13 March 2012

Prussia: a ‘kingdom of shreds and patches’

From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007), Kindle Loc. 8097-8136 (pp. 428ff):
Prussia was therefore less juridically homogeneous in 1840 than it had been in 1813. It is worth emphasizing this fragmentation, because Prussia has often been perceived as the very model of a centralized state. Yet the thrust of the Stein municipal reforms had been precisely to devolve power upon what became a widely admired system of urban self-government. Even the more conservative Revised Municipal Law introduced in Westphalia in 1831 provided the towns with more autonomy than they had enjoyed under the Napoleonic system. Throughout the post-war era, the organs of the central state adopted a deferential attitude to the grandees of the Prussian provinces, and the provincial elites remained strongly aware of their distinctive identities, especially in the peripheral areas of east and west. This tendency was amplified by the fact that whereas each province had its own diet, the kingdom as such had none. One effect of the constitutional settlement of 1823 was thus to magnify the significance of the provinces at the expense of the Prussian commonwealth. East Prussia was not ‘merely a province’, one visitor to Königsberg was told in 1851, but a Land in its own right. Prussia was in this sense a quasi-federal system.

A devolved, pragmatic approach to government went hand in hand with an implicit acceptance of cultural diversity. Early nineteenth-century Prussia was a linguistic and cultural patchwork. The Poles of West Prussia, Posen and Silesia accounted for the largest linguistic minority; in the southern districts of East Prussia, the Masurians spoke various agrarian dialects of Polish; the Kashubians of the Danzig hinterland spoke another. Until the mid nineteenth century, the Dutch language was still widely used in the schools of the former Duchy of Kleve. In the Walloon districts of Eupen-Malmédy – a small east-Belgian territory that was transferred to Prussia in 1815 – French remained the language of schools, courts and administration until 1876. The ‘Philipponen’, communities of Old Believers who settled in Masuria as refugees from Russia in 1828–32, spoke Russian – traces of their distinctive wooden churches can still be seen in the area today. There were communities of Czechs in Upper Silesia, Sorbs in the Cottbus district, and speakers of the ancient Slavic dialect of the Wends scattered across villages in the Spreewald near Berlin. Eking out an existence on the long spit of Baltic coastal land known as the Kurische Nehrung were the Kuren, inhabitants of one of the barest and most melancholy landscapes of northern Europe. These hardy fishermen spoke a dialect of Latvian and were known for supplementing their monotonous diet with the flesh of crows they caught and killed with a bite to the head. Some areas, such as the district of Gumbinnen in East Prussia, were trilingual, with substantial communities of Masurian, Lithuanian and German speakers living in close proximity.

Prussian policy in the eastern provinces had traditionally been to treat these settlements as ‘colonies’ with their own distinctive cultures; indeed, the Prussian administration helped to consolidate provincial vernaculars by supporting them as the vehicle of religious instruction and elementary education. Protestant clerical networks were also important. They disseminated hymn books, Bibles and tracts in a range of local languages and offered bi-lingual services in minority language areas. The first Lithuanian-language periodical in the kingdom, Nusidavimai, was a missionary journal edited by a German-speaking pastor working among the Lithuanians. German-speaking Prussians, such as the statesman and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt and the Königsberg theology professor Martin Ludwig Rhesa, played a crucial role in establishing Lithuanian and its folk heritage as an object of wider cultural interest. Not until 1876 did a general law define German as the official language of all parts of Prussia.

Prussia thus remained, in the words of a Scottish traveller who toured the Hohenzollern provinces in the 1840s, a ‘kingdom of shreds and patches’. Prussia, Samuel Laing observed, ‘has, in ordinary parlance, only a geographical or political meaning, denoting the Prussian government, or the provinces it governs – not a moral or social meaning. The Prussian nation is a combination of words rarely heard, of ideas never made […]’ Laing’s comment, though hostile, was insightful. What exactly did it mean to be ‘Prussian’? The Prussia of the restoration era was not a ‘nation’ in the sense of a people defined and bound together by a common ethnicity. There was not, and never had been, a Prussian cuisine. Nor was there a specifically Prussian folklore, language, dialect, music or form of dress (leaving aside the uniforms of the military). Prussia was not a nation in the sense of a community sharing a common history. Moreover, ‘Prussianness’ had somehow to define itself on grounds that had not already been occupied by the powerful competing ideology of German nationalism. The result was a curiously abstract and fragmented sense of identity.

Prussian Progressivism: Hegel to Marx

From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007),
Kindle Locs. 8160-96, 8229-40 (pp. 431-434):
The one institution that all Prussians had in common was the state. It is no coincidence that this period witnessed an unprecedented discursive escalation around the idea of the state. Its majesty resonated more compellingly than ever before, at least within the milieu of academia and senior officialdom. No individual did more to promulgate the dignity of the Prussian state after 1815 than Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the Swabian philosopher who took up Fichte’s vacant chair at the new University of Berlin in 1818. The state, Hegel argued, was an organism possessing will, rationality and purpose. Its destiny – like that of any living thing – was to change, grow and progressively develop. The state was ‘the power of reason actualising itself as will’; it was a transcendent domain in which the alienated, competitive ‘particular interests’ of civil society merged into coherence and identity. There was a theological core to Hegel’s reflections on the state: the state had a quasi-divine purpose; it was ‘God’s march through the world’; in Hegel’s hands it became the quasi-divine apparatus by which the multitude of subjects who constituted civil society was redeemed into universality.

In adopting this approach, Hegel broke with the view prevalent among Prussian political theorists since Pufendorf and Wolff that the state was no more than a machine engineered to meet the external and internal security needs of the society that fashioned it. Hegel vehemently rejected the metaphorical machine-state favoured by theorists of the high enlightenment, on the grounds that it treated ‘free human beings’ as if they were mere cogs in its mechanism. The Hegelian state was not an imposed construct, but the highest expression of the ethical substance of a people, the unfolding of a transcendent and rational order, the ‘actualization of freedom’. From this it followed that the relationship between civil society and the state was not antagonistic, but reciprocal. It was the state that enabled civil society to order itself in a rational way, and the vitality of the state depended in turn upon each of the particular interests that constituted civil society being ‘active in its particular function – equipping itself for its particular sphere and thereby promoting the universal’.

Hegel’s was not a liberal vision – he was not a champion of unitary national legislatures, having seen what they were capable of in Jacobin France. But the progressive orientation of his vision was undeniable. For all his misgivings about the Jacobin experiment, Hegel celebrated the French Revolution as a ‘splendid dawn’ that had been greeted with joy by ‘all thinking people’. Hegel’s Berlin students were told that the Revolution represented an ‘irreversible achievement of the world spirit’ whose consequences were still unfolding. The centrality of reason and a sense of forward momentum suffuse his reflections on the state at every point. There was no place in the Hegelian polity for privileged castes and private jurisdictions. And by elevating the state above the plane of partisan strife, Hegel brought into view the exhilarating possibility that progress – in the sense of a beneficent rationalization of the political and social order – might simply be a property of the unfolding of history, as embodied in the Prussian state.

It is difficult, from a present-day standpoint, to appreciate the intoxicating effect of Hegel’s thought on a generation of educated Prussians. It was not a question of Hegel’s pedagogical charisma – he was notorious for standing hunched over the lectern reading out his text in a halting and scarcely audible mumble. According to an account by his student Hotho, who attended Hegel’s lectures at the University of Berlin, ‘his features hung pale and loose upon him as if he were already dead.’‘He sat there morosely with his head wearily bowed down in front of him, constantly leafing back and forth through his compendious notes, even as he continued to speak.’ Another student, the future Hegel-biographer Karl Rosenkranz, recalled laborious paragraphs punctuated by constant coughing and snuff-taking.

It was the ideas themselves and the peculiar language Hegel invented to articulate them that colonized the minds of disciples across the kingdom. Part of the explanation lies in the context. Hegel’s appointment was the work of the sometime Hardenberg protégé, enlightened reformer and Minister of Education Karl von Altenstein. The philosopher’s writings provided an exalted legitimation for the Prussian bureaucracy, whose expanding power within the executive during the reform era demanded justification.


Throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the ‘Prussian school’ of history would remain overwhelmingly focused on the state as the vehicle and agent of historical change.

After the philosopher’s death during the cholera epidemic of 1831, Hegelianism disintegrated into warring schools and passed through swift ideological mutations. Among the raucous ‘Young Hegelians’ who coalesced in Berlin in the late 1830s was the youthful Karl Marx, a new Prussian from the Rhineland and the son of a Jewish convert to Christianity, who had moved to Berlin in 1836 to continue his studies in jurisprudence and political economy. For Marx, the first true encounter with Hegel’s thought was a revelatory shock akin to a religious conversion. ‘For some days’, he told his father in November 1837, his excitement made him ‘quite incapable of thinking’; he ‘ran about madly in the garden by the dirty water of the Spree’, even joined his landlord on a hunting excursion, and found himself overpowered by the desire to embrace every street corner loafer in Berlin. Marx would later reject Hegel’s understanding of the state bureaucracy as the ‘general estate’, but it stayed with him none the less. For what else was Marx’s idealization of the proletariat as the ‘pure embodiment of the general interest’ than the materialist inversion of the Hegelian concept? Marxism, too, was made in Prussia.

The Financial Ascent of the Dutch VOC

From: The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2008), Kindle Loc. 1780-1831:
The campaign for a reform of what would now be called the VOC’s corporate governance duly bore fruit. In December 1622, when the Company’s charter was renewed, it was substantially modified. Directors would no longer be appointed for life but could serve for only three years at a time. The ‘chief participants’ (shareholders with as much equity as directors) were henceforth entitled to nominate ‘Nine Men’ from among themselves, whom the Seventeen Lords were obliged to consult on ‘great and important matters’, and who would be entitled to oversee the annual accounting of the six chambers and to nominate, jointly with the Seventeen Lords, future candidates for directorships. In addition, in March 1623, it was agreed that the Nine Men would be entitled to attend (but not to vote at) the meetings of the Seventeen Lords and to scrutinize the annual purchasing accounts. The chief participants were also empowered to appoint auditors (rekening-opnemers) to check the accounts submitted to the States-General. Shareholders were further mollified by the decision, in 1632, to set a standard 12.5 per cent dividend, twice the rate at which the Company was able to borrow money. The result of this policy was that virtually all of the Company’s net profits thereafter were distributed to the shareholders. Shareholders were also effectively guaranteed against dilution of their equity. Amazingly, the capital base remained essentially unchanged throughout the VOC’s existence. When capital expenditures were called for, the VOC raised money not by issuing new shares but by issuing debt in the form of bonds. Indeed, so good was the Company’s credit by the 1670s that it was able to act as an intermediary for a two-million-guilder loan by the States of Holland and Zeeland.

None of these arrangements would have been sustainable, of course, if the VOC had not become profitable in the mid seventeenth century. This was in substantial measure the achievement of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a bellicose young man who had no illusions about the relationship between commerce and coercion. As Coen himself put it: ‘We cannot make war without trade, nor trade without war.’ He was ruthless in his treatment of competitors, executing British East India Company officials at Amboyna and effectively wiping out the indigenous Bandanese. A natural-born empire builder, Coen seized control of the small Javanese port of Jakarta in May 1619, renamed it Batavia and, aged just 30, duly became the first governor-general of the Dutch East Indies. He and his successor, Antonie van Diemen, systematically expanded Dutch power in the region, driving the British from the Banda Islands, the Spaniards from Ternate and Tidore, and the Portuguese from Malacca. By 1657 the Dutch controlled most of Ceylon (Sri Lanka); the following decade saw further expansion along the Malabar coast on the subcontinent and into the island of Celebes (Sulawesi). There were also thriving Dutch bases on the Coromandel coast. Fire-power and foreign trade sailed side by side on ships like the Batavia - a splendid replica of which can be seen today at Lelystad on the coast of Holland.

The commercial payoffs of this aggressive strategy were substantial. By the 1650s, the VOC had established an effective and highly lucrative monopoly on the export of cloves, mace and nutmeg (the production of pepper was too widely dispersed for it to be monopolized) and was becoming a major conduit for Indian textile exports from Coromandel. It was also acting as a hub for intra-Asian trade, exchanging Japanese silver and copper for Indian textiles and Chinese gold and silk. In turn, Indian textiles could be traded for pepper and spices from the Pacific islands, which could be used to purchase precious metals from the Middle East. Later, the Company provided financial services to other Europeans in Asia, not least Robert Clive, who transferred a large part of the fortune he had made from conquering Bengal back to London via Batavia and Amsterdam. As the world’s first big corporation, the VOC was able to combine economies of scale with reduced transaction costs and what economists call network externalities, the benefit of pooling information between multiple employees and agents. As was true of the English East India Company, the VOC’s biggest challenge was the principal-agent problem: the tendency of its men on the spot to trade on their own account, bungle transactions or simply defraud the company. This, however, was partially countered by an unusual compensation system, which linked remuneration to investments and sales, putting a priority on turnover rather than net profits. Business boomed. In the 1620s, fifty VOC ships had returned from Asia laden with goods; by the 1690s the number was 156. Between 1700 and 1750 the tonnage of Dutch shipping sailing back around the Cape doubled. As late as 1760 it was still roughly three times the amount of British shipping.

The economic and political ascent of the VOC can be traced in its share price. The Amsterdam stock market was certainly volatile, as investors reacted to rumours of war, peace and shipwrecks in a way vividly described by the Sephardic Jew Joseph Penso de la Vega in his aptly named book Confusión de Confusiones (1688). Yet the long-term trend was clearly upward for more than a century after the Company’s foundation. Between 1602 and 1733, VOC stock rose from par (100) to an all-time peak of 786, this despite the fact that from 1652 until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the Company was being challenged by bellicose British competition. Such sustained capital appreciation, combined with the regular dividends and stable consumer prices, ensured that major shareholders like Dirck Bas became very wealthy indeed. As early as 1650, total dividend payments were already eight times the original investment, implying an annual rate of return of 27 per cent. The striking point, however, is that there was never such a thing as a Dutch East India Company bubble. Unlike the Dutch tulip futures bubble of 1636-7, the ascent of the VOC stock price was gradual, spread over more than a century, and, though its descent was more rapid, it still took more than sixty years to fall back down to 120 in December 1794. This rise and fall closely tracked the rise and fall of the Dutch Empire. The prices of shares in other monopoly trading companies, outwardly similar to the VOC, would behave very differently, soaring and slumping in the space of just a few months.