The Age of German Liberation, 1795-1815
Under the title of The Age of German Liberation Peter Paret has provided us with an excellent translation of a book by one of the most important modern German historians: Friedrich Meinecke’s Zeitalter der Deutschen Erhebung. This title, however, in both its English and its German versions, is something of a misnomer, since except when he dealt with political ideas Meinecke was not concerned with Germany as a whole, but only with Prussia, the state which supplied the inspiration, the leadership, and the bulk of the fighting forces that freed Germany from the French after the retreat from Moscow in 1812.
Meinecke wrote his work, for the general public and at the request of his publisher, in 1906 to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the reform movement in Prussia—a movement that was set in train by Napoleon’s conquest and occupation of the country in 1806 and that ultimately contributed in large measure to his overthrow.
The principal architects of the reforms—the civilians Stein, Hardenberg, and Wilhelm von Humboldt, the soldiers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Clausewitz, and Boyen—were (apart from Hardenberg, whose raffish character and lack of fixed principles usually disqualified him for the role) among the most famous heroes of imperial Germany. Between 1806 and 1813 the French invasion and occupation, and the heavy indemnity they imposed, reduced the Prussian people to a degree of misery without parallel in Western and Central Europe at the time. But these years, nevertheless, ended with a mobilization of resources for war on a scale unequaled anywhere until then, and seemed to contemporary Germans, and to their successors before 1918, to constitute a heroic age, comparable only to that of Frederick the Great, from which it derived much of its inspiration.
In 1906 Meinecke saw things in this light. Though he regretted the reaction that set in after 1815 this did not seem to him to diminish the achievements of the war years. The results of the age of liberation, he admitted, were “unsatisfactory if aims and achievements are compared” but this, he maintained, was a consequence of the reformers’ propensity to quarrel with one another which resulted inevitably from their greatness. “We stressed,” he said,
this cleft and dissonance, not only to reject trivial patriotic legends, but because the peculiar greatness of the reformers is founded in this lack of harmony. It is inspiring to see these demanding and ambitious men attempt not only the possible but also the impossible and soar far above political realities. In their upward flight they did not ask whether they would crash, and thus awake in those who understand them a sense of the infinite which enables us to bear the finite.
After 1918, and still more after 1945, it was difficult to see things in this way, and Meinecke’s whole attitude to history became suspect. The subjects that interested him were the place of great men in history (his first work was a life of Field Marshal von Boyen), the …