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

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

If we look back over all the frantic debates of the 1790s, it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was indeed an age of crisis. The 1790s were a period of painful transition for Germany: people had lost their moorings but did not know where to go. The Revolution had shaken all the old certainties; but it did not provide a model to imitate. By the close of the 1790s almost everyone agreed that the "great experiment" in France had ended in catastrophe. The failure of successive constitutions, the collapse of successive governments, the Reign of Terror, the September Massacres, the execution of the king and queen, the constant civil strife, the endless fighting between factions, and finally the triumph of a military dictator--all this seemed to be more than ample proof that revolution results in chaos, terror, bloodshed, and eventual dictatorship. But if there was no going forward along the path of revolution, there was also no going backward to the old days of the Holy Roman Empire. For centuries the empire had been on the verge of collapse; but now it was clear that nothing could save it. The Revolution had politicized wide segments of the German public. The people now had a feeling for their rights, and some of them began to demand more participation in the government. It was clear to everyone, even the staunchest of conservatives, that there could be no return to the old days when the people had a blind faith in their princes and obeyed them without question.

The solution to this crisis offered by the great majority of German thinkers in the 1790s was to stress the need for more enlightenment, a more thorough education of the people. There was indeed a middle path between revolution and reaction, they insisted, and that was fundamental but gradual reform from above. But such reforms can succeed, only if they are preceded by the education of the people. The Revolution in France had failed, these thinkers insisted, because it had not been preceded by sufficient enlightenment. The French people were not prepared for the high ideals of liberté, egalé, et fraternité; hence their political liberation produced only the unchaining of their wild, destructive passions. As students of Montesquieu and the classical republics, most German thinkers insisted that "the principle

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