In 1965, in the German Democratic Republic, Canis published a dissertation on 1848 and Prussian militarism. Almost sixty years later he publishes this monograph on Prussia and 1848. As one would expect, this is a deeply knowledgeable book based on extensive archival and primary published sources, and secondary literature.
The book takes the form of a “thick narrative”. The focus is upon elite political actors in Berlin: principally ministers after March, figures in the king’s circle, and Friedrich Wilhelm IV. Less central, mainly characterised in terms of political groups, are deputies of the Prussian Constituent Assembly and its successor, and of the National Assembly meeting in Frankfurt, and the later Erfurt Parliament. Other significant actors include other German governments, especially Austria-Hungary, and the major powers. Canis also treats political groups and politicians as representative of distinct social interests.
Two chapters concern the March revolution and the period 1815 to March. Canis argues that the Prussian government failed to make modernising, liberal reforms which would have integrated rising social forces – above all the Großbürgertum – into the political order. The government supinely followed Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor, who set his face against reform. During the unrest following the February revolution in Paris, culminating in the March 18 uprising in Berlin, the government dithered. The harshest judgement – constant throughout the book – is of the king, seen as a weak, indecisive figure, nurturing illusions about absolutist rule in an estate-based social order, and frustrating reactionary and reform-minded elites alike.
To avoid being just one thing after another, a thick narrative requires a central argument as its backbone. The book’s title and these first chapters prepare this argument. This is that the ministries from 29 March onwards pursued a reformist policy designed to address the problems which had led to governmental breakdown while blocking any reactionary reversal of the constitutional and national opportunities opened up by the March events. The next four chapters concern the policies of the four successive ministries. Subsequent chapters, from January 1849, widen the focus to include Prussia’s national policies. Within Prussia the ministries pursued a reformist policy, resisting radical pressure for a powerful, democratically elected parliament and reactionary efforts to restore traditional monarchy. Beyond that they sought a leading position for Prussia within the German lands. The two goals were closely linked.
The narrative is complex because the ministries confronted formidable opponents whose actions also need consideration. In Prussia reactionaries potentially had an ally in the king himself, although his own personal failings made that a dubious asset. The major radical opposition was based on the left wing of the Prussian assembly. Opposition to the national policy included other German states and external powers. By far the most significant was the Habsburg dynasty. With the appointment of Schwarzenberg as first minister, Prussian ministers confronted a strong figure who regarded a Prussian-led Germany as incompatible with the existence of Austria-Hungary as a major power.
In a short review it is impossible to analyse Canis’s lengthy narrative. I will instead briefly consider what I regard as the central concept and personality underpinning this narrative and conclude with remarks about the strengths and weaknesses of this narrative presentation.
The concept of Vereinbarung refers to the policy of seeking legal continuity from the pre- into the post-revolutionary period. General Friedrich Wilhelm Graf von Brandenburg who was appointed Minister-President on 1 November 1848, dying in office one year later, is presented as the key exponent of Vereinbarung. An illegitimate son of Friedrich Wilhelm II, born in 1792, one might have expected him to be a staunch defender of the traditional powers of the monarch. Yet, Canis argues, it was during his ministry that an enduring constitutional arrangement was reached for Prussia. However, his death in early November 1850 almost exactly coincided with the confrontation with Austria-Hungary at Olmütz when Prussia finally abandoned its national policy. One had to wait for Bismarck to assert Prussia’s leading position by means of war, not constitutionalism. However, Canis considers that constitutionalism strengthened Prussia, helping enable Bismarck’s success.
Vereinbarung has a double meaning. Canis uses it to analyse Prussian policy. It also had contemporary subjective significance. Since 1789 liberal reformers confronted a dilemma in responding to ideas of revolution and reaction, one which became central to political culture. Cherished reforms had only come in the wake of revolution. How could liberals regard the reforms as legitimate while utterly rejecting revolution as a means of achieving them? The answer was to pretend to undo the revolutionary break, claiming that agreement with the pre-revolutionary authorities established a continuous, reformist path. This explains the long debates in newly elected assemblies – not just in Prussia – as to whether these were a continuation of or a break with the past.
By transforming this subjective concept into an analytical one, Canis takes on the casuistry that necessarily accompanies it. For example, when Brandenburg suspended the Prussian Assembly, moved it out of Berlin, dissolved it, and proclaimed elections for a new assembly, Canis argues that this was not a break with reform because the assembly had itself made the break by calling for a tax boycott. One finds oneself making hair-splitting judgements about who first abandoned legality.
Thick narrative has intrinsic limitations beyond the difficulties of selecting and sequencing the description of actions taken by multiple actors. It implies a secondary importance for events outside the sphere of those whose actions are narrated. Canis mentions such events, for example, counter-revolutionary mobilisation in such forms as establishing war veterans’ and royalist associations, and judicial, fiscal and other reforms designed to placate important social groups. However, it is not possible to integrate these into a narrative. They need a structural analysis. Furthermore, certain key events are not mentioned. Food prices reached their height following poor harvests in 1847. Harvests in 1848 were much better and prices were falling by autumn. Might the inability of radicals to press for democratic transformation be more about waning popular discontent than governmental policies?
One might consider Vereinbarung as a way of transforming the historical account from a structurally shaped sequence of events into a story of successful political action. The ministries were placed between reactionary and radical forces that cancelled each other. The ministers were both able and compelled to tack between one side and the other because the only alternative was to fall from power. Afterwards, it could look as if the course of the journey had been deliberately pursued from the outset, especially when legitimised by the contemporary rhetoric of Vereinbarung.
Canis tells a persuasive story in an immensely detailed, masterfully controlled, and deeply researched monograph which will long remain the authoritative account. However, I think there are problems with the concept of Vereinbarung and with the chosen form of the thick narrative.