A Short History of Germany

By S. H. Steinberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
THE COLLAPSE OF THE EMPIRE (1786-1815)

GOETHE, who respected the Daemonic (in the Platonic sense) when he saw it, confessed that he was 'Frederick-minded' in his youth though he cared nothing for Prussia. When of riper years, he became no less ' Napoleon-minded', much as he detested the French Revolution whose offspring the great Corsican was. Goethe's attitude may be taken as a symbol. The three decades following the death of Frederick may be described as the age of Napoleon even in a history of Germany. For the radical changes which took place in that country during this period emanated from the French Revolution and its aftermath; and furthermore for fifteen years that Great Man held absolute sway on German soil.

At the beginning, the doctrines of the French Revolution were hailed by the vast majority of the German peoples and execrated by their rulers. When the intoxicating youthfulness of these ideas wore off, many adherents became disillusioned and vaguely felt that 'the bonds of the world were unloosed', as Goethe put it. On the other hand, the German princes soon found out that they might strike most profitable bargains with the loathed revolutionaries. Their crusading zeal against Jacobinism very, soon cooled off, and gave place to a disgusting competition for the favour of the new rulers on the Seine. Prussia here got the start of her rivals. Jealousy of Austria, envy of Britain, and the expansive tendency of the Hohenzollerns maze Frederick William II ( 1786-97) and-Frederick William III ( 1797-1840) desert their allies and betray the Empire again and again, until treachery met its punishment, and Prussia was all but wiped out. The sovereigns of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden were not slow in imitating Prussia and soon outstripped her. Their well-calculated servility towards the French rulers brought them a rich harvest of territorial and personal gains. At the end of this epoch Bavaria and Württemberg had doubled their size and risen to royal rank, and the margraviate of Baden, of 70 square miles, had grown into a grand duchy of 270 square miles. All these acquisitions were made at the expense of Austria and the lesser members of the Empire. Austria was ejected from her possessions in South and West Germany. Her simultaneous gains in Poland and Italy enhanced her

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