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Career of Charlemagne, by Guizot, Francois P. G.

Life of Charlemagne

World History Center

Holy Roman Empire, The
Book: Supplementary Chapter: The New German Empire.
Author: Bryce, James
Date: 1901


Page Twenty Three

Part I.

In 1806 the Holy Empire died and was buried and to all appearance soon
forgotten. No outworn shape of the past could have seemed less likely to be
ever recalled to life, for the forces which had so long assailed and at last
destroyed it were stronger than ever, and threatened with extinction even that
feeble shadow which, under the name of the Germanic Confederation, affected in
some sort to represent the unity of the German nation. Fifty years passed
away; new questions arose; Europe ranged itself into new parties; men's minds
began to be swayed by new feelings; time drove fast onwards, and the Holy
Roman Empire seemed left so far behind among the mists of the past, that it
was hard to believe that living men had seen it and borne part in its
government. Then suddenly there arises from these cold ashes a new, vigorous
self-confident German Empire, a State which, although most different, as well
in its inner character as in its form and legal aspect, from its venerable
predecessor, is nevertheless in a very real sense that predecessor's
representative. An account of this new creation of our own days, perhaps the
most striking and fertile epoch in European annals, is therefore a fitting, if
not a necessary, pendant to the history of the elder Empire; it is, in fact,
the latest act of a long drama, which gives a new and happier meaning to all
that has gone before. For not only does the new Empire hold that central and
commanding place among Continental States which the old Empire once filled: it
is, in a moral and intellectual sense, the offspring of the old Empire, and,
but for the preexistence of the other, could never have itself come into
being.

It has been shewn in the earlier chapters of this treatise, how from the
days of the Emperor Henry III, when the Holy Empire reached the maximum of its
power, every succeeding change tended to weaken it morally and politically, to
loosen its cohesion, diminish its material resources, destroy its hold on the
love and faith of its subjects. The first crisis was marked by the death of
Frederick II, when Italy was lost beyond hope of recovery; the second by the
Reformation, and particularly by the Treaty of 1555; the third by the Peace of
Westphalia, when Germany was legally reconstituted as a sort of federation of
mutually suspicious and unfriendly states; the fourth, one may perhaps say, by
the Seven Years' War, when one vigorous member successfully resisted the whole
force of Austria and the other German powers, backed by the armies of France
and Russia. It is easy for us now to see, that as after the first of these
crises the Empire had no longer any chance of making good its claim to be a
world-monarchy, co-extensive with Christianity, so after the second its
prospects as a national State, claiming to unite all Germany under a single
effective administration, were practically hopeless. The Germans, however, as
was natural, did not see this until in 1648 the admission of the substantial
independence of the princes had turned the imperial dignity into a mask under
which the harsh features of the Hapsburg sovereigns tried in vain to conceal
themselves. Over the sentiment of the people its name still retained some
power, for it was associated with all the glories of their earlier history,
with heroic memories enshrined in song, with claims of world-supremacy which
they could not bring themselves to forget. But it was no longer a
rallying-point for national feeling, a centre to which the country looked for
inspiration and guidance. There was indeed but little national feeling in the
Germany of that age, little political hope or ardour, little interest in the
welfare of the State as a whole, for there was nothing to stir men's feelings
as Germans or citizens, no struggles for great common objects against foreign
powers, no free political life at home, no assemblies, no press, no local
self-government. But, even if a national feeling had been awake, it would
hardly have attached itself to the old Empire, which was not only cumbrous and
antiquated, but seemed strange and un-German, just because it was more than
German; and which found the support of Rome now almost as injurious as her
enmity had been in times gone by, since the friendship of Rome meant the
hatred and jealousy of the Protestants. It can hardly be said that the Empire
was so utterly dead but that it might have been vivified by a really great
man, just as such an one might perhaps make the English monarchy a power even
now. But had this come to pass, it would have been because the genius gave
life to the office, not, as of old, because the office inspired its holder.
And it was not so to be. The imperial throne found no man of the first order
to fill it; and continued to stand rather because nobody appeared to overthrow
it, than because any good reason remained for it in the new order of things.

The denationalisation of Germany had indeed gone beyond politics. As
after the establishment of foreign rule in Italy, Italian art and letters had
become frigid and affected, so with that extinction of any free or united
state life in Germany which followed the Thirty Years' War, the blossoms of
literature which had put themselves forth in the age of the Reformation were
nipped and withered away. In Lewis the Fourteenth's time, French influence
became dominant in Germany, no less in poetry and criticism, than in matters
of dress, furniture, and etiquette; and the ambition of German men of letters
was to put off what they were hardly ashamed to call their native barbarism,
and imitate the sparkling elegance of their Western neighbours and enemies.
French was the fashionable language; French ideas and modes of thought were no
less supreme than Greek ideas had been at Rome in the last century of the
Republic; French men of letters and science were imported, as apostles of
enlightenment, by the best of the German princes, just as Germans have in
later times been drawn into Russia by the Czars.

Just when this reign of foreign taste was most undisputed, just when the
political life and national sentiment of Germany seemed bound in a frozen
sleep, a change began; and it began, like so many other great changes, in an
unpromising quarter and an unconscious way.

From the time of the Swabian emperors, the Margrave of Brandenburg was
one of the most considerable princes of the Empire, and by the reign of Rudolf
the First he had become definitely recognised as an Elector with the office of
Archchamberlain ^1. His dominions consisted of the Mark proper, or Old Mark,
to which were added the New and the Middle Mark, a flat, sandy territory of
heaths and woods lying along the Elbe and the Havel, which had been conquered
from the Wends in the days of Henry the Fowler, and gradually filled by a
Teutonic population, together with a more or less vague authority, or claims
of authority, over the Slavic tribes to the north and east. In A.D. 1411 this
territory was delivered over to Frederick, sixth Burggrave of Nurnberg, by the
Emperor Sigismund, whom he had served faithfully, and to whom he had advanced
moneys, which the latter in this way repaid, giving Brandenburg as a sort of
pledge which was not likely to be redeemed: and in 1415 Sigismund formally
conferred the Mark and the Electoral dignity upon Frederick and his heirs,
still, however, reserving (but on the occasion of the formal investiture of
1417 omitting this reservation) the right of redeeming his grant by the
payment of 400,000 Hungarian gold gulden, and retaining to himself and his
male heirs the reversion in the Electorate, expectant on the extinction of
Frederick's line, an event which has not yet happened. This Burggrave
Frederick was the lineal descendant of a certain Conrad of Hohenzollern (first
Burggrave in the days of Frederick Barbarossa), scion of an old Swabian family
whose ancestral castle stands in the high limestone plateau of the Rauhe Alp,
not very far from Hohenstaufen and from Altorf, the original seat of the
Welfs; and this Conrad is the twenty-third lineal ancestor of the present
Emperor William. From the time of Elector Frederick the house of Hohenzollern
held Brandenburg, adding to it by slow degrees various other scattered
territories and claims to territories which for a time could not be made good,
and in particular acquiring, in 1605 and 1618, the district known as East
Prussia, lying along the Baltic beyond the Vistula, as the heirs of Albert the
last Grandmaster of the Teutonic knights ^2. The Hohenzollerns embraced
Protestantism, and after having played (in the person of the Elector George
William) a rather contemptible part in the Thirty Years' War, produced a
really distinguished prince in Frederick the (so-called) Great Elector, who
reigned in the latter half of the seventeenth century. He freed East Prussia
from the supremacy of Poland, consolidated his straggling dominions into a
well-ordered State, and gave to his subjects, by the lustre of his military
successes, a sort of incipient consciousness of national existence.

[Footnote 1: A sketch of the earlier history of Prussia and the house of
Hohenzollern may be found in the first volume of Mr. Carlyle's 'History of
Friedrich the Second.']

[Footnote 2: The Duchy of East Prussia was established by the treaty of Cracow
in 1525, under Polish suzerainty. The Electors of Brandenburg, from the time
of Joachim II onwards, obtained from Poland the co-investiture of it, but did
not get the actual government into their hands till 1605, nor the full legal
dominion till 1618; and the supremacy of Poland remained until released at the
peace of Wehlau in 1657.]

In 1700 his son Frederick, having secured or purchased the approval of
the Emperor Leopold, but not without a furious protest from Pope Clement XI,
whose prophetic spirit dreaded and denounced in Hildebrandine fashion the
admission of a heretic to the most sacred of secular offices, called himself
King of Prussia, taking his title from the above-named Duchy of East Prussia,
and crowning himself at Konigsberg, its ancient capital, on January 18, 1701.
This region formed no part of the Holy Empire, and its original inhabitants,
the Old Prussians ^1, were of course not Germans at all, but a Lithuanian
people, who had remained pagans and barbarians till they were half conquered,
half exterminated by the Teutonic knights in the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries, and their country Germanised by a constant immigration from the
West. It is a curious freak of history, not unlike that which has given the
British name to the Teutonic and Gaelic inhabitants of these islands, that has
transferred the name of this vanishing race to the greatest of modern German
states.

[Footnote 1: So called from their dwelling next to Russia - po Russia.]

This assumption of royalty, the work of a prince who contributed nothing
else to the greatness of his house, was a matter of far greater consequence
than might have at first appeared. At that time no other member of the Empire
(except the Elector of Saxony, who had in 1697 been chosen king of Poland)
wore a crown, and the new dignity was soon felt to have raised its owner into
a different European position; it made him the fellow of the sovereigns of
France, England, Denmark, Sweden, and brought him into what soon became a
rivalry with his titular superior the Emperor. Had Austria been wise, she
would have rejected a bribe far larger than that by which her compliance was
purchased, would even have dispensed with the goodwill of Brandenburg in the
struggle of the Spanish Succession, rather than have yielded to this young
antagonist a moral advantage of such moment. For the time, however, little
change seemed to have been made. Frederick the First was feeble and peaceful:
the eccentric Frederick William I, who followed him, had a dutiful reverence
for his Emperor, and prized his regiment of giants too highly to care to risk
them in war. He was, moreover, thrifty to the verge of parsimony; and his
energy, which was considerable, found scope for its exercise in a careful
oversight of the revenue and civil service of the country which largely
contributed to the successes of his son.

The greatness of the Prussian monarchy begins with Frederick II,
certainly the most considerable man who has succeeded to a throne since
Charles V. The extraordinary military talents by which Europe knows him best,
are a less worthy title to the admiration of posterity, than the ardour he
shewed for good administration, for the prosperity and happiness of his
people. Along with the instinctive desire of a powerful and active mind to
have everything done in the best way, he had a complete superiority to
prejudice and tradition, and a genuine sympathy, not indeed for political
liberty, but for cultivation and enlightenment. It was at bottom this, fully
as much as the glories of his campaigns, that made him, in spite of his cold
heart and scornful manners, a favourite with his own people and an object of
interest, even of pride, throughout Germany. Upon that country the moral
effect of his reign was great. It stirred the national spirit to see a German
prince defend his naturally weak kingdom against the allied might of Austria,
France, and Russia, and come out of the terrible struggle with undaunted
confidence and undiminished territories. While the other states of the Empire
were languishing under a wasteful and old-fashioned misgovernment, Prussia
gave the example of an administration which, while rigidly economical, strove
to develope the resources of the country, of a highly-disciplined army, a
codified law, a reformed system of procedure, a capital to which literary and
scientific celebrities were gathered from all quarters. While Roman
Catholicism and feudalism reigned on the Danube, Frederick made Berlin the
centre of light for North Germany; and in this way effected as much for his
kingdom as he had done by the seizure of wealthy Silesia, giving it a
representative position, a claim on German interest and sympathy which there
had been nothing in its earlier history, or in that of his own house, to
awaken. But in all this it would be a mistake to attribute to the great king
a conception of what it is now the fashion to call 'Prussia's German Mission,'
the conscious foresight of a German patriot anxious to pave the way for the
unity of the nation. There is little in his words or acts to shew such a
feeling; what he planned and cared for was the strength and wellbeing of his
own Prussian State ^1. And when at the end of his life he took a lead in the
politics of the Empire, by forming the League of Princes to oppose the
ambitious designs of Joseph II, his purpose was simply to maintain the status
quo, - that status quo whose impotence was so terribly displayed by the events
of the next twenty years ^2. That League is memorable, not as being in any
sense a project of reform, but as the first instance in which Prussia appears
heading a party among the German States in hostility to Austria: it is the
beginning of that Dualism, as the Germans call it, which at last reached a
point where nothing but a struggle for life and death could decide between the
rival powers.

[Footnote 1: The idea was started during the Seven Years' War of uniting
Germany under Prussian supremacy, deposing Francis I, and getting Frederick
himself chosen Emperor; and his favourite minister Winterfeldt was, in 1757,
sanguine enough to believe this could be effected. (See Schmidt, Preussens
Deutsche Politik, p. 22.) Frederick is said to have, while Crown Prince,
formed the plan of marrying Maria Theresa, whose hatred he afterwards so
justly incurred.]

[Footnote 2: This League, which Frederick modelled to some extent upon the
Smalkaldic of the sixteenth century, answered its purpose by checking Joseph,
and preventing any change in the constitution of the Empire. See upon it Von
Ranke's Die Deutschen Machte und der Furstenbund.]

What glory Prussia had gained under Frederick II she seemed determined to
lose under his two unworthy successors. Nothing, except indeed the behaviour
of the minor German princes, could have been weaker, meaner, more unpatriotic
than her conduct in the struggle with France which began in 1792 ^1. In 1791
she had leagued herself with Austria, but their relations, as might have been
expected, soon ceased to be cordial. Frederick William II began to negotiate
with the French Republic, in the hope of getting something for himself out of
the confusion, and in 1795 concluded with France the separate peace of Basel,
by which a line of demarcation was drawn between North and South Germany, the
former being declared neutral. When in 1806 the Confederation of the Rhine
had been formed under Napoleon's protectorate and the Holy Empire
extinguished, Prussia, which by a convention (February 15, 1806) had obtained
possession of Hanover, part, it need hardly be said, of the dominions of her
late ally, the English King George III, endeavoured to unite the Northern
States in a league, at whose head should stand her king, with the title and
prerogative of Emperor, the Direktorium being composed of him and the
sovereigns of Saxony and Hessen-Cassel. Talleyrand, however, found it easy to
baffle this scheme, on which he had at first pretended to smile (it is
memorable as the first appearance of the conception of a North-German
Confederation); and soon afterwards the defeats of Jena and Auerstadt,
followed by that of Friedland, left Prussia at Napoleon's mercy, if mercy he
had any. By the Peace of Tilsit she submitted, losing her lands west of the
Elbe, and in all more than half of her territories, recognising the
Confederation of the Rhine, and abandoning all claim to interfere in German
politics. Meanwhile Saxony, the newly-created kingdom of Westphalia, and all
the other purely German members of the old Empire, joined the Rhenish
Confederation, that is to say, enrolled themselves the vassals of the Parisian
crown. French domination was offensive everywhere, but nowhere so offensive
as in Prussia, the feebleness of whose Court seems to have emboldened Napoleon
to treat her with an insolent scorn he never thought of shewing to the more
consistent, though not more patriotic Hapsburgs. Hence, too, when the
uprising came, and the swelling wave of popular enthusiasm tossed back the
French beyond the Elbe, the Weser, the Rhine itself, it was the much-suffering
Prussian people that was foremost in the fight; it was northern heroes of the
sword and pen that drew the admiration and gratitude of a liberated
Fatherland; while the French, who had been wont to treat the North Germans
with a strangely misplaced contempt, felt for them, after the campaigns of
Leipzig and Waterloo, a hatred scarcely less bitter than that they bore to
England herself.

[Footnote 1: See for the whole history of this period Von Sybel's Geschichte
der Revolutionszeit.]

This great deliverance was far more the work of the people than of King
or Court; but as was natural, it induced a burst of loyalty which strengthened
and glorified the Prussian monarchy in the eyes of Germany, and gave it a
great opportunity of placing itself at the head of the nation. For the
national feeling which had smouldered for two centuries or more, had now risen
into a strong and brilliant flame; and it was on Prussia, far more than on any
other state, that its light was shed. Austria's merits as well as her vices
do not permit her to be popular; Bavaria and Wurtemberg had been aggrandized
by Napoleon; Saxony had adhered to him throughout; Prussia had endured most
and triumphed most signally. Now would have been the time for her to answer
to the great cry that went up for freedom and unity, to secure by firm action
the rights of the people in a consolidated German state.

But, as often happens, the hour came without the man. Frederick William
III was well intentioned indeed, but feeble and narrow-minded; and his Court
had not yet recovered from its horror at the principles of 1789 and the acts
of 1793. As the want of representative institutions and the habit of
combination for political purposes gave the desire for unity no means of
expressing itself practically, it remained an aspiration, a sentiment nothing
more. Thus, when the Congress of Vienna met to reconstitute Europe and
Germany, the princes were masters of the situation; and they used their
advantage with characteristic selfishness. The proclamation of Kalisch issued
by the sovereigns of Prussia and Russia, when they leagued themselves against
Napoleon (March 25th, 1813), announced the object of the two powers to be 'to
aid the German peoples in recovering freedom and independence, and to afford
to them effective protection and defence in re-establishing a venerable
Empire.' The reconstitution of the country, it was added, was to be effected
solely by the united action of the princes and peoples, and was to proceed
'from the ancient and native spirit of the German nation; that Germany, the
more perfectly this work was executed in its principles and compass, might so
much the more appear again among the peoples of Europe in renovated youth,
strength, and unity.' But at the Congress nothing was heard, and indeed
nothing would have been listened to, of the kind ^1. When it opened,
Hardenberg the Prussian minister presented a scheme which, although it
recognized in the princes an independence in some respects considerable, and
already conceded to them by the treaties securing their adhesion against
France, proposed to treat Germany as being for many purposes a united state,
under institutions whose tendency would have been to make her less and less of
a mere league. Austria however, under the chilling influence of Metternich,
himself perhaps prompted by the darker spirit of Frederick von Gentz, received
these proposals with dull disfavour; the minor potentates, headed by Bavaria
and Wurtemburg, entered energetic protests against anything which could
infringe on their sovereignty; protests so sweeping that even Austria was
obliged to remind them that under the old Empire certain rights were assured
to German subjects, while the envoy of Hanover exclaimed against the
'Sultanism' of these members of the late Confederation of the Rhine. At last,
after a long period of confusion and uncertainty, in which projects for the
restoration of the 'ancient venerable Empire' were frequently put forward, and
supported among others by Stein, a counter-scheme, propounded by Metternich,
was moulded into the Act of Foundation of the Germanic Confederation. The
work was hastily done, under the pressure of alarm at Napoleon's return from
Elba, and professed to be only an outline, to be subsequently improved and
filled in. The diplomatists were exhausted by a long course of bickerings and
intrigues upon this and other questions; many were dissatisfied, but every one
saw that his opponent's power of hindering was greater than his own power of
forcing a proposition through; and as it was clear something must be done,
people brought themselves to a sort of acquiescence, which though it professed
to be only temporary, could not easily be recalled, and of course made it
harder to reopen the discussion. So this proposed completion, as was natural
in a matter of so much delicacy and difficulty, never took place; and the
revised draft of the Act of Confederation, adopted on June 10th, 1815, a week
before Waterloo, was in all its main features the constitution which lasted
down till 1866. Prussia yielded with unaccountable readiness - unaccountable
except on the hypothesis that her ministers, Hardenberg and William von
Humboldt, despaired at such a time and among such people of effecting anything
satisfactory - the points on which she had at first insisted; and made little
further objection to the carrying out of Metternich's views. Her king was a
faithful member of the Holy Alliance: her government adhered to the principles
associated with that compact, and was content in internal questions to follow
humbly in the wake of Austria. While the reaction was triumphing in the rest
of Europe, Particularism ^2 triumphed at Vienna, and the interests of the
German people were forgotten or ignored.

[Footnote 1: For the Congress of Vienna students may refer to L. Hausser's
Deutsche Geschichte; for the subsequent history of the Confederation to H.
Schulze, Einleitung in das deutsche Staatsrecht, and K. Klupfel, Die deutschen
Einheitsbestrebungen seit 1815.]

[Footnote 2: Particularismus is the convenient name which the Germans have
given to the policy, feeling, or system which maintains the independence of
the several local potentates, who were or are members of the Germanic body.]