Wolf Nitschke. Adolf Heinrich Graf v. Arnim-Boitzenburg (1803-1868): Eine politische Biographie. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2004. 462 pp. EUR 98.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-428-11114-5.
Reviewed by Jonathan Sperber (Department of History, University of Missouri)
Published on H-German (April, 2008)
On the Importance of an Obscure Prussian Conservative
Adolf von Arnim was one of many prominent members of the mid-nineteenth-century Prussian ruling class whose actions and opinions have been overshadowed by the commanding figure of Otto von Bismarck. Wolf Nitschke's careful biography of Arnim makes use of the extensive family papers, state archives, and a wide variety of other primary and secondary sources and brings a now-forgotten individual back to life, restoring him to the significant place in Prussian politics between the Vormärz and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 that he deserves. In doing so, the author intends to use Arnim's life and times to illuminate the different factions within and the political challenges to and dilemmas of conservative politics in the Prussian monarchy. In this respect, he is less successful.
Arnim was one of the Uradel, his paternal ancestors having been resident in the Mark Brandenburg since the Middle Ages, part of a substantial Junker clan containing many lines and sidelines. The Boitzenburg branch of the family, a sideline, differed from most Junkers in having rather more land in its possession. Having inherited a very substantial estate from his father, Arnim increased its value almost thirteen-fold. At his death, his assets amounted to 1.5 million Thaler, including about fifteen thousand hectares of land, which made him one of Germany's more substantial landowners. Arnim's maternal family, although equally blue-blooded, had a quite different background. His great-grandmother, Countess Amalie Sophie von Wendt of Hanover, had been the mistress of George II of England; their illegitimate son was Arnim's grandfather. Thus through his mother Arnim was related to both the British and the Prussian royal families.
As Nitzschke notes, Arnim's childhood was difficult. His parents divorced when he was two years old and his father died six years later. His guardian was none other than Heinrich Friedrich Karl Freiherr vom und zum Stein, who guided his young charge through his education, sending him to the Werdersche Gymasium in Berlin, and then on to study law at Berlin and Göttingen--neither typical choices for young men from Prussian noble families at the time. Although he is usually portrayed as a cranky reactionary in the Restoration era, Stein appears here in a more progressive light, insisting that his charge go to school with young commoners, forego noble inclinations toward "Diplomatisiern, Exerzieren und Landjunkerisieren" (p. 61), and include in his legal studies a course on the Napoleonic Code. Arnim entered Prussian state administration in 1830, and enjoyed a stellar career, rising from Landrat in Templin, to deputy district governor in Stralsund, to district governor in Aachen, all in the span of seven years. After a three-year hiatus, during which he retired to his estates, he was named provincial governor in Posen--a difficult and tricky post, in view of growing Polish nationalism and conflicts between the Prussian state and the Catholic Church. Arnim earned the reputation of an excellent state bureaucrat, a conscientious, efficient administrator who also strove to stay on good terms with local elites and so to reconcile state and society in Prussia. In 1842, he was appointed to the key government position of Minister of the Interior, at the age of thirty-nine the youngest government minister in the history of the Prussian monarchy.
Arnim's three-year term as interior minister was a difficult one, putting him on the front lines of the growing challenges to state authority by Vormärz oppositional movements. Arnim's differences with Friedrich Wilhelm IV, which would lead to his dismissal from office, only increased his difficulties. Arnim had little sympathy for Friedrich Wilhelm's medievalisms, or his plans to remake Prussian government along Old Regime, corporate (ständisch) lines. Both during and after his term as interior minister, Arnim was close to the monarch's brother and heir presumptive, the Prince of Prussia; contemporaries often thought that when the latter expressed his disapproval of Friedrich Wilhelm's actions, Arnim was whispering in his ear.
As the political situation spiraled out of control in 1845-47, Arnim waited for his chance to return to the government. It arrived, although under less than propitious circumstances. He was appointed Prussia's first minister president on March 19, 1848, immediately following the revolutionary barricade fighting in the Berlin. His term of office lasted all of ten days, as he was caught between the growing demands of the revolutionary movement and the unwillingness of his royal master to let his prime minister be a prime minister and administer the affairs of state.
Returning to his estates, Arnim played a modest, secondary role in the developing conservative political movement during the rest of the revolution. He was elected to the Prussian parliament in February 1849, and spent the next nine years there as leader of one of the many conservative caucuses. Although widespread rumors often had him named to high office, Arnim was never again appointed a government minister. With the coming of the more liberal New Era in 1858, Arnim switched to the Prussian House of Lords. During the Conflict Era, he was a loyal supporter of Bismarck's ministry against the Progressive-dominated House of Deputies, but his efforts to use the House of Lords on behalf of the government do not seem to have been coordinated with Bismarck and were not entirely successful. Unlike many of his fellow conservatives, Arnim supported Bismarck's anti-Austrian foreign policy, but increasingly poor health--health problems dogged him for much of his adult life--prevented him from playing any political role in the two years between the Battle of Königgrätz and his death.
All this information, taken from Nitschke's biographical account, justifies Arnim's claim to status as a significant political figure in mid-nineteenth century Prussia, but when we consider what the author does with this significance, problems in his account emerge. One aspect of these difficulties is created by a simple organizational issue--Nitzschke treats every phrase of Arnim's post-1848 career doubly, first giving an account of Arnim's own activities in a given period and then considering the broader position of Prussian conservatism. The upshot is a lot of unnecessary repetition without the addition of significant new information.
A deeper problem, though, is the author's structuring concept of two opposed tendencies within Prussian conservatism: "old conservatism," whose adherents, mostly pietists, supported an older, corporate form of government and society, and "state conservatism," whose supporters--and Arnim is taken as a prime example of them--had a more rationalist approach to the world and endorsed the creation of constitutional institutions designed to guarantee the monarch and his state officials the dominant voice in government. It is unclear how such a dichotomy accounts for a figure like Julius Stahl, whose religious attitudes and ständisch sympathies place him with the old conservatives, but who also supported a Prussian constitution guaranteeing the monarch a powerful place? Where does Bismarck fit? While Arnim's ideas and actions generally correspond to the profile of a state conservative, it sometimes seems that before the revolution of 1848 his response to the call for corporate political institutions was not to endorse a constitution but a continuation of authoritarian bureaucratic rule.
Nitschke's detailed biographical account reveals three issues about Arnim's career that it cannot resolve and which point to larger political issues that remain unclear. One is the way that Arnim climbed the bureaucratic ladder during the Vormärz, but frequently disagreed with this superiors, or resigned from the state service when he thought it would be beneficial to his career--leaving the post of district governor in heavily Catholic Aachen in 1837, for instance, right after the arrest of the Archbishop of Cologne made things difficult for Prussian administrators in the Rhineland. Nitschke attributes Arnim's behavior to his awareness of his genealogical ties to the royal family but one does have to wonder what these attitudes and actions say about the nature of the bureaucracy and bureaucratic career patterns in Vormärz Prussia.
A second point concerns the author's portrayal of the 1848 revolution. Nitschke presents a detailed account of decision-making at the highest levels of the Prussian monarchy during March 1848. His portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm IV--unsure, vacillating, unable to rule but unwilling to let anyone else do so--is convincing and illuminates both the circumstances of Arnim's appointment as minister president and the reasons for his failure in office. Even so, Nitschke's discussion of the revolution in Berlin falls back well behind the consensus of modern scholarship, taking seriously rumors spread by Prussian officers and officials of French- and Polish-speaking subversives, with plans to build identical barricades, making the revolution against the will of the vast majority of Berlin's loyal subjects. Although Nitschke cites Rüdiger Hachtmann's massive work on the revolution of 1848 in Berlin, it is apparent that he has not understood its implications.
This matter is significant because 1848 appears as a turning point in Arnim's career. After his disastrous term as minister president, he was never again a government minister--even in 1858, when his patron and advisee, the Prince of Prussia, became regent and eventually King Wilhelm I. One does have to wonder why Wilhelm never offered Arnim a portfolio. Nitschke asserts that Wilhelm became angered with Arnim in 1860-61 when he led opposition in the Prussian House of Lords to the taxation of Rittergüter, the revenues of which Wilhelm thought were necessary for his planned army reform. Such actions do not fit the author's portrait of Arnim as a "state conservative," nor do they explain why Wilhelm did not turn to Arnim before this proposal or later on during the Conflict Era, when political alignments were different.
Although this is, as the author states, a political biography, some interesting developments in Arnim's personal and private life are relevant to his political activities. One is Arnim's administration of his extensive estates, evidently in very successful fashion, in view of his considerable expansion of his patrimony. Nitschke asserts that Arnim was a not a capitalist. He claims that Arnim's estate management refutes notions of the transformation of the Junkers into a class of capitalist agricultural entrepreneurs, because Arnim invested his assets in his estates, rather than in stocks, bonds, or sponsorship of industrial enterprises. This seems like a dubious criterion upon to make such an assertion. One would like to know more about Arnim's management practices--crop rotations, crop yields, marketing practices, accounting procedures--to see just how profit- and market-oriented his running of his estates was.
Finally, Arnim's private life deserves a mention. His mother, Countess Charlotte von Gimborn-Neustadt, was a figure straight out of a Theodor Fontane novel--twice divorced for adultery (the second time by Arnim's father), she ended up in Paris, married a dubious French adventurer, and sent her grown son desperate letters begging for money, which he refused to answer. One can only wonder about how the early separation from his mother and the death a few years later of his father affected Arnim's personality, and whether it led to a lack of some of the qualities needed in a successful courtier and politician. Arnim's adult private life is left in the dark, as well. Nitschke asserts that Arnim's own marriage to a Thuringian noblewoman was one of political convenience, but the marriage lasted all of Arnim's life and produced numerous offspring.
What these observations suggest is that the author has not made as much of the material as he could have. He has successfully revived the life and career of a largely forgotten Prussian conservative, but has not entirely succeeded in elucidating either the contours of that life or its importance for the politics and the government of the Prussian monarchy at a crucial period of its development in the nineteenth century.
. Rüdiger Hachtmann, Berlin 1848. Eine Politik- und Sozialgeschichte der Revolution (Bonn: J. H. W. Dietz, 1997).
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Jonathan Sperber. Review of Nitschke, Wolf, Adolf Heinrich Graf v. Arnim-Boitzenburg (1803-1868): Eine politische Biographie.
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