Robert von Friedeburg’s book Luther’s Legacy is the fruit of many years of research into early modern concepts of the “state” in Germany and Europe. Friedeburg’s aim is to reconstruct the genealogy of a specific German understanding of the “state.” This German “Sonderweg” (special path) was—and this is one of the core arguments of Friedeburg’s text—coined by what he calls “Luther’s legacy,” by which he means Luther’s virulent attack against princes and courtiers in 1535. Luther, argues Friedeburg, established a specific tradition of understanding what the duties of the prince and state authority should be, which included a degree of anti-Machiavellianism and which led to an idea of the state that was characterized by the “protection for subjects … under a rule of law and control of the prince by the laws of a ‘state’ as a fatherland of laws and bearer of public order in its own right” (3). Assuming a longue durée perspective, it could be argued that this is still a characteristic of the state in Germany: “But perhaps more than in any other country, the care of infrastructure, the regulation of guilds, of trade and industry, of urban living, and at least partly provisions for social security in case of sickness and old age for larger sections of the population became icons of the efficiency and legitimacy of the ‘state’ as intervening in and actively engineering industrial society” (386). Friedeburg retraces the history of this conception of the state from the fourteenth to the beginning of the eighteenth century. He starts his examination with a discussion of older interpretations of the problem—especially by Friedrich Meinecke, who identified the problem in his analysis of the “reason of state” idea. For Meinecke, the idea of reason of state as a legitimation of the prince’s agency, as first conceptualized by Machiavelli, was not practicable in Germany. It was Luther who insisted, and thereby went against Machiavelli, that the Prince should build up a Christian state. This is the starting point for Friedeburg. Drawing on an impressive number of German theoretical treatises on government, Friedeburg reconstructs the discourse on the “state” in the Holy Roman Empire from the 1450s to the early eighteenth century. Due to the dual structure of the empire—the emperor on the one side and the estates as his vassals on the other—this discussion was dominated by the idea of feudal law. The prince or the authorities in the imperial town reigned thanks to rights that they once had acquired. These rights did not give them absolute power over their subjects, so the latter could call for participation in the decision-making process. The Reformation brought Luther’s criticisms regarding princely rule to the surface, and an intense debate among Protestant leaders (e.g., Philip Melanchthon) began over the extent of the power of a prince, the right to resist, and the notion of the “state.” Until the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, the German conception of the “state” was affected by the notion of the personal rights of the ruler. The idea that the state implied also a well-defined space that was in the possession of the prince played a minor role. The Thirty Years’ War is for Friedeburg the watershed between previous models and the modern notion of the state. He argues that as a direct result of the effects of the war—destruction, the permanent levy of contributions, the breakdown of the public order—Luther’s criticism experienced a renewal. Combined with a strong anti-Machiavellian moment, princes were accused not only of fighting for their personal interests, but also of not respecting traditional ways of integrating the nobility into the government. One of Friedeburg’s strengths is that he also retraces the reflection of these theories in the discussions and quarrels between princes and “estates” (Landstände), as in the case of the landgraviate of Hessen-Kassel. Between the 1630s and the 1650s the princely house was in a continuous dispute with the Hessian estates about the financing of the war effort. Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff (1626–1692), a secretary and counselor in the minuscule estate of Saxe-Gotha, summarized the key points of this dispute in his Teutscher Fürstenstaat of 1656, with many reprints to follow. Here we encounter a state governed by a prince whose goal is the common weal, which is to be realized through a policy that is guided by Christian maxims, that is, by respecting the rights of his subjects, who are not “slaves” but are protected by the law. Other authors contributed to such a view of the state, including Anton Wilhelm Ertel, who insisted that “the state is not the property of the prince, but the prince the property of the state, and he is as such under an obligation to uphold the state” (331). Thus, the German idea of state highlighted the priority of function of the government over that of the dynasty. Subjects should be oriented to the “fatherland state,” and not to the dynasty. Frederick the Great picked up on this idea and hid his ambition behind the formula that he was the first servant of the state. Friedeburg’s tour de force through three centuries of German state theory is impressive in its range of perspectives. It demands a lot of attention from the reader, and it is not a book for beginners—you should have some knowledge of the structure of the Holy Roman Empire as well as of early modern state theory in order to appreciate Friedeburg’s argument. It also raises a number of interesting questions: Is this not a very Protestant perspective? What was the contribution of Catholic German authors to this narrative? That it opens a field for further discussion and research is a sign of the quality of Friedeburg’s study. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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