FC107: Prussian Reforms in the Napoleonic Era and Their Impact


FC107 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1839.

Prussia provides possibly the best example of how Napoleon's success inspired other countries to copy many of his reforms in order to break free of French rule.  Napoleon was especially severe with Prussia joining his enemies in 1806, taking nearly half of its lands while exacting an indemnity equal to 140% of its annual government revenue before it had lost those lands.  In addition its army was limited to 42,000 men.  This humiliating settlement brought home to Prussia's rulers the need to copy the reforms that had obviously given France so much dynamic power and vitality during the revolutionary period.  These reforms came in two ways: those imposed by the government from above in order to prevent the need for revolution from below, and those suggested by intellectuals, notably Johannes Fichte, in regard to education.

There were three main parts to the reforms imposed by the government.  The most sweeping of these was the Edict of Emancipation in 1807, which ended serfdom, feudal privileges, and all class distinctions.  Even Jews were given full civil rights by this document, a rarity in Europe at that time.  Along with this came a land reform in 1811 that gave the peasants two-thirds of the land they had worked for the nobles while leaving those nobles the other third of land in compensation for their loss.  Finally, there were major military reforms, such as promotion by merit and banning foreign recruits, which hopefully would instill some of the same high morale and efficiency into the Prussian army that had made the French army so effective in recent years.

Later in the century, Otto von Bismarck would unify Germany under Prussian rule and institute similar social reforms in order to remove any need for revolution.  In each case, there were few political reforms giving the German people any real power in their government.  However, these two waves of reforms in the 1800's would make Germans more willing to accept without question the policies of a government they saw as benevolent and ruling in their interests.  This would influence many ideas on the modern welfare state, but also, along with the educational reforms discussed below, make the German people prone to fall victim of political groups posing as their benefactors while just using this facade to get power for their own purposes.

The major figure in Prussia' educational reforms was Johannes Fichte.  In his "Addresses to the German Nation", he tackled two issues: creating a German national spirit and instilling it into the German people.  First of all, Fichte blamed Prussia's and the German people's recent humiliations on a lack of national spirit, which gave, rise to moral failure and complacency. From the English philosopher, Edmund Burke, he borrowed the idea that the nation is the only enduring thing on earth, and thus the living expression of divine immortality.  However, while France and England had strong national traditions and institutions to bind them together, the German people had virtually none and thus must find or create them.  For Fichte, the best candidates for such German traditions were the Germanic tribes that had conquered the Roman Empire.  It was here that one would find the simple and noble virtues that had made those people great and would make Germans great once again.  He also saw the Holy Roman Empire, the so-called First Reich, as a unifying institution that Germans could look back to for inspiration.

As far as instilling these traditions in the German people, Fichte saw the public schools as the place where this could be done.  While Prussian schools had been and remained places for technical education, this new agenda of instilling nationalist spirit into its children also became an essential element in public education for many modern nations in addition to Prussia and later Germany.

Just as the government's social reforms made the German people somewhat complacent about their rulers, these nationalist ideas had a similar effect on Germany's intellectuals.  Fichte's educational proposals would translate intellectual ideas into action on a national scale and give the intellectual community a major role in implementing these reforms.  However, it also made the intellectuals a part of and subordinate to a system that valued action over contemplation.  This put pressure on them to affirm government policies with absolute conviction rather than questioning them in the spirit of skepticism needed to keep an intellectual climate fresh and vibrant.  Therefore, the intellectuals, along with the German people in general, were prone to falling under the sway of people who would use their power for less then benevolent purposes.  The most notable example of this was the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, which led to World War II.  Ironically, Fichte, who proposed many of the reforms that would eventually lead to this disaster, was himself an idealistic liberal, the sort of person that Hitler would work so hard to eradicate.