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  • Political Communication in the German Enlightenment: Gottlob Benedikt von Schirach’s Politische Journal

Recent studies of the Enlightenment, particularly those focusing on France, have put increasing emphasis on the growth of public opinion as an active force to which ruling elites had to respond. Over thirty years ago, Reinhart Koselleck and Jürgen Habermas provided theoretical frameworks that pointed to the importance of the subject. 1 Empirical evidence of the growth of public opinion has often been drawn from studies of the diffusion of reading matter with political content and from research on secondary intellectual figures who often seem to have had a better sense of what the common run of readers would respond to than did the more original thinkers whose works make up what we now define as the canon of Enlightenment literature.

Application of this agenda has been easier in the case of France, with its unified monarchy and its centralized intellectual life, than in Germany. The absence of a national government and a national capital in the German world worked against the development of a notion of a unified “public opinion” on the French model. The multiplicity of political units in Germany meant that individual rulers’ decisions did not become the focus of generalized attention in the way that, for example, Louis XV’s ministers’ efforts to restructure the French parlements in 1770 did: as several recent studies have shown, this “Maupeou coup” inspired a massive outpouring of propaganda throughout France and played a major role in the recognition of public opinion as a significant force. 2 At the same time, the fact that eighteenth-century German cultural life took shape in a much greater variety of social and institutional contexts than in France makes it more difficult to identify which texts and which authors should be taken as representative of the most widely disseminated ideas of the period.

Circulation figures alone are not a reliable measure of the importance of a book or periodical. Nevertheless, the most successful titles of the era certainly merit some attention as indications of what ideas and information were generally available to readers of the period, and what sorts of reading material interested them. Hence the importance of the Politische Journal, which rose within a decade of its founding in 1781 to the status of the most successful magazine in the German-speaking world. Read in all the German states, the Politische Journal transcended the limitations of publications bound to a particular polity and contributed to the definition of a vague but significant sense of pan-German identity, out of which a German public opinion [End Page 24] could begin to develop. The journal’s editor, Gottlob Benedikt von Schirach, was by his origins and his career a typical intellectual of the German Aufklärung. By abandoning disinterested intellectual activity in favor of an unabashed pursuit of commercial success, however, he became the protagonist of a notion of Enlightenment very different from his more celebrated contemporaries. Like some of his peers in other European countries, Schirach recognized that political news could be made into a highly profitable commodity. 3 An examination of his career and of his greatest accomplishment, the Politische Journal, demonstrates that this commercialization of Enlightenment values played a definite role in the development of an incipient political public opinion in Germany. On the eve of the French Revolution, however, this opinion took a very different form from the same phenomenon in France.

The Politische Journal represented an attempt to provide German readers with political news in a rational and systematic form. By the time it appeared in 1781, the German reading public already had access to a highly developed system for the communication of political news. There were more newspapers in the German states than in any other part of the European world, 4 and the best of them gave a reasonably accurate picture of current events. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the German reading public also enjoyed access to a more sophisticated form of political journalism, incorporating opinions as well as information, exemplified by Christian Schubart’s Chronik and August Ludwig von Schlözer’s Briefwechsel meist historischen und politischen Inhalts, as well as the latter’s better-known successor, the Stats-Anzeigen. Whereas the German newspapers gave most of their space to international events, 5 Schlözer’s journals paid more attention to events in the German world itself. This growing volume of political journalism amply substantiates Rudolf Vierhaus’ assertion that educated Germans were not so completely unprepared “that it took the revolution in the neighboring country [France] to bring them into contact with politics.” 6

Historians have often neglected Schirach’s journal because it offered less in the way of original ideas than Schubart’s or Schlözer’s works. 7 But this lack of potentially controversial content allowed the Politische Journal to become the most widely read magazine in Germany on the eve of the French Revolution, and indeed one of the most widely circulated news publications in the entire European world. Its circulation of eight thousand in 1789 was far more than the Stats-Anzeigen ever obtained and was exceeded only by the sales of such successful newspapers as the Hamburg Correspondent. 8 It was one of the journals most often subscribed to by the numerous reading societies and reading rooms (Lesegesellschaften and Lesekabinetten) of the period. 9 Students of the German reaction to the French Revolution have often mentioned the Politische Journal for its role in opposing that movement, but its influence on German opinion after 1789 was a result of its earlier success in capturing a large audience: otherwise, its views about France would have passed unread. An understanding of how this publication came to occupy a central role in the dissemination of political news in Germany in the 1780s thus broadens our understanding of the German reaction to the French Revolution as well as providing new insight into the nature of the Aufklärung. [End Page 25]

The Politische Journal owed its success in part to its dynamic editor, Gottlob Benedikt von Schirach. Schirach was an archetypal product of the Aufklärung. Like so many German intellectuals of his generation, Schirach was the son— and indeed the grandson—of a Lutheran minister. His family, originally of peasant origin, came from Oberlausitz, on the border between Saxony and Bohemia, where Schirach was born in 1743. During his student years, Schirach followed a pattern familiar in the Aufklärung and rebelled against his father’s rather rigid piety by dropping the study of theology in favor of literature. 10 During his studies at Halle, he became a disciple of the philologian and academic polemicist C. A. Klotz (1738–71), who was not much older than Schirach. Klotz, who had founded several literary periodicals, introduced Schirach to literary journalism, and also inspired him to publish several books of critical and polemical essays in the same vein as Klotz’s own works. Schirach’s Historische Zweifel und Beobachtungen (1768) and its continuation, Historische Briefe (1770), showed that he had definite talents as a critic of historical sources. His acrimonious Literarische Briefe an das Publikum (1769), an angry reply to Herder’s criticism of Klotz, served primarily to demonstrate how unrestrained intellectual debate could be in the eighteenth century. 11

In 1769, when Schirach was appointed to teach at the small provincial university of Helmstedt, he had thus established himself as a minor member of Germany’s intellectual community, equipped with the skills to participate in its erudite internal debates. But Schirach soon demonstrated an ambition to reach a wider, less specialized audience. His greatest success in this vein was his six-volume Biographie der Deutschen, a series of biographical sketches of German rulers, which combined a certain amount of original research with a style that made the book enjoyable for nonacademic readers. 12 Schirach eliminated the critical discussion of sources and the polemical passages that had characterized his earlier essays, and he sought to win readers by appealing directly to national pride. He asserted that the Germans were the only people who lacked knowledge of their own history, and he called for “more identification with the Fatherland” and an end to the imitation of foreign modes (1:8–9). His other works of this period include a number that were obviously planned with the intention of winning favors from various ruling houses. His life of the Emperor Charles VI was well received in Vienna and earned him an honorary title of nobility, but it did not have the same effect on the duke of Braunschweig, his academic employer: Schirach received a reprimand for wasting too much time seeking honors instead of performing academic duties. 13

Schirach also busied himself in this period with editing two periodicals he launched himself, the Latin-language Ephemerides literariae Helmstadienses (1771–78) and the Magazin für Deutschen Critik (1772–74). As his correspon dence shows, Schirach worked hard to recruit collaborators and to be sure he had enough material to meet regular deadlines; he also learned the necessity of making sales sufficient to cover printing expenses. Frustrated at being stuck in the academic backwater of Helmstedt, he began to see journalism as a potential way to free himself. 14 [End Page 26]

At the same time, Schirach was beginning to take a more direct interest in political affairs than in literary and historical debates. His appeal to German national pride in the Biographie der Deutschen had no direct political implications, but the pamphlet he published in 1776 against the American Revolution certainly did. Like many other north German authors, Schirach sided with the English and condemned the American rebellion as unjustified. He showed little grasp of the complexities of the issues raised by the Americans, but he sensed the importance of the event and moved quickly to exploit the evident public interest in it. 15 Three years later, he intervened in another political controversy with his pamphlet, Ueber das königliche Dänische Indigenat-Recht (“Concerning the Royal Danish Law in Favor of the Native-Born”), in which he defended the Danish government’s controversial edict restricting public offices to natives of the kingdom, which had been attacked as an offense against human rights by Enlightenment authors like Raynal. Schirach based his argument on a simple assertion of the superiority of absolute monarchy over other forms of government. 16 His lavish praise for the Scandinavian kingdom resulted in his being offered the position of Legationsrat in Altona; he was also supposed to prepare a travel account or Reisebeschreibung giving a favorable picture of the kingdom (Max von Schirach, Familie, pp. 88–91).

The Danish offer allowed Schirach to escape from Helmstedt, “free from the chains of university obligations,” and to relocate in the neighborhood of Hamburg, the most active center of German journalism during this period (Wilhelm Schirach, in PJ, December 1804, p. 1243). The Hansa city was already the home of two major newspapers, one of which, the Hamburg Correspondent, had what was probably the largest press run of any periodical in the world in the years preceding the French Revolution. As a center of shipping and of diplomatic intrigue, the great port was a natural collecting point for news of all kinds. Hamburg was home to a number of printers and publishers and fostered an aggressive, entrepreneurial spirit quite different from that of a small university town like Helmstedt. 17

Schirach promptly took advantage of this favorable location to launch his Politische Journal, whose first number appeared in January 1781. The publication was attributed to an anonymous “society,” and an early issue denied rumors that Schirach was the sole author, but in reality there was never any doubt that he dominated the magazine (March 1781, p. 328). He associated himself with a well-established Hamburg publisher, Bohn, who worked actively to promote the new periodical at the Leipzig book fair and elsewhere. 18 Schirach employed several editorial assistants and eventually made his son Wilhelm his associate; it was Wilhelm who continued the publication after his father’s death in 1804. Of Schirach’s various editorial assistants the only one who ever made any name for himself was Johann Hermann Stoever, who compiled many of the statistical articles about the German states published in the journal and who is usually credited with the authorship of a frequently cited Reisebeschreibung of northern Germany, Niedersachsen, which appeared in 1789, although Schirach himself is more likely to have been its author. 19 [End Page 27]

Naturally, Schirach saw that his journal would only succeed if it offered readers something different from what they could find in the already established Hamburg newspapers and in other periodicals like Schlözer’s Stats-Anzeigen. He saw that the newspapers had certain limitations. According to his son Wilhelm, “in the course of his own work, he had often felt the lack of a work that offered a concise, ongoing history of the times. Precisely the events of his own day were often the hardest to gather documents about. By their very nature, the newspapers could not fill this function” (PJ, December 1804, p. 1244). Schirach claimed that a monthly journal would have the advantages of being able to furnish background information along with the latest news, and of providing accurate summaries of events, with false rumors omitted. The Politische Journal would also eliminate reports of court ceremonies and other trivia that Schirach estimated took up two-thirds of the space in most newspapers: “All the honors and favors dispensed at the court, festivities, voyages, ceremonies, banquets, and the endless list of irrelevancies, rumors, suppositions, contradictions, and private affairs...” that made up the substance of most government-sponsored gazettes (December 1781, pp. 548–49). The journal also differed from the newspapers of the period because it carried no commercial advertising. Although advertisements were an important medium of communication for many purposes, their presence reduced the amount of purely political information a periodical could carry and attracted a different kind of audience. The Politische Journal thus offered a streamlined presentation of the latest political news, in a rationally organized form, without extraneous content.

On the other hand, the monthly Politische Journal differed from Schlözer’s quarterly Stats-Anzeigen both because it appeared more frequently and because it was limited strictly to current events, whereas Schlözer, following the conventions of the historisch-politische journals that had preceded his own, frequently discussed events months or even years in the past and made no effort to report systematically on all current events. The Stats-Anzeigen had no regular rubrics and presented articles in no discernable order, while the Politische Journal had a regular format. The first third of each issue consisted of background articles, such as statistical compilations, travel accounts, governmental edicts or pamphlets about current controversies. The next section gave articles summing up events in the major European capitals during the previous month. These articles were compiled in Hamburg and based on a variety of sources but principally on foreign newspapers and pamphlets. Finally, each issue concluded with a series of letters from the journal’s own correspondents. These often came from the same capitals as the summary articles that Schirach prepared, but they were always more up-to-date—the correspondents normally mailed their work so that it would arrive in Hamburg just in time for publication—and contained more firsthand information.

In form, Schirach’s journal was thus designed to appeal to the practical Enlightenment mentality: it was organized according to a clear, rational plan, and provided nothing but serious current political news. In size and price, the Politische Journal was quite similar to other German periodicals [End Page 28] of the time: each issue consisted of six and one-half or seven printed sheets in-octavo, or slightly over one hundred pages. A year’s subscription cost three Reichsthaler four Groschen, considerably less than the cost of a subscription to the French-language gazettes such as the Gazette de Leyde that offered the most complete political news coverage available in continental Europe at the time. 20 Like most journal publishers, Schirach assumed that readers would preserve their copies for reference and provided them with a printed table of contents to bind in with each six issues.

The success of the Politische Journal depended not only on its form but also on the quality of its content: Schirach had to provide readers with reliable news. Since the information he wanted had to do primarily with politics, he necessarily had to be on good terms with those who had access to such data. In an age when the notion of an independent journalistic profession did not exist, this meant that he needed the cooperation of rulers and their officials. Whereas Schlözer and Schubart had sometimes antagonized princes and their officials or Beamten—Schubart with disastrous consequences to himself—Schirach intended to be on good terms with them. He disavowed any intention of criticizing the policies of any government: “A person who would overturn political dispositions, orders, constructions and ministries with the tip of his pen, must totally misunderstand authority, honor, and statesmanship” (October 1786, pp. 1011–18). He lavished praise on all the princely rulers of the day, particularly those who were most influential in German affairs, such as Frederic the Great and Joseph II. And he took advantage of the fact that many of these rulers and their principal officials were themselves strongly convinced of the value of publicity in furthering their own programs. He developed connections with many leading ministers, who either furnished him with material personally or assigned their underlings to do so. Among those who contributed directly to his journal were the Prussian minister Hertzberg, who fancied himself an excellent writer and propagandist, and the reform-minded Danish minister Bernstorff (December 1804, pp. 1244–45). The journal also had access to high circles in Vienna. Other regular correspondents were in Paris, The Hague, London, and Stockholm, and when events warranted it, Schirach obtained correspondence from additional locations.

Although the articles published in the Politische Journal came from a variety of sources, they were selected and edited in Altona, and so one can justifiably talk about the journal’s overall editorial policy. Schirach, like almost all political journalists of the period, asserted that he was merely an impartial recorder of the truth, and that his publication was open to statements from all parties in public disputes. This was true so long as the disputes were between sovereign states—he stayed scrupulously neutral in the Fürstenbund controversy of 1785–86, for instance—but it did not apply to the reporting of other kinds of controversies, such as the conflicts between prince and Stände in some of the German territories, or the revolutionary movements in the Netherlands. Rival journalists berated the journal for its manifest partiality on a number of occasions before the outbreak of the French Revolution, when its one-sidedness became evident to all. [End Page 29]

In addition to political bias, critics often accused the Politische Journal of factual inaccuracy. In general, this accusation was unjustified, in contrast to the equally frequent complaint that the magazine was riddled with typographical errors. Schirach did sometimes get into trouble, as did all journalists of the period, by risking predictions about the outcome of events that seemed imminent as each issue went to press. The most flagrant and embarrassing case occurred in September 1782, when all Europe was waiting anxiously for the end of the Franco-Spanish siege of Gibraltar. Schirach, impressed by the scale of the allies’ preparations, not only predicted their success but splurged on an engraving of the “floating batteries” the Spanish had devised to bombard the fortress (the only illustration inserted in the journal during the 1780s). Unfortunately, subscribers received it just as more up-to-date newspapers informed them that the British had sent the entire Spanish fleet to the bottom in a matter of hours.

A more justified complaint about the Politische Journal’s news coverage was that it relied heavily on sensationalism and overstatement, accompanied by an incessant drumbeat of self-promotion. In contrast to the editors of many of the more intellectual journals of the period, Schirach employed aggressive tactics to attract subscribers and to hold their interest. To be sure, there were no screaming headlines, although Schirach was addicted to the use of boldface type to make his more sententious statements stand out. But if sensationalism may be defined as the assertion that events reportedly meant more than the evidence indicated, Schirach was as guilty of it as any modern yellow journalist. For him, every shift in the European political balance was a “revolution” and every local conflict the prelude to a general war. In the survey of the previous year’s events that appeared in each January issue, Schirach always found reason to conclude that the twelve months just past had marked a new epoch in European history, to be overshadowed only by the events he prognosticated for the months to come. Knowing that war news boosted sales the most, Schirach directed readers’ attention to any potential armed conflict, and when real fighting did break out, as in the case of Russia and Turkey in 1787, he predicted that the other powers would soon be drawn into the fray. He never tired of reminding readers of occasions when the Politische Journal had obtained important news before its rivals.

Nor did Schirach confine promotion of his journal to its own pages: the Politische Journal advertised regularly and heavily in a number of German newspapers, particularly the widely circulated Hamburg Correspondent. In his private correspondence, Schirach also concerned himself with the journal’s sales, even negotiating the details of discounts to booksellers himself. 21 All of these practices showed that Schirach understood that the system of political communication in Germany was not just a forum for the exchange of information among private individuals eager to arrive at a rational judgment of events, a sphere of bürgerliche Oeffentlichkeit in Jürgen Habermas’ terms. It was also a competitive market, in which aggressive commercial tactics were necessary for a journalist, particularly one launching a new enterprise, to succeed. An old established publication like the Gazette de Leyde, founded [End Page 30] in 1677, might be able to trust to its established reputation, but a new title had to fight for sales and readership.

Schirach’s entrepreneurial drive was essential to his journal’s success, but that success also depended on his ability to simultaneously please his readers and to stay on good terms with the major governments whose activities he covered. His enthusiastic espousal of the reform program of enlightened absolutism allowed him to appeal to both groups. While this ideological choice undoubtedly reflected Schirach’s own personal convictions, it also appealed to a broad sector of the German reading public, including members of the nobility, particularly those engaged in state service, and many members of the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, it involved no potential conflict with the German governments in whose territories the Politische Journal circulated, since they were themselves committed to rational social and political reform. Schirach also made his journal acceptable to the broadest possible audience by adopting a deliberate policy of avoiding controversial material or offensive language. This was a lesson he had learned from the sad experience of his friend Klotz, whose polemical style had made him many enemies. In his eulogy for his friend, published in 1772, Schirach had written, “in our world, one must keep most of one’s justified judgments of others to oneself. One must speak more generously than one thinks, if one doesn’t want to antagonize society....” 22 In the Politische Journal, Schirach promised to edit out “insults, and anything offensive” (August 1788, pp. 803–04). In contrast to Schlözer’s caustic footnotes or Schubart’s populist rhetoric, Schirach’s editorial comments were almost invariably bland and positive, guaranteed not to offend anyone.

In the columns of the Politische Journal, Schirach simplified the Aufklärung’s reform program to a few clichés. He always endorsed reforms intended to promote religious toleration, better schools, and increased trade and commerce. The Politische Journal took an outspoken position in favor of freedom of religion from its very first number, in which Schirach called on governments to imitate “their eternal Father, who patiently bestows his grace on every part of mankind” (January 1781, p. 2). The return to stricter enforcement of religious orthodoxy in Prussia under Frederick William II was one of the few actions of a German ruler to stir the journal to even mild protest (August 1788, p. 878).

The Politische Journal had little of substance to say about educational reform, but any ruler who proposed improvements in that area could count on applause. Schirach and his colleagues devoted more attention to the promotion of trade and commerce, although they had no doctrinaire views on how to achieve these goals. The journal praised some governments for removing traditional cameralist trade controls and praised others for enforcing them more effectively; it hailed Austria’s Joseph II for doing both. Schirach’s main argument was that governments should be encouraged to promote their subjects’ economic welfare, regardless of how they sought to do so. Despite the Aufklärung’s general abhorrence of war, the Politische Journal justified wars undertaken for commercial reasons and argued that they deserved popular support, since they were undertaken for the welfare of the nation (February 1782, pp. 173–78). [End Page 31]

The fourth area of enlightened reforming activity frequently discussed, particularly in Schirach’s annual reviews of world events, was freedom of expression and, in particular, freedom of the press. But here Schirach’s attitude was distinctly ambivalent. The journal obviously benefitted from the relaxed controls in Hamburg, and its only article about local issues there during the entire decade of the 1780s was a strong protest in 1782 against the censorship of an article in another Hamburg periodical (November 1782, p. 427). The journal normally praised rulers who made their censorship laws more liberal. But Schirach had a striking fear of the potential “abuses” of press freedom, and he did not defend freedom of the press on grounds of principle. In 1787, for example, he wrote that the printing press was being used to criticize “public personages and institutions, government initiatives, ordinances, punishments and rewards.... This toleration of completely unrestrained press freedom has been so abused in various countries during the past year, that governments have reason to pay attention to it.” 23 Thus, even before the French Revolution, the Politische Journal was concerned about the possible misuse of freedom of expression, and, in supporting enlightened reform from above, Schirach was careful to avoid endorsing any claim that individuals had rights which governments had to respect.

Schirach, product of the Aufklärung though he was, had an essentially utilitarian outlook: his ideal was a prosperous, orderly society freed from irrational religious constraints. Ideals such as the defense of natural rights struck him as unrealistic and he feared that their pursuit would lead to conflict. Horst Dippel, among others, has labelled him a conservative (p. 335); it is true that Schirach sometimes worried that radical reforms, even when carried through under firm state control, as in Joseph II’s effort to abolish serfdom in Bohemia, were imposed too abruptly (PJ, January 1782, p. 94). But Schirach was no more a principled defender of the wisdom of tradition or of aristocratic privileges than he was of individual rights. The rulers he most admired, particularly Joseph II, were active proponents of change, and Schirach had not the slightest sympathy for the traditionalist opposition that shattered Joseph’s program in Belgium and Hungary. Schirach was a reformer in his own right, but a very cautious and pragmatic one.

The Politische Journal’s coverage of individual countries depended on how well they fit the model of enlightened absolutism Schirach favored. The Habsburg monarchy under Joseph II came the closest to fulfilling Schirach’s ideals. For him, “the simple recounting of the deeds of the great and admirable Joseph is more than the highest praise...” (PJ, January 1786, p. 55). Schirach endorsed virtually every point of Joseph’s reform program, including efforts to create a uniform administrative system throughout the Empire; economic reforms aimed at reducing imports and promoting new industries; the abolition of pre-censorship (with some hesitation on Schirach’s part); and the intention behind the emperor’s edicts on serfdom. Schirach took no position on Joseph’s foreign policy initiatives—after all, he could not afford to offend either Berlin or Vienna—but he could not conceal his enthusiasm for the emperor’s confrontational attitude toward the Catholic Church. [End Page 32]

Vienna and Joseph II held a special place in the Politische Journal’s coverage throughout the 1780s, although Schirach did not mean to identify his publication exclusively with any one government. In contrast, for example, to Trenck von Tonder’s Gespräche im Reiche des Todten (Dialogues in the Realm of the Dead), a satirical publication widely circulated in southern Germany, Schirach avoided praising Austria at the expense of Prussia. He regularly praised Frederick the Great’s policies, but that monarch was in his last years when the Politische Journal was founded and, with the exception of his attempt to organize an anti-Habsburg Fürstenbund or Princes’ League, Frederick took few initiatives as spectacular as Joseph’s in the 1780s. In view of Schirach’s close personal ties to the Danish government, it is not surprising that the journal repeatedly lauded the Copenhagen model of enlightened absolutism. To some extent, Schirach’s publication served as a propaganda organ for the reforming faction in the Danish ministry, particularly in its support for efforts to limit or abolish serfdom, which encountered considerable resistance (September 1786). In view of the limited development of the Danish press— the country lacked even a government-directed Court gazette—ministers like Bernstorff had to turn to German publications to promote their views. Vienna, Berlin, and Copenhagen received more extensive coverage during the 1780s than any of the other absolutist states in Europe, but the Politische Journal did not neglect the lesser German princes or the leading enlightened despots of the rest of the continent, particularly Catherine II, Leopold of Tuscany, and Charles III of Spain.

The Politische Journal did not automatically condemn governments that did not conform to the enlightened absolutist model. Indeed, Schirach made much of his comparative and relativist approach to politics, suggesting that there were positive virtues even in Turkish despotism (May 1788, pp. 441–51). His journal gave extensive coverage to the English system of government; in his introduction to the first issue, Schirach noted the unique strength England obtained from its people’s association with its government (January 1781, p. 34). The journal gave regular summaries of parliamentary debates and explained how the constitution worked in practice. When Lord North was forced out of office in 1782, the paper underlined for its readers the fact that he had been brought down by his loss of a majority in the House of Commons, not by the king (April 1782, p. 347). Of course, an accurate picture of British politics in this period was not automatically bound to inspire an urge toward imitation on the continent: the Politische Journal’s correspondents also reported the corruption, drunkenness, and violence of English elections and commented on the selfish motives of leading politicians. The effect of the English model on German opinion was probably mixed.

Potentially more subversive of absolutist values in the 1780s were the various revolutionary movements of the period. Here the Politische Journal’s attitude was unmistakable: popular participation in politics could only lead to disastrous results. Schirach had been skeptical of the American Revolution from the outset, and he was by no means converted when the rebels won their independence. Throughout the 1780s, he seized on all evidence that suggested weaknesses in the American experiment, always eager to remind [End Page 33] readers of “what we...have always said, that independence would not guarantee the welfare of the North American states...” (October 1786, p. 1003). But the “democratic revolution” that most concerned the journal throughout the 1780s was the long-drawn-out drama in the United Provinces of the Netherlands, beginning with the war against England in 1780 and culminating in Prussian military intervention on behalf of the stadholder, the Prince of Orange, in September 1787. Every month for seven years, the journal’s readers received a fresh account of the “excesses of a misguided people” (October 1786, letter from The Hague). Schirach’s correspondents blamed the Dutch troubles entirely on the Dutch Patriots’ unjustified resistance to established authority. The Patriots’ arguments were never presented fairly, and the journal contrived to paint them as anti-German as well as seditious by making the dismissal of the Stadholder’s longtime chief of staff, the duke of Brunswick, appear to be the central issue in the entire controversy. Schirach’s one-sided treatment of the Dutch disorders was not unique in the German press: Schlözer was even more active in opposing the Patriots—he sponsored the formation of a separate journal exclusively devoted to reprinting Orangist propaganda and himself wrote a long and influential defense of the duke of Brunswick—but the vehemence of Schirach’s hostility to the Patriots’ mild gestures in the direction of political democracy clearly foreshadowed his reaction to the French Revolution. 24

Even before 1789, Schirach saw the American and Dutch revolutions as part of a wider international movement: he was an eighteenth-century adherent to the thesis of an international “democratic revolution” associated with the work of the modern historians R. R. Palmer and Jacques Godechot. 25 In the article “Spirit of Unrest in our Time,” published in 1787, Schirach condemned the various revolutionary movements of the period as results of a “delusion of independence [Freyheitsschwindel] [that] has taken possession of many heads, that don’t even know themselves what they want, and what real freedom is....” Not only were such movements destructive of good order, but, Schirach maintained, they were in direct opposition to the spirit of enlightenment, “this friend of peace and order, that leads spirits to the healthy reflection that teaches that unruly enterprises must always have evil consequences.” In reality, revolutionary movements never benefitted the people; they were, Schirach claimed, always “the machine of the power- hungry...who misuse and sacrifice the confused people, who enjoy good conditions under the governance of good rulers” (July 1787, pp. 708–13). Although he did not believe that there was a secret conspiracy behind these widely scattered revolts—he was highly skeptical of the Bavarian government’s campaign against the Illuminati (December 1786, p. 1221)—he did fear the contagion of a “Schwindelgeist” that would mislead subjects elsewhere into rebellion. The French Revolution served only to confirm the apprehensions Schirach had nourished throughout the preceding decade.

Although Schirach became famous primarily because of his uncompromis ing hostility toward the French Revolution, his treatment of French affairs before 1789 was something of an anomaly in the Politische Journal’s overall view of the world. From the beginning of the 1780s, Schirach had recognized [End Page 34] that France’s political system needed fundamental reform. He pointed out that the government was unable to tap the country’s resources effectively and called for reforms to shift the tax burden from the poor to the rich (January 1781, p. 36). In the middle of the decade, the journal engaged in a bitter controversy with Schlözer’s Stats-Anzeigen, not about the necessity of reform but about how it should be implemented: the Politische Journal backed the ambitious schemes of the finance minister Calonne, while its rival endorsed the more cautious Necker, who sought to regain the office he had lost in 1781. 26 The Politische Journal might have been expected to side with Calonne’s successor, Loménie de Brienne, when he tried to implement a rational reform program over the opposition of the aristocratically dominated sovereign courts or parlements in 1788, but Schirach surprisingly endorsed the “patriotic” resistance to the ministry: “Those who accuse the parlements, and now the [provincial] Estates and the nobility, of an unjustified spirit of contradiction, have never studied the public law of France...” (July 1788, pp. 734–41). There is no obvious explanation for this departure from his normal position on quarrels between monarchical authority and traditional corporate bodies; perhaps Schirach, who in reality knew little about France, was simply swept along by the flood of antiministerial propaganda in France and in such reputable international journals as the Gazette de Leyde.

After the fall of Brienne, the emphasis in the paper’s reporting on France shifted from the prospects for reform to the extent of popular violence. Schirach’s correspondent was not impressed by the quality of the political writing inspired by the upcoming Estates-General. He mocked the many French pamphleteers who alleged that the country’s problems stemmed from a lack of knowledge of its constitution, remarking, “This is indeed a funny constitution, whose content no one knows!” (March 1789, p. 428). Once the revolutionary process began, the Politische Journal was quick to write it off as a disaster. Its first report on the meeting of the Estates-General, written before the depth of the division between the privileged orders and the Third Estate had become apparent, emphasized that France had been ruined by expensive wars and internal unrest, “the destiny of all large and powerful kingdoms,” and had little hope for regeneration (May 1789, p. 603). The storming of the Bastille confirmed the journal’s impression that French events had gotten completely out of hand, and by September 1789 it was reporting unhappily on the rise of a faction favoring “pure democracy,” although it still held out some hope that supporters of a strong monarchy might prevail (September 1789, p. 1091). On the whole, however, the entire French experience in the 1780s served only to confirm the excellence of German-style princely absolutism as opposed to a system in which selfish privileged groups had been able to obstruct necessary reform until the only alternative was the blind violence of revolution.

The Politische Journal’s later reputation as a violent opponent of the French Revolution gives the impression that French affairs were its main interest. In the period up to June 1789, however, the journal gave no more coverage to France than to any other major European country, and one of its main [End Page 35] features was the degree to which it concentrated on the German world. In comparison to the German newspaper press, which emphasized English and French news throughout this period, the Politische Journal gave at least half its space to events in Germany and Austria. Schirach, who had been successful with his appeal to German pride in his Biographie der Deutschen, clearly chose to exploit the same theme in his journal. In addition to the newsletters from Vienna and Berlin in each issue, the Politische Journal had regular reports from the Imperial Diet in Regensburg, although it confessed that “this boring assembly” produced little in the way of genuine news (July 1781, p. 53). Coverage of the other German states was irregular but wide- ranging. In 1786, for example, there were five letters from Frankfurt; three each from Nuremberg and Cologne; two each from Silesia, Mecklenburg, Leipzig, Aachen, Mainz, and Prague; and single contributions from Bavaria, Danzig, Münster, Bohemia, Schwerin, Braunschweig, Brandenburg, Magdeburg, Meiningen, and Munich. A summary article based on reports from newspapers mentioned events in other German principalities on a regular basis. The Politische Journal had clearly established itself as a central forum for news from all over Germany; many of the occasional letters published from different parts of the Reich had the appearance of being unsolicited contributions from local officials or ordinary readers who took the initiative in reporting news from their region. While Schirach’s publication rarely gave the depth of information that Schlözer sometimes provided on particular controversies that interested him, it did give a more regular and dependable survey of the latest occurrences. This regular supply of political information was one of the preconditions for the development of a German public opinion.

Many of the Politische Journal’s articles about Germany were of the statistische genre that was so prominent in the general German press. Schirach was certainly no pioneer in this area, but he saw these dry compilations of figures on population, agricultural production, and trade as a major sign of the growing identification between governments and public opinion that his journal set out to promote. In the introduction he wrote for his young collaborator J. H. Stoever’s Historisch-statistische Beschreibung der Staaten des teutschen Reichs, Schirach praised German princes for recognizing “that reporting on the condition of a country does not betray secrets to the enemy....” He claimed that “wise, economical princes” would want to publicize such statistics in order to prove the benefits of their policies. He urged rulers to publish figures on state income and expenses, since “political publicity...only wins greater trust for governments, the more open it is.” 27 The Politische Journal was in no sense a pioneer in publishing such statistical data, but it did pursue the quantitative description of the German states with a systematic zeal absent from such rival publications as the Stats-Anzeigen. Schirach projected nothing less than a complete depiction of Germany, state by state, to be printed first as a series of articles in the journal and then in book form. Just as his Biographie der Deutschen inspired national pride, this statistical compilation would promote a sense of identification with Germany. “What can be more useful and interesting, and more inspiring to every thoughtful lover of his country, than to have a more detailed and comprehensive [End Page 36] knowledge of his fatherland, and of the realm of which he is a part?” he asked; and he was sure that the total picture would justify a well-founded national pride: “No realm [Reich] in the world is so powerful, in relationships, so populous, in proportion [to its size], so rich in products, and generates so many kinds of surpluses, as Germany.” 28 Above all, Schirach asserted, Germans had no reason to feel inferior to France.

Although Schirach saw his statistical articles as having the goals of inspiring a stronger sense of national identification among German readers and of demonstrating the growing mutual trust between rulers and subjects, his journal should not be seen as a forerunner of nineteenth-century German nationalism. Schirach, himself a protegé of a non-German state that ruled several German territories, saw no connection between national identity and political structure. Nor did he normally criticize the policies of individual German rulers. It is true that he had a distinct preference for enlightened princely absolutism over some of the other political arrangements found in the Holy Roman Empire; he was particularly critical of what he saw as the outmoded and overly complicated governmental structure in the imperial cities (Reichsstädte), “that rare mixture of aristocracy and democracy,” that he blamed for troubles such as those in Aachen in 1786 (April 1786, p. 419). For all his rhetorical advocacy of a stronger sense of German national pride, Schirach remained loyal to the tradition of the princely state. He did not anticipate the new issues that would be raised as a result of the French Revolution, and, although he did recognize that the competition between Prussia and Austria had the potential to undermine the structure of the Holy Roman Empire, he did not indicate what changes could be expected as a result (January 1786, pp. 7–8).

Inasmuch as all the German sovereigns of the period continued to proclaim their adherence to the existing institutions of the Empire, Schirach’s uncritical acceptance of that political structure assured the acceptability of his journal throughout the German-speaking world. At the same time, his appeal to readers to identify themselves more closely with their homeland and to reject foreign models—part of a pervasive European reaction against French cultural dominance in the late eighteenth century—made his journal attractive to a broad public. The Politische Journal succeeded better than any other German periodical in giving a comprehensive and timely account of events in central Europe, as well as providing a brief summary of important news in the rest of Europe. On the eve of the French Revolution, then, the Politische Journal had made itself essential to the communication of political information in Germany. It had also accustomed readers to a particular view of the world that could not help but influence their reaction to the new issues raised by the turmoil in Paris. Schirach and his contributors were by no means protoconservatives, opposed to all reform of existing institutions. Indeed, the magazine had often praised reforms similar to those implemented in the Revolution’s early stages when they were carried out by enlightened governments in northern and central Europe. But at the same time, the journal always expressed its distrust of any revolutionary movement from below, regardless of its social basis. This fear of popular involvement in [End Page 37] politics, expressed most strongly in the extensive coverage of the Dutch Revolution and in the hesitant commitment to freedom of the press, made the journal turn against the French Revolution almost from its outset, long before the rise of the Jacobins and the installation of the Terror. Finally, the Politische Journal’s clear message that German readers should concern themselves above all with German affairs militated against any application of French ideas in the German context.

To be sure, the Politische Journal’s viewpoint was not unique among German journals. Despite the nasty mudslinging that went on between the Stats-Anzeigen and Schirach’s journal, for example, there was not much difference in the two publications’ political viewpoints. Schlözer’s political liberalism, while sincere, was quite limited and did not extend to sympathy for violent upheavals like the French Revolution; both he and Schirach opposed the American and Dutch movements. Schirach’s acquiescence in state control of political information and his assertion that the interests of rulers and subjects were really the same were commonplaces of eighteenth-century journalism; determined appeals for press freedom and attempts to widen the sphere of political reporting were rare throughout the period. 29

The historical interest of Schirach’s journal stems not from its originality, but from the broad appeal it had for the German public of its day. Its messages of moderation and of the primacy of German affairs satisfied the two crucial groups who were in positions to determine the fate of any medium of communication in the period up to 1789: the growing public of educated readers who could choose to read or ignore any new publication, and the rulers and bureaucrats who could choose to cooperate with or oppose any such venture. The Politische Journal’s success substantiates the notion that German enlightened despotism continued to command a sizable base of public support in 1789, not because the German states were politically backward or because readers lacked adequate political information, but because they did not perceive the relevance of revolutionary ideas to their own situation. Public opinion, a contestatory force in France, had a much different significance in Germany, where the educated public continued to identify with a project of Enlightenment under the patronage of existing rulers.

Unlike his journalistic contemporaries Schubart and Schlözer, Schirach had no particular political aims of his own to promote, and so he was uniquely capable of exploiting the journalistic opportunity this situation presented. Thoroughly modern in his secular outlook, in his contempt for outmoded institutions and in his business methods, Schirach saw no connection between modernization and popular political participation. The popularity of his journal shows that the growth of new media of political communication and of a politically informed reading public in late eighteenth-century Germany was far from having immediate revolutionary implications.

Jeremy D. Popkin
University of Kentucky

Acknowledgment

Research for this article was supported in part by the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst, the Herzog-August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, the Max-Planck Institut für Geschichte, the Newberry Library, and the University of Kentucky Research Foundation, to all of whom I express my appreciation.

Footnotes

1. Koselleck, Kritik und Krise, Eine Studie zur Pathogenese der bürgerliche Welt (1959; Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973); Habermas, Strukturwandel der Oeffentlichkeit (Neuwied & Berlin: Luchterhand, 1962). Subsequent translations of quotations in this essay are my own.

2. On the connection between the “Maupeou coup” and the rise of a politicized public opinion in France, see esp. Keith Michael Baker, Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1990), and Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (N.Y.: Norton, 1995).

3. On similar phenomena in the French-speaking world, see Jeremy D. Popkin, “The Business of Political Enlightenment,” in Consumption and the World of Goods, ed. John Brewer & Roy Porter (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 412–36.

4. In 1788, there were at least 183 newspapers published in Germany, compared to 49 in France. Only the newly independent United States seems to have had more newspapers per capita than the German states (Martin Welke, “Die Legende vom ‘unpolitischen Deutschen.’ Zeitungslesen im 18. Jahrhundert als Spiegel des politischen Interesses,” in Jahrbuch der Wittheit zu Bremen 25 [1981]: 183). On France, see Gilles Feyel, “La presse provinciale sous l’ancien régime,” in La presse provinciale au XVIIIe siècle, ed. Jean Sgard (Grenoble: Presses Univ. de Grenoble, 1983), pp. 17–18.

5. Jürgen Wilke, Nachrichtenauswahl und Medienrealität in vier Jahrhunderten (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1984).

6. “Politisches Bewusstsein in Deutschland vor 1789,” Der Staat 6 (1967): 193.

7. For previous discussions of the Politische Journal (hereafter cited as PJ), see Joachim Kirschner, Das Deutsche Zeitschriftenwesen, 2 vols. (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1958), 1:131; Erich Everth, Die Oeffentlichkeit in der Aussenpolitik (Jena: Fischer, 1931), p. 388; Hubert Max, Wesen und Gestalt der politischen Zeitschrift (Essen: Essener Verlagsanstalt, 1942), pp. 134–36; Wilmont Haacke, Die politische Zeitschrift (Stuttgart: K. F. Koehler Verlag, 1968), 1:146–47; and Helga Boulay, “La presse à Hambourg et Altona et la Révolution française,” in Les genres et l’Histoire au XVIIIe et XIXe siècle, vol. 2, in Annales littéraires de l’Université de Besançon, no. 249 (n.d.): 37–66, and “La chute de la monarchie vue par trois périodiques d’Hambourg,” in Annales historiques de la Révolution française, nos. 255–56 (1984): 204–28.

8. For the Politische Journal’s circulation, see anon., Niedersachsen (In seinem neuesten politischen, civilen und litterarischen Zustande) (Rome [sic]: “Bei Ore-Chiaro” [sic], 1789), 1:165. The Stats-Anzeigen’s peak circulation was about 4,400 (Kirchner, Zeitschriftenwesen, 1:130). The Hamburg Correspondent had a press run of over 20,000 at the time of the French Revolution (Margot Lindemann, Deutsche Presse bis 1815 [Berlin: Colloquium Verlag, 1969], pp. 162–65). The French-language international gazettes of the period, which were the best-informed printed news sources available but which were considerably more expensive, seldom reached circulations of over 5,000.

9. Marlies Prüsener, “Lesegesellschaften im 18. Jahrhundert,” Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens 13 (1972): 430.

10. On the origins of Schirach’s family, see Max von Schirach, Geschichte der Familie von Schirach (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1939), pp. 4–11. This family history was compiled to glorify the ancestors of the Nazi youth leader Baldur von Schirach. In spite of its origins, it incorporates valuable documentary materials.

11. Gottlob Benedikt von Schirach, Historische Zweifel und Beobachtungen (Halle: J. J. Curt, 1768); Historische Briefe von G. B. Schirach (Helmstedt & Magdeburg: Hechtel, 1770); Literarische Briefe an das Publikum (Altenburg: Richter, 1769).

12. Biographie der Deutschen, 6 vols. (Halle: J. J. Gebauer, 1770–74).

13. Gisela Hölk, Die Geschichtswissenschaft an der Universität Helmstedt seit der Gründung der Universität Göttingen (Diss. F.U. Berlin, 1969), p. 55.

14. Schirach’s experience with editorial problems and his resentment of his situation in Helmstedt are amply documented in letters to his friend Röttger in Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz (hereafter SPK), acc. Darmstadt 2 f 1771.

15. Historisch-statistische Notiz der Grossbrittanischen Colonien in Amerika, mit politischen Anmerkungen, die gegenwärtigen Amerikanischen Unruhen betreffend (Frankfurt & Leipzig: n.p., 1776). On German reaction to the American revolt, see Horst Dippel, Germany and the American Revolution: 1770–1800, trans. Bernhard A. Uhlendorf (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina, 1977).

16. Ueber das königliche Dänische Indigenat-Recht, und einige andre Gegenstände der Staatswissenschaft und Geschichte (Hamburg: Herold, 1779). A somewhat revised version appeared in French translation in 1785.

17. On the Hamburg Correspondent, see Ernst Baasch, Geschichte des Hamburgischen Zeitungswesens von den Anfängen bis 1914 (Hamburg: Friederichsen, de Gruyter, 1930), pp. 6–7. On the city’s intellectual climate, see Franklin Kopitzsch, Grundzüge einer Sozialgeschichte der Aufklärung in Hamburg und Altona, 2 vols. (Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag, 1982).

18. On Bohn’s promotional activities, see Schirach, letter to anon. correspondent, in SPK, Nachlass Decker, vol. 9.

19. On Stoever, see Richard Graewe, “Quintus Aemilius Publicola: ein frühvollendetes Schriftstellerleben am Ende des 18. Jahrhunderts,” Stader Jahrbuch (1963): 129–42, and Hans Werner Engels, “Nachwort” to reprint edition of Niedersachsen (Hamburg: Kötz, 1975). This lively and opinionated description of northern Germany was first attributed to Stoever in Meusel’s Gelehrtenlexikon. Stoever did not claim the authorship in the Lebenslauf he submitted along with a job application in 1792, however, and the book is completely different in style from the dry statistical compilations that make up his other known works. Schirach had planned to write such a work since 1780. In 1781, he informed a friend that “the title of my Reisebeschreibung is: Reise von Pyrmont durch Niedersachsen nach Dänemark, mit politischen Nachrichten und Anmerkungen den Zustand und die Merkwürdigkeiten dieser Länder betreffend. My name will be omitted, and the book will appear anonymously” (SPK, Nachlass Decker, letter of 13 Mar. 1781.) It is true that a subsequent letter reports that the Politische Journal was taking so much of Schirach’s time that he had been unable to complete the work (SPK, Nachlass Decker, letter of 4 Apr. 1783.) The work that appeared in 1789 corresponds exactly to Schirach’s description in 1781, except for the shortened title. It also singles Schirach out for special praise and provides a detailed description of his activities.

20. On the Gazette de Leyde and on the European news business in general, see Jeremy D. Popkin, News and Politics in the Age of Revolution: Jean Luzac’s Gazette de Leyde (Ithaca: Cornell Univ., 1989).

21. Schirach, letter to Decker, 2 Feb. 1781, in SPK, Nachlass Decker, vol. 9.

22. Magazin für deutsche Critik (Apr. 1772): 139.

23. PJ, Jan. 1787, p. 10. Schirach did not specify which countries’ press had inspired his concern.

24. On German reactions to the Dutch Patriot movement, see Jeremy D. Popkin, “The German Press and the Dutch Patriot Movement, 1781–1787,” Lessing Yearbook 22 (1990): 97–111.

25. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ., 1959, 1964); Godechot, La Grande Nation, 2nd edn. (Paris: Aubier, 1983).

26. The Politische Journal’s criticisms of Necker were written by Philipp Peter Guden (1722–94), a local official and writer on economics from Hannoversiche Münden. In 1786, Guden published Historisch-politische Untersuchung von Frankreichs Staatsvermögen (Hamburg: n.p., 1786), which charged Necker with ruining France’s finances.

27. (Hamburg: B. G. Hoffmann, 1785), pp. ix–x.

28. Pp. ix & xvi. This was the only volume of Stoever’s work to appear, but the Politische Journal’s series of statistical articles on the German states, begun in Jan. 1784, continued off and on until Schirach’s death in 1804.

29. On 18th-century debates over press freedom, see Franz Schneider, Pressefreiheit und politische Oeffentlichkeit (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1966), pp. 101–36. For what appears to have been the first attempt in Germany to imitate the scandalous press already widespread in England and France, see the Correspondance politique et anecdotique sur les affaires de l’Europe, et particulièrement sur celles de l’Allemagne depuis l’année 1780 jusqu’à présent, 5 vols. (n.p., 1789–90)—a publication whose readership was limited because it appeared in French.

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ISSN
1086-3192
Print ISSN
0098-2601
Launched on MUSE
1996-02-01
Open Access
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