Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV.: ALTERATION OF MORALS. - Travels in the North of Germany, vol. 2
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CHAPTER XIV.: ALTERATION OF MORALS. - Thomas Hodgskin, Travels in the North of Germany, vol. 2 
Travels in the North of Germany, describing the Present State of the Social and Political Institutions, the Agriculture, Manufactures, Commerce, Education, Arts and Manners in that Country, particularly in the Kingdom of Hannover (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1820). Vol. 2
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ALTERATION OF MORALS.
Are the morals of the Germans deteriorated?—Influence of the immorality of sovereigns.—Murder of Count Königsmark.—Former state of sexual intercourse.—State of morals according to Riesebeck.—German morals improved.—Source of the opinion that they have deteriorated.
It is very generally asserted, that the French Revolution, and the irruption of the French armies into Germany, have done a serious injury to the morals of the Germans. The same effect has been said to have been produced in other countries; and nearly all the existing immorality of Europe is now charged, by certain classes of society, on that single event. From the instances which have been already mentioned of improvements in Germany, as to punishments, as to toleration, as to education, as to the situation of the peasants, and as to the intercourse between the different classes of society, it appears doubtful if the fact of a deterioration of morals amongst the Germans be, on the whole, true. The assertion is, however, one of so much importance, that it deserves further consideration.
In respect of public opinion, the Germans have most rapidly improved since that period. It is only since then that there has been either a public or public opinion in Germany. This latter is the great means of modifying our passions, and directing our pursuits; and, in proportion as it is correct, so the virtues of any people will be great. To suppose that, when a whole nation take part in examining and making laws, it will not be better regulated than when laws are made by one person only, is to suppose that the wisdom of the whole race is not equal to the wisdom of the smallest of its parts. The many causes which, under the name of Government, have an influence on the morality of a nation, make it a matter of certainty that every nation will be virtuous in proportion as it is rationally governed. Since public opinion has grown powerful in Germany, its various governments have improved, and they who make the sweeping assertion, that the morals of the people are corrupted, must keep all the influence of this powerful cause entirely out of view.
Forty years ago, the sovereigns of Germany sold their people for soldiers to any person who would buy them. It is yet barely possible that the inhabitants of Hannover may be compelled to fight in the cause of Britain; but so strongly is the opinion of the Germans now set against the sovereigns selling them like slaves, that they will never again be subjected to any thing so infamous. Neither the inhabitants of Brunswick nor of Cassel will, in future, be sent to subdue the freemen of America, that the debts of one sovereign may be paid with the price of their blood, and a palace built for the other. That the Germans have thought with shame on this part of their situation, and have thought of it, resolved to bear it no longer, is evident from a thousand passages in modern authors. I shall quote one whose authority is greater than the newspapers of the day, in which the subject has been often alluded to.
“Amidst the tears and complaints of parents, relations, and sweethearts, the hired soldiers left their paternal homes to reduce a people who were called rebels to obedience. The lamentations of their wives and children only increased as their absence was longer, till many of the former found consolation in the arms of another man. Many a soldier on his return found his wife an adulteress, his children neglected and sunk in vice, his little property in the hands of usurers, and his name a prey to calumny. Many quitted their homes with hope, but all returned sorrowful. It was said they were sacrificed for the good of their country, but it received no benefit from an expedition that, even in the annals of war, was covered with shame. These sufferings, also, are past, and will never return. Never again will German blood be shed in foreign countries, as it has been, for the interest of English merchants.” ∗
We learn, from the same author, that the government of Brunswick, towards the year 1767, placed some kind of receptacles, like the lions’ mouths at Venice, on all public places, for the purpose of receiving secret denunciations. This is a sort of bribery to vice which the governments of Germany will not now dare publicly to adopt. They may keep their police-spies, they may receive information in secret, and reward the bringer, but they will not again publicly invite men to be traitors to one another.
Prior to the French Revolution, the Germans were notorious for rudeness and incivility. Baron Riesebeck, for example, speaks of the brutal conduct of Austrian soldiers to passengers on the Danube. I travelled the same route; and, though we were often obliged to stop, I never saw any thing like incivility. Yet I had some companions who sometimes rather invited it by their own presumption. Two or three instances of amicable politeness have been mentioned; and, during my whole stay in Germany, I never experienced rudeness or incivility but once, and it was partly occasioned by my own conduct.
Some few years ago, excessive drinking, and, indeed, drunkenness, were very common in the north of Germany. I hardly ever saw a drunken man, and never one drunken woman. The people have changed the beer they used to drink for spirits, but drunkenness is much less frequent than formerly. We learn from Dr Burney’s Travels (p. 331, 332, Vol. I.) what the amusements of the people of Vienna were prior to the French Revolution. The barbarous diversions which are there described are now changed for round-abouts, swings, feats of horsemanship, and conjuring: and brutality does not now extend beyond a bull-bait.
The principal point of complaint, however, is the attachment of women to luxury and finery, and the looseness of their morals. I know not what sort of consciences our countrywomen must have if the first of these actions of which the Germans are accused be a crime; for they are far surpassed by our more luxurious ladies. I am also at a loss to tell what criminality there is in wearing silk more than woollen, or in using mahogany chairs instead of fir-planks for seats. There seems to be no scale yet invented by which the respective atrocities of coloured woods and satins are accurately marked; and therefore I cannot decide on the criminality of the Germans in this point.
There is, however, a great alteration in their manners and morals. “Here in our country,” says the historian, “throughout the whole of the sixteenth century, the household of our prince was regulated like an ordinary house. His wife and daughters took the whole under their care,—knew how to make excellent soup,—were not afraid of the kitchen-smoke,—and sometimes, as the wife of Julius the Duke of Wolfenbüttel, they even made the medicines for the court dispensary. The daughters were obliged to spin and sew; and, on pain of punishment, they dared not read love romances. They were called misses, (’Jung fern,’) or, at most, ladies, (’Fraulein,’) and their noble companions were called maids of honour. Nobody in those days would like to be called lady of the bed-chamber. (Kammer-Jungfer, or Kammer-Fraulein.) That was a disgraceful name. It was too well known what took place with ladies in bedchambers.”
“The mothers of our sovereigns,” (he speaks of our own royal family,) “carefully attended themselves to the piety, cleanliness, and conduct of their children. The girls were obliged to say grace at meals; and even Erich II. after he was sovereign, was obliged to do this. The princess was called housewife (Hausfrau) and landlady, (Wirthin.) She slept with her husband in one bed, and every thing had its proper name.” Since then a great alteration has taken place in the manners, both of the sovereigns and of the people. We find the first traces and causes of this in sending the young men to see the world, who carried back to Germany the outward polish of the despotic French court, and its inward corruptions. The princess was obliged to leave the bed of her husband, unless she would share it with his mistress. He had adopted the French practice of keeping one. It was this importation of foreign manners, by the sovereigns of the country, and their pernicious example, which gradually led to the corruption of the people. Love or gallantry allowed some women to rule over many of the countries of Germany; and the more sober part of the community imitated the vices of their rulers, and contemned the housewife conduct, which they saw despised by them.
It is not a very pleasing thing to rake up the tales of scandal which have been told of the sovereigns of Germany for the last two centuries; but it is right to remind the reader of them, and of the possible influence which they may have had on the manners of the people. It is impossible to overlook the fact, that many of the vices of Europe are caused by the reverence of its inhabitants for its sovereigns. When they, and their flatterers, and partizans, are constantly calumniating nature and the race of mankind, in order to justify, by our immoralities and vices, their claim to our more implicit submission, it is right, when it can be done with justice, to retort these calumnies on their heads; and to shew, if it be possible, that many of our vices are the result of our reverence for them, and that, whatever they have of virtue, they derive from the influence of the public over them.
At the latter end of the seventeenth century, Ernest Augustus, the father of George I., and George I. himself before the death of his father, both kept mistresses, who were sisters. Both had wives at the same time living, and both publicly neglected them. The wife of George I., irritated by this neglect, entered into some sort of intrigue with the Count of Königsmark: it was discovered—she was confined for life—and the Count was executed in a manner that the historian calls murderous; and George, shortly afterwards, consoled himself in the arms of another mistress.∗ Such was the altered conduct of the sovereigns; and this was undoubtedly one cause for the alteration in the conduct and morality of the people.
Other sovereigns of Germany were not better. The celebrated Augustus of Saxony, at the same period, kept a large seraglio, and lived in open incest with his daughter, who boasted of sharing her happiest moments with her own brother. The electors of Bavaria hung the portraits of their mistresses in the halls of their palace for the admiration of strangers.∗ The morals of the sixteenth century were probably better than the morals at the beginning of the French Revolution; but that event has rather improved than deteriorated them. It frightened sovereigns, and made them pay attention to their conduct. It taught them that they do not reign by any divine right, but by the sufferance of the people; and they must take care not to outrage their feelings if they wish to retain their situations. No sovereign of Germany will now dare to behave as Augustus of Saxony did; and if any one should execute a man in the dark, as Ernest Augustus had Count Königsmark executed, he would be most certainly execrated as a monster. The personal crimes of Buonaparte were not half so flagrant as those of these sovereigns; and, owing to the improved morality of the world, they hurled him from his throne, and banished him from society.
There are many circumstances which prove that the commerce of the sexes was not very moral in Germany prior to the French Revolution, and that the chastity of the females was not very great. It has long been customary there for fathers or brothers to select husbands for their daughters or sisters. This custom remains to this day. The husbands are selected by other people, and naturally the ladies select their lovers themselves. Acting on such a principle vitiates the engagement of marriage from its outset. For an attachment to be permanent and moral, it must begin in inclination, and be confirmed by habit and constant intercourse. To substitute for these the mere ceremony of marriage, and to expect to ensure fidelity by unmeaning forms, is something like expecting to supply the place of appetite and digestion by the grace before dinner. Wherever any foreign and artificial sanction is substituted for the affections of the heart, there the morality of the sexual intercourse is assuredly not great.
The manner in which Frederick the Great of Prussia prostituted his subjects to one another, when he thought it would procure him tall grenadiers, is notoriously known. At present, also, the sanction of the magistrate is substituted for the natural reasons for marrying: and all that ought to be holy in affection is made to give way to his views of political economy or state-craft.
Another class of men, whose actions have had a great influence on society, is the clergy. Since the Reformation in Germany, since they lost their power and wealth, their conduct has been exemplary. In the fourteenth century, they are described as keeping mistresses with their natural children in their houses; and then the whole of the convents were considered as so many brothels. To send a woman to a convent was synonymous to making her a prostitute.∗
To shew what morals formerly were, I may quote some other passages from the same historian and from Spittler. In the same century the art of wooing and winning was unknown, and the laws were not directed against the passion which was mutually gratified; but against violence and rape, which were then frequent.† Women were then stolen like cattle, and the embraces, even of noble ladies, were bestowed as a reward for dexterity. At the famous groel-feast at Brunswick, the best marksman was rewarded with a handsome woman.‡ Prostitutes were publicly licensed. What should we think of licensing§ assassins? And one may, with as much propriety, be licensed as another. Some public ladies of that day dwelt in the Red Convent, in the Wall Street, at Brunswick; and the common executioner levied the tax which they paid for the exercise of their trade.∗ At every former period, the same complaints were made of luxury which are made at present; and it and the growing prosperity of the people seem to have attained their height just before the thirty years’ war. That checked both prosperity and luxury; for at that period the power of the monarchs became fully established, and liberty was gradually destroyed. The morals of the Germans in those days, which are called chivalrous, appear to have been no better than the morals of the rest of Europe. That age has only been praised, because the violence of passion was taken for the energy of virtue,—or the glare of putrefaction for the animation of life.
That the state of morals was not very pure in Germany immediately prior to the French Revolution, may be argued from the sort of morality which is displayed in German literature. Marriage is seldom regarded in it as sacred; nor are the utmost excesses of the passion of love ever treated as criminal. Some young men may be occasionally found in every society who coquet with their own affections, and with the affections of females; but when they confess to the public, in manhood, having done so in youth—when they confess this without offering any apology—when it can no longer gratify their vanity—and when they speak of it as a sort of joke—it is clear they must feel and know that it accords with the manners of the public to which they address themselves. Goethe has done this in his memoirs;∗ and he there confesses, without any shame as a man, that, as a boy, he should have been proud if he could have proved that he was the bastard descendant of a nobleman, though it was only to be attained by the adultery of one of his female ancestors.
An equally discreditable story is told of Bürger. His own wife was unfaithful to him, and he is said to have lived in adultery with her sister, and to have afterwards married her. It might have been expected that he would have been desirous to let the world forget the whole adventure; but he has taken care to excite its attention to it by his Hohe Lied von der Einzigen. And he has, in that, endeavoured to console her by calling the reproaches thrown on her conduct “vulgar blasphemy.” It is a tolerable measure of the virtue of the people, that this conduct subjected Bürger to their reproaches, though they were not severe enough to prevent him endeavouring to change them to a matter of triumph. They rather laughed at than scorned him. They reproached, but did not reject, him; and he continued to live in the same society as before.
Individual sentiments, extracted from comedies of other works, may frequently be considered as caricatures; but they are very generally founded in some facts. Schiller, in his Kabal und Liebe, makes one of the chief officers of a German court say to his secretary, “What consequence is it to you whether you receive your ducat fresh from the mint, or from a banker’s? Console yourself by the example of the nobility; with or without knowledge, there is seldom a marriage concluded amongst us without at least half-a-dozen of the guests or attendants being able to judge exactly of the paradise of the bridegroom.” Though such sentiments may not be strictly true, they make the following anedotes and assertions probable.
When Joseph II. was recommended to set apart a place for courtezans, to which they should be confined, he replied he had nothing to do but draw a cordon round the whole city of Vienna; for he believed it did not contain one honest woman. In Baron Riesebeck’s Travels, Letter 8th, the reader may see a confirmation of this opinion of Joseph’s. The passage is too long to quote; but I am persuaded, bad as the morals of that city may be at present, they are not worse now than they were then. The same author says the canons of Augsburgh purchased the daughters of the citizens by dozens every year.∗ Noblemen procured their own female relations as mistresses for monarchs, that they might rule in their counsels.† Of this there are numerous examples. In Bavaria, he says, “Every noble kept his mistress; the rest of the people indulged in promiscuous love; and the whole country was the greatest brothel of Europe.”‡ This sort of vice still thrusts itself on the notice of the traveller, but it is certainly now less than it was as described by the Baron. “If the females of Salzburgh,” he says, “are disposed to make a lover happy, neither the shame of an illegitimate birth, nor the fear of being obliged to maintain a child, is of any consequence to them. Custom sets them above the first, and they disregard the other. A peasant seldom forsakes his girl, particularly after having two or three children by her, if he can marry her.”§ In truth, it has long been customary in Germany not to look on children born out of marriage (Kinder der Liebe) in an opprobrious manner. The very name (children of love) is something very different from bastards. A Bey Schläferinn, or woman who sleeps with a man without the ceremony of marriage, and though the connection is only to last for a convenient season, is never regarded in any other light than as an amiable pleasure.
Again, Riesebeck says, “He found, at every place, in his voyage down the Danube, women waiting at the inns, who seemed ready for more services than one.” On this point, there seems no alteration. He describes the manners of Cologne as most licentious, and concludes thus:—“The evening services of the monks are like the evening walks in the suburbs of Vienna; and every alehouse round the place teems with adultery and fornication. If you happen to go into them of a holiday, you will commonly find the visitors in such a state of drunkenness as exactly reminds you of the old Germans and Scythians.”∗
These remarks apply principally to the south of Germany; and, as this author no where mentions the character of the females of the north, but, in his 44th Letter, where he praises the Saxon women, and, in his 55th Letter, where he insinuates something not very chaste of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood of Hamburg, it would not be right to extend his remarks to the people of the north of Germany. But, from the conduct of the sovereigns,—from the facts quoted of a former period,—from the general character of the writings of Germany,—from the list of divorces which has been given,—and from the number of natural children born at a former period,—there is reason to conclude the morals of the people of the north were not much better than those of the south.
The second point of accusation, namely, a fondness for prodigality and luxury, may also be traced to sovereigns having adopted splendour and extravagance to distinguish them from the rest of the society. It is the imitation of their corrupting example which has created all which is wrong in these desires. They exist in a still more reprehensible degree among people who have always treated French principles with the greatest disdain, and whom French armies have never visited but as prisoners; but who have always been governed, like the Germans, by monarchs who thought splendour necessary to their trade. The wasteful extravagance of princes exciting imitation is a constant, existing, and proximate cause for their subjects to be wasteful and extravagant; and it is most absurd to charge such conduct on the presence of the French armies. So far as I know, the taste for finery and luxury is never condemned but in the poorer people. In the rich, particularly when it is directed to statues, paintings, and music, it is much honoured. The taste itself prompts the poorer classes to industry and ingenuity. Corrected by general opinion, it leads only to an increase of comfort and enjoyment; and it only corrupts men when the extravagance of princes is made the rule of society.
Germany has always been overrun with soldiers, and there is no reason to believe that a revolutionary Frenchman could commit more violence, or set a worse example, than the Uhlans, Croats, Hungarians, and Germans, who have, from time immemorial, devastated and plundered Germany. There can be no doubt that war and large armies, supported by the industry of other men, and corrupting the morals of women for want of better occupation, are very great causes for vice. But these are causes which have always existed in Germany. The princes have always kept large armies, and Germans have always made war on Germans. The French Revolution, and the overwhelming power of France, have, for the first time, made the Germans unite as a power; and wars amongst themselves will excite so much horror in future, that they will ultimately cease altogether. If it were for a moment allowed that the presence of the French armies had corrupted the females, what sort of virtue can be ascribed to them when they thus gave themselves up to the invaders and oppressors of their country? Had they not previously been corrupt in principle, the French, gay and gallant as they are, would have found a different reception.
On the whole, therefore, it appears that the Germans are improving in morality, and improving very rapidly. There is, at the same time, an abundance of proofs that they were improving before the French Revolution. That event gave a fresh impulse to their minds, but was, at the same time, connected with many impediments to improvement. It was followed by long and destructive wars. But the lovers of legitimacy have the sin of these wars to answer for as much as the lovers of revolution. The monarchs were rather more guilty than the people.
The very great improvements which the Germans have made, are, in some measure, the causes why some of them are of opinion that their morals are corrupted. The improvements are changes, and, as men generally assume their own habits and manners as the criterion of perfection, there are very few who do not regard every change as a deviation from right. The wealth and increased importance which the poorer classes have acquired in Germany, have enabled them to vie in comfort and prodigality with those who formerly considered themselves as their superiors. Philosophy regards the increase of the poorer classes in knowledge, and the greatest possible approximation to equality in society, as the surest means of promoting the happiness of all. But those persons who have been accustomed to despise all the pleasures of a free interchange of sentiment, and knowledge, and services, between equals, and to place all their happiness in having their wants provided for by unremunerated and trembling slaves,—who look on a great portion of mankind as destined to toil for their benefit, regard every alteration in society which tends to elevate the poorer classes to an equality with them, as fraught with evil, and they name every such alteration a departure from morality. Such persons describe the present artificial distinctions of society as necessary to the happiness of all, and they not only spurn at every enjoyment which is inconsistent with their habitual worship of the idol their forefathers set up, but they sacrifice mankind to their idolatry. Artificial distinctions between men are diminishing in Germany, and all those persons whose importance was chiefly derived from these distinctions, cry aloud in the world that the society is corrupted. Their power and superiority rest on no merits of their own, but on the unreasonable submission of other men, and, prompted by a base selfishness, they name every diminution of this submission immorality and vice. According to their view, morality consists in quietly submitting to misery if it be inflicted according to law, and every attempt which men make to escape from this legitimately inflicted misery is stigmatized as immoral.
The French Revolution is one of the most conspicuous series of events of modern times, and it is contaminated with many great atrocities; but some of the principles which were loudly published in a moment of freedom, gave an impulse to a spirit of inquiry and a desire for liberty which before existed, that bid fair ultimately to put an end to every species of bad government. Those atrocities may be chiefly ascribed to the corrupting influence of that wretched government, and that miserable superstition which had long substituted in France their own despicable mummeries for the natural reasons why men should be moral. As these mummeries were founded in error, they necessarily came to be despised, and those who had built their power on them were the first and the chief victims of the delusions they had so long upheld. The partizans of legitimate misrule, and the lovers of the artificial distinctions of society, fixed their attention only on the atrocities, and they sought the support of the virtuous part of mankind, by stoutly affirming that all these atrocities were occasioned by a mere attempt to get rid of their systems. They have every where affirmed that the world was growing immoral, and that this immorality was all occasioned by the French Revolution,—as if drunkenness, fornication, and thieving, were first known within a quarter of a century. The horrors of that Revolution have been made the defence of present errors, and are to be the bugbear of future generations. Wherever men seek to improve the laws of their country, they are held up, like a gorgon’s head, to terrify them from alteration.
The Germans, like other people, have acquiesced in the assertions of those who have affirmed that the destruction of their own power is ruin to the happiness of society, because all men are willing to believe that every evil they suffer is caused by some extraordinary event rather than by their own conduct. To suppose that evil is caused by those social regulations which men prize as the highest effort of human wisdom, would imply that they were both deluded and guilty in submitting to them. And they therefore seek a cause for their misery in some single event, in some change of government in a distant country, or in the influence of the stars, rather than confess, even to themselves, that it is occasioned by their own unworthy submission to systems which have substituted the will of one man, the decrees of a few men, or the ceremonies of priests, for the natural and unchangeable reasons why one line of conduct should be preferred to another. So far as these systems could effect it, they have made some of the worst of our species the patterns of imitation, and the criterions of virtue. And their long continuance, not a momentary attempt to abolish them, must be considered as the true cause for much of the vice and misery which have long existed in the world.
The morals of a nation cannot be suddenly changed or destroyed by any single event. It requires time to make any considerable alteration in them. Nothing is more certain than opinions and habits of action descend from parents to children, subject only to little improvements. No miraculous change ever has, or ever can take place, in the conduct of a whole nation, and he who attributes the immorality of any people to a single event, not only rejects the evidence of a regular government in the moral world, which every day brings before him, but also all the evidence of history. The moral laws of nature are as regular and unalterable as her physical laws. He who has so beautifully constructed our bodies, has not left our conduct, on which our happiness depends, to be regulated by chance. The power which governs the world is not a sanguinary tyrant, who delights, by momentary and unexpected storms, to blight the best hopes of mankind. Regular laws are established in the moral world, and we have a capacity to discover them, and so to regulate our conduct by them, that we may diminish or destroy every species of evil. Patience disarms pain of its sting, foresight prevents calamity, and knowledge, as it advances, seems so to direct our passions, that they all work together for good. It was no momentary change in the government of France which made the mob of Paris into monsters. They were as much delighted when they shouted with joy at Lally’s execution as when they exalted on their pikes the head of the Princess Lamballe. It was not the sudden irruption of the French armies into Germany, nor was it the wars which followed the French Revolution, which occasioned any corruptions which may exist in the morals of the Germans. Such as they are so they have been, with some gradual improvements, for ages past. And whatever there is in them of evil must be attributed to some long-existing cause, such as their governments, and not to any momentary and single event.
The few general remarks which my residence in Germany taught me to make are now concluded, and I shall terminate the work with an account of my journey to Frankfort.
[∗]Venturini, Vol. IV. p. 583.
[∗]For the whole of this beautiful specimen of monarchical morality, see Venturini, Vol. III. p. 621; Vol. IV. p. 59–63.
[∗]Riesebeck’s Travels, Letter 8th.
[∗]Venturini, Vol. III. p. 414, 415.
[†]Spittler, Vol. I. p. 58.
[§]To lay a tax on any occupation, makes it legal to the mind of the person who pursues it, as well as to the community. And, in France, where prostitutes are taxed, it is not uncommon for these unhappy beings publicly to defend their trade by saying they have paid the tax. Surely the governments of the world have to answer for the greatest part of the immorality of nations.
[∗]Venturini, Vol. II. p. 194, 195.
[∗]Aus meinem Leben, Vol. I. p. 160—170. 151.
[∗]Riesebeck, Letter 67.