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Price Fixing in Ancient Rome



[This article is excerpted from the book Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls: How Not to Fight Inflation, chapter 2: “The Roman Republic and Empire.”]

As might be expected, the Roman Republic was not to be spared a good many ventures into control of the economy by the government. One of the most famous of the Republican statutes was the Law of the Twelve Tables (449 B.C.) which, among other things, fixed the maximum rate of interest at one uncia per libra (approximately 8 percent), but it is not known whether this was for a month or for a year. At various times after this basic law was passed, however, politicians found it popular to generously forgive debtors their agreed-upon interest payments. A Licinian law of 367 B.C., for instance, declared that interest already paid could be deducted from the principal owed, in effect setting a maximum price of zero on interest. The lex Genucia (342 B.C.) had a similar provision and we are told that violations of this “maximum” were “severely repressed under the lex Marcia.” Levy concludes that “Aside from the Law of the Twelve Tables, these ad hoc or demagogic measures soon went out of use.”1

The laws on grain were to have a more enduring effect on the history of Rome. From at least the time of the fourth century B.C., the Roman government bought supplies of corn or wheat in times of shortage and resold them to the people at a low fixed price. Under the tribune Caius Gracchus the Lex Sempronia Frumentaria was adopted, which allowed every Roman citizen the right to buy a certain amount of wheat at an official price much lower than the market price. In 58 B.C. this law was “improved” to allow every citizen free wheat. The result, of course, came as a surprise to the government. Most of the farmers remaining in the countryside simply left to live in Rome without working.

Slaves were freed by their masters so that they, as Roman citizens, could be supported by the state. In 45 B.C., Julius Caesar discovered that almost one citizen in three was receiving his wheat at government expense. He managed to reduce this number by about half, but it soon rose again; throughout the centuries of the empire, Rome was to be perpetually plagued with this problem of artificially low prices for grain, which caused economic dislocations of all sorts.2

In order to attempt to deal with their increasing economic problems, the emperors gradually began to devalue the currency. Nero (A.D. 54–68) began with small devaluations and matters became worse under Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161–180) when the weights of coins were reduced. “These manipulations were the probable cause of a rise in prices,” according to Levy. The Emperor Commodus (A.D.180–192) turned once again to price controls and decreed a series of maximum prices, but matters only became worse and the rise in prices became “headlong” under the Emperor Caracalla (A.D. 211–217).3

Egypt was the province of the empire most affected, but her experience was reflected in lesser degrees throughout the Roman world. During the fourth century, the value of the gold solidus changed from 4,000 to 180 million Egyptian drachmai. Levy again attributes the phenomenal rise in prices which followed to the large increase of the amount of money in circulation. The price of the same measure of wheat rose in Egypt from 6 drachmai in the first century to 200 in the third century; in A.D. 314, the price rose to 9,000 drachmai and to 78,000 in A.D. 334; shortly after the year A.D. 344 the price shot up to more than 2 million drachmai. As noted, other provinces went through a similar, if not quite as spectacular, inflation.4 Levy writes,

In monetary affairs, ineffectual regulations were decreed to Combat Gresham’s Law [bad money drives out good] and domestic speculation in the different kinds of money. It was forbidden to buy or sell coins: they had to be used for payment only. It was even forbidden to hoard them! It was forbidden to melt them down (to extract the small amount of silver alloyed with the bronze). The punishment for all these offenses was death. Controls were set up along roads and at ports, where the police searched traders and travelers. Of course, all these efforts were to no purpose.5

The Edict of Diocletian

The most famous and the most extensive attempt to control prices and wages occurred in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian who, to the considerable regret of his subjects, was not the most attentive student of Greek economic history. Since both the causes of the inflation that Diocletian attempted to control and the effects of his efforts are fairly well documented it is an episode worth considering in Some detail.

Shortly after his assumption of the throne in A.D. 284, “prices of commodities of all sorts and the wages of laborers reached unprecedented heights. ” Historical records for determining the causes of this remarkable inflation are limited. One of the few surviving contemporary sources, the seventh chapter of the De Moribus Persecutorum, lays almost all the blame squarely at the feet of Diocletian. Since, however, the author is known to have been a Christian and since Diocletian, among other things, persecuted the Christians, we have to take this report cum grana salis. In this attack on the emperor we are told that most of the economic troubles of the empire were due to Diocletian’s vast increase in the armed forces (there were several invasions by barbarian tribes during this period), to his huge building program (he rebuilt much of his chosen capital in Asia Minor, Nicomedia), to his consequent raising of taxes and the employment of more and more government officials and, finally, to his use of forced labor to accomplish much of his public-works program.6 Diocletian himself, in his edict (as we shall see) attributed the inflation entirely to the “avarice” of merchants and speculators.

A classical historian, Roland Kent, writing in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, concludes from the available evidence that there were several major causes of the sharp rise in prices and wages. In the half century before Diocletian, there had been a succession of short-reigned, incompetent rulers elevated by the military; this era of weak government resulted in civil wars, riots, general uncertainty and, of course, economic instability. There certainly was a steep rise in taxes, some of it justifiable for the defense of the empire but some of it spent on grandiose public works of questionable value. As taxes rose, however, the tax base shrank and it became increasingly difficult to collect taxes, resulting in a vicious circle.7

It would seem clear that the major single cause of the inflation was the drastic increase in the money supply owing to the devaluation or debasement of the coinage. In the late republic and early empire, the standard Roman coin was the silver denarius; the value of that coin had gradually been reduced until, in the years before Diocletian, emperors were issuing tin-plated copper coins that were still called by the name “denarius.” Gresham’s law, of course, became operative; silver and gold coins were naturally hoarded and were no longer found in circulation.

During the fifty-year interval ending with the rule of Claudius Victorinus in A.D. 268, the silver content of the Roman coin fell to one five-thousandth of its original level. With the monetary system in total disarray, the trade that had been hallmark of the empire was reduced to barter, and economic activity was stymied.

The middle class was almost obliterated and the proletariat was quickly sinking to the level of serfdom. Intellectually the world had fallen into an apathy from which nothing would rouse it.8

To this intellectual and moral morass came the Emperor Diocletian and he set about the task of reorganization with great vigor. Unfortunately, his zeal exceeded his understanding of the economic forces at work in the empire.

In an attempt to overcome the paralysis associated with centralized bureaucracy, he decentralized the administration of the empire and created three new centers of power under three “associate emperors.” Since money was completely worthless, he devised a system of taxes based on payments in kind. This system had the effect, via the ascripti glebae, of totally destroying the freedom of the lower classes — they became serfs and were bound to the soil to ensure that the taxes would be forthcoming.

The “reforms” that are of most interest, however, are those relating to the currency and prices and wages. The currency reform came first and was followed, after it had become clear that this reform was a failure, by the edict on prices and wages. Diocletian had attempted to instill public confidence in the currency by putting a stop to the production of debased gold and silver coins.

According to Kent,

Diocletian took the bull by the horns and issued a new denarius which was frankly of copper and made no pretense of being anything else; in doing this he established a new standard of value. The effect of this on prices needs no explanation; there was a readjustment upward, and very much upward.9

The new coinage gave some stability to prices for a time, but unfortunately, the price level was still too high, in Diocletian’s judgment, and he soon realized that he was faced with a new dilemma.

The principal reason for the official overvaluation of the currency, of course, was to provide the wherewithal to support the large army and massive bureaucracy — the equivalent of modern government. Diocletian’s choices were to continue to mint the increasingly worthless denarius or to cut “government expenditures” and thereby reduce the requirement for minting them. In modern terminology, he could either continue to “inflate” or he could begin the process of “deflating” the economy.

Diocletian decided that deflation, reducing the costs of civil and military government, was impossible. On the other hand,

To inflate would be equally disastrous in the long run. It was inflation that had brought the Empire to the verge of complete collapse. The reform of the currency had been aimed at checking the evil, and it was becoming painfully evident that it could not succeed in its task.10

It was in this seemingly desperate circumstance that Diocletian determined to continue to inflate, but to do so in a way that would, he thought, prevent the inflation from occurring. He sought to do this by simultaneously fixing the prices of goods and services and suspending the freedom of people to decide what the official currency was worth. The famous edict of A.D. 301 was designed to accomplish this end. Its framers were very much aware of the fact that unless they could enforce a universal value for the denarius in terms of goods and services — a value that was wholly out of keeping with its actual value — the system that they had devised would collapse. Thus, the edict was all pervasive in its coverage and the penalties prescribed, severe.

The edict was duly proclaimed in A.D. 301 and, according to Kent, “the preamble is of some length, and is couched in language which is as difficult, obscure, and verbose as anything composed in Latin.”11 Diocletian clearly was on the defensive in announcing such a sweeping law, which affected every person in the empire every day of the week; he uses considerable rhetoric to justify his actions, rhetoric that was used before him and which, with variations, has been used in most times and places since.

He begins by listing his many titles and then goes on to announce that: The national honor and dignity and majesty of Rome demand that the fortune of our State … be also faithfully administered…. To be sure, if any spirit of self-restraint were holding in check those practices by which the raging and boundless avarice is inflamed … peradventure there would seem to be room left for shutting our eyes and holding our peace, since the united endurance of men’s minds would ameliorate this detestable enormity and pitiable condition [but since it is unlikely that this greed will restrain itself] … it suits us, who are the watchful parents of the whole human race, [the term “parents” refers to his associate Augustus and two Caesars] that justice step in as an arbiter in the case, in order that the long-hoped-for result, which humanity could not achieve by itself, may by the remedies which our forethought suggests, be contributed toward the general alleviation of all.12

In The Common People of Ancient Rome, Frank Abbot summarizes the essence of the edict in the following words:

In his effort to bring prices down to what he considered a normal level, Diocletian did not content himself with half measures as we are trying in our attempts to suppress combinations in restraint of trade, but he boldly fixed the maximum prices at which beef, grain, eggs, clothing and other articles could be sold [and also the wages that all sorts of workers could receive] and prescribed the penalty of death for anyone who disposed of his wares at a higher figure. 13

The Results of the Edict

Diocletian was not a stupid man (in fact, from all accounts, he seems to have been more intelligent than all but a few of the emperors); he was therefore aware that one of the first results of his edict would be a great increase in hoarding. That is, if farmers, merchants, and craftsmen could not expect to receive what they considered to be a fair price for their goods, they would not put them on the market at all, but would await a change in the law (or in the dynasty). He therefore provided that

From such guilt also he too shall not be considered free, who, having goods necessary for food or usage, shall after this regulation have thought that they might be withdrawn from the market; since the penalty [namely, death] ought to be even heavier for him who causes need than for him who makes use of it contrary to the statutes.14

There was another clause prescribing the usual penalty for anyone who purchased a good at a higher price than the law allowed; again, Diocletian was well aware of the normal consequences of such attempts at economic regulation. On the other hand, in at least one respect the edict was more enlightened (from an economic point of view) than many regulations of recent years. “In those places where goods shall manifestly abound,” it declared, “the happy condition of cheap prices shall not thereby be hampered — and ample provision is made for cheapness, if avarice is limited and curbed.”15

(Those modern nations who have had to endure “retail price maintenance,” “fair-trade laws” and the various price-fixing agencies such as the International Air Transportation Association could well learn a useful lesson from Diocletian, who at least made it always legal to lower a price.)

“Diocletian had failed to fool the people and had failed to suppress the ability of people to buy and sell as they saw fit.”

Parts of the price lists have been discovered in about 30 different places, mostly in the Greek-speaking portions of the empire. There were at least 32 schedules, covering well over a thousand individual prices or wages.

The results were not surprising and from the wording of the edict, as we have seen, not unexpected by the emperor himself. According to a contemporary account,

then he set himself to regulate the prices of all vendible things. There was much blood shed upon very slight and trifling accounts; and the people brought provisions no more to markets, since they could not get a reasonable price for them and this increased the dearth so much, that at last after many had died by it, the law itself was set aside.16

It is not certain how much of the bloodshed alluded to in this passage was caused directly by the government through the promised executions and how much was caused indirectly. A historian of this period, Roland Kent, believes that much of the harm was indirect. He concludes,

In other words, the price limits set in the Edict were not observed by the traders, in spite of the death penalty provided in the statute for its violation; would-be purchasers, finding that the prices were above the legal limit, formed mobs and wrecked the offending traders’ establishments, incidentally killing the traders, though the goods were after all of but trifling value; hoarded their goods against the day when the restrictions should be removed, and the resulting scarcity of wares actually offered for sale caused an even greater increase in prices, so that what trading went on was at illegal prices, and therefore performed clandestinely.17

It is not known exactly how long the edict remained in force; it is known, however, that Diocletian, citing the strain and cares of government, resulting in his poor health, abdicated four years after the statute on wages and prices was promulgated. It certainly became a dead letter after the abdication of its author. Less than four years after the currency reform associated with the edict, the price of gold in terms of the denarius had risen 250 percent.

Diocletian had failed to fool the people and had failed to suppress the ability of people to buy and sell as they saw fit. The failure of the edict and the currency “reform” led to a return to more conventional fiscal irresponsibility and by A.D. 305 the process of currency debasement had begun again. By the turn of the century, this process had produced a two-thousand-percent increase in the price of gold in terms of denarii:

These are impossible figures and simply mean that any attempt at preserving a market, let alone a mint ratio, between the bronze denarius and the pound of gold was lost. The astronomical figures of the French “assignats,” the German mark after the First World War, and of the Hungarian pengo after the Second, were not unprecedented phenomena.18 … Copper coins could very easily be manufactured; numismatists testify that the coins of the fourth century often bear signs of hasty and careless minting; they were thrust out into circulation in many cases without having been properly trimmed or made tolerably respectable. This hasty manipulation of the mints was just as effective as our modern printing presses, with their floods of worthless, or nearly worthless, paper money.19

M. Rostovtzeff, a leading Roman historian, summed up this unhappy experience in these words:

The same expedient had often been tried before him and was often tried after him. As a temporary measure in a critical time, it might be of some use. As a general measure intended to last, it was certain to do great harm and to cause terrible bloodshed, without bringing any relief. Diocletian shared the pernicious belief of the ancient world in the omnipotence of the state, a belief which many modern theorists continue to share with him and with it.20

Although Diocletian’s attempt to control the economy ended in complete failure and he was forced to abdicate, it was only sixty years later that his successor, Julian the Apostate, was back at the same old stand. Edward Gibbon, the brilliant historian of the period, ironically noted that

the emperor ventured on a very dangerous and doubtful step, of fixing by legal authority, the value of corn [grain]. He enacted that, in a time of scarcity, it should be sold at a price which had seldom been known in the most plentiful years; and that his own example might strengthen his laws [he sent into the market a large quantity of his own grain at the fixed price]. The consequences might have been foreseen and were soon felt. The imperial wheat was purchased by the rich merchants; the proprietors of land, or of corn [grain] withheld from that city the accustomed supply, and the small quantities that appeared in the market were secretly sold at an advanced and illegal price.21

As a desperate measure, succeeding emperors tried to tie workers to the land or to their fathers’ occupations in order to prevent workers from changing jobs as a means of evading the low wages prescribed for certain professions. This, of course, was the ultimate consequence of the attempt to control wages by law.

The only legal escape for many workers was to find a willing replacement and then to give up all their goods to him. The Emperor Aurelian had previously compared a man who left his profession to a soldier who deserted on the field of battle.22

The historian Levy concludes his survey of the economy of the empire by declaring that

State intervention and a crushing fiscal policy made the whole empire groan under the yoke; more than once, both poor men and rich prayed that the barbarians would deliver them from it. In A.D. 378, the Balkan miners went over en masse to the Visigoth invaders, and just prior to A.D. 500 the priest Salvian expressed the universal resignation to barbarian domination.23

  • 1. Jean-Philippe Levy, The Economic Life of the Ancient World (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1967) p. 55.
  • 2. Ibid., pp. 68–69.
  • 3. Ibid., p. 72.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 89.
  • 5. Ibid., p. 94.
  • 6. See Roland Kent, “The Edict of Diocletian Fixing Maximum Prices,” The University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 1920, p. 37.
  • 7. Ibid., pp. 37–38.
  • 8. H. Michell, “The Edict of Diocletian: A Study of Price-Fixing in the Roman Empire,” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, February 1947, p. 3.
  • 9. Kent, op. cit., p. 39.
  • 10. Michell, op. cit., p. 5.
  • 11. Kent, op. cit., p. 40.
  • 12. Ibid., pp. 41–42.
  • 13. Frank Abbot, The Common People of Ancient Rome (New York: Scribner, 1911), pp. 150–151.
  • 14. Kent, op. cit., p. 44.
  • 15. Ibid., p. 43.
  • 16. L.C. F. Lactantius, A Relation of the Death of the Primitive Persecutors, translated by Gilbert Burnet (Amsterdam, 1697) pp. 67–68.
  • 17. Kent, op. cit., pp. 39–40.
  • 18. Michell, op. cit., p. 11.
  • 19. Ibid., p. 12.
  • 20. M. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957).
  • 21. Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Fred de Fau, 1906) Vol. 4, pp. 111–112.
  • 22. Levy, op. cit., p. 97.
  • 23. Ibid., p. 99.

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Science v Religion



QUESTION: Dear Mr. Armstrong,
I have been an avid reader of your blog for over four years after watching The Forecaster on Norwegian TV in the fall of 2015. First, I would like to commend you for your tireless work, your integrity and your courageous struggle for justice and freedom of speech. Your voice is a breath of fresh air at a time when so much brain power is giving in to political correctness and group thinking under the purview of scientific consensus.

During my studies, I became aware of the limitations of academia early on in terms of open critical processes. As I investigated the situation within other disciplines as physics, cosmology, geology, climatology, archaeology, history, biology and medicine, I found serious issues of dissent that was not common known and most often not mentioned in the professional literature.

In my further attempt to understand how this could be possible, it gradually dawned on me that the Western scientific tradition had been reduced to an orthodoxy. Just like any other organization having a predictable resistance against change, protecting itself against the loss of influence and power resulting from being exposed as a promoter of heresy. Partly commercial since depending on grants and external funding, willing to compromise with its own integrity and important social mission.

Since then, of course, everything has only got worse. Critical questions are increasingly ignored or ridiculed, and alternative research dismissed with contempt and excluded from funding and publication under the pretext of a lack of anchoring in consensus. As if the scientific method is a democratic process leading to unassailable dogmas decided by the votes of an academic priesthood.

This leads me to my first question inspired of your blog post about The Decline & Fall of Religion from January 7th. Could the Western scientific tradition have grown into a believe system and thus actually a new religion? For what is really a religion other than an interpretation of reality, sprung from the quest of man to understand himself and his own context? At first offering a new and more powerful set of explanations, but later just to fall as victim of the same corrupt orthodoxy as the model of explanation it once defeated.

As when mathematical reasoning was accepted as a scientific proof in order to understand the universe, or when the limitations within the scientific method, being strictly materialistic, was suggested and by time widely accepted as the very boundaries defining reality itself. Giving rise a atheistic scientific tradition believed to have the power to explain the reality without any supernatural causation.

If this is correct, when did this shift in the cycle of religion take place? What about 1860 which your blog post shows as an important turning point in this cycle? The year when Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species reached the bookshelves in Europe (first edition published 24. November 1859). A book that is supposed to offer an explanation for the existence of life simply from natural causes, and which gradually emptied the churches of the West as the believers converted to science through the educational system of academia. A shift that probably has changed and shaped the West more than any in the time after 1860. First through the industrial revolution as a powerful demonstration of the possibilities and legitimacy of the new worldview.

Later through the ideas of among others Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud leading to socialism, the dismantling of the traditional family structure and the sexual revolution. And finally the post industrial society with the educational revolution lifting billions out of poverty and into the growing mega cities of our time.

After all, does not academia bear all the hallmarks of being a religion with its self-importance, dogmas, traditions, rituals, clergy, heretics, exclusion and even venerable buildings and costumes with weird hats?

Would love hear your thoughts about this perspective, and how it might be linked to the downfall of the West.

ANSWER: Yes, I believe your analysis is correct. Science became a sort of anti-religion. In economics, science became all about the power of the state to manipulate society while ignoring any connection to any other field. It was Albert Einstein who actually commented on the observation you have made. He said in his essay “Science and religion,” published in 1954, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

I actually have no problem with Darwin despite the fact that nobody has ever discovered the missing link. There were clearly three primary species: Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans. There is also genetic evidence that there was interbreeding. Nevertheless, all the evidence he gathered did not deny divine intervention. Evolution does exist insofar as the biological organisms do undergo their own cycle of evolution just as viruses do. Even humans have grown larger over the centuries. Above is the door entrance to the church built during the 4th century over the place where Christ was born. Walking through various ancient places, one notices how much smaller people were. Most Egyptian pharaohs were about 5’6 at best. A giant was someone about 6’1.

Stephen Hawking perhaps said what you are noticing: “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.” That stands in contrast to what Isaac Newton said on the subject: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who sets the planets in motion.”

You are correct that from 1860 onward, there was a major turning point in religion on our model. Indeed, the emergence of “science” took on the position of the anti-religion to many people. This was a major crossroads in religion and we should also include the rise of the anti-religious elements within science. That anti-religion movement was probably best articulated by Karl Marx.


To me, understanding cyclical movement is by no means anti-religion. We are looking at how the universe functions. Even the idea of the Big Bang, to me, is simply a cycle where everything moves from the center, contracts back to its origin, and explodes once again. None of those scientific discoveries provides any confirmation that there is no God. There is nothing that explains how everything works that would deny the existence of God. They are not mutually exclusive. Thus, the climate change fanatics are really just pushing their agenda which denies the nature of everything and, like Marx, assumes humans are in control of everything.


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Are the US and the UK political systems converging?



[The ideas in this post are tentative, so please correct me on any errors regarding the UK political system.]

As an outsider, the parliamentary system in the UK always seemed quite different from the US system, mostly due to the different roles of the president of the US and the prime minister of the UK. In the UK, voters elect a party, or a coalition of parties, and the party elects a leader. The leader would sometimes be changed in midstream if things were not going well.

In the US, maverick politicians such as Goldwater and McGovern could almost “hijack” their parties, and take control against the wishes of the party establishment. Trump and Sanders are more recent examples of maverick politicians.

In the UK, ordinary party members (i.e. voters) have recently been given increasing clout in the selection of leadership. Corbyn staged a sort of internal coup with grassroots support, taking control of the Labour Party against the wishes of many Labour MPs. Boris Johnson is somewhat more mainstream, but did oppose party leadership on Brexit. Increasingly, the Conservatives seem to be being reshaped to reflect their leadership, rather than vice versa. UK voters increasingly are choosing between people like Corbyn and Johnson, rather than Labour vs. Conservatives.

In contrast, US voters are much more attached to their party in presidential votes than when I was young. But in both countries, blue-collar voters in smaller cities are moving right, and highly educated voters in bigger cities are moving left.

Many Americans prefer our three-branch system of government, with all its “checks and balances.” One often hears the suggestion that the UK government is little more than an “elected dictatorship”. But based on what I’ve read, the UK government is gradually becoming a bit less of an elected dictatorship, as the British courts are increasingly likely to push back against a government initiative.

Meanwhile, the US president is increasingly becoming an “elected dictator”:

When the Pentagon announced this month that it would divert billions more dollars in military funding to the construction of President Donald Trump’s border wall, bipartisan outrage ricocheted across Capitol Hill.

Republicans and Democrats alike issued fiery statements in defense of both their congressional districts, some of which stand to lose valuable work making military equipment, and their constitutionally enshrined power of the purse. But the howls of protest are unlikely to amount to much in a Congress where lawmakers — many of whom once prized their spending prerogatives almost above all else — acknowledge their power to steer federal dollars has been severely eroded.

The dysfunction has taken hold in large part because of decisions that members of Congress themselves have made. But it has become particularly pronounced under Trump, who has moved aggressively to divert government money when it suits his agenda.

“Congress’ appropriation power, which is pretty much the last unchallenged power that Congress has, has very significantly eroded,” said Sean Kelly, a professor of political science at California State University Channel Islands.

The root of the problem predates Trump.

That final sentence is important.  Although I am strongly opposed to certain authoritarian tendencies in the Trump administration, it’s important to note that this has been going on for years, and recent events are merely an acceleration of trends that began at least as far back as WWI.

Here’s a tentative hypothesis.  In a globalized world, countries like the US and UK are buffeted by similar forces, involving changes in everything from technology to cultural norms.  Over time, they gradually evolve in the same way.  If the US Constitution seems to prevent our system from resembling another, then those constitutional restraints will be sort of brushed away.  Don’t count on our Constitution to protect us from an elected dictatorship:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

That train’s already left the station.  The US Constitution says Congress declares war, Congress sets tariff rates, Congress votes on spending money for a wall.  There is no taking of land except for public purposes. Those traditions have all been brushed aside.

PS.  This also fits in with the famous “end of history” hypothesis.  Increasingly, it seems that all over the world the debate over fundamental questions has ended, and it’s now a question of which elected dictator will be chosen.  You have Putin, Erdogan, Modi, Abe, Orban, Duterte, etc.  If China ever became a democracy, I wonder if they’d elect a dictator like Xi Jinping?  Is China really that different from India?  A 1984-style surveillance state is being created almost everywhere.

No one knew it at the time, but Silvio Berlusconi and his farcical party entitled “Forza Italia” was the canary in the coal mine for global democracy.  Berlusconi took control of Italian media, and then the entire country.


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The Origins of Nazism



[An excerpt from Omnipotent Government: The Rise of Total State and Total War, originally published in 1944 by Yale University as the first full-scale examination of German-style National Socialism as a species of socialism in general.]

1. The Ancient Regime and Liberalism

It is a fundamental mistake to believe that Nazism is a revival or a continuation of the policies and mentalities of the ancien régime or a display of the “Prussian spirit.” Nothing in Nazism takes up the thread of the ideas and institutions of older German history. Neither Nazism nor Pan-Germanism, from which Nazism stems and whose consequent evolution it represents, is derived from the Prussianism of Frederick William I or Frederick II, called the Great. Pan-Germanism and Nazism never intended to restore the policy of the electors of Brandenburg and of the first four kings of Prussia. They have sometimes depicted as the goal of their endeavors the return of the lost paradise of old Prussia; but this was mere propaganda talk for the consumption of a public which worshiped the heroes of days gone by. Nazism’s program does not aim at the restoration of something past but at the establishment of something new and unheard of.

The old Prussian state of the House of Hohenzollern was completely destroyed by the French on the battlefields of Jena and Auerstädt (1806). The Prussian Army surrendered at Prenzlau and Ratkau, the garrisons of the more important fortresses and citadels capitulated without firing a shot. The King took refuge with the Czar, whose mediation alone brought about the preservation of his realm. But the old Prussian state was internally broken down long before this military defeat; it had long been decomposed and rotten, when Napoleon gave it the finishing stroke. For the ideology on which it was based had lost all its power; it had been disintegrated by the assault of the new ideas of liberalism.

Like all the other princes and dukes who have established their sovereign rule on the debris of the Holy Roman Empire of the Teutonic Nation, the Hohenzollerns too regarded their territory as a family estate, whose boundaries they tried to expand through violence, ruse, and family compacts. The people living within their possessions were subjects who had to obey orders. They were appurtenances of the soil, the property of the ruler who had the right to deal with them ad libitum. Their happiness and welfare were of no concern.

Of course, the king took an interest in the material well-being of his subjects. But this interest was not founded on the belief that it is the purpose of civil government to make the people prosperous. Such ideas were deemed absurd in eighteenth-century Germany. The king was eager to increase the wealth of the peasantry and the townsfolk because their income was the source from which his revenue was derived. He was not interested in the subject but in the taxpayer. He wanted to derive from his administration of the country the means to increase his power and splendor. The German princes envied the riches of Western Europe, which provided the kings of France and of Great Britain with funds for the maintenance of mighty armies and navies. They encouraged commerce, trade, mining, and agriculture in order to raise the public revenue. The subjects, however, were simply pawns in the game of the rulers.

But the attitude of these subjects changed considerably at the end of the eighteenth century. From Western Europe new ideas began to penetrate into Germany. The people, accustomed to obey blindly the God-given authority of the princes, heard for the first time the words liberty, self-determination, rights of man, parliament, constitution. The Germans learned to grasp the meaning of dangerous watchwords.

No German has contributed anything to the elaboration of the great system of liberal thought, which has transformed the structure of society and replaced the rule of kings and royal mistresses by the government of the people. The  philosophers, economists, and sociologists who developed it thought and wrote English or French. In the eighteenth century the Germans did not even succeed in achieving readable translations of these English, Scotch, and French authors. What German idealistic philosophy produced in this field is poor indeed when compared with contemporary English and French thought. But German intellectuals welcomed Western ideas of freedom and the rights of man with enthusiasm. German classical literature is imbued with them, and the great German composers set to music verses singing the praises of liberty. The poems, plays, and other writings of Frederick Schiller are from beginning to end a hymn to liberty. Every word written by Schiller was a blow to the old political system of Germany; his works were fervently greeted by nearly all Germans who read books or frequented the theater. These intellectuals, of course, were a minority only. To the masses books and theaters were unknown. They were the poor serfs in the eastern provinces, they were the inhabitants of the Catholic countries, who only slowly succeeded in freeing themselves from the tight grasp of the Counter-Reformation. Even in the more advanced western parts and in the cities there were still many illiterates and semiliterates. These masses were not concerned with any political issue; they obeyed blindly, because they lived in fear of punishment in hell, with which the church threatened them, and in a still greater fear of the police. They were outside the pale of German civilization and German cultural life; they knew only their regional dialects, and could hardly converse with a man who spoke only the German literary language or another dialect. But the number of these backward people was steadily decreasing. Economic prosperity and education spread from year to year. More and more people reached a standard of living which allowed them to care for other things besides food and shelter, and to employ their leisure in something more than drinking. Whoever rose from misery and joined the community of civilized men became a liberal. Except for the small group of princes and their aristocratic retainers practically everyone interested in political issues was liberal. There were in Germany in those days only liberal men and indifferent men; but the ranks of the indifferent continually shrank, while the ranks of the liberals swelled.

All intellectuals sympathized with the French Revolution. They scorned the terrorism of the Jacobins but unswervingly approved the great reform. They saw in Napoleon the man who would safeguard and complete these reforms and—like Beethoven—took a dislike to him as soon as he betrayed freedom and made himself emperor.

Never before had any spiritual movement taken hold of the whole German people, and never before had they been united in their feelings and ideas. In fact the people, who spoke German and were the subjects of the Empire’s princes, prelates, counts, and urban patricians, became a nation, the German nation, by their reception of the new ideas coming from the West. Only then there came into being what had never existed before: a German public opinion, a German public, a German literature, a German Fatherland. The Germans now began to understand the meaning of the ancient authors which they had read in school. They now conceived the history of their nation as something more than the struggle of princes for land and revenues. The subjects of many hundreds of petty lords became Germans through the acceptance of Western ideas.

This new spirit shook the foundations on which the princes had built their thrones—the traditional loyalty and subservience of the subjects who were prepared to acquiesce in the despotic rule of a group of privileged families. The Germans dreamed now of a German state with parliamentary government and the rights of man. They did not care for the existing German states. Those Germans who styled themselves “patriots,” the new-fangled term imported from France, despised these seats of despotic misrule and abuse. They hated the tyrants. And they hated Prussia most because it appeared to be the most powerful and therefore most dangerous menace to German freedom.

The Prussian myth, which the Prussian historians of the nineteenth century fashioned with a bold disregard of facts, would have us believe that Frederick II was viewed by his contemporaries as they themselves represent him—as the champion of Germany’s greatness, protagonist in Germany’s rise to unity and power, the nation’s hero. Nothing could be further from the truth. The military campaigns of the warrior king were to his contemporaries struggles to increase the possessions of the House of Brandenburg, which concerned the dynasty only. They admired his strategical talents but they detested the brutalities of the Prussian system. Whoever praised Frederick within the borders of his realm did so from necessity, to evade the indignation of a prince who wreaked stern vengeance upon every foe. When people outside of Prussia praised him, they were disguising criticism of their own rulers. The subjects of petty princes found this irony the least dangerous way to disparage their pocket-size Neros and Borgias. They glorified his military achievements but called themselves happy because they were not at the mercy of his whims and cruelties. They approved of Frederick only in so far as he fought their domestic tyrants.

At the end of the eighteenth century German public opinion was as unanimously opposed to the ancien régime as in France on the eve of the Revolution. The German people witnessed with indifference the French annexation of the left bank of the Rhine, the defeats of Austria and of Prussia, the breaking-up of the Holy Empire, and the establishment of the Rhine Confederacy. They hailed the reforms forced upon the governments of all their states by the ascendancy of the French ideas. They admired Napoleon as a great general and ruler just as they had previously admired Frederick of Prussia. The Germans began to hate the French only when—like the French subjects of the Emperor—they finally became tired of the endless burdensome wars. When the Great Army had been wrecked in Russia, the people took an interest in the campaigns which finished Napoleon, but only because they hoped that his downfall would result in the establishment of parliamentary government. Later events dispelled this illusion, and there slowly grew the revolutionary spirit which led to the upheaval of 1848.

It has been asserted that the roots of present-day nationalism and Nazism are to be found in the writings of the Romantics, in the plays of Heinrich von Kleist, and in the political songs which accompanied the final struggle against Napoleon. This, too, is an error. The sophisticated works of the Romantics, the perverted feelings of Kleist’s plays, and the patriotic poetry of the wars of liberation did not appreciably move the public; and the philosophical and sociological essays of those authors who recommended a return to medieval institutions were considered abstruse. People were not interested in the Middle Ages but in the parliamentary activities of the West. They read the books of Goethe and Schiller, not of the Romantics; went to the plays of Schiller, not of Kleist. Schiller became the preferred poet of the nation; in his enthusiastic devotion to liberty the Germans found their political ideal. The celebration of Schiller’s hundredth anniversary (in 1859) was the most impressive political demonstration that ever took place in Germany. The German nation was united in its adherence to the ideas of Schiller, to the liberal ideas.

All endeavors to make the German people desert the cause of freedom failed. The teachings of its adversaries had no effect. In vain Metternich’s police fought the rising tide of liberalism.

Only in the later decades of the nineteenth century was the hold of liberal ideas shaken. This was effected by the doctrines of etatism. Etatism—we will have to deal with it later—is a system of sociopolitical ideas which has no counterpart in older history and is not linked up with older ways of thinking, although—with regard to the technical character of the policies which it recommends—it may with some justification be called neo-Mercantilism.

2. The Weakness of German Liberalism

At about the middle of the nineteenth century those Germans interested in political issues were united in their adherence to liberalism. Yet the German nation did not succeed in shaking off the yoke of absolutism and in establishing democracy and parliamentary government. What was the reason for this?

Let us first compare German conditions with those of Italy, which was in a similar situation. Italy, too, was liberal minded, but the Italian liberals were impotent. The Austrian Army was strong enough to defeat every revolutionary upheaval. A foreign army kept Italian liberalism in check; other foreign armies freed Italy from this control. At Solferino, at Königgrätz, and at the banks of the Marne the French, the Prussians, and the English fought the battles which rendered Italy independent of the Habsburgs.

Just as Italian liberalism was no match for the Austrian Army, so German liberalism was unable to cope with the armies of Austria and Prussia. The Austrian Army consisted mainly of non-German soldiers. The Prussian Army, of course, had mostly German-speaking men in its ranks; the Poles, the other Slavs, and the Lithuanians were a minority only. But a great number of these men speaking one of the German dialects were recruited from those strata of society which were not yet awakened to political interests. They came from the eastern provinces, from the eastern banks of the Elbe River. They were mostly illiterate, and unfamiliar with the mentality of the intellectuals and of the townsfolk. They had never heard anything about the new ideas; they had grown up in the habit of obeying the Junker, who exercised executive and judicial power in their village, to whom they owed imposts and corvée (unpaid statute labor), and whom the law considered as their legitimate overlord. These virtual serfs were not capable of disobeying an order to fire upon the people. The Supreme War Lord of the Prussian Army could trust them. These men, and the Poles, formed the detachments which defeated the Prussian Revolution in 1848.

Such were the conditions which prevented the German liberals from suiting their actions to their word. They were forced to wait until the progress of prosperity and education could bring these backward people into the ranks of liberalism. Then, they were convinced, the victory of liberalism was bound to come. Time worked for it. But, alas, events belied these expectations. It was the fate of Germany that before this triumph of liberalism could be achieved liberalism and liberal ideas were overthrown—not only in Germany but everywhere—by other ideas, which again penetrated into Germany from the West. German liberalism had not yet fulfilled its task when it was defeated by etatism, nationalism, and socialism.

3.The Prussian Army

The Prussian Army which fought in the battles of Leipzig and Waterloo was very different from the army which Frederick William I had organized and which Frederick II had commanded in three great wars. That old army of Prussia had been smashed and destroyed in the campaign of 1806 and never revived.

The Prussian Army of the eighteenth century was composed of men pressed into service, brutally drilled by flogging, and held together by a barbaric discipline. They were mainly foreigners. The kings preferred foreigners to their own subjects. They believed that their subjects could be more useful to the country when working and paying taxes than when serving in the armed forces. In 1742 Frederick II set as his goal that the infantry should consist of two-thirds foreigners and one-third natives. Deserters from foreign armies, prisoners of war, criminals, vagabonds, tramps, and people whom the crimps had entrapped by fraud and violence were the bulk of the regiments. These soldiers were prepared to profit by every opportunity for escape. Prevention of desertion was therefore the main concern of the conduct of military affairs. Frederick II begins his main treatise of strategy, his General Principles of Warfare, with the exposition of fourteen rules on how to hinder desertion. Tactical and even strategical considerations had to be subordinated to the prevention of desertion. The troops could only be employed when tightly assembled together. Patrols could not be sent out. Strategical pursuit of a defeated enemy force was impossible. Marching or attacking at night and camping near forests were strictly avoided. The soldiers were ordered to watch each other constantly, both in war and in peace. Civilians were obliged by the threat of the heaviest penalties to bar the way to deserters, to catch them, and deliver them to the army.

The commissioned officers of this army were as a rule noblemen. Among them, too, were many foreigners; but the greater number belonged to the Prussian Junker class. Frederick II repeats again and again in his writings that commoners are not fit for commissions because their minds are directed toward profit, not honor. Although a military career was very profitable, as the commander of a company drew a comparatively high income, a great part of the landed aristocracy objected to the military profession for their sons. The kings used to send out policemen to kidnap the sons of noble landowners and put them into their military schools. The education provided by these schools was hardly more than that of an elementary school. Men with higher education were very rare in the ranks of Prussian commissioned officers.1

Such an army could fight and—under an able commander—conquer, only as long as it encountered armies of a similar structure. It scattered like chaff when it had to fight the forces of Napoleon.

The armies of the French Revolution and of the first Empire were recruited from the people. They were armies of free men, not of crimped scum. Their commanders did not fear desertion. They could therefore abandon the traditional tactics of moving forward in deployed lines and of firing volleys without taking aim. They could adopt a new method of combat, that is, fighting in columns and skirmishing. The new structure of the army brought first a new tactic and then a new strategy. Against these the old Prussian Army proved impotent.

The French pattern served as a model for the organization of the Prussian Army in the years 1808–13. It was built upon the principle of compulsory service of all men physically fit. The new army stood the test in the wars of 1813–15. Consequently its organization was not changed for about half a century. How this army would have fought in another war against a foreign aggressor will never be known; it was spared this trial. But one thing is beyond doubt, and was attested by events in the Revolution of 1848: only a part of it could be relied on in a fight against the people, the “domestic foe” of the government, and an unpopular war of aggression could not be waged with these soldiers.

In suppressing the Revolution of 1848 only the regiments of the Royal Guards, whose men were selected for their allegiance to the King, the cavalry, and the regiments recruited from the eastern provinces could be considered absolutely reliable. The army corps recruited from the west, the militia (Landwehr), and the reservists of many eastern regiments were more or less infected by liberal ideas.

The men of the guards and of the cavalry had to give three years of active service, as against two years for the other parts of the forces. Hence the generals concluded that two years was too short a time to transform a civilian into a soldier unconditionally loyal to the King. What was needed in order to safeguard the political system of Prussia with its royal absolutism exercised by the Junkers was an army of men ready to fight—without asking questions—against everybody whom their commanders ordered them to attack. This army—His Majesty’s army, not an army of the Parliament or of the people—would have the task of defeating any revolutionary movement within Prussia or within the smaller states of the German Confederation, and of repelling possible invasions from the West which could force the German princes to grant constitutions and other concessions to their subjects. In Europe of the 1850s, where the French Emperor and the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, openly professed their sympathies with the popular movements menacing the vested interests of kings and aristocrats the army of the House of Hohenzollern was the rocher de bronze amid the rising tide of liberalism. To make this army reliable and invincible meant not only preserving the Hohenzollerns and their aristocratic retainers; it meant much more: the salvation of civilization from the threat of revolution and anarchy. Such was the philosophy of Frederick Julius Stahl and of the right-wing Hegelians, such were the ideas of the Prussian historians of the Kleindeutsche school of history, such was the mentality of the military party at the court of King Frederick William IV. This King, of course, was a sickly neurotic, whom every day brought nearer to complete mental disability. But the generals, led by General von Roon and backed by Prince William, the King’s brother and heir apparent to the throne, were clearheaded and steadily pursued their aim.

The partial success of the revolution had resulted in the establishment of a Prussian Parliament. But its prerogatives were so restricted that the Supreme War Lord was not prevented from adopting those measures which he deemed indispensable for rendering the army a more reliable instrument in the hands of its commanders.

The experts were fully convinced that two years of active service was sufficient for the military training of the infantry. Not for reasons of a technical military character but for purely political considerations the King prolonged active service for the infantry regiments of the line from two years to two and a half in 1852 and to three in 1856. Through this measure the chances of success against a repetition of the revolutionary movement were greatly improved. The military party was now confident that for the immediate future they were strong enough, with the Royal Guards and with the men doing active service in the regiments of the line, to conquer poorly armed rebels. Relying on this, they decided to go further and thoroughly reform the organization of the armed forces.

The goal of this reform was to make the army both stronger and more loyal to the King. The number of infantry battalions would be almost doubled, the artillery increased 25 per cent, and many new regiments of cavalry formed. The number of yearly recruits would be raised from under forty thousand to sixty-three thousand, and the ranks of commissioned officers increased correspondingly. On the other hand the militia would be transformed into a reserve of the active army. The older men were discharged from service in the militia as not fully reliable. The higher ranks of the militia would be entrusted to commissioned officers of the professional corps.2

Conscious of the strength which the prolongation of active service had already given them, and confident that they would for the time being suppress a revolutionary attempt, the court carried out this reform without consulting Parliament. The King’s lunacy had in the meanwhile become so manifest that Prince William had to be installed as prince regent; the royal power was now in the hands of a tractable adherent of the aristocratic clique and of the military hotspurs. In 1859, during the war between Austria and France, the Prussian Army had been mobilized as a measure of precaution and to safeguard neutrality. The demobilization was effected in such a manner that the main objectives of the reform were attained. In the spring of 1860 all the newly planned regiments had already been established. Only then the cabinet brought the reform bill to Parliament and asked it to vote the expenditure involved.3

The struggle against this army bill was the last political act of German liberalism.

4. The Constitutional Conflict in Prussia

The Progressives, as the liberals in the Prussian lower chamber (chamber of deputies) called their party, bitterly opposed the reform. The chamber voted repeatedly against the bill and against the budget. The King—Frederick William IV had now died and William I had succeeded him—dissolved Parliament, but the electors returned a majority of Progressives. The King and his ministers could not break the opposition of the legislative body. But they clung to their plan and carried on without constitutional approval and parliamentary assent. They led the new army into two campaigns, and defeated Denmark in 1864 and Austria in 1866. Only then, after the annexation of the Kingdom of Hanover, the possessions of the Elector of Hessen, the Duchies of Nassau, Schleswig, and Holstein, and the Free City of Frankfort, after the establishment of Prussian hegemony over all states of Northern Germany and the conclusion of military conventions with the states of Southern Germany by which these too surrendered to the Hohenzollern, did the Prussian Parliament give in. The Progressive party split, and some of its former members supported the government. Thus the King got a majority. The chamber voted indemnification for the unconstitutional conduct of affairs by the government and belatedly sanctioned all measures and expenditures which they had opposed for six years. The great Constitutional Conflict resulted in full success for the King and in a complete defeat for liberalism.

When a delegation of the chamber of deputies brought the King the Parliament’s accommodating answer to his royal speech at the opening of the new session, he haughtily declared that it was his duty to act as he had in the last years and that he would act the same way in the future too should similar conditions occur again. But in the course of the conflict he had more than once despaired. In 1862 he had lost all hope of defeating the resistance of the people, and was ready to abdicate. General von Roon urged him to make a last attempt by appointing Bismarck prime minister. Bismarck rushed from Paris, where he represented Prussia at the court of Napoleon III. He found the King “worn out, depressed, and discouraged.” When Bismarck tried to explain his own view of the political situation, William interrupted him, saying: “I see exactly how all this will turn out. Right here, in this Opera square on which these windows look, they will behead first you and a little later me too.” It was hard work for Bismarck to infuse courage into the trembling Hohenzollern. But finally, Bismarck reports, “My words appealed to his military honor and he saw himself in the position of an officer who has the duty of defending his post unto death.”4

Still more frightened than the King were the Queen, the royal princes, and many generals. In England Queen Victoria spent sleepless nights thinking of the position of her eldest daughter married to the Prussian Crown Prince. The royal palace of Berlin was haunted by the ghosts of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

All these fears, however, were unfounded. The Progressives did not venture a new revolution, and they would have been defeated if they had.

These much-abused German liberals of the 1860’s, these men of studious habits, these readers of philosophical treatises, these lovers of music and poetry, understood very well why the upheaval of 1848 had failed. They knew that they could not establish popular government within a nation where many millions were still caught in the bonds of superstition, boorishness, and illiteracy. The political problem was essentially a problem of education. The final success of liberalism and democracy was beyond doubt. The trend toward parliamentary rule was irresistible. But the victory of liberalism could be achieved only when those strata of the population from which the King drew his reliable soldiers should have become enlightened and thereby transformed into supporters of liberal ideas. Then the King would be forced to surrender, and the Parliament would obtain supremacy without bloodshed.

The liberals were resolved to spare the German people, whenever possible, the horrors of revolution and civil war. They were confident that in a not-too-distant future they themselves would get full control of Prussia. They had only to wait.

5. The “Little German” Program

The Prussian Progressives did not fight in the Constitutional Conflict for the destruction or weakening of the Prussian Army. They realized that under the circumstances Germany was in need of a strong army for the defense of its independence. They wanted to wrest the army from the King and to transform it into an instrument for the protection of German liberty. The issue of the conflict was whether the King or Parliament should control the army.

The aim of German liberalism was the replacement of the scandalous administration of the thirty-odd German states by a unitary liberal government. Most of the liberals believed that this future German state must not include Austria. Austria was very different from the other German-speaking countries; it had problems of its own which were foreign to the rest of the nation. The liberals could not help seeing Austria as the most dangerous obstacle to German freedom. The Austrian court was dominated by the Jesuits, its government had concluded a concordat with Pius IX, the pope who ardently combated all modern ideas. But the Austrian Emperor was not prepared to renounce voluntarily the position which his house had occupied for more than four hundred years in Germany. The liberals wanted the Prussian Army strong because they were afraid of Austrian hegemony, a new Counter-Reformation, and the reëstablishment of the reactionary system of the late Prince Metternich. They aimed at a unitary government for all Germans outside of Austria (and Switzerland).

They therefore called themselves Little Germans (Kleindeutsche) as contrasted to the Great Germans (Grossdeutsche) who wanted to include those parts of Austria which had previously belonged to the Holy Empire.

But there were, besides, other considerations of foreign policy to recommend an increase in the Prussian Army. France was in those years ruled by an adventurer who was convinced that he could preserve his emperorship only by fresh military victories. In the first decade of his reign he had already waged two bloody wars. Now it seemed to be Germany’s turn. There was little doubt that Napoleon III toyed with the idea of annexing the left bank of the Rhine. Who else could protect Germany but the Prussian Army?

Then there was one problem more, Schleswig-Holstein. The citizens of Holstein, of Lauenburg, and of southern Schleswig bitterly opposed the rule of Denmark. The German liberals cared little for the sophisticated arguments of lawyers and diplomats concerning the claims of various pretenders to the succession in the Elbe duchies. They did not believe in the doctrine that the question of who should rule a country must be decided according to the provisions of feudal law and of century-old family compacts. They supported the Western principle of self-determination. The people of these duchies were reluctant to acquiesce in the sovereignty of a man whose only title was that he had married a princess with a disputed claim to the succession in Schleswig and no right at all to the succession in Holstein; they aimed at autonomy within the German Confederation. This fact alone seemed important in the eyes of the liberals. Why should these Germans be denied what the British, the French, the Belgians, and the Italians had got? But as the King of Denmark was not ready to renounce his claims, this question could not be solved without a recourse to arms.

It would be a mistake to judge all these problems from the point of view of later events. Bismarck freed Schleswig-Holstein from the yoke of its Danish oppressors only in order to annex it to Prussia; and he annexed not only southern Schleswig but northern Schleswig as well, whose population desired to remain in the Danish kingdom. Napoleon III did not attack Germany; it was Bismarck who kindled the war against France. Nobody foresaw this outcome in the early 1860s. At that time everybody in Europe, and in America too, deemed the Emperor of France the foremost peacebreaker and aggressor. The sympathies which the German longing for unity encountered abroad were to a great extent due to the conviction that a united Germany would counterbalance France and thus make Europe safe for peace.

The Little Germans were also misled by their religious prejudices. Like most of the liberals they thought of Protestantism as the first step on the way from medieval darkness to enlightenment. They feared Austria because it was Catholic; they preferred Prussia because the majority of its population was Protestant. In spite of all experience they hoped that Prussia was more open to liberal ideas than Austria. Political conditions in Austria, to be sure, were in those critical years unsatisfactory. But later events have proved that Protestantism is no more a safeguard of freedom than Catholicism. The ideal of liberalism is the complete separation of church and state, and tolerance—without any regard to differences among the churches.

But this error also was not limited to Germany. The French liberals were so deluded that they at first hailed the Prussian victory at Königgrätz (Sadova). Only on second thought did they realize that Austria’s defeat spelled the doom of France too, and they raised—too late—the battle cry Revanche pour Sadova.

Königgrätz was at any rate a crushing defeat for German liberalism. The liberals were aware of the fact that they had lost a campaign. They were nevertheless full of hope. They were firmly resolved to proceed with their fight in the new Parliament of Northern Germany. This fight, they felt, must end with the victory of liberalism and the defeat of absolutism. The moment when the King would no longer be able to use “his” army against the people seemed to come closer every day.

6. The Lassalle Episode

It would be possible to deal with the Prussian Constitutional Conflict without even mentioning the name of Ferdinand Lassalle. Lassalle’s intervention did not influence the course of events. But it foreboded something new; it was the dawn of the forces which were destined to mold the fate of Germany and of Western civilization.

While the Prussian Progressives were involved in their struggle for freedom, Lassalle attacked them bitterly and passionately. He tried to incite the workers to withdraw their sympathies from the Progressives. He proclaimed the gospel of class war. The Progressives, as representatives of the bourgeoisie, he held, were the mortal foes of labor. You should not fight the state but the exploiting classes. The state is your friend; of course, not the state governed by Herr von Bismarck but the state controlled by me, Lassalle.

Lassalle was not on the payroll of Bismarck, as some people suspected. Nobody could bribe Lassalle. Only after his death did some of his former friends take government money. But as both Bismarck and Lassalle assailed the Progressives, they became virtual allies. Lassalle very soon approached Bismarck. The two used to meet clandestinely. Only many years later was the secret of these relations revealed. It is vain to discuss whether an open and lasting coöperation between these two ambitious men would have resulted if Lassalle had not died very shortly after these meetings from a wound received in a duel (August 31, 1864). They both aimed at supreme power in Germany. Neither Bismarck nor Lassalle was ready to renounce his claim to the first place.

Bismarck and his military and aristocratic friends hated the liberals so thoroughly that they would have been ready to help the socialists get control of the country if they themselves had proved too weak to preserve their own rule. But they were—for the time being—strong enough to keep a tight rein on the Progressives. They did not need Lassalle’s support.

It is not true that Lassalle gave Bismarck the idea that revolutionary socialism was a powerful ally in the fight against liberalism. Bismarck had long believed that the lower classes were better royalists than the middle classes.5 Besides, as Prussian minister in Paris he had had opportunity to observe the working of Caesarism. Perhaps his predilection toward universal and equal suffrage was strengthened by his conversations with Lassalle. But for the moment he had no use for Lassalle’s coöperation. The latter’s party was still too small to be considered important. At the death of Lassalle the Allgemeine Deutsche Arbeiterverein had not much more than four thousand members.6

Lassalle’s agitation did not hinder the activities of the Progressives. It was a nuisance to them, not an obstacle. Neither had they anything to learn from his doctrines. That Prussia’s Parliament was only a sham and that the army was the main stronghold of Prussia’s absolutism was not new to them. It was exactly because they knew it that they fought in the great conflict.

Lassalle’s brief demagogical career is noteworthy because for the first time in Germany the ideas of socialism and etatism appeared on the political scene as opposed to liberalism and freedom. Lassalle was not himself a Nazi; but he was the most eminent forerunner of Nazism, and the first German who aimed at the Führer position. He rejected all the values of the Enlightenment and of liberal philosophy, but not as the romantic eulogists of the Middle Ages and of royal legitimism did. He negated them; but he promised at the same time to realize them in a fuller and broader sense. Liberalism, he asserted, aims at spurious freedom, but I will bring you true freedom. And true freedom means the omnipotence of government. It is not the police who are the foes of liberty but the bourgeoisie.

And it was Lassalle who spoke the words which characterize best the spirit of the age to come: “The state is God.”

  • 1. Delbrück, Geschichte der Kriegskunst (Berlin, 1920), part IV, pp. 273 ff., 348 ff.
  • 2. Ziekursch, Politische Geschichte des neuen deutschen Kaiserreichs (Frankfurt, 1925–30), I, pp. 29 ff.
  • 3. Sybel, Die Begründung des deutschen Reiches unter Wilhelm I, 2d ed. (Munich, 1889), II, p. 375; Ziekursch, op. cit., I, p. 42.
  • 4. Bismarck, Gedanken und Erinnerungen, new ed. (Stuttgart, 1922), I, pp. 325 ff.
  • 5. Ziekursch, op. cit., I, pp. 107 ff.
  • 6. Oncken, Lassalle (Stuttgart, 1904), p. 393.

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