the same enlightened Frederick and his armies invaded Austria, starting the first Silesian War (1740-42). This was hardly an enlightened act, especially since Frederick had decried such behavior in his book. (That he was embarrassed by the gap between his book and his actions is evidenced by his asking Voltaire to buy up all available copies, so that they could be destroyed. Voltaire did buy up many copies for his friend, but being Voltaire he also made sure that some copies stayed in circulation.) Now to return to Frederick’s splendid little war, we can say that the invasion was terribly modern, because it was rooted purely in raison d’état. Frederick did not invade his neighbor to gain glory for his family and crown, as France’s Louis XIV had done in the seventeenth century. No, he did it, because he saw an invasion as a matter of his kingdom’s survival. By 1742, Frederick had held off Austria’s armies and laid claim to the region known as Silesia. Two more wars with Austria would follow, before Frederick’s hold on Silesia was firm, the second Silesian War (1744-45), and the third Silesian War (1756-1762). With this audacious move Frederick put Europe on notice that a new kind of prince had arrived.
I note Frederick’s penchant for wars, because they highlight an essential aspect of enlightened absolutism. Frederick needed money to fight his wars, which meant that reform of the state and the economy, not literature, became policy imperatives. Whereas, yesterday’s lecture emphasized the Enlightenment’s literary and social aspects, this lecture will open up the problem of reforming the state. German princes were the leading reformers of state institutions in all of Europe. This was due, in part, to there being so many of them. After the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, there were no fewer than 365 German principalities, each with its own leader. Some of these principalities were large, such as the Margraviate of Brandenburg. Others were medium-sized like the Duchy of Bavaria. Still others were small, like the Duchy of Weimar. (The Dukes of Weimar kept an army of about 50 soldiers on staff at all times.) Feeling keenly their vulnerability to predatory powers such as France, Prussia, and Austria, many German princes modernized their state administrations in order to protect themselves against aggression. Prussia under Frederick II was at the head of this reforming class, which ironically allowed him to become Germany’s leading predator.
During his long reign, Frederick instituted multiple changes in administration. First, he took the rather sleepy bureaucracy that he had inherited from his father and streamlined it by establishing clear lines of authority and instituting a system of merit. The old bureaucracy had been collegial, that is, its chief ministers made decisions as a group, which is a recipe for doing nothing, as you can well imagine. Under Frederick, however, chief ministers were put in charge of a single ministry, and each minister was responsible directly to the prince. Moreover, these ministers now had to promote their subordinates according to some vague notion of merit, and as this occurred, the bureaucracy became ever more competent. One of the principal outcomes of this reorganization was that the Prussian state became very good at finding revenue sources and taxing them. This meant that Frederick had more money to fight wars than his father could have dreamed of—and he would need every penny. Second, Frederick emphasized direct government support and intervention in the Prussian economy. He did this in two distinct ways. On the one hand, he supported new business ventures, such as silk, porcelain, and watch making manufactories. On the other hand, he intervened heavily in Prussian agriculture, calling for various forms of land reform, changes in agricultural methods, and the cultivation of new crops such as the potato. Economists disagree about whether Frederick’s intervention in the market place was good, but it is clear that Prussian agriculture benefited from his oversight, since older, less efficient agricultural methods began to disappear slowly during the eighteenth century. Now to the third point: Frederick reformed the Prussian army, importing new training methods and tactics. These changes combined with Frederick’s military genius to make Prussia the strongest military power in Europe.
I have put Frederick at the center of all these changes, but now we need to concentrate on one of the central implications that Frederick’s enlightened reforms had for Prussia: the state needed bureaucrats to do its daily work. These men (as always) were highly educated and enjoyed enough leisure time to become part of the enlightened spheres of print and sociability. There was a large print market in Germany, in addition to the salons and Freemasonic lodges that sprang up around the country. This meant practically that the German Enlightenment always included the state’s interests in its public discussions. German theorists considered not how to overthrow the state, but how to improve it, so that it would better serve its people. One example of this is increasing state involvement in education. Enlightened Prussian bureaucrats in particular reformed a school system that would become the envy of the world in the nineteenth century. Thus, in Germany Enlightenment became a conservative force, rather than a subversive or revolutionary one.
We find a similar trend in Austria. Like the Hohenzollern, the Austrian royal family, the Habsburgs, had a long history that extended well into the middle ages. They were part of the southwestern Germany nobility that dominated the medieval Holy Roman Empire. (Perhaps the most famous of all Holy Roman Emperors, Frederick II, Barbarossa, was from Waiblingen, a small town in the southwest.) The Habsburg’s family name derives from Habichtsburg, or Hawk’s castle, which was built in 1020 on the Aar River in modern-day Switzerland, and became the family’s early seat of power. In 1282, a Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor named Rudolf I bestowed the Duchy of Austria and Styria on his two sons Albert and Rudolf. This is the beginning of a family association with Austria that would only end in 1918. You may have noted that the name Habsburg before in your study of Mexican history. Joseph II, whom I will discuss in a moment, was a descendant of the medieval Habsburgs, as were Charles V and Philip II of Spain. Nonetheless, with Charles V the Spanish Habsburgs parted ways with the Austrians, as Charles’s younger brother, Ferdinand, received the Austrian lands from his brother and, later, assumed the title of Holy Roman Emperor. With this split in the Habsburgs, the Spanish line must depart from our story.
Now let us look to the eighteenth century. On October 20, 1740, Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria, died without a legitimate male heir. He had tried to ensure that his kingdom would remain united after his death through something called the Pragmatic Sanction (1713), a document that legitimized the succession of any Habsburg from among his children whether male or female. The individual estates within the Habsburg dominions and other states such as Russia, Spain, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and even Prussia officially accepted this agreement. Thus, Charles’ eldest daughter Maria Theresa became the archduchess of Austria at her father’s death in 1740, even though many of Austria’s lands had no provision for a female ruler. Nonetheless, as you may already have guessed, having a woman with a weak claim to power sitting on the throne of one of Europe’s most powerful monarchies was Frederick II’s cue to make mischief. Using an old Hohenzollern claim to Silesia as a pretext, he invaded the following December, figuring that a weak queen would be unable to muster the strength to stand up to him. He miscalculated, and badly at that. Maria Theresa rose to the challenge and spent the next 25 years trying to wipe Prussia off the map, almost succeeding in the end. We can’t go into the details, but this “weak” queen prosecuted three wars against Prussia, the last one, the Third Silesian War occurring between 1756 and 1763. And she did all of this while bearing 13 children.
(Before we proceed, I need to make a few things clear about this Third Silesian War, since it is called by many names. First, when referring strictly to the Austro-Prussian conflict over Silesia, this war is Third Silesian War. Second, when referring to a broader conflict that included Great Britain and Prussia on one side and France, Russia, and Austria on the other, it is called the Seven Years’ War. Finally, when referring strictly to the conflict between France and Great Britain in North America, it is called the French and Indian War.)
Now back to Austria. Maria Theresa hated Frederick II so intensely that she refused even to call him by name, referring to him only as “that Prussian.” It was, therefore a great disappointment to her that Joseph, her eldest son and heir, was one of Frederick’s biggest fans. Joseph’s education was at fault here. “Enlightened” Austrian ministers tutored Joseph in the latest economic theory, teaching him that a well-organized, rational state was central to Austria’s economic health and, hence, its survival. As a result, Joseph was not impressed by the power of tradition, nor was he particularly religious. Joseph’s mother was, however, a true-believing Catholic bigot, though even she saw the need to reform the Austrian state in view of Frederick II’s successes. Joseph, for his part, admired the image of strength and audacity that Frederick projected. Thus, rather than seeking to eliminate him and his house, Joseph II emulated Frederick’s perceived style of enlightened, vigorous government.
In 1765, Maria Theresa named Joseph co-regent, though she made all the important decisions, even beginning a moderate process of reform. In 1780, at Maria’s death, Joseph became sole ruler and embarked on an ambitious reform program. He balanced the state’s budget, expanded the University of Vienna, instituted a legal reform, ordered the abolition of serfdom, granted freedom of the press, reformed the army, and emancipated Austrian Jews--though Joseph was not completely free of anti-Jewish prejudice. Many of Joseph’s reforms were notably successful, particularly his reform of the army and the state’s finances. And his grants of religious emancipation and freedom of the press made Vienna a vital cultural center. The University of Vienna was, for example, widely admired as a center of medical research, and the local hospital was considered the best in the world.
One area where Joseph failed miserably, however, was in his attempt to reform the Austrian church. In effect, Joseph took control of the church away from Catholic bishops, denying them the right to educate and appoint priests. He dissolved more than 700 monasteries, giving the defrocked monks a pension, and also destroyed many valuable works of religious art. Joseph’s impatience with the church led to widespread resistance across his empire, as many people rejected having changes imposed on their spiritual lives. He also failed in his attempt to eliminate serfdom throughout his empire, since the Austrian state could not project enough power to overcome the local nobility’s fierce opposition to this kind of change. As a result, Austria never became as centralized as Prussia.
At the time of his death in 1792, which came largely from overwork, Joseph was extremely disappointed in the results of his life’s work. Joseph’s younger brother succeeded to the throne under the name Leopold II. Leopold was also an “enlightened” reformer, having reformed the state and economy in the Habsburg possession, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. He revoked many of Joseph’s most onerous religious reforms, but also kept other reforms in state finance and the economy. Leopold had a much more refined sense for the value of public relations and recognized that people could only be pushed so far. Nonetheless, that Leopold kept so many of Joseph’s reforms would be a key ingredient in giving Austria the strength to fight both Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. We’ll talk about the coming of the French Revolution next time.