Notes From Emil Reich’s “Foundations of Modern Europe” Part I

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that this book has entered the public domain due to its having been published in 1908 and the copyright being expired. The bad news is that I’m not a typing robot and, as consequence, I will probably have to post some or all of the transcripts in chunks rather than in their entirety all at the same time. (I also have other things to do outside of this blog, so the time I can spend typing is limited.)

P.S. I will be transcribing parts based on whim rather than their actual place in the book, but if I start on a part and post it in sections, then I will finish the sections of that part before moving on to the next part. In accordance with the aforementioned whims, I will be starting on chapter eleven. Mind you, this is only Part One of this chapter. It begins as follows below:




The history of the unity of Germany is in many ways one of the most instructive chapters of history. For in Germany perhaps more than in most countries the old perennial and terrible fight of man against nature has been fought out, and has finally led to results considerable and perhaps all important. Like all the other nations of Europe, the Germans have always tried to make the limits of their country conterminous with the limits of their language. Europe has at no time been given to the Roman ideal, and just as a United States of Europe is, as we shall see, impossible in the near or in the far future, so it was impracticable in the last 2000 years. Europe consists at present of over forty highly organized polities, each of which clings to its personality in language, law, custom, and every other feature of national life with uncompromising tenacity. Each of these states has at all times tried to combine and unite its members and to separate itself from its neighbours. The centripetal forces in Europe have always been in the minority, and even the greatest emperors and conquerors have found that their dreams of uniting Europe under one rule were short-lived and sterile.

This work of union, this attempt to bring together in one highly differentiated state the members of one and the same nation, this old historical endeavour of the European peoples, has been realized in some countries earlier than in others. The English proper realized it in the early middle ages, and what is at present England and Wales were one country already in 1284. Next came the French. It took an enormous number of wars, battles, sieges, campaigns, intrigues, marriages, treaties, etc., in fact, all the resources of pacific and warlike policy, to unite the south of France with the north, and the west with the east. At last, under the Bourbon kings, early in the seventeenth century, and with regard to Lorraine in 1766, all the parts of modern France were united under one rule, although the homogeneity of the people was still far from complete, as we have seen in the first lecture on the French Revolution.

Germany proper was unable to secure her unity before the latter part of the nineteenth century. Germany is mostly an inland country, and has so far had no considerable sea power. It will be noticed that inland countries are not easily united; and even a common ruler leaves the people, the subjects themselves, in a state of utter discrepancy and divergence among themselves. It is really the sea that unites people, and France, having a very considerable sea power as early as the seventeenth century, had in this very circumstance an enormous leverage over Germany. Of the diverse elements of what was called the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic nation in previous centuries, it is very difficult to form a definite idea. The number of sovereigns, from a small lord to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who all had sovereign rights over their respective subjects, is positively amazing. There is no exaggeration in stating that between the Rhine and the Elbe rivers the number of very small, small, great, and greater sovereigns in the seventeenth century was over 1000. Even then the fiction of a united Holy Roman Empire under the German Emperor was upheld, but it was a mere fiction. The emperor had no fixed nor considerable revenue; he had no standing and efficient army; and being at the same time the ruler of Austria and Hungary he had no vital interest in the welfare of his provinces outside his Danubian monarchy. In fact, the interest of the Habsburg emperors was rather the other way. The more Germany was split up into innumerable little sovereignties, the more it was unable to offer very great resistance to the Habsburgs. The great international treaty of 1648, the so-called Westphalian Peace, had really increased the anarchic state of Germany, and by its terms Sweden and France stood as guarantors or perpetuators of the German anarchy. It is at the present day almost impossible to realize the confusion, the chaos, the incredible disorder, that reigned in Germany in consequence of this political dismemberment. Each sovereign had coins of his own, had customs-lines of his own, had little armies of his own, separate individual codes of law of his own; the religion of the sovereign decided as a rule the religion of his subjects, and a very considerable portion of Germany was “under the crozier,” belonging as it did to powerful ecclesiastical potentates such as the Archbishops of Cologne, of Mayence, of Trèves, and the Bishops of Bamberg and Würtzburg. Litigation in the courts of these small sovereigns, and appeals to the central court of the Emperor, were, as a rule, exposed to the most exasperating delays and to ruinous expense. The great German poet Schiller, in his tragedy Kabale und Liebe (“Intrigue and Love”), has given us a terrible picture of the cruelty and oppression practised by these petty tyrants. Commerce flourished very little, and the German towns had long fallen from that commercial importance which they had reached in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The people were quite indifferent to their lot, and did not even rise when the Landgrave of Hesse sold them like chattels to the English to fight the Americans in the war of 1775-1783. The position of the women was, especially in the seventeenth century, most degrading. The German woman, at no time endued with any superior intellectual energy, was in the seventeenth century an altogether obscure and insignificant partner of her husband. It is true that in the first half of the eighteenth century the status of German women was considerably raised, and we hear of many an energetic, highly intellectual and cultivated woman in the lives of the great German writers of that century.

This rapid sketch of the misery of the Germans for lack of political or economic unity must now be supplemented with a picture of a more agreeable kind. The Germans, while politically paralyzed and unable to shake off the torpor that had fallen upon them since the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, had yet one great ideal in common; as they describe it themselves, while Germany was practically a mere geographical expression, “Germandom” (Deutschthum) soon began to exert itself. To put it in plain words, the unity of the Germans was, in contrast to that of the English and French, at first not a political unity but an intellectual one. They were politically as diverse as if they had been total foreigners to one another. Intellectually, however, they had begun, ever since the second half of the eighteenth century, to feel themselves as a nation, to learn the immense value of their language in scientific and literary works, and so to feel a consciousness of German nationality which, although still lacking political union, yet prepared the way for the latter too. In this sense the history of German literature is even more important to the historian than is the history of French or English literature. The works in which for the first time the unparalleled resources of the German language were made use of where the greatest possible incentive to a feeling of nationality in Germany.  Even up to the middle of the eighteenth century all the most valuable works published in Germany were still written either in Latin or in French. When, however, in the second half of the century Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Wieland, Schiller, and other very numerous German writers, in their works – many of which will survive forever – manifested the astounding power of the German idiom, its adaptability to prose and poetry alike, its capacity for the highest philosophical researches as well as for the lowest comedy; its force in narrative, didactic, and descriptive style alike – when all this became clear to the enthusiastic readers of these authors, the Germans felt that a new era had begun in their history. As in the sixteenth century the spiritual reform of the Reformation had brought home to the Germans their spiritual unity, so in the first half of the eighteenth century and in the first third of the nineteenth century the constantly increasing number of classical works written in German impressed upon the Germans the fact that they were fast becoming united intellectually too.

The disasters falling upon the Germans from 1805-1807 at the hands of Napoleon, and of which we have been speaking in former chapters, could not but impart to every single German a feeling that a nation cannot rest with a unity which is only intellectual and spiritual. More than that was needed. Political unity was required, and it now became not only a dream but a practical interest for all Germans to consolidate the unity of their political edifice in order to reap the benefit of their spiritual and intellectual unity at leisure. At that time the question really was, not whether the political unity of Germany should be attempted, for on that point all German-speaking nations were at one, but which German power should realize the unity?

As we have seen, the house of Habsburg or Austria played, even in 1815, a considerable role in the so-called German Confederation, and until 1850 the King of Prussia, the only rival of the Habsburgs, could not secure any ascendency or hegemony in that Confederation, and thus it was hoped by very many people that the unity of Germany was to come from Austria. The problem, therefore, which the Germans had to solve in the second half of the nineteenth century, was whether their political unity should come from south Germany or Austria, whence had come their spiritual and intellectual unity, or whether it should come from northern Germany or Prussia, which had hitherto done little or nothing for the intellectual regeneration of the nation except the establishment of a few universities, and which had in 1806 and 1807 proved itself to be utterly helpless, disorganized, and decadent. Such as hoped to see the unity of Germany realized by Austria were singularly mistaken about the nature of the Power. The Habsburgs, for reasons that are not quite clear, have never been able to unite any of the nations that have come under their rule in a real union. They have always been able to make conglomerations or external accumulations of provinces. Their only device in assimilating or uniting the heterogeneous people of their empire has always been to ally themselves with the Catholic Church, and so secure a certain kind of unity. However, it is quite clear that the Catholic Church, in spite of the admirable system of centralization and her great powers of bringing about uniformity of thought and sentiment, could not produce that political and internal or national unity which alone in modern times can give real power to a state. Austria, in other words, or rather the Habsburgs, have at all times been unsuccessful in their attempts at bringing about that political and national unity which in the latter half of the nineteenth century many a patriotic German hoped to see introduced into their own country at the hands of the Habsburgs.

In order to understand this important point very clearly we must hark back for a moment to the times of a war which happened long before the period here treated, but the influence of which is clearly sensible to the present day. We mean the famous Silesian wars which, with the interruption of a few years (1748-1756), raged from 1740 to 1763. In 1741, Frederich the Great succeeded by one victory, obtained by his generals at Mollwitz, in wresting from Maria-Theresa, the ruler of Austria-Hungary, the large and fertile province of Silesia. All the campaigns that followed, with their numerous battles until the peace of 1763, may from the standpoint of our present considerations be quite omitted. They were excessively numerous, and some of them very famous, yet they were unable to alter in any way whatever the effect of the battle of Mollwitz, and they may therefore for our present purpose be left out of consideration altogether. By the conquest of Silesia Frederick the Great acquired a German-speaking province, and was enabled to round off the territory of Prussia both territorially and nationally. At that time Prussia had very few, if any, inhabitants who were not German-speaking, and the German-speaking people all but formed the totality of Prussia, whose nationality was therefore practically unbroken. On the other hand, the loss of Silesia to Maria-Theresa affected the whole subsequent history of Austria. For in 1740, before Frederick wrested Silesia from Maria-Theresa, the majority of the inhabitants in the Austrian Empire were Germans. Austria at that time possessed neither Galicia nor Bukovina, neither Bosnia nor Venetian Italy. The Germans were still in numerical preponderance in Austria. By the loss of Silesia this preponderance of the German element in Austria was done away with. Maria-Theresa, in order to make up for her territorial losses, was compelled to seek for compensation eastward, that is, in parts of Europe where there was no German element. By her conquests in 1772 and 1775 (Gelicia and Bukovina), in 1797, the Treaty of Campo Formio (Venetian Italy), etc., etc., Austria acquired provinces indeed, but always territories inhabited by peoples of an entirely divergent nationality. Thus it may be seen that the Silesian wars threw into the heart of Austria the seeds of perennial disunion, and rendered Austria to the present day incapable of uniting her people into a political fabric of homogeneity. Frederick the Great indeed deprived Austria not only of a province, but in a sense of all her provinces, because Austria could never really assimilate those provinces, having once lost, as she did, the preponderance of her German subjects and being unable to restore it. Prussia, which obtained the heterogeneous elements of the three portions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795, was yet so rich in her German provinces, especially after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when she obtained large provinces on the Rhine, that her national unity, although broken into in her eastern possessions, was infinitely superior to that of Austria.

From the preceding considerations it is evident that Prussia was in 1850 in a position of far greater advantage for the national work of the unity of Germany than Austria could possibly be. For Prussia itself occupied a very considerable part of Germany proper, it had German people as subjects, a perfect unity of language and also largely of religion, and all that she lacked was some one great statesman who by genius and luck might realize the old hope. In Austria, on the other hand, the greatest of all statesmen could not have entertained a hope of realizing outside Austria, that is, in Germany, what a succession of rulers and statesmen in the preceding three centuries had never been able to realize in Austria proper. The ethnography of Austria was against any statesman who would have tries to realize the unity of Germany. The ethnography of Germany was quite in favour of Prussia. Prussia indeed wanted great men; Austria could not have done much even with the greatest men at the helm. In the light of events in our own times we can perceive with dazzling clearness that any hope of seeing the unity of Germany realized by Austria was doomed to failure. Austria had neither a powerfully organized and united army, nor a regular and well-stocked exchequer. She had no national forces either in literature, science, art, or any other intellectual or spiritual department. Without such aids even the greatest statesman is shorn of results. Prussia, on the other hand through the reforms introduced by a number of non Prussian statesmen, such as Stein, Hardenberg, Schornhorst, Altenstein, and others from 1807 onwards, had created a system of national education both in law and high schools, by works both scientific and literary, and in her army as well as in her national revenue she had placed herself in a state of great efficiency. Here indeed a great statesman might, by a clever, timely, and successful diplomacy, achieve much.

The old question whether Athens made Themistocles or whether Themistocles made Athens, is to the mind of many a historian an unsolvable problem. However, by a coincidence no doubt very strange, yet regular, we find that in any case of a really great man in history the possibilities of his career had long been prepared by the state or the nation to which he belongs. So it is in our present case. It cannot be denied that the influence of Bismarck from the time when he came to power and to the enjoyment of the complete confidence of King William of Prussia was a decisive power in the history of that country and of Germany. Yet it is equally certain that without the previous reforms made by such men as Luther, Melanchthon, Brenz, and the still greater literary and artistic lights of the Germans who gave them intellectual unity, let alone all the labours of those great reformers in Prussia who succeeded, by indefatigable and ill-requited work, in restoring Prussia to her former greatness, Bismarck’s genius alone could not have done anything. Bismarck at Vienna would have been as helpless as was at the same place Schmerling, or Count Beust. Bismarck’s genius is great, but to him too we may apply the great rule of history, “Est locus in rebus” (History is largely influenced by the locality where things happen).

End Part One (about halfway through)