Enlightened Absolutism in Germany
Responding to this emerging bourgeois public, and inﬂuenced by Enlightenment thinkers in their own right, some German rulers began to enact progressive reforms within their realms. Known as enlightened absolutism or enlightened despotism, the efforts of rulers to modernize their governments and to ameliorate the effects of monarchical rule by enacting “enlightened” reforms changed the nature of political life in the empire during the 18th century.
Rulers inﬂuenced by these principles often afforded their subjects religious toleration, freedom of the press, and the right to speak their minds without fearing punishment. Enlightened despots also fostered advancements in philosophy and the arts through generous patronage, sometimes even inviting leading Enlightenment thinkers to live at court.
While these enlightened despots proved willing to extend these sorts of rights to their subjects, they were despots nonetheless. Accordingly, most believed as fervently in their own divine right to rule as absolut-ist monarchs, and consistently refused to acquiesce to their liberal subjects’ demands for written constitutions. For most 18th-century German princes, any such document would place an unacceptable brake on their free exercise of power.
Thus, enlightened absolutists generally accepted a variety of progressive reforms, viewing themselves as instruments for improving the lives of their subjects. At the same time that they worked to reform aspects of the legal system or economic policies, often with the intent of augmenting their own authority, these enlightened rulers invariably rejected one of the most important principles of the Enlightenment: the social contract.
Ironically, the progressive reforms realized by Prussian and Austrian rulers in the 18th century, intended to improve society, met with dogged resistance from the nobility and commoners alike, due to the populace’s resentment of the reforms’ autocratic nature and their reckless disregard for custom and traditional liberties.
The king of Prussia, Friedrich the Great (1740–86), is often cited as an enlightened absolutist since he absorbed the principles of the Enlightenment and practiced the arts in his youth. He even tried to ﬂ ee his domineering father before being dragged back to court.
Once he took the throne, many of his policies can indeed be viewed as enlightened, including his benevolent legal reforms, which included the abolishment of judicial torture and his establishment of a state-sponsored system of secondary education.
He modernized the Prussian civil service and even extended religious tolerance to his subjects. Furthermore, Friedrich corresponded with the great French philosopher Voltaire and provided generous support to progressive writers and artists. Despite these enlightened policies, it must be remembered that his reign was marked above all by autocratic rule and stiﬂ ing militarism.
A pair of Austrian Habsburg monarchs, Maria Theresa (1717–80) and Joseph II (1741–90), came closer to the ideal of the enlightened ruler. Maria Theresa was archduchess of Austria, queen of Hungary and Bohemia, grand duchess of Tuscany, and, by virtue of her marriage to Francis of Lorraine (1708–65), empress consort of the Holy Roman Empire. Maria Theresa had to ﬁ ght bitterly to secure the Austrian Crown.
Since she was the only surviving heir of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, her succession was ratiﬁ ed after her father negotiated with the major European powers, issuing the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713 that declared her his heir to the Austrian throne. Once Maria Theresa assumed the throne, however, after the death of her father in 1740, Friedrich the Great of Prussia refused to recognize the claim of a woman to the Austrian Crown.
This sparked the War of the Austrian Succession that raged from 1740 to 1748, a conﬂict that eventually involved all of the major powers of Europe, with Prussia, France, and the Electorate of Bavaria ranged against Austria and its English, Dutch, and Saxon allies. The war ﬁnally ended with the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ratiﬁ ed Maria Theresa’s succession and Prussia’s seizure of the valuable territory of Silesia.
Despite her success in defending her claim to the Austrian Crown, there was no question of a woman ascending to the imperial dignity. As a result, Maria Theresa had her husband, the duke of Lorraine, elected emperor in 1745. While Maria Theresa was technically empress consort, there is little doubt that she was the real power behind the throne.
Ruling as de facto empress, Maria Theresa enacted a variety of enlightened reforms in her realms, including educational, economic, and agricultural initiatives. She also reinforced the Austrian military, which was still locked in the ongoing struggle with Prussia throughout her reign. During her reign, Maria Theresa helped restore Austrian power and ensured the future of the ruling dynasty, bearing 16 children.
After the death of her husband in 1765, Maria Theresa became a dowager empress, helping her son, crowned Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, to administer the empire. Joseph II, who reigned as emperor from 1765 to 1790 and as arch-duke of Austria from 1780 to 1790, was perhaps the German ruler most dedicated to enlightened absolutism.
He was untiring in his attempts to modernize the administration of the Habsburgs’ Austrian Crown lands and to bring rational reform to society. Inﬂuenced by his admiration for Voltaire and the French Enlightenment, he sought to extend religious toleration, to reduce the exactions of the church and the vestiges of feudalism, and to enhance both free trade and free-thinking in his domain.
Throughout his reign, Joseph II believed that it was his destiny, and the destiny of Austria, to change the world; guided by reason and unfettered by law, he sought to build a better state and society. Until the death of his domineering mother in 1780, however, he could not pursue these progressive programs without raising her opposition.
Once she had died, Joseph pursued his reform program with reckless abandon, issuing thousands of new edicts. Exerting autocratic control over the state, he reformed the entire legal system, revamped the state’s ﬁnancial institutions, abolished serfdom, secularized numerous church properties, and established compulsory elementary education.
In 1781, Joseph issued the Patent of Toleration, which guaranteed limited freedom of worship. He even abolished capital punishment in 1787, although, like most of his enlightened reforms, this did not last long after his reign. In his foreign policy, Joseph II was not so enlightened and eagerly pursued Austrian territorial expansion through bloody warfare and cunning diplomacy.
Thus, he embroiled Austria in the costly struggle known as the Seven Years’ War, a struggle that involved all the great powers of Europe and brought bloodshed to Europe, Asia, and North America from 1756 to 1763. Joseph also took part in the cynical dismemberment of Poland in the First Partition in 1772 and plunged Austria into the War of Bavarian Succession between 1778 and 1779, where Prussia and Saxony thwarted his attempts to add Lower Bavaria to his patrimony.
In concert with his Russian ally, Joseph spent the next decade embroiled inexpensive and ultimately fruitless campaigning against the Ottoman Turks on the Habsburgs’ eastern frontier. Another reckless attempt to acquire Bavarian territory led to the formation of the so-called Fürstenbund, a league of German princes formed by Friedrich the Great of Prussia, united by their shared opposition to Austrian territorial expansion.
This German alliance, the ﬁrst led by Prussia, included the rulers of Saxony, Hanover, and later Saxe-Weimar, Saxe-Gotha, Palatinate-Zweibrücken, Brunswick, Baden, Hesse-Kassel, Anhalt, Ansbach, Mecklenburg, and the electorate of Mainz. Meant to check Joseph II’s ambition, the short-lived Fürstenbund demonstrated the growing might of Prussia, the state that would eventually unify Germany, and the emperor’s waning prestige.
By 1790, rebel-lions against Joseph’s centralizing initiatives and sweeping reforms had begun to break out on the fringes of the Habsburg realm, to the west in Belgium and to the east in Hungary. Fearing the fragmentation of his domain, Emperor Joseph was forced to repeal many of his reforms and died disillusioned at 48 in February 1790. His successor, Emperor Leopold II (1747–92), proved himself to be a more cautious and careful reformer.
As Joseph II pursued his failed reform initiatives, the Enlightenment project itself was coming into question in Germany, as writers and artists of the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) movement—named after Der Wirrwarr, oder Sturm und Drang, a play by Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger (1752–1831) in which the action took place during the American Revolution—turned from rationality to emotionality, from reason to passion.
This cultural movement, sustained by the philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730–88) and the polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), ﬂourished from the 1760s to the 1780s, foreshadowing the revolutionary passions and anxieties of the next quarter-century.
The literature, drama, and music of these artists explored extremes of human emotion, seeking to elicit terror or unease in audiences through evocations of primal passion and violence. In this vein, Goethe’s celebrated 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, pro-vides a painful depiction of unrequited love and suicide.
In the novel, inspired by a painful episode from Goethe’s youth, a sensitive young artist recounts his passion for the beautiful Charlotte, who is engaged to another man. Distraught, Werther leaves the village of Wahlheim, where Charlotte lives, and settles in Weimar. When he returns and ﬁnds Charlotte married, the pain is overwhelming. Werther continues to visit Charlotte, tortured by the knowledge that she will never be his until she asks him to stop seeing her.
Overcome by feelings, Werther decides to commit suicide and, after writing an emotional farewell letter, shoots himself with a borrowed pistol. The novel ends on a somber note, with Werther’s lonely funeral, as his beloved Charlotte refrains from visiting his grave. Goethe disavowed the novel in later life, but it became an instant sensation, making him an international celebrity.
In the decades after its publication, young men across Europe sought to emulate Werther’s romantic style and youthful angst. Despite the popularity of their works, both Goethe and his closest associate, the poet, philosopher, and playwright Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805), eventually abandoned the Sturm und Drang movement in favor of a rejuvenated classicism.
The radical rejection of Enlightenment rationality they initiated with their early works, however, helped foster later romantic aspirations for German nationalism and liberalism. At the close of the 18th century, Germany lay disunited amid the simmering rivalry between Prussia and Austria. Having emerged from the trauma of the Thirty Years’ War, the empire was once again the “cockpit of Europe,” where the great powers of the era waged their dynastic wars.
As the Holy Roman Empire gradually pulled itself apart in the course of these struggles, its medieval institutions increasingly appeared irrelevant in an era of dynastic warfare and cynical diplomacy. However, the rivalry between the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs, and the failed reforms of Germany’s enlightened despots, would soon give way to a wave of radical change from the west: the French Revolution.