Frederick Engels

Frederick William IV, King of Prussia [174]

Written: about October 1842;
First published: in the Einundzwanzig Bogen aus der Schweiz, hrsg. v. Herwegh, Zurich and Winterthur, 1843;
Signed: F. O.;
Source: MECW, Volume 2;
Transcribed: in 2000 for by Andy Blunden.

Among the European sovereigns whose personality attracts attention also outside their own country there are four of special interest: Nicholas of Russia, because of the directness and unconcealed frankness with which he strives towards despotism; Louis Philippe, who can he regarded as the Machiavelli of our time; Victoria of England, the perfect model of a constitutional queen; and Frederick William IV, whose frame of mind, which has been unmistakably and clearly revealed during the two years of his reign, is to be the subject of closer examination here.

What we have to say is not dictated by the hatred and desire for revenge of a party slighted and abhorred by him, and oppressed and ill-treated by his officials, nor by the bitter resentment engendered by the censorship, which uses freedom of the press to spread scandalous tales and Berlin city gossip. Der deutsche Bote is occupied with other matters. But in view of the dishonourable and base flattery which the newspapers daily lavish on the German sovereigns and peoples, it is absolutely essential that the rulers should for once be seen from a different point of view, and their actions and frame of mind judged as impartially as we judge those of any other person.

In the last years of the previous king [Frederick William III], reaction in the state administration began to join forces with clerical reaction. Owing to the development of opposition to absolute freedom, the orthodox state, like the orthodox church, found itself compelled to return to its initial premises and assert the Christian principle with all its consequences. Thus, Protestant orthodoxy reverted to Catholicism, a phase which finds its most consistent and worthy representatives in Leo and Krummacher, and the Protestant state to the consistent Christian-feudal monarchy in the form in which Frederick William IV seeks to establish it.

Frederick William IV is altogether a product of his time, a figure wholly and solely to be explained by the development of free thought and its struggle against Christianity. He represents the extreme consequence of the Prussian principle, which is seen in him in its latest garb but at the same time in its complete impotence in the face of free self-consciousness. With him the ideological development of the former Prussia has come to an end; a new version of it is not possible, and if Frederick William succeeds in carrying through his system in practice, Prussia must either adopt an entirely new principle — and this can only be the principle of free thought — or it must collapse, if it lacks the strength for such progress.

The state which Frederick William IV is striving to establish is, according to his own words, the Christian state. The form which Christianity assumes when it wishes to appear scientific is theology. The essence of theology, especially in our day, is the reconciliation and glossing over of absolute opposites. Even the most consistent Christian cannot fully emancipate himself from the circumstances of our time; the latter compels him to introduce modifications into Christianity. Christianity contains premises which. if developed, could lead to atheism. Hence arises that form of theology which has found its critic in Bruno Bauer and which with its inherent falsehood and hypocrisy permeates our whole life. In the sphere of the state, this theology has its counterpart in the present system of administration in Prussia. That Frederick William IV has a system is undeniable. It is a fully developed system of romanticism which is the necessary consequence of his point of view; for if one wants to organise a state from this point of view, one must have something more than a few scrappy, disconnected ideas at one’s disposal. Hence, as a preliminary, the theological nature of this system would have to be elaborated.

By undertaking to put into effect the principle of legitimacy with all its consequences, the Prussian King not only allies himself with the historical school of law, but develops it even further, almost as far as Haller’s “restoration”. First of all, in order to realise the Christian state, he has to imbue the rationalist, bureaucratic state, which has become almost heathen, with Christian ideas, give the cult a higher status, and seek to promote participation in it. Nor has he neglected to do so. Here we find the measures to increase church attendance in general and by officials in particular, stricter observance of Sunday, the planned tightening of the laws on divorce, the purging of the theological faculties which has already partially begun, the priority given at theology examinations to firm belief even if coupled with poor knowledge, the appointment primarily of believers to many official positions, and many other generally known facts. They may serve as proof of how intensely Frederick William IV is striving to re-introduce Christianity directly into the state, and to institute state legislation on the basis of the precepts of biblical morality. But these are only the first, most immediate measures. The system of the Christian state cannot rest content with this. The next step is the separation of the church from the state, a step that goes beyond the Protestant state. In the latter the King is summus episcopus and combines in his person supreme ecclesiastical and state power; the final aim of this form of state is the fusion of state and church, as Hegel expressed it. But just as the whole of Protestantism is a concession to secularity, so also is the episcopate of the sovereign. It is a confirmation and justification of the papal primate in that it recognises the need for a visible supreme head of the church; on the other hand, however, it declares the earthly, secular power, state power, to be absolutely supreme and subordinates ecclesiastical power to it. It is not an equation of the secular and the spiritual, but the subordination of the spiritual to the secular. For the sovereign was a sovereign before he became summus episcopus, and remains primarily the sovereign afterwards as well, without ever being invested with a spiritual character. The other aspect of the matter, of course, is that the sovereign now combines all power, earthly and heavenly, in his own person and, as an earthly God, is the consummation of the religious state. 1 Since, however, such subordination is contrary to the Christian spirit, it is absolutely necessary for a state that claims to he Christian to restore to the church its independence of the state. This reversion to Catholicism is now quite impossible; the absolute emancipation of the church is equally impossible to carry out without undermining the fundamental basis of the state; hence it is necessary to resort to an intermediate system. That is precisely what Frederick William IV has already done in relation to the Catholic Church. As regards the Protestant Church, here also obvious facts reveal his views on this matter; in particular, one should mention the abolition of compulsory union and the freeing of the Old Lutherans from the oppression they had to suffer. [175] In the Protestant denomination a very special situation has. now arisen. It has no visible supreme head, and in general no unity; it is divided into numerous sects, and therefore the Protestant state cannot give it freedom in any other way than by regarding the various sects as corporations, and thus affording them absolute freedom for their internal affairs. Nevertheless, the sovereign does not relinquish his episcopate, but reserves for himself the right of confirmation and sovereignty in general, whereas, on the other hand, he recognises Christianity as a power over himself and consequently must also yield to the church. Thus, not only do the contradictions in which the Protestant state develops remain in force, despite all apparent resolution of them, but there also arises an intermixture with the principles of the Catholic state, which is bound to lead to an astonishing confusion and lack of principle. And that is not theological.

By the action taken against the Archbishop of Cologne, the Protestant state declared, through Altenstein and Frederick William III, that a devoted Catholic cannot be a useful citizen. [176] This thesis, confirmed by the whole history of the Middle Ages, is valid not only for the Protestant state, but for any state at all. A person who makes his whole being, his whole life, a preparation for heaven cannot have the interest in earthly affairs which the state demands from its citizens. The state claims to be everything to its citizens; it does not recognise any authority over itself and, in general, presents itself as an absolute power. But the Catholic recognises God and his institution, the church, as something absolute and can therefore never adopt the standpoint of the state without inner reservation. This contradiction cannot be resolved. Even the Catholic state must, in the opinion of the Catholics, subordinate itself to the church, otherwise the Catholic will disassociate himself from it; how much more, therefore, will he be at variance with the non-Catholic state? In this respect, the action taken by the previous government was perfectly consistent and well founded; the state can only allow the freedom of the Catholic denomination to be undiminished so long as the latter obeys the existing laws. — This state of affairs could not satisfy the Christian King. But what was to be done? The Protestant state could not lag behind the Catholic Hohenstaufens, and in view of the height of consciousness which the state and church had attained, a definite solution was possible only by the subordination of one or the other, a subordination which for the submitting side would be tantamount to self-destruction. The problem had become one of principle, and in the face of principles the isolated case as such had to take second place. What did Frederick William IV do now? in true theological fashion, he ignored the impertinent, inconvenient principles, concentrated exclusively on the actual case in question, which divorced from principles became completely confused, and tried to dispose of it by means of a compromise. The curia stood firm, and therefore it was the state that was defeated. This is what the renowned glorious solution of the Cologne discord amounts to, reduced to its true content.

These same only superficially concealed contradictions which Frederick William IV evoked in the attitude of the state to the church, he tried to arouse also in the internal relations of the state. Here he could rely on the already existing theories of the historical school of law, and so he had a fairly easy task. The course of history had made the principle of absolute monarchy dominant in Germany, destroyed the rights of the old feudal estates, and elevated the King into a divinity in the state. Moreover, in the period between 1807 and 1812, the vestiges of the Middle Ages were resolutely attacked and for the most part swept away. And no matter how much the old was later restored, the legislation of that time and the Prussian Law drawn up under the influence of the Enlightenment remained the basis of Prussian legislation. Such a state of things was bound to be intolerable. Therefore Frederick William IV seized on all vestiges of the Middle Ages wherever they were to be found. The nobility with the right of primogeniture was shown special favour and their ranks strengthened by the investiture of new members on condition that they established the right of primogeniture. The burghers, as distinct from the nobility and peasants, were regarded and treated as a special social estate representing trade and industry. Separation of the corporations, the isolation of individual crafts and their approximation to the guild system were encouraged, etc. In general, from the outset, all the King’s speeches and actions showed his special predilection for the system of corporations, and it is precise this that is the best indication of his medieval Standpoint. This coexistence of privileged associations, which in their internal affairs can act with a certain freedom and independence, each of them being closely knit by similar interests, but which fight among themselves and try to outdo one another — this disintegration of the state forces to the extent of the complete collapse of the state, typical of the German Empire, is one of the most significant features of the Middle Ages. It goes without saying, however, that Frederick William IV does not intend to lead the Christian state to this pass. It is true that he believes himself called upon to restore the truly Christian state, but actually he wants only the theological appearance of the same, the brilliance and splendour of the Christian state but not its misery, oppression, disorder and self-destruction, in short, he wants a juste-milieu Middle Ages, just as a person like Leo wants from Catholicism only the resplendent cult, the church discipline, etc., but not the whole of Catholicism hook, line and sinker. Hence Frederick William is also not absolutely illiberal and despotic in his endeavours — God forbid — he wants to allow his Prussians all possible freedoms, but actually only in the form of unfreedom, monopoly, and privilege. He is not an out-and-out enemy of a free press, he will grant it, but again as a monopoly primarily of the learned professions. He does not wish to abolish representation or refuse it, he merely objects to representation of the citizen as such; he is aiming at representation of the social estates as already partially carried out in the Prussian provincial diets. [177] In short, he does not recognise any universal, civic, or human rights, he admits only corporate rights, monopolies, privileges. He will bestow a multitude of these, as many as he can without his absolute power being restricted by positive legal provisions. Perhaps he will go even further. It is possible that already now, despite the Königsberg and Breslau assurances, [178] he has the secret intention — when he has carried his theological policy far enough — to crown his labours by inaugurating a medieval constitution based on the social estates of the realm, and thereby bind the hands of his successors, who may possibly have other views. That would be consistent, but whether his theological standpoint would permit it remains to be seen.

We have seen how vacillating and unfounded, how inconsistent this system is already in itself; its introduction in practice must inevitably give rise to new vacillations and inconsistencies. The cold Prussian bureaucratic state, the system of control, the strident state machine, do not want to know anything about splendid, shining, trustful romanticism. The nation as a whole is still at too low a level of political development to be able to see through the system of the Christian King. Nevertheless, hatred of the privileges of the nobility, and of the claims of the clergy of all denominations, is too deep-rooted for Frederick William not to meet with failure here if he acts quite openly. Hence the cautious system of taking soundings that he has hitherto practised, by which he first explored public opinion and then always left himself sufficient time to withdraw any too obnoxious measure. Hence also the method of putting his ministers into the forefront and disavowing them if they acted too forcefully. The remarkable thing is that a Prussian minister should tolerate this and not offer his resignation. It has already happened to Rochow, and it will shortly be Herr Eichhorn’s turn, although quite recently the King awarded him a title of honour and applauded his actions. Without such theological devices, Frederick -William IV would long ago have lost the affection of the people, which he has managed to retain so far only because of his frank, jovial nature, his great kindness and affability, and his unrestrained wit, which is said not to spare even crowned heads. Moreover, he takes great care not to flaunt the obnoxious or even unavoidably bad aspects of his system; on the contrary, he speaks of it as though it were nothing but splendour, glory and freedom, and he lets himself go only on topics where his system gives the appearance of being more liberal than the existing Prussian system of tutelage; where, however, he would appear Liberal, he wisely restrains himself. Furthermore, while always applying to ordinary constitutionalism such flattering epithets as superficial and vulgar he has nevertheless mastered its terminology and uses it very skilfully in his speeches — should one say to express his ideas or conceal them? That is exactly how the modern theologians of compromise behave, who are likewise fond of using political terminology, imagining that by so doing they are adapting themselves to the demands of the time. Bruno Bauer bluntly calls this hypocrisy.

As for the financial administration under Frederick William IV, he has not been able to keep to the kind of civil list which his father established for himself, who laid down by law that 2'12 million talers annually should be allocated to the King and his household out of the revenue from the domains, and that the remainder, together with other revenues, should be used for state requirements. Even if the King’s private income is taken into account it can be reckoned that he spends more than 2.5 million — yet this sum is also supposed to cover the maintenance of the other princes. In addition, Bülow-Cummerow has proved that the so-called financial accounting of the Prussian state is absolutely illusory. In general, it remains a complete mystery how the state revenues are administered. The much-talked-of reduction of taxes hardly deserves mention; it could have been carried out long ago under the previous King had he not feared that he would be compelled to raise them again.

I think I have now said enough about Frederick William IV. In view of his undoubtedly kind-hearted nature, it stands to reason that in matters not related to his theory, he honestly does what public opinion demands and what is really good. The question still remains whether he will ever be able to put his system into effect. To this, fortunately, the reply can only be in the negative. Since last year, since the time when allegedly greater freedom was accorded to the press, which at the present moment has again become the most unfree, the Prussian people has achieved an advance which is out of all proportion to the insignificance of that measure. The oppression of the censorship in Prussia shackles such an extraordinary mass of forces that the smallest relief evokes an incomparably powerful reaction on their part. Prussian public opinion is centring more and more round two questions: representative government and, especially, freedom of the press. The latter, whatever the attitude of the King, will be wrung from him as a preliminary, and once this is achieved it must be followed within a year by a constitution. But should a representative system be established, it is quite impossible to foresee what course Prussia will then take. One of the first consequences will be the annulment of the alliance with Russia, if the King has not already been compelled by then to abandon this consequence of his principle. However, there is much more that could follow, and Prussia’s present situation closely resembles that of France before ... but I refrain from any premature conclusions.