Ingo Hermann. Hardenberg: Der Reformkanzler. Berlin: Siedler Verlag, 2003. 448 S. EUR 24.90 (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-88680-729-1.
Reviewed by Karin Breuer (Department of History and Political Science, Centenary College of Louisiana)
Published on H-German (October, 2004)
The principal attraction of the Prussian Reform Movement for historians lies not so much in what it achieved, but in the causes of its failures. Despite the efforts of reformers to gain support from Prussian subjects through economic, social, and political changes, the status quo was, with few exceptions, reasserted in the reactionary era that followed the Napoleonic Wars. Since the nineteenth century, historians have assigned some of the blame for this failure to Karl August von Hardenberg, the Prussian chancellor who governed when reform turned into reaction.
In Hardenberg: Der Reformkanzler, journalist Ingo Hermann provides the first full-scale biography of Karl August von Hardenberg in over three decades. Intended more for general readers than academic specialists, this well-researched biography follows Hardenberg's life in an accessible and engaging manner. Hermann relied on some newly published sources, such as Hardenberg's journal, as well as unpublished materials in the Hardenberg family archives.
Hermann's narrative is generally chronological, beginning with Hardenberg's birth in 1750 and ending with his death in 1822. The author includes information about Hardenberg's scandalous personal life, including his first wife's liaison with the Prince of Wales, his second wife's extramarital affair and illegitimate child, and his third and final marriage to actress Charlotte Schoenemann. The book's main focus, however, is the political career of Hardenberg. Hermann traces Hardenberg's rise through the Hanoverian and Prussian administrative ranks, which culminated in an appointment to the chancellorship of Prussia in 1810. During the half decade that followed, Hardenberg was able to put into practice some aspects of his enlightenment-inspired political philosophy. Hermann does not, however, attempt to cast Hardenberg as a revolutionary. On the contrary, he points out that the chancellor's reforms explicitly opposed the supposed bearer of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte. Hermann presents Hardenberg as an enlightened aristocrat who believed that the monarch should provide his subjects with a constitution, some civil freedoms, and equality before the law. The biographer rightly reminds readers of Hardenberg's reforms which were put into practice, including the beginning of the civil emancipation of Prussian Jews and the partial destruction of the feudal system.
Hermann's purpose for writing this book is to transcend the politicized memory of Hardenberg. He believes the reformer's memory has undergone centuries of distortions, beginning with contemporaries who labeled Hardenberg as either a Jacobin or an absolutist. These misinterpretations continued in the centuries that followed: imperial historians deemed him ineffective in advancing the cause of German unity, National Socialists found him too tolerant of Jews, and Marxist historians viewed him as a champion of the rights of elites. Hermann admits that his own biography has a political agenda, namely to use Hardenberg's memory to shed light on the conditions necessary for successful, practical reforms of the current German state (p. 412). The author maintains, however, that this agenda does not inappropriately bias his book.
Hermann's concern about historical teleology does not save Hardenberg: Der Reformkanzler from similar lapses. The most puzzling of these occur in the chapter "Distorted Worldview," which discusses Hardenberg's policies in regards to Prussian Jews. Hermann suggests here that Hardenberg's tolerance was not typical of the attitudes held by his contemporaries; in fact, the writings of Achim von Arnim, Heinrich von Kleist, Carl von Clausewitz, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Adam Mueller showed "the first inklings of a new race consciousness" among German-speaking intellectuals (p. 306). The author concludes that this illustrates that Hitler was not an "Austrian coincidence on Prussian soil," but the result of anti-Semitism that had its roots in the early-nineteenth century (p. 307). This assessment of the origins of Nazi racism is tangential to the biography of the reformer, unsupported by Hermann's evidence, and overly reductionist.
The book has another flaw, one common to many biographies: an overly positive view of its subject. Scarcely a single judgement in the entire book is even mildly critical of Hardenberg. The author refers to Hardenberg as a "sly fox" (p. 167) and a "democratic visionary" (p. 413) and extols the "clarity of his views and his brilliant formulations" (p. 70). Hermann claims that in his post as chancellor, Hardenberg acted with the "finesse of a chess player" (p. 121). But the author himself provides evidence that contradicts his positive assessment. He points out that Hardenberg's early career was uninspired. Even after Hardenberg became instrumental to the Prussian Reform Movement, he managed to alienate those both to the left and the right of the political spectrum, including Wilhelm von Humboldt, Karl von Stein, and Joseph Goerres. Hermann also has difficulty coming to terms with Hardenberg's political about-face after Napoleon's defeat in 1815. Although the author claims that Hardenberg and Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metternich were similarly gifted politicians, he admits that Metternich outmaneuvered the aging Prussian chancellor at the Congress of Vienna and in the years that followed, thereby shifting the course of Prussian politics from a liberalizing monarchy to reactionary conservatism. Hardenberg's acceptance of Metternich's policies helped set the course for the eventual abandonment of his hopes for a constitutional monarchy.
Despite these shortcomings, however, Hermann's biography has much to offer the general reader. In his discussion, the author illustrates the difficulties Hardenberg faced. As a result, the reader is left with the impression of a reformer walking a tightrope between conservatives and liberals, landed aristocrats and the nascent bourgeoisie, and Friedrich Wilhelm III and Napoleon Bonaparte. Given these conditions, it is hardly surprising that many of the goals of the Prussian Reform Movement remained unfulfilled.
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Karin Breuer. Review of Hermann, Ingo, Hardenberg: Der Reformkanzler.
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