Thursday, December 02, 2004

Stein and the Rhine

Bismarck has so overshadowed history that other people who helped mobilize popular support for nationalism are largely written out of German memories. Unification was not simply the result of 'three wars', but a longer process that began with the Napoleonic Wars. Before Dawn's post about reforms in Prussia reminded me how Karl Freiherr vom und zum Stein (also here) encouraged the political passions of Germans throughout the Reich and encouraged them to see Prussia as a potential nationalizing force. In several conversations that I have had with Germans, Stein does not fit into historical memory as anything other than a reformer. And yet his reforms encouraged popular participation in the project of nationalism itself. In particular, Stein's ideas influence Rhenish liberals to think about building institutions (like provincial parliaments and administrations) that would allow them to become fuller partners in the nationalizing of the German Reich--and that Prussia would help them to do it. Simply, it is hard to dissociate Stein's ideas from the nationalization of the Rhineland.

Stein bounced around several ministries in the 1800s and 10s, occupying the prestigious foreign ministry at times, finance at others. He, like Hardenberg, worked on the problem of reforming the state in order to better confront the threat of French nationalism. Stein's reputation rests on three reforms. The most obvious measure was the abolition of serfdom in 1807. Stein hoped that peasants would become loyal to the state if their feudal burdens were lifted. Thereby Prussia gained a source of men that would help it create a mass army to fight against France as well as direct the political activities of the nobility more toward state administration and military affairs. (These measures corresponded to reforms undertaken of the Prussian army). The abolition of serfdom had little effect in the Rhine where peasants were already free because fedual institutions had atrophied.

In 1808 he introduced a municipal code (Staedteverordnung) that offered self-administration (Selbstverwaltung) to the cities and communes. On the one hand, Stein regarded this as a practical measure that would help the state perfect its own administration because it would force the communities in the east (especially in East Prussia, modern Poland) to develop local governments rather than to continue on services from the Junkers.

But self-administration meant something else as Prussia expanded westward into the Rhine as a result of the war and the Congress of Vienna. Selbstverwaltung was interpreted as a promise that Prussia would not interfere in local affairs; rather the state would facilitate modernization and would allow local politics to flourish beyond the narrow confines of the city walls. In the Rhenish cities like Cologne, it meant that they would be able to pursue grander schemes that were prohibited them by the empire; most notably, the elites of Cologne wanted to pursue international trade, and consequently (and somewhat comically), their own foreign policy. Selbstverwaltung also came to mean decentralization: the state would allow subsidiary powers to administer policy, and the growth of the state would be limited.

Stein's third reform, one which was not implemented but was more influential, was the creation of representative assemblies. King Friedrich Wilhelm and the Junkers roundly rejected this measure. But the idea influenced liberals in the French occupied Rhine to take an interest in creating states within the Reich that had their own popularly elected parliaments and that worked with a popularly elected national parliament. Napoleon had established French departments in the Rhine: each had an advisory council. The men who served in the councils, mostly businessmen, were satisfied in becoming involved in administrative affairs, but they also became hungry for political involvement as well. They wanted to become legislators as well as administrators.

When Prussia took full control of the Rhineland as the result of the Congress of Vienna, Friedrich Wilhelm declared that he would create a Rhenish assembly. This was a popular measure in the Rhineland. The citizens felt that they would not be ruled in the Prussian manner. They were further encouraged by the appointment (1815) of Sack as governor of the province Juelich-Berg-Kleve (an area between Berg on the right Rhine to Aachen), who was a critic of Prussian militarism and a supporter of Stein's reforms.

Because of the reforms, Prussia appeared as the liberator rather than the conqueror, and the Rhenish cities were willing to throw their lot in with Berlin. At least in the short term: Friedrich Wilhelm III considered Stein's reforms to be a nuisance. Subsequent governments tried to work their way around the laws of self-administration. Furthermore, the provincial parliament was an empty promise: the provincial diet was merely a place for the representatives of the four estates to get together and talk politics; it had no ability to affect or administer policy, no ability to pass legislation.

In the end the reforms had two edges. They convinced Germans that they had something to gain from associating with Prussia, either as part of the state itself or as part of the emerging German nation. However, the reforms also suggested the political terms in which the nation would form, terms that Prussian Junkers would reject. Rhenish liberals pursued self-administration and parliament for decades. They conditioned their support for Prussia on these two items. In essence, their nationalism took on a regional dimension. At the Frankfurt Assembly in 1848-1849, the liberals made the lack of self-administration and the lack of provincial parliaments as a major critique of Prussian leadership of Germany.


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