German History: 1770-1866

November 1, 2011
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German History: 1770-1866 by James J. Sheehan gives a detailed history of German history from pre-1770 to 1866. This time period was divided into four sections (18th century, Napoleonic, Restoration period, and Revolutionary period), with each progressive section being analyzed for changes in culture and society, with historical information being provided first as background. Meant more to inform rather than to convince, the book is easily believable due to the immense number of specific cases mentioned (ex. The number of philosophers cited) that support the information Sheehan tries to get across.

The first section of the book deals with 18th century Germany. From a historical point of view, this section focuses on the duality of Prussian and Austrian goals in Germany, specifically the expansion of Prussian influence and the retention of Austrian hegemony and leading state of the Holy Roman Empire. The author mostly focused on internal policies and reforms that each nation embarked on, again focusing the two major German powers Prussia and Austria. In Austria, the reforms undertaken by Maria Teresa and Joseph II were the most specific area covered. These policies were focused on enlightened absolutism, with decreased government censorship, dissolution of church territories, abolition of the landed elite, increased religious tolerance, and autonomy of the Hungarian territories. In Prussia’s case, a history was given from the Great Elector to Frederick the Great, mostly focusing on increasing the efficiency of Prussia’s military and the semi-enlightened policies of Frederick the Great (ex. lessening the extent of serfdom). The second part dealt with German society. It states that Germans were attempting to reform an archaic society, one that still had peasants serving land owning elites who had great power in public life. As opposed to historical records and figures, little is left of 18th century German culture. This period of German history saw the rise of literary culture. This then allowed for people like Immanuel Kant to write about topics such as philosophy and science and have it widely published, which foreshadows the beginning of Germany’s future development towards science and literature.

The second section deals with the Napoleonic era. The historical point of view discusses Napoleon’s influence over western German states and the wars he waged against Prussia and Austria, paying particular attention to the affect of Revolutionary France’s ideologies had on the central government of the major German states (i.e. Prussia, Austria, Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg, and the Hessian states). Sheehan states that the nations located in the German West were most under Napoleon’s influence, forming the Confederation of the Rhine and readily adopted Revolutionary ideas. In German society, the appeal of revolutionary ideas (and, more significantly, Napoleon’s harsh peace treaties with the two major German powers) warranted change. In Austria, political change was limited, with Austria’s greatest achievement during this period was to survive basically unscathed. Militarily, Archduke Charles was a proponent of reform, adopting various Napoleonic reforms like universal conscription. In Prussia, reform was more extensive than in Austria, with Stein and Hardenberg fully emancipating serfs, making Jews full citizens on paper (participation in government was still very limited), and limiting the power of the king’s personal circle of advisers. Reforms to Prussia’s military was also extensive. Led by Gerhard von Scharnhorst and August von Gneisenau, Prussia also adopted French innovations, while also completely overhauling the officer corps, sacking most generals on the basis that they were too old. Also, a new General Staff system was established to improve armies in the field. Culturally, the change was a greater inclination to the three principles of the French Revolution (liberté, egalité, fraternité), while also supporting the development of Romanticism (a return to focusing on beauty rather than rational thought).

The next section dealt with the Restoration period. Politically, Sheehan focused on the internal activities of the smaller German states and the struggle between Prussia and Austria for the control of the German Confederation. In addition, conflicts between the constitution of the German Confederation and the governments of individual states were emphasized, many of these leading to debilitating arguments in the Confederation that ultimately led to its dissolution. In German society, Sheehan discussed the growth of population and beginning of technological advancements. It was shown that during the period after Napoleon was defeated, the population grew rapidly, which was coupled by a more or less symmetrical growth in agriculture. Culturally, it was a period of conflict, with old culture that emphasized being alone battling with a unified culture influenced by the events of Napoleon and nationalistic fervor.

The last section describes the revolutions of 1848 and their continuation. These revolutions, inspired by the French revolution in early 1848, spread to German territories, where liberals, radicals, and moderates (along with significant portions of the lower and middle classes) demanded constitutions that would limit the power of the monarchy. At first, these demands succeeded in all the German nations, especially the smaller German states. However, large states (especially Prussia, which the monarchs of the smaller German states hoped would be a bastion of conservative power) were able to stall and manipulate the demands of the revolutionaries, for example, Friedrich Wilhelm IV making a Prussian constitution look like a gift from the monarchy. Socially, it was a time of change, with the rise of cities providing more opportunities for the lower classes to earn money. This caused a mass migration from rural areas to cities, which weakened slightly the power of the Junkers. In cities, a new social order emerged, with people who were economically successful being the new elites. Culturally, there was a shift to a more rational and scientific mind, with many times the number of discoveries in physiology, medical science, and physical science that occurred in Germany than in France and England.

After having finished this book, it can be said that this work was written mostly to inform the audience. This can be determined from several things. First, the divisions of the historical period (1770-1866) described coincide with major turning points/era in German history (i.e. Early Modern, Napoleonic, post-Napoleonic, Revolutionary), each of which saw changes to German politics, culture, and society. Second, although a conclusion was present in which the main ideas were summarized, there was no introduction or initial statement of a new idea that was being proposed about Germany or German history, thus ruling out the chance of it being a persuasive work. Now, since the book was meant to inform the audience about German history, there were some assumptions that Sheehan could make about the reader. One of these assumptions (and the most obvious) was that the reader could understand English, since the book was written in that language. Another assumption is that the audience reading the book would be able to link together the chapters of each section (history, society, and culture) and identify those events as characteristic of the period described in the section, as that is important to how Sheehan planned out the book (i.e. a progression from Early Modern German history to before the Austro-Prussian War focusing on historical events, social change, and cultural change).

The believability of this document is very high, since it is meant to inform and not to convince the reader of a point, with research that is objective and not aimed at proving a point. Due to this and other factors in the book, some conclusions can also be made about the society the book was written in. For example, since he keeps himself objective and very well organized through most of the book, Sheehan shows us that he is not from a society that prides itself with mystical traditions/complicated rhetoric; instead, he suggests that he comes from a society that is grounded in more rational thought. Also, we can deduce that the society he drew his data from kept mediocre records. This is because the book focuses on the interactions between the two main German powers: Austria and Prussia. Throughout this book however, there is very little mentioned about the other German states except in the Napoleonic section and the 1848 Revolutions section. Therefore, two possibilities arise: either the author is biased towards the smaller German states and does not wish discuss them, or there were not detailed enough records that survived to give the author the information he needed. Since we can see the author was objective, that rules out the first possibility, so it must mean that the records kept for these smaller states were mediocre in quality.

German History: 1770-1866 by James J. Sheehan is a detailed work that objectively describes the events that unfolded in German history from 1770-1866. Very believable due to its purpose to inform people, the book reveals a great amount about the society that the author lived in, such as what values it considered most important.

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