Catharina Hasenclever. Gotisches Mittelalter und Gottesgnadentum in den Zeichnungen Friedrich Wilhelms IV: Herrschaftslegitimierung zwischen Revolution und Restauration. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2005. 415 pp. EUR 98.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-428-11916-5.
Reviewed by Brian Vick (Department of History, University of Sheffield)
Published on H-German (April, 2007)
Royal Art as Royal Politics in Nineteenth-Century Prussia
Friedrich Wilhelm IV (b. 1795), King of Prussia from 1840-61, liked to draw. In fact, he was almost compulsive in his desire to put pen or pencil to paper, producing by the end of his life more than four thousand sketches, drawings, and watercolors, some rather polished, some rather hurried, limned upon the backs of envelopes, theater tickets, or any other slip of paper ready to hand. From this enormous output, Catharina Hasenclever selected approximately four hundred for in-depth analysis, as being of particular relevance to her study of Friedrich Wilhelm's reception of the Gothic Middle Ages as a problem in the history of art, architecture, and politics. Although Hasenclever approaches the topic from the perspective of art history, her insightful book should be of even greater interest to historians of nineteenth-century Prussia and Germany and intellectual historians of Romanticism and medievalism.
One of Hasenclever's prime conclusions for students of Friedrich Wilhelm concerns the depth and longevity of his interest in the Middle Ages. Whereas his enthusiasm for the Gothic has typically been deemed a passing phase during the Wars of Liberation of 1813-15, the author demonstrates beyond doubt that Friedrich Wilhelm maintained this fascination both as prince and king, as a central component of his worldview until the very end of his life. The spectacular Festival of the White Rose in 1829 should not be considered a late flowering of medievalism, but rather evidence of continuing engagement with it. The king still reverted to Gothic architecture as the appropriate form of public display as late as 1856, as can be seen in the monument commemorating the four-hundredth anniversary of the University of Greifswald.
Against the views of many previous scholars, Hasenclever convincingly argues that Friedrich Wilhelm's drawings did not simply represent an escape from an uncomfortable political reality, but instead helped shape his understanding of that reality and gave direction to his attempts to readjust it to his liking, as a part of his "monarchical project" to modernize Prussian royal rule by connecting it more closely in public display with an ostensible medieval past, an "invented tradition." The phrase "monarchical project" is taken from David Barclay's path-breaking study of Friedrich Wilhelm's reign, which Hasenclever follows closely and to which she pays due recognition. She corrects Barclay's account in showing that Friedrich Wilhelm never faltered in his devotion to Gothic architecture and medievalizing cultural trends, but for the most part she confirms his depiction of Friedrich Wilhelm's pursuit of a Prussian monarchy and political culture that would be at the same time a "Gesamtkunstwerk."
Through her engagement with the work of Barclay and Frank-Lothar Kroll in particular, Hasenclever maintains a fine sense of historical setting and deploys her analyses of drawings and architectural plans to answer questions of prime historical, rather than simply art historical, interest. Her scrutiny of Friedrich Wilhelm's sketches of cathedrals, of royal and imperial ceremony, and of royal and imperial figures over the years does much to reveal the nature of his understanding of kingship itself and the relationship between the Hohenzollern kings of Prussia and the Habsburg rulers of Austria. In this latter regard, Hasenclever confirms that Friedrich Wilhelm was always committed to a revival of some kind of medievalesque, federal German Empire in which the Habsburgs would rule and the Hohenzollerns would serve at their side as military leaders. Here, as with her depiction of Friedrich Wilhelm's deep and abiding love of German culture, Hasenclever conveys a nuanced portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm's conservative brand of German nationalism.
Hasenclever also does a fine job of setting Friedrich Wilhelm's artistic and political endeavors in the historical context of Romanticism and Gothic revival. She emphasizes, for example, the varieties of Romantic medievalism in early nineteenth-century German culture and the ways in which medieval themes could be instrumentalized in the service of almost any national tradition or political persuasion. She argues that both liberal and conservative forces employed medievalizing motifs, not just in England, with its mixed aristocratic and parliamentary traditions, but also in Prussia and Germany.
Hasenclever's work is organized into three main sections, partly along chronological, but also along thematic, lines. The first covers the early years up to about 1820 and breaks considerable new ground with its attention to Friedrich Wilhelm's literary adaptations and illustrations, above all with the medieval and fairy-tale world of Baron Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, but also with Faust, Shakespeare, and Mrs. Radcliffe's Gothic thrillers. This early section also offers in-depth analyses of some of the Crown Prince's most important architectural projects, showing, for example, that the effort to complete the building of Cologne Cathedral was always closely bound up with the project for a national cathedral in Berlin, which would mark the Prussian and German triumph over Napoleon in the wars of 1813-14. Here, as elsewhere, the author makes clear that however closely Friedrich Wilhelm and his favorite architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel worked, they still represented two different kinds of historicism; Schinkel wanted to build in the spirit of the Gothic while at the same time extending and developing it, whereas Friedrich Wilhelm took a more preservationist approach and wanted to bring back the spirit of the past through close adherence to the original edifice or plans. This perspective also applied to his involvement with the castles Stolzenfels, Hohenzollern, and Marienburg, covered in the next segment of the volume.
The second portion of the book focuses on courtly and knightly public display, reaching back into the period before 1820 for a fascinating depiction of the crown prince's intensive if ultimately unsuccessful efforts to establish a chivalric order of St. George, and an accompanying ladies' order of St. Cecilia, for the royal family and their intimates, complete with a special-built castle and abbey on land purchased specifically for that purpose on an island in the Havel. The discussions of the restoration of the various medieval castles illustrate the extent to which his medievalist monarchical project was at once public (these castles were for the most part not intended to be residences, but rather showpieces or museums) and connected to his nationalist visions of a Habsburg-led Germany inspired and supported by Prussian evocation of the medieval past. The three castles were strategically located in the Rhineland, the old Hohenzollern family lands in the south, and in Prussia itself, thus in each case helping to cement Prussia's rule in far-flung territories and its medieval and nationalist credentials.
Finally, the third main segment of the text deals not only with Friedrich Wilhelm's drawings of kings, kaisers, and electors, but also with the religious dimension of his conservative crusade against revolution as revealed in his private sketches of Christ-figures, devils, the Archangel Michael, and Saint George and the dragon. The author also discusses some of the monumental projects carried out under his aegis, in which the iconography of Saint George or Michael routing the dragon of revolution again features prominently.
Although thorough and insightful, the book could have done more to clarify themes and extend the study's reach in certain areas. Hasenclever rightly points, for example, to the literature's relative neglect of Friedrich Wilhelm's Gothic enthusiasms, but it would still have been useful to offer a comparative sense of how this continuing fixation comported with some of his other, better-studied loves, such as early Christianity and the early Church, in projects for early Christian basilicas, or the Italian Renaissance and Italianate villa style. Extra nuance would also have been appreciated in the explication, as opposed to description, of the drawings and their relationship to Friedrich Wilhelm's attitudes and policies; for example, in the locating of specific features of his religiosity alongside some of the other figures of the Erweckungsbewegung with whom he associated. Further reference to Barclay's work would have allowed for a more detailed exegesis of Friedrich Wilhelm's brand of conservatism amidst the alternatives available within his circle. As things stand, Hasenclever may overstate Friedrich Wilhelm's hatred of any compromise with the forces of modern liberal politics, given some of the compromises he did enter into over the years and his close relationship with politicians such as Friedrich Julius Stahl and Joseph Maria von Radowitz, both of whom were notably clever at preserving what they saw as the core of monarchical rule amid and alongside the constitutionalist currents of the day.
With these suggestions in mind, Hasenclever's work may not be the last word on Friedrich Wilhelm's worldview and his efforts at medievalist "invention of tradition," but it certainly represents an important word. Indeed, John Toews's magisterial tome, which came out at the same time as Hasenclever's, offers a new and somewhat different perspective on Friedrich Wilhelm's religiously-inflected historicism and his efforts to make it publicly and politically efficacious, but it is equally true that Toews's portrait will require some revision in light of Hasenclever's findings.
Hasenclever's book is thus useful reading for scholars of early nineteenth-century Prussian and intellectual history. Even libraries that do not ordinarily purchase German dissertations might consider doing so in this case, insofar as the wealth of appended illustrations (p. 142) make the book at the same time a valuable primary source collection, accessible even to students who do not know German.
. David E. Barclay, Frederick William IV and the Prussian Monarchy 1840-1861 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
. Frank-Lothar Kroll, Friedrich Wilhelm IV. und das Staatsdenken der deutschen Romantik (Berlin: Colloquium Verlag, 1990); and idem, "Herrschaftslegitimierung durch Traditionsschöpfung. Der Beitrag der Hohenzollern zur Mittelalter-Rezeption im 19. Jahrhundert," Historische Zeitschrift 274 (2002): 61-85.
. John Edward Toews, Becoming Historical: Cultural Reformation and Public Memory in Early Nineteenth-Century Berlin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
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Brian Vick. Review of Hasenclever, Catharina, Gotisches Mittelalter und Gottesgnadentum in den Zeichnungen Friedrich Wilhelms IV: Herrschaftslegitimierung zwischen Revolution und Restauration.
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