Hardenberg, Karl August von

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HARDENBERG, KARL AUGUST VON (1750–1822), Prussian reformer.

As chancellor of Prussia from 1810 to 1822, Karl August von Hardenberg was one of the two leading figures, along with Karl Freiherr vom Stein, in the Reform Movement (1807–1815), which produced profound legal and socioeconomic changes in Prussia. Hardenberg's principal legislative accomplishments included two economic decrees of 1810, which moved Prussia toward a free-market economy, and which many historians credit with unleashing powerful long-term economic growth. He also succeeded in keeping the Prussian state intact in the face of political and financial pressure from Napoleon, and he navigated the state from its alliance with Napoleon through the successful War of Liberation against France in 1813–1814. But after Napoleon's defeat, Hardenberg encountered a backlash against his proposals for further political reforms, and he died without having realized his dream for the adoption of a parliamentary constitution in Prussia.

Hardenberg was born on 31 May 1750 in Essenrode, Hanover, to a wealthy noble landowning family. He studied at the University of Göttingen, and served as an official in Hanover and Brunswick before accepting an appointment in the Prussian civil service, where he made his reputation as the administrator of Prussia's new territories in Ansbach-Bayreuth, and as a member of the general directory in Berlin after 1798.

From 1804 to 1806, Hardenberg served as Prussian foreign minister. In this capacity he played a pivotal role in formulating Prussia's foreign policy—initially supporting rapprochement with France, and then advocating war. Hardenberg's effectiveness as foreign minister was limited by bitter infighting with his rival, Christian von Haugwitz, one of the king's cabinet councillors. Six months before the outbreak of hostilities with France, Frederick William III (r. 1797–1840) dismissed Hardenberg from office, under pressure from French officials who were upset by Hardenberg's support for an alliance with Britain. In January 1807 Hardenberg returned to office as the king's chief adviser, but Napoleon forced the king to dismiss him again in October of the same year.

In May 1810 Frederick William III named Hardenberg chancellor of Prussia, following Stein's thirteen-month ministry of 1807–1808 and the subsequent eighteen-month "interim" ministry led by Karl vom Stein zum Altenstein and Friedrich Ferdinand Alexander Dohna. As chancellor, Hardenberg sought to fulfill the bold plan for rebuilding Prussia that he had articulated in his Riga Memorandum of September 1807, shortly after Prussia's capitulation to Napoleon in the disastrous Treaty of Tilsit. Hardenberg had argued that Prussia needed to imitate its conqueror by undergoing "a revolution… leading to the ennoblement of mankind," which would transform the subjects of the Prussian king into Staatsbürger (citizens of the state). This revolution, however, would "be made not through violent impulses from below or outside, but through the wisdom of the government," and it would culminate in a political system combining "democratic principles in a monarchical government" (quoted in Levinger, p. 46).

Hardenberg successfully promoted several major economic reforms, along with social reforms including the Jewish Emancipation decree of 1812. Although he was forced to retreat from certain controversial proposals, such as a universal income tax, his decrees went a long way toward abolishing the remnants of aristocratic privilege in Prussia, and liberalized the economies of the towns as well. The Finance Edict of 27 October 1810 declared the state's intention to equalize tax burdens, reform the tariff and toll system, create freedom of enterprise, and secularize church lands. The Gewerbesteueredikt (enterprise tax edict) of 2 November 1810 eliminated the guilds' monopolies over the practice of trades. Anyone, whether a resident of the countryside or the towns, could now begin practicing a trade simply by paying an annual "tax on enterprises"—though a certificate of competence was required for certain occupations. The Gewerbesteueredikt constituted a significant step toward the creation of a fully free labor market in Prussia.

Hardenberg's ambitions for political reform, by contrast, remained largely unfulfilled—in part because of the inherent difficulties in harmonizing democratic and monarchical forms of government. He sought to achieve this goal by rationalizing the Prussian administration and by educating the citizenry for responsible and enlightened political participation. But his program for administrative rationalization met with considerable resistance, although a watered-down version of his plan for a new Prussian council of state was adopted in 1817. Hardenberg had even less luck with several experimental representative institutions that he created between 1811 and 1815. Rather than rallying the "nation" around its king, these assemblies frequently challenged the government's authority. Although Hardenberg persuaded Frederick William III on three successive occasions to promise the establishment of a Prussian constitution, these negative experiences with representative politics ultimately convinced the king to renege on his pledges—so that Prussia remained without a constitution until the Revolution of 1848.

In 1815 Frederick William elevated Hardenberg to the title of prince, in gratitude for his leadership during the French occupation and the War of Liberation. Hardenberg remained in office as chancellor until his death in November 1822. Confronting an increasingly vocal opposition at court, he acquiesced to certain conservative measures such as the draconian Carlsbad Decrees of 1819. Until the final months of his life, however, he continued to lobby unsuccessfully for a Prussian constitution.

See alsoCongress of Vienna; Frederick William III; Germany; Liberalism; Metternich, Clemens von; Napoleonic Empire; Prussia; Restoration; Stein, Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum.


Hofmeister-Hunger, Andrea. Pressepolitik und Staatsre-form: die Institutionalisierung staatlicher Öffentlichkeitsarbeit bei Karl August von Hardenberg (1792–1822). Göttingen, 1994.

Levinger, Matthew. Enlightened Nationalism: The Transformation of Prussian Political Culture, 1806–1848. New York, 2000.

Meinecke, Friedrich. The Age of German Liberation, 1795–1815. Edited by Peter Paret. Translated by Peter Paret and Helmuth Fischer. Berkeley, Calif., 1977.

Thielen, Peter. Karl August von Hardenberg, 1750–1822: Eine Biographie. Cologne, 1967.

Vogel, Barbara. Allgemeine Gewerbefreiheit: die Reformpolitik des preussischen Staatskanzlers Hardenberg (1810–1820). Göttingen, 1983.

Matthew Levinger