Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

12
THE RISE OF GERMAN CONSERVATISM

12.1. German Conservatism in the 1790s

One of the most important developments in German philosophy in the 1790s was the growth of conservatism as an intellectual movement. Of course, conservatism always existed in Germany as a social attitude; but now it began to develop as an intellectual force. Conservatism had been emerging ever since the 1770s in opposition to the more radical doctrines of the Aufklärung. 1 But with the reaction against the Revolution it became a much more self-conscious and coherent movement. The fear that Germany might suffer the same chaos, terror, and bloodshed as France brought forth a flurry of treatises, articles, essays, newspapers, and journals devoted to the defense of the status quo. It was commonplace among radicals to dismiss the conservatives as anti-intellectuals, mystics, and obscurantists. But such an assessment was as shortsighted as it was partisan. The principles, arguments, and themes of the conservatives are of the first importance for an understanding of German intellectual life in the 1790s and beyond. They provided the opposition for the doctrines of the liberals and romantics and dominated the intellectual atmosphere of the Restoration. Most important of all, some conservative writers broke with some of the fundamental principles of the Aufklärung--natural law, individualism, and the value of truth-- and thus their thought is of considerable historical importance.

Who were the conservatives? Just how should we define them for the 1790s? We might broadly define them as those thinkers who defended the German status quo against the ideology of the Revolution. The "status quo" here should be understood in a wide sense to refer to any of the constitutional arrangements in existence in Germany prior to the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Hence it might refer to the enlightened absolutism of states such as Prussia and Austria, or to the older Ständesstaaten of Württemberg and Hannover.

Conservatism was a very heterogeneous body of opinion in Germany in the 1790s. It comprised a wide variety of different, even conflicting, doctrines; and conservatives were divided over the most fundamental issues.

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