Nov 17, 2007

Book Review: Absolutism in Central Europe

Wilson, Peter H.
New York: Routledge, 2000

Wilson is the G.F. Grant Professor of History at the University of Hull, focusing on German history and military-civil relations in early modern Europe. Absolutism in Central Europe examines the aforementioned political phenomenon as it developed in the Hohenzollern, Habsburg, and other German dynasties in the Holy Roman Empire from the Peace of Westphalia through the Napoleonic era. While conceding that the “image conveyed by absolutism was a myth of power,” Wilson nonetheless held that “the process of projecting and sustaining this myth constituted a tangible reality and helped shape the practice of political authority.”

The author used a thematic approach in developing the text, describing Central European absolutism in terms of its emergence, its theoretical basis, the practical results of efforts at achieving absolute rule, and the period of so-called enlightened absolutism in the eighteenth century. While largely a synthesis based upon secondary works on absolutism, Absolutism in Central Europe also incorporates some primary source material in its examination of the Hohenzollern and Habsburg monarchies. Wilson also included a 12-page bibliography of secondary works that will prove useful to scholars unfamiliar with the historiography of absolutism.

Wilson warned against the tendency by many historians of absolutism to seek “the fundamental driving force in history” in this particular political form. Instead, he argued, absolutism was a political philosophy that “emerged from human interaction, especially within the overlapping matrices of collaboration and competition to exploit and enjoy scarce resources.” Wilson argued that absolutism arose in large part due to the state’s ability to “sever formal connections between local and regional power-holders in one territory with those in another,” thus increasing the dependency of local political leaders on the central government.

Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor (full name - Leopold Ignaz Joseph Balthasar Felician) and member of the Habsburg dynastyLeopold I, Holy Roman Emperor and member of the Habsburg dynasty

Wilson argued that the political fragmentation characteristic of German states under the Holy Roman Empire occurred because of the failure of the principle of primogeniture to take hold, a philosophical trend that he traced to the Protestant Reformation. This inclination to partition lands among heirs “proved a political liability during the Thirty Years War,” and the periods of warfare with France and the Ottoman Empire after 1648 “reinforced the necessity of a large resource base” among German princes, becoming an essential component in the development of absolutism in Central Europe.

Wilson maintained that secular and religious thinkers in Germany fostered a social philosophy that promoted obedience to secular authorities. While acknowledging that Martin Luther’s early invectives against the Emperor represented a decided anti-authoritarian tendency, Wilson argued that there also arose a “separate tradition of Lutheran authoritarianism” that stressed unqualified obedience to secular authorities. German Neostoicism, he argued, emphasized self-discipline by all members of society, and worked with Reformed Christianity to contribute to “the model of the prince as the firm but kind ‘father of the territory’ (Landesvater).” Wilson argued that this philosophy dovetailed with the contemporary concept of the Hausvater, the patriarch of the home who exerted his authority over the household economy and the behavior of the members of the family:
As Landesvater, the prince had personal authority over the state and paternal responsibility for its subjects who, as Landeskinder (literally, ‘children of the territory’), were regarded as minors, incapable of acting or thinking without guidance from above. The duty to obey was reinforced, while opposition to princely rule was equated with the horrors of patricide.

Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (1740–1786) from the Hohenzollern dynastyLeft: Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (1740–1786) from the Hohenzollern dynasty

Central European monarchs, noted Wilson, matched their Western European counterparts in many of the typical manifestations of absolutist rule. The author demonstrated that many German princes in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries relied upon the development of extravagant courts and elaborate ceremonies to communicate their power; Wilson argued that the court “symbolized absolutism and was intended to encourage a belief in its power and legitimacy.” The military forces of most of the larger German states grew during this period, with standing armies representing what Wilson described as “symbols of their [German princes] authority and political autonomy.” Still, the author advised readers to avoid jumping to conclusions about the extent to which Central European absolutist regimes were able to express their respective royal power:
The inhabitants of the central European monarchies and principalities were not cowed into silence, nor did they meekly submit to authoritarian social discipline. Their behaviour was certainly disrupted by growing interference in their personal lives, while fiscal and military burdens caused widespread hardship and misery. The response to this outside the Reich was often violent, but the lack of large-scale protest within the German territories is misleading. Though communities were riven with tension and conflict, they nonetheless provided a basis for sustained opposition to the demands of those in higher authority. This opposition was not straightforward rejection of absolutism, but grasped what opportunities it offered to advance individual and popular goals and, in doing so, also helped sustain absolute rule.
Absolutism in Central Europe is a text that relies heavily upon political and philosophical theory, and undergraduate students will likely have some difficulty understanding some of the nuances of Wilson’s arguments. Well-read general readers and graduate students should be able to keep up with the discourse in the book, though previous familiarity with early modern Europe will enhance comprehension. It is for students of European absolutism, however, that Wilson’s text aims to reach, and this reflective work should be considered an indispensable addition to reading lists of such scholars. Most importantly, Wilson frequently engages the existing historiography in his writing, bringing readers a wealth of historical perspectives in his examination of absolutism.

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