Affairs in Prussia (October 16, 1858)

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Berlin, Oct. 16, 1858

If the world in general knows nothing or little of the Prussian Constitution, it will, at all events, derive any desirable comfort from the great fact that the Prussian people itself gropes its way in the same dark ignorance. At this very moment, electioneering Committees in Berlin, Breslau, Königsberg, Cologne and all the other great or small centers of liberalism, are busily engaged in turning over the dry leaves of the Prussian Charter, to make sure what legitimate arms of attack or defense, suitable to the purpose of the hour, may be snatched from that mysterious arsenal. These ten years over, while that Charter pretended to be a thing of intrinsic value, a final result, a definitive solution, the bulk of the Prussians showed it the cold shoulder, caring about as much for it as for the laws of Manu[1]. The very moment that a general feeling did spring up of circumstances having turned this official lumber into a two-edged sword, everybody appears anxious to get acquainted with "the Great Unknown."[2] In official regions, on the other hand, there prevails a most uneasy feeling, lest the fruit of knowledge, in this case, as in the antediluvian epoch, may prove the fruit of sin; and the Constitutional mania, which has all at once seized upon the Prussian people, is looked upon with gloomy, and I cannot but say well-founded suspicion. The Prince of Prussia, at this very moment, considers a coup d'état as a contingency he may be driven to before long. If the electioneering Committees should succeed in their scheme of recruiting the majority of the Elective Chamber from the liberal ranks of the National Assembly of 1848, from Waldeck, Jacoby, Rodbertus, Unruh, Kirchmann, &c., the Prince would have to walk over again the same battle-ground Royalty seemed to have conquered in December, 1848. Even the mere breath and hum and clamor of reawakened popular life bewilder him. If he were to form—as advised by part of his own camarilla—a Cabinet Bismarck Schönhausen, thus openly throwing the gauntlet into the face of revolution, and unceremoniously nipping the hopes ostensibly attached to his advent, the Elective Chamber, in harmony with Art. 56 of the Constitution and his own rescripts[3], might discuss the "necessity" of his regency. His regime would thus be initiated by stirring and ominous debates as to the legitimate or usurpatory character of his title. On the other hand, should he allow, for a while only, the movement to spread and quietly assume palpable forms, his difficulties would become enhanced by the old Royalist party turning round and assailing him for his having reopened the flood-gates of revolution, which, in their opinion, they with statesmanlike superiority knew ' how to lock up as long as allowed to steer under the colors of the old insane King. The history of monarchies shows that, in epochs of social revolution, there is nothing more dangerous for a resolute and straightforward, but vulgar and old-fashioned man, than to accept the inheritance of a vascillating, feeble and faithless character. James I, to whom Frederick William bears the closest resemblance, weathered the tempest which threw Charles I upon the scaffold, and James II expiated in an obscure exile those divine-right delusions which had even added to the strange popularity of Charles II. It was, perhaps, from an instinctive apprehension of such difficulties laid in store for him, that Prince William stubbornly resisted the proclamation of the Charter by the same King who, in 1847, on the opening of the United Diet of the provincial estates, had pompously declared:

"I feel urged to make the solemn declaration that no earthly power will ever succeed in deciding me to convert the natural and solid relation between King and people into a conventional, constitutional one, and that I will never allow, never, that there intrude between the Lord in heaven and this country, a written bit of paper, a second providence, so to say, pretending to rule by its paragraphs, and supplant by their means the old, sacred faith."[4]

I have already related, in a former letter[5], how the sketch of a Constitution drawn up by the Camphausen Cabinet and elaborated by the Revolutionary Assembly of 1848, forms the ground-work of the present Constitution, but only after a coup d'état had swept away the original scheme, an octroyed Charter had reproduced it in a mangled form, two revision chambers had remodeled the octroyed Charter, and innumerable royal decrees had amended the revised Charter; all this tedious process being gone through in order to wipe out the last features recording the revolutionary offspring of the patchwork. Still this end was not absolutely obtained, since all ready-made charters must be molded more or less on the French pattern, and, do what you may, forsake all pretension at any striking originality. Thus, if one runs through Title II of the Constitution of January, 1850, treating of the "Rights of Prussians," the Prussian droits de l'homme[6], so to say, the paragraphs on first view read well enough,

"All Prussians are equals before the law. Personal liberty is guaranteed. The private domicile is inviolable. Nobody can be withdrawn from his legal judge. Punishments, save through the magistrate, in his legitimate function, are not to be held out by way of intimidation. Property is inviolable. Civil death and confiscation are banished from the law. The liberty of emigration is not to be encroached upon by the State, save with relation to military duty. The liberty of religious confession, of formation into religious societies, and private or public worship in common is granted. The enjoyment of civil and political rights is independent from religious confession. Marriages according to civil law only are to be allowed. Science and its doctrines are free. The education of the youth is to be sufficiently provided for by public schools. Everybody is free to teach and to found educational establishments. The direction of the economical relations of popular schools belongs to the communes. In public elementary schools instruction is given gratuitously. Every Prussian possesses the right of freely expressing his opinions by way of speech, writing and printing. Offenses, committed in this way, fall under the jurisdiction of the regular tribunals. All Prussians have the right to hold meetings if unarmed, and if gathering in closed rooms. They may form reunions and clubs for purposes not offending the laws. All Prussians enjoy the right of petition. The secrecy of letters is inviolable. All Prussians must fulfill their military duties. The armed force is only to interfere in exceptional cases legally circumscribed. Entails are by law proscribed, and the existing feudal property is to be transformed into freehold property. The free division of landed property is granted."

Now, if you turn from the "Rights of the Prussians," as they appeared on paper, to the sorry figure they cut in reality, you will, if you never did before, arrive at a full appreciation of the strange antagonism between idealism and realism, theory and practice. Every step of yours, simple locomotion even, is tampered with by the omnipotent action of bureaucracy, this second providence of genuine Prussian growth. You can neither live nor die, nor marry, nor write letters, nor think, nor print, nor take to business, nor teach, nor be taught, nor get up a meeting, nor build a manufactory, nor emigrate, nor do any thing without "obrigkeitliche Erlaubniss"—permission on the part of the authorities. As to the liberty of science and religion, or abolition of patrimonial jurisdiction[7], or suppression of caste privileges, or the doing away with entails and primogeniture, it is all mere bosh. In all these respects Prussia was freer in 1847 than it is now. Whence this contradiction? All the liberties granted by the Prussian Charter are clogged with one great drawback. They are granted within "the limits of law."[8] Now the existing law is exactly the absolutist law, which dates from Frederick II, instead of from the birthday of the Constitution. Thus there exists a deadly antagonism between the law of the Constitution and the constitution of the law, the latter reducing, in fact, the former to mere moonshine. On the other hand, the Charter in the most decisive points refers to organic laws, intended to elaborate its vague outlines. Now these organic laws have been elaborated under the high pressure of reaction. They have done away with guaranties even existing at the worst times of the absolute monarchy, with the independence, for instance, of the Judges of the executive Government. Not content with these combined dissolvents, the old and the new-fangled laws, the Charter preserves to the King the right of suspending it in all its political bearings, whenever he may think proper.

Yet, with all that and all that, there is there a double Prussia, the Prussia of the Charter and the Prussia of the House Hohenzollern. To work out that antagonism the electoral bodies are now busied with, despite the difficulties thrown in their way by the electoral laws.

  1. The laws of Manu—an ancient Indian collection of instructions defining the duties of each Hindu in accordance with the dogmas of Brahminism. According to Indian tradition, these laws were drafted by Manu, the mythical father of people, approximately between the second century BC and the first century A.D.
  2. The name given to Walter Scott, because his first novels, beginning with Waverley up to 1827, were published anonymously.—Ed.
  3. Wilhelm, Prinz von Preussen, Regent, "Erlass Seiner Königlichen Hoheit des Prinzen von Preussen vom 9. Oktober 1858, die Uebernahme der Regentschaft und die Einberufung der beiden Häuser des Landtages der Monarchie betreffend".—Ed.
  4. Friedrich Wilhelm IV, Der 11. April 1847. Thron-Rede ... zur Eröffnung des Vereinigten Landtages, Berlin, 1847, S. 6.—Ed.
  5. See The King of Prussia's Insanity —Ed.
  6. This refers to the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen) adopted by the French Constituent Assembly on August 26, 1789, during the French Revolution. It proclaimed the main principles of the revolution: sovereignty of the people and the natural rights of man—the right to freedom, property, security and resistance to oppression.
  7. Patrimonial jurisdiction deals with the transfer of patrimony (from patrimonium, a term of the Roman law), property inherited from one's father. This right belonged to the feudal lord who performed judicial functions in his estate.
  8. Circular of the Minister of the Interior von Westphalen of September 24, 1858, Königlich privilegirte Berlinische Zeitung, No. 231, October 3, 1858.—Ed.