Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.: The Ancien Régime and Liberalism - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
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1.: The Ancien Régime and Liberalism - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War 
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Indiana, 2011).
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The Ancien Régime and Liberalism
It is a fundamental mistake to believe that Nazism is a revival or a continuation of the policies and mentalities of the ancien régime or a display of the “Prussian spirit.” Nothing in Nazism takes up the thread of the ideas and institutions of older German history. Neither Nazism nor Pan-Germanism, from which Nazism stems and whose consequent evolution it represents, is derived from the Prussianism of Frederick William I or Frederick II, called the Great. Pan-Germanism and Nazism never intended to restore the policy of the electors of Brandenburg and of the first four kings of Prussia. They have sometimes depicted as the goal of their endeavors the return of the lost paradise of old Prussia; but this was mere propaganda talk for the consumption of a public which worshiped the heroes of days gone by. Nazism’s program does not aim at the restoration of something past but at the establishment of something new and unheard of.
The old Prussian state of the house of Hohenzollern was completely destroyed by the French on the battlefields of Jena and Auerstädt (1806). The Prussian Army surrendered at Prenzlau and Ratkau, the garrisons of the more important fortresses and citadels capitulated without firing a shot. The King took refuge with the Czar, whose mediation alone brought about the preservation of his realm. But the old Prussian state was internally broken down long before this military defeat; it had long been decomposed and rotten, when Napoleon gave it the finishing stroke. For the ideology on which it was based had lost all its power; it had been disintegrated by the assault of the new ideas of liberalism.
Like all the other princes and dukes who have established their sovereign rule on the debris of the Holy Roman Empire of the Teutonic Nation, the Hohenzollerns too regarded their territory as a family estate, whose boundaries they tried to expand through violence, ruse, and family compacts. The people living within their possessions were subjects who had to obey orders. They were appurtenances of the soil, the property of the ruler who had the right to deal with them ad libitum. Their happiness and welfare were of no concern.
Of course, the king took an interest in the material well-being of his subjects. But this interest was not founded on the belief that it is the purpose of civil government to make the people prosperous. Such ideas were deemed absurd in eighteenth-century Germany. The king was eager to increase the wealth of the peasantry and the townsfolk because their income was the source from which his revenue was derived. He was not interested in the subject but in the taxpayer. He wanted to derive from his administration of the country the means to increase his power and splendor. The German princes envied the riches of Western Europe, which provided the kings of France and of Great Britain with funds for the maintenance of mighty armies and navies. They encouraged commerce, trade, mining, and agriculture in order to raise the public revenue. The subjects, however, were simply pawns in the game of the rulers.
But the attitude of these subjects changed considerably at the end of the eighteenth century. From Western Europe new ideas began to penetrate into Germany. The people, accustomed to obey blindly the God-given authority of the princes, heard for the first time the words liberty, self-determination, rights of man, parliament, constitution. The Germans learned to grasp the meaning of dangerous watchwords.
No German has contributed anything to the elaboration of the great system of liberal thought, which has transformed the structure of society and replaced the rule of kings and royal mistresses by the government of the people. The philosophers, economists, and sociologists who developed it thought and wrote English or French. In the eighteenth century the Germans did not even succeed in achieving readable translations of these English, Scotch, and French authors. What German idealistic philosophy produced in this field is poor indeed when compared with contemporary English and French thought. But German intellectuals welcomed Western ideas of freedom and the rights of man with enthusiasm. German classical literature is imbued with them, and the great German composers set to music verses singing the praises of liberty. The poems, plays, and other writings of Frederick Schiller are from beginning to end a hymn to liberty. Every word written by Schiller was a blow to the old political system of Germany; his works were fervently greeted by nearly all Germans who read books or frequented the theater. These intellectuals, of course, were a minority only. To the masses books and theaters were unknown. They were the poor serfs in the eastern provinces, they were the inhabitants of the Catholic countries, who only slowly succeeded in freeing themselves from the tight grasp of the Counter-Reformation. Even in the more advanced western parts and in the cities there were still many illiterates and semiliterates. These masses were not concerned with any political issue; they obeyed blindly, because they lived in fear of punishment in hell, with which the church threatened them, and in a still greater fear of the police. They were outside the pale of German civilization and German cultural life; they knew only their regional dialects, and could hardly converse with a man who spoke only the German literary language or another dialect. But the number of these backward people was steadily decreasing. Economic prosperity and education spread from year to year. More and more people reached a standard of living which allowed them to care for other things besides food and shelter, and to employ their leisure in something more than drinking. Whoever rose from misery and joined the community of civilized men became a liberal. Except for the small group of princes and their aristocratic retainers practically everyone interested in political issues was liberal. There were in Germany in those days only liberal men and indifferent men; but the ranks of the indifferent continually shrank, while the ranks of the liberals swelled.
All intellectuals sympathized with the French Revolution. They scorned the terrorism of the Jacobins but unswervingly approved the great reform. They saw in Napoleon the man who would safeguard and complete these reforms and—like Beethoven—took a dislike to him as soon as he betrayed freedom and made himself emperor.
Never before had any spiritual movement taken hold of the whole German people, and never before had they been united in their feelings and ideas. In fact the people, who spoke German and were the subjects of the Empire’s princes, prelates, counts, and urban patricians, became a nation, the German nation, by their reception of the new ideas coming from the West. Only then there came into being what had never existed before: a German public opinion, a German public, a German literature, a German Fatherland. The Germans now began to understand the meaning of the ancient authors which they had read in school. They now conceived the history of their nation as something more than the struggle of princes for land and revenues. The subjects of many hundreds of petty lords became Germans through the acceptance of Western ideas.
This new spirit shook the foundations on which the princes had built their thrones—the traditional loyalty and subservience of the subjects who were prepared to acquiesce in the despotic rule of a group of privileged families. The Germans dreamed now of a German state with parliamentary government and the rights of man. They did not care for the existing German states. Those Germans who styled themselves “patriots,” the new-fangled term imported from France, despised these seats of despotic misrule and abuse. They hated the tyrants. And they hated Prussia most because it appeared to be the most powerful and therefore most dangerous menace to German freedom.
The Prussian myth, which the Prussian historians of the nineteenth century fashioned with a bold disregard of facts, would have us believe that Frederick II was viewed by his contemporaries as they themselves represent him—as the champion of Germany’s greatness, protagonist in Germany’s rise to unity and power, the nation’s hero. Nothing could be further from the truth. The military campaigns of the warrior king were to his contemporaries struggles to increase the possessions of the house of Brandenburg, which concerned the dynasty only. They admired his strategical talents but they detested the brutalities of the Prussian system. Whoever praised Frederick within the borders of his realm did so from necessity, to evade the indignation of a prince who wreaked stern vengeance upon every foe. When people outside of Prussia praised him, they were disguising criticism of their own rulers. The subjects of petty princes found this irony the least dangerous way to disparage their pocket-size Neros and Borgias. They glorified his military achievements but called themselves happy because they were not at the mercy of his whims and cruelties. They approved of Frederick only in so far as he fought their domestic tyrants.
At the end of the eighteenth century German public opinion was as unanimously opposed to the ancien régime as in France on the eve of the Revolution. The German people witnessed with indifference the French annexation of the left bank of the Rhine, the defeats of Austria and of Prussia, the breaking up of the Holy Empire, and the establishment of the Rhine Confederacy. They hailed the reforms forced upon the governments of all their states by the ascendancy of the French ideas. They admired Napoleon as a great general and ruler just as they had previously admired Frederick of Prussia. The Germans began to hate the French only when—like the French subjects of the Emperor—they finally became tired of the endless burdensome wars. When the Great Army had been wrecked in Russia, the people took an interest in the campaigns which finished Napoleon, but only because they hoped that his downfall would result in the establishment of parliamentary government. Later events dispelled this illusion, and there slowly grew the revolutionary spirit which led to the upheaval of 1848.
It has been asserted that the roots of present-day nationalism and Nazism are to be found in the writings of the Romantics, in the plays of Heinrich von Kleist, and in the political songs which accompanied the final struggle against Napoleon. This, too, is an error. The sophisticated works of the Romantics, the perverted feelings of Kleist’s plays, and the patriotic poetry of the wars of liberation did not appreciably move the public; and the philosophical and sociological essays of those authors who recommended a return to medieval institutions were considered abstruse. People were not interested in the Middle Ages but in the parliamentary activities of the West. They read the books of Goethe and Schiller, not of the Romantics; went to the plays of Schiller, not of Kleist. Schiller became the preferred poet of the nation; in his enthusiastic devotion to liberty the Germans found their political ideal. The celebration of Schiller’s hundredth anniversary (in 1859) was the most impressive political demonstration that ever took place in Germany. The German nation was united in its adherence to the ideas of Schiller, to the liberal ideas.
All endeavors to make the German people desert the cause of freedom failed. The teachings of its adversaries had no effect. In vain Metternich’s police fought the rising tide of liberalism.
Only in the later decades of the nineteenth century was the hold of liberal ideas shaken. This was effected by the doctrines of etatism. Etatism—we will have to deal with it later—is a system of sociopolitical ideas which has no counterpart in older history and is not linked up with older ways of thinking, although—with regard to the technical character of the policies which it recommends—it may with some justification be called neo-Mercantilism.