Heinz Duchhardt, ed. Stein: Die späten Jahre des preußischen Reformers 1815-1831. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007. xi + 215 pp. EUR 29.90 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-525-36376-8.
Reviewed by Jasper Heinzen (Darwin College and Faculty of History, University of Cambridge)
Published on H-German (March, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Legacy of the Early Nineteenth Century
Baron Karl vom Stein (1757-1831) stands out as one of the few Prussian statesmen whose reputation has survived the Second World War largely unscathed. Casting about for usable political traditions to legitimize the Federal Republic, West German postwar historiography eagerly seized on Stein's credentials as a trailblazer of constitutionalism and responsible reform in the early nineteenth century. Although popular interest in this lodestar of the European coalition against Napoleon began to languish somewhat towards the end of the century, his 250th birthday in 2007 engendered a veritable Stein renaissance. Mindful of this important anniversary, the volume edited by Heinz Duchhardt set itself the task of illuminating the oft-ignored last sixteen years of the elder statesman's life. All things considered, the commendable Stein: Die späten Jahre des preußischen Reformers 1815-1831 fills in some existing historiographical lacunae and puts into perspective the (dis-)continuities in Stein's character development.
Duchhardt and his collaborators argue that despite Stein's physical distance from the political centers of power after 1815, his active interest in the study of German medieval history and continuing engagement with the political questions of his day deserve more attention to place his legacy in its proper context. Based on conference presentations delivered at the Institute for European History in Mainz in December 2006, the volume is divided into ten articles that shed light on the baron's variegated activities in semi-retirement. Duchhardt makes it plain in the foreword, however, that practical considerations necessitated selectivity in the choice of subjects. Thus, sadly, Stein's endeavors to influence the course of the Greek War of Independence found no takers.
The first two contributions by Rudolf Schieffer and Gerhard Schmitz sketch Stein's involvement in the inception and running of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH). Not content with serving as a mere figurehead, he secured financial backing and provided hands-on input to the scientific management of the project. Although Stein was not alone in championing the preservation of extant medieval sources in the name of "patriotic history," he was the engine that propelled the MGH off the ground, according to Schieffer and Schmitz. Gabriele Clemens takes Stein's commitment to history further and shows that his cordial interaction with the emerging movement of historical associations in the 1820s reflected his belief that the past informed contemporary politics, even as it conveniently buttressed aristocratic family memory.
Tackling the baron's much-vaunted image as a reforming constitutionalist, Michael Hundt and Wolfram Siemann approach the issue from opposite positions. Hundt propounds the view that Stein's notion of corporatism and local self-government derived from a "pre-modern, patriarchal imagination" (p. 68), which failed to grasp the need for modern state bureaucracies. In contrast, Siemann throws into relief his endorsement of and formative influence on the early southern German constitutions after the Congress of Vienna (1814-15). Rather than being an "antiquated utopian" (p. 92) dreamer, Stein's patronage of incipient constitutionalism in Germany demonstrated, in Siemann's view, his flexibility and openness to new political trends--even when the forces of restoration started suppressing them in the wake of the Karlsbad Decrees of 1819. Both authors agree, though, that neither of the labels "liberal" or "conservative" does Stein complete justice. Peter Burg adds another interesting facet to the polarized discussion by tracing the reformer's changing attitude towards the Prussian Städteordnung of 1808. One of the principal architects of this groundbreaking municipal ordinance, Stein assumed an increasingly pessimistic view of society's ability to govern itself. Hence, when the Prussian government subjected the Städteordnung to revision in the 1820s, he then accepted the central government's right to intervene in municipal affairs.
Stein's growing disillusionment, as Julia A. Schmidt-Funke makes clear in her paper, was further fueled by the outbreak of the July Revolution of 1830, which reconfirmed his suspicions of the French people's capacity for mischief. Even though no friend of tyrannical monarchs, he saw in the revolutions a destructive juggernaut that posed a threat to all political and divine order. If anything, the upheavals of 1830 across Europe once more drove home in his opinion the need for moderate constitutional rule to keep the specter of chaos at bay. Unlike the other authors, Schmidt-Funke makes good use of statistics, which rely on a quantitative breakdown of Stein's correspondence by subject in the aftermath of the Paris uprising, to support her case. Yet, it has to be said that as revealing as the bar charts are concerning the aging politician's mental acuity and broad range of interests, they suffer from pronounced visual flaws. Most noticeably, the black-and-white shading of the bars is so indistinct that the reader struggles to make sense of the variables at times.
The other three contributions in the volume share a common theme inasmuch as they showcase Stein's interaction with peers, family, and the public. Thomas Stamm-Kuhlmann presents the growing rift between the baron and his reform-era colleague and later rival, Karl August von Hardenberg, as a poignant case in point of the interference of personal bias with politics. Gerd Dehtlefs, in turn, draws attention to the visual dimension of Stein's legacy by way of portraits that have shaped how contemporaries and subsequent generations perceived the aristocratic networker and Prussian patriot. The latter commissioned images and sculptures of himself mostly as gifts to relatives and friends, but as his fame soared, these media developed into commercial and symbolically charged instruments of commemoration for a wider public. Stein appreciated the power of self-marketing, since he had a keen eye on posterity and wanted German collective memory to remember him as an honest patriot, as Duchhardt underscores in the concluding paper. Fittingly, this engaging piece of cultural history looks at the baron's carefully staged funeral, which opted for simplicity instead of pomp in order to cast him as a man who preferred to be judged by his principles rather than by his ambitions for worldly power.
The editor deserves credit for managing to assemble a group of authors whose contributions complement each other very nicely. Even so, the convenient complementarity has the drawback of making the publication seem overly Germanocentric. In the foreword, Duchhardt points out that, with the exception of Robert Seeley's and Constantin de Grunwald's respective English and French language biographies, international scholarship has largely ignored Stein so far--despite the fact that the reformer corresponded with political decision-makers all over Europe. To remedy this state of affairs, more foreign voices and reference to the baron's clout on the European, notably Russian, stage after 1815 would have been welcome. It will therefore remain to future studies to address this desideratum for an evenly balanced assessment of Stein's many-sided political testament.
is a commendable little volume that
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Jasper Heinzen. Review of Duchhardt, Heinz, ed., Stein: Die späten Jahre des preußischen Reformers 1815-1831.
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