Stein, Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum

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STEIN, HEINRICH FRIEDRICH KARL VOM UND ZUM (1757–1831), Prussian politician and reformer.

In June 1807, on the eve of Prussia's capitulation to Napoleon in the disastrous Treaty of Tilsit, Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum Stein summarized his bold plan for political and social reform in Prussia:

The nation, despite all of its flaws, possesses a noble pride, energy, valor, and willingness to sacrifice itself for fatherland and freedom…. If the nation is to be ennobled, the oppressed part of it must be given freedom, independence, and property; and this oppressed part must be granted the protection of the laws. (Levinger, p. 55)

Although Stein served as Prussia's prime minister for just thirteen months, from October 1807 to November 1808, generations of German historians have lionized him as a champion of liberal nationalism. His two principal legislative accomplishments were the October Edict of 1807, which liberated Prussia's serfs, and the Municipal Ordinance of 1808, which established institutions for local self-government in Prussia's towns. Though these were important measures in their own right, Stein's posthumous renown in Germany has stemmed less from the long-term political significance of his reforms than from his symbolic appeal to Germans of a wide range of political affiliations. A staunch monarchist and impassioned German nationalist, Stein also campaigned vigorously for the establishment of parliamentary institutions in Prussia. An advocate for a reinvigorated aristocracy, Stein also sought to abolish the hereditary exclusivity of the nobility, and he championed the principle of equality before the law. Thus, Germans across the political spectrum—not just liberals and conservatives, but even communists and Nazis—have all found something to admire in Stein's legacy.

Stein is perhaps best characterized as an aristocratic liberal, like Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat; 1689–1755) or Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) in France. His political views were shaped by his social origin in a family of imperial knights of the Holy Roman Empire, owning estates in the Rhineland, where constitutional traditions remained stronger than in absolutist Prussia. Stein attended the University of Göttingen and held a series of administrative positions in the Prussian province of Westphalia, in the Rhineland, from 1780 to 1804, beginning as an official in the Mining Commission and ultimately rising to the post of provincial governor. In 1804 Stein was named Prussia's minister of economic affairs, though King Frederick William III (r. 1797–1840) dismissed him for insubordination in January 1807—in part because of Stein's advocacy for a program of administrative reform that sought to rationalize sovereign authority by limiting the power of the king's cronies serving in the cabinet.

Prussia's catastrophic military defeat by France in 1806–1807 persuaded Frederick William to swallow his pride and recall Stein to service as Prussia's prime minister. Stein immediately persuaded the king to promulgate the October Edict, which declared that as of 1810, "there will be only free people" in Prussia. The October Edict not only abolished hereditary serfdom, but also eliminated certain traditional restrictions on the Prussian bourgeoisie and nobility. Commoners obtained the right to purchase estates owned by nobles; conversely, nobles received the right to practice bourgeois professions without penalty to their status. Unfortunately for Prussia's serfs, the decree neither abolished all of their compulsory labor obligations to their former masters nor granted them ownership of the lands they had farmed—so many peasants ended up living under worse material conditions after emancipation than before.

The Municipal Ordinance, promulgated at the end of Stein's ministry in November 1808, promoted local self-government in Prussia's towns by creating local assemblies and by extending voting rights to all property-owning adult males who practiced a "municipal trade." These elected assemblies became an important force in governing Prussia's towns, checking the power of local bureaucrats appointed by the state. Stein envisioned the town councils as the first step toward a comprehensive system of representative assemblies at the county, provincial, and national level. This more ambitious vision for parliamentary government in Prussia remained unfulfilled, however, in part because of the inherent difficulties in reconciling the principles of monarchical sovereignty and parliamentary representation, both of which Stein championed with equal fervor.

In November 1808, Napoleon forced Frederick William III to dismiss Stein after a French spy intercepted a letter linking Stein to a group advocating a rebellion against France. Stein lived in exile from then until the outbreak of Prussia's War of Liberation against Napoleon of 1813–1814, continuing to lobby for an alliance with Austria and Russia to overthrow the French conquerors. At the Congress of Vienna of 1814–1815, where Stein served on the Russian delegation, he campaigned unsuccessfully for a reinvigorated German empire under Austrian and Prussian leadership. In 1815 he retired to his estate at Cappenberg, Westphalia, working for much of the rest of his life on the publication of the Monumenta Germaniae historica, a massive collection of early German historical documents.

See alsoCongress of Vienna; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Germany; Napoleonic Empire; Prussia; Restoration.


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.

Ritter, Gerhard. Freiherr vom Stein: Eine politische Biographie. 2nd ed. Frankfurt, 1983.

Matthew Levinger

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Stein, Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum

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