Robert Beachy. The Soul of Commerce: Credit, Property, and Politics in Leipzig, 1750-1840. Leiden: Brill, 2005. x + 248 pp. $129.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-391-04142-4.
Reviewed by Thomas Adam (University of Texas at Arlington)
Published on H-German (March, 2007)
Robert Beachy's book belongs to the still growing field of research on the history of Saxony. This small kingdom, famous for its museums and porcelain, held great appeal for historians after 1989, since it appeared to offer new insights into the history of Germany, which up until that point had been written in terms of Prussian history. The book under review, as its title might imply, is more than just a local study of city finances in one of Saxony's major cities. It is an investigation into the transformation of central Europe between 1750 and 1840 using the example of Leipzig. For its long resistance to political liberalization, Saxony has often been considered a deeply conservative society. Although occupied by French forces, Saxon rulers successfully staved off any form of political change and postponed constitutional reforms for three more decades. Only in 1830 did popular unrest finally spark a state-dominated social and political reform. To explain this sudden break with the past, historians linked the reform of 1830 to either the Stein-Hardenberg reforms or to the role of the nascent working class as a driving force for social change. According to Beachy, these interpretations do not adequately explain Leipzig's central role in the 1830 upheaval: "the focus on bureaucratic liberalism ignores the trajectory of Leipzig's enlightenment civic culture and the burgher reform activism that coalesced following the French occupation; the thesis of popular revolution fails to consider the continuities that defined the reform interests of Leipzig's burgher groups before and after 1830" (p. 3).
In contrast, Beachy suggests taking a longer view and tracing "the source of this incipient liberalism to the commerce and politics of the early modern town" (p. 3). The author shows that although the city formally held the status of a territorial city within Saxony, it kept a certain degree of independence and autonomy from the rulers in Dresden. The peculiar political culture of this merchant and trade city shaped its catalytic role in the events of 1830. Beachy thus confronts a long standing tradition of German historiography according to which reform has only occurred at the hands of royal authorities and under French pressure. He refers to Hans-Ulrich Wehler's ridicule of German civic culture and the consensus among post-WWII German historians that "nowhere did civic groups effect significant change, nor were there any successful urban reform movements" (p. 6). In addition, historians have largely neglected the importance of property rights in the transformation of absolutist regimes into constitutional states. Although there has been a surge in studies of the Bürgertum over the last two decades, German historians have rarely discussed the relationship between property and political protest. It was the ownership of private property, however, which early nineteenth-century reformers, based on liberal theory, invoked for claiming constitutions and civil liberties.
In the case of Leipzig, Beachy shows how burghers incited by financial crisis and repeated military occupation successfully demanded participation in city government. For that purpose, Beachy traces the origins of Leipzig's first elected city parliament back to civic associations and the civic involvement of Leipzig's merchant community. As early as 1816, Leipzig's merchants proposed the creation of an elected burgher committee of twenty-one burghers, with the seats equally divided between property owners, merchants, and artisans. This burgher committee was to control municipal finances and have the power to review all accounts of revenues and expenditures. This proposal was met with hostility by Leipzig's city council and the government in Dresden because of its emphasis on participatory democracy. In the end, the concept of the burgher committee was taken up by the Dresden government and transformed into a political body closely controlled by state authority. The king insisted that state officials would have greater influence in the committee and election of this body would be extremely restrictive. However, as Beachy suggests, once the new committee was created, it "exercised a profound influence on Leipzig's fiscal administration" (p. 173) and "provided a taste of what more open government might accomplish" (p. 174). The activities of this new committee were not limited to dealing with the financial debt; it played a role in the modernization of the town by riding the city of its last medieval measures, including the city curfew, guard watch, and gate toll imposed for entering the city after 10 p.m., in 1823.
In general, Beachy's study suggests that previous explanations for the outbreak of the 1830 revolution in Saxony have significant shortcomings and ignore the long-standing traditions of civic involvement and the emerging civil society based in an extensive associational life and philanthropy. Neither the role of an incipient Leipzig proletariat nor the influence of state bureaucrats sufficiently explains the social upheaval and quick transformation of Saxony from an absolutist into a constitutional state. Although Beachy points to the explanation of contemporaries, that the impact of public debt on local tax payers was the cause of the reforms, he reminds us that this is also not a sufficient reason for the political transformation. Instead, he suggests that "the introduction of liberal governance at both municipal and state levels resulted from neither revolution nor bureaucratic authority but instead grew out of decades of burgher activism" (p. 201).
The strengths of Beachy's study lie in two important aspects. First, he investigates the continuities "that bridged the long nineteenth century with the early modern period" (p. 225). By sidestepping traditional ways of defining historical periods and stereotypical assumptions about ruptures and discontinuities in history, Beachy is able to show that civic activism grew out of economic and financial crisis and provides a very innovative model to explain long-term historical change. Second, and in contrast to traditional assumptions about the absence of civil society in German states throughout the nineteenth century, Beachy, although somehow hesitant to employ the model of civil society, argues that Leipzig was in fact home to a blossoming civic activism that derived from the economic profile of the city and resulted in the formation of a self-confident Bürgertum that claimed political control over city politics.
. See, for instance, the contributions to James Retallack, Saxony in German History: Culture, Society, and Politics, 1830-1933 (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2000).
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