Confessions of Frederick the Great - H. Treitschke

Frederick as a Reformer

As a reformer, Frederick was effective only in those spheres of the inner affairs of the State which his predecessor had not understood. He created the new Prussian Bench of Judges, as his father formed the modern German Bureaucracy. He knew that the administration of justice is a political function, which is inseparably connected with the State; he made all his dominions independent of the Imperial High Court of Justice, forbade the introduction of the interpretations of the Faculty of Jurists, created a Ministry of Justice in addition to the General Direktorium, gave the entire administration of justice into the hands of a hierarchically organized State Bureaucracy, which itself educated its rising generation, and took under strict superintendence that private (or independent) jurisdiction which still continued to exist in some minor departments.

The absolute independence of the courts of justice in relation to the Administration was solemnly promised, and kept inviolably, with the exception of a few cases of well-meaning despotic high-handed justice. The new Bench preserved in a modest domestic position an honorable class-feeling, and while the Imperial courts were full of corruption, the proud saying was coined in Prussia, and that against the King: Il y a des juges a, Berlin. The desire often obtruded itself upon the friend of Enlightenment, to whom the State was the work of the conscious human will, that not an inherited and traditional law but a law founded on experience, such as was generally desired, must reign in the State; all his life Frederick cherished the idea of carrying out the first comprehensive codification of the law which had been attempted since the time of Justinian.

Only after his death did the Allgemeine Landrecht [common law of the period] come in force, which shows more clearly than any other work of the epoch the double-sidedness of the Frederician conception of the State. On the one side, the code preserved the traditional social distinctions so carefully that the entire legal system had to accommodate itself to the class organization, and even—against the common law—the nobility were granted special marriage laws, and on the other it carried the idea of the sovereignty of the State to its logical conclusion with such daring, that many a passage anticipated the ideas of the French Revolution, which made Mirabeau say that with these ideas Prussia hurried on a century ahead of the rest of Europe.

The aim of the State is the general well-being, and only for the sake of this end may the State limit the natural freedom of the citizens—and repeal any existing privilege. The King is only the head of the State, and has duties and rights only as such—and this in the days when Biener and other renowned lawyers were fighting for the privileges and rights of the German princes to their land and serfs as an incontestable legal maxim in the face of the whole country. The supreme power, exempt from the sphere of the civil law, interfered, ruling and advising, in all private affairs, and dictated moral duties to parents and children, landowners and servants; they ventured through their all-embracing legislative wisdom to settle every possible lawsuit of the future at the outset.

With this code the old absolutism said its last word: it surrounded its power with fixed barriers, raised the commonwealth to a constitutional State; and at the same time it unsuspectingly entered upon the path which must lead to a new juridical union of the German people, in that it destroyed the validity of the Roman law. The mechanical conception of the State of the Frederician period was soon afterwards replaced by a deeply penetrating philosophy, the incomplete jurist training of Carmer and Suarez by the work of historical jurisprudence; but the Allgemeine Landrecht nevertheless remained for some decades the firm foundation from which sprang all further reforms of the Prussian State.

The belief in the authority of the law, a preliminary condition of all political freedom, became a living power in the bureaucracy as well as among the people. If the State existed for the general welfare, an irresistible necessity, of which Frederick suspected nothing, led to the desire for the removal of the privileges of the upper classes and the participation of the nation in the government of the State. And sooner or later these conclusions had to be drawn, since already now only the genius and strength of a great man could deal with the difficult problems which this enlarged kingdom presented.

Frederick did not promote the spiritual life of his people to nearly the same extent. We know from Goethe's confessions how fruitfully and in the interests of freedom the heroism of the seven years operated on the German civilization: how in those years of military glory a new import, an increasing sense of vitality, asserted itself in the exhausted literature, how the impoverished language, which had long sought to express mighty sentiments, now at last struggled up out of the insipidity and emptiness and found great words for great emotions: really, the first German comedy, Minna von Barnhelm, was created beneath the beating of the drums of the Prussian camp. The Prussian people took a rich share in the wonderful awakening of the spirit, and presented the literary movement with several of its pioneers, from Winckelmann down to Hamann and Herder. And wholly filled with the Prussian spirit was that new maturer form of German Protestantism which at last emerged victoriously out of the philosophical disputes of this "effervescing period" and became a common property of the North-German peoples: the ethics of Kant. The categorical imperative of Kant could only be imagined on this ground of Evangelical freedom and faithful self-sacrificing work. Where before rough commands extorted silent submission, now every free judgment was challenged, through the example of the King, who relied fearlessly on the strength of the enquiring mind and gladly confessed: who grumbles the most, goes farthest.

Frederick carried on the old Prussian policy of Christian toleration liberally, and he proclaimed in his code the principle: "The people's conceptions of God and godly things cannot be the subject of a coercive law." Nor did the Free-thinker give up the attempts at union of his ancestors, but strongly maintained that the two Evangelical Churches should not refuse each other the Holy Communion in case of necessity. The supreme ecclesiastical authority of the throne, which he claimed, ensured him against political intrigues on behalf of the clergy, and even allowed him to tolerate in his State the Society of Jesus, suspended by the Pope.

He accorded the Press an almost unlimited freedom, since "newspapers, in order to be interesting, must not be interfered with." He defined all schools as "organizations of the State," and spoke readily and spiritedly of the State's duty to bring up the younger generation to independent thought and a sacrificing love of the Fatherland. He constantly extolled the illustriousness of learning and poetry as the greatest ornament of the kingdom: he showed himself a German and a prince of peace in that he regarded the classics, and not the exact sciences, like the soldier Napoleon, as the spring of all higher education. Nevertheless, the King accomplished very little for the promotion of national education directly.

The scarcity of money, the lack of competent board-school teachers, and the unceasing struggles now with foreign enemies, now with the economic question at home, rendered the carrying out of his plans more difficult; and in the end the dry utilitarianism of the father always broke out again in the son. This economical Prince would provide means for anything rather than for the purposes of instruction.

When the Germans in the Empire sneered that this Prussia had starved itself into greatness, they thought chiefly of the Prussian teachers and scholars. Only what was absolutely necessary was done for the national schools; the repeatedly enjoined discipline of compulsory general attendance at school remained a dead letter for wide stretches of the country. None of the Prussian Universities attained the fame of the new Georgia Augusta. [The University at Gottingen, named after its founder.] Only towards the end of the Frederician period, when Zedlitz, the friend of Kant, took over the direction of the educational organizations, did a somewhat freer impulse enter into the public instruction. At that time the worthy Abbot Felbiger reformed the Catholic national schools, and found enthusiastic supporters in the Empire, so that in the end Catholic Germany participated in the greatest blessing of the Reformation.

It seemed an easy thing to gather in Berlin a brilliant circle of the best intellects of Germany for pregnant activity. Every young genius in the Empire angled for the eye of the national hero. Even Winckelmann, who had once fled from the country in hot hatred, now experienced with what strong bands this State fettered the hearts of its sons. "For the first time," he wrote, "the voice of the Fatherland makes itself heard within me, which was unknown to me before." He burned with an eager desire to show the Aristotle of military art that a born subject could achieve something worthy, and negotiated for years for an appointment in Berlin.

But in Frederick's French academy there was no place for German thinkers. The Medicean days, which one had once awaited from the inspired Prince of the Rheinsberger Parnassus, only came for the foreign intellects at the table of Sans Souci; the pupil of French culture would not and could not understand the young unruly life which stirred in the depths of his own people. While the Berliner company intoxicated themselves to over-refinement with the idea of the new literature, and jeering skepticism and refined epicureanism were almost crowding out the old strict moral simplicity, the Prussian administration maintained their one-sided utilitarian bias which only troubled itself about everyday matters. That intolerably stiff, home-baked, prosaic spirit which was instilled into the State of the old Soldier-King was somewhat humanized by Frederick but not broken; only the baroque glory of the New Palace and the mighty cupolas of the Gensdarmenkirche [I cannot find out about this anywhere, but there is the Gensdarmenmarkt, with the French Church and the New Church, because Frederick was fond of French things. But in Baedeker, it does not say anything about the change of name, though it does say that the two churches with the theatre form the finest group of buildings in Berlin. In an 1893 Baedeker, it says that they are of the last century, which would make it about the time.—L. S.] made it possible to recognize that at least the barbaric culture-hatred of the thirties had begun gradually to give way.

But still the Prussian State represented only the one half of our national life; the delicacy and the yearning, the profoundness and the enthusiasm of the German character, could not obtain just recognition in this prosaic world. The center-point of the German policy was not the home of the intellectual work of the nation; the classical period of our poetry found its scene of action in the minor States.

In this momentous fact lies the key to many puzzles of modern German history. To the coolly averted attitude of King Frederick our Literature owes the most precious thing it possesses—its unequalled freedom; but this indifference of the Crown of Prussia during the days which decided the character of modern German culture was to blame for the fact that it was for a long time difficult for the heroes of German thought to understand the one vital State in Germany. After Frederick's death two full decades elapsed before Prussia gave hospitable reception to the intellectual powers of the new Germany; and then more long decades passed before German learning recognized that it was of one blood with the Prussian State, that the State-organizing power of our people had its root in the same strong idealism which inspired the German intellectual curiosity and artistic industry to bold daring.

Frederick's coldness towards German culture is perhaps the saddest, the most unnatural phenomenon in the long history of the suffering of modern Germany. The first man of the nation, who awakened again in the Germans the courage to believe in themselves, was quite a stranger to the noblest and most characteristic works of his people; it cannot be expressed too clearly and strongly, how slowly and with what difficulty this people threw off the hard inheritance of the thirty years, the spiritual supremacy of the foreigner.

Frederick was not, like Henry IV of France, a faithful representative of the national vices and virtues, intelligible to the national disposition in every undulation of his mood. Two natures struggled within him: the philosophical scholar, who reveled in the sound of music, in the melody of French verse, who considered poetical fame the greatest happiness on earth, who cried to his Voltaire in honest admiration: "Destiny bestowed on me the empty show of rank, on you every talent; the better portion is yours"—and the robust North-German man, who stormed at his Brandenburgers with rough Brandenburg Jod, a model of martial courage, restless energy, and iron severity, for the stern, austere people.