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Journal of Social History 38.3 (2005) 816-819

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Ordinary Prussians. Brandenburg Junkers and Villagers, 1500-1840. By William W. Hagen (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xi plus 679 pp.).

Stavenow, in east-Elbian Brandenburg, offers an excellent example of the classic Junker estate—too modest for an aristocratic magnate, yet large enough to boast an impressive manor house graced with Renaissance gables and family portraits. In this remarkable book, William Hagen explores in wonderful detail the lives of Stavenow's Junker lords, peasant farm holders, and semi-landless agricultural workers. Hagen begins in the sixteenth century, when the Quitzow family transformed Stavenow into a highly commercialized manorial economy (grain, sheep, and timber) based in large part on labor services provided by the peasants [End Page 816] and smallholders on the estate. The book ends around 1840, after the agrarian reforms that transformed its subject peasants into a free holding class while severing forever the ties of lordship that had bound the village population to their lord. The author has shaped rich and detailed archival sources into an extraordinary study that effectively dispels mystifications that have long obscured our understanding of Prussian agrarian society.

Many historians continue to view the Prussian Junker as the residual villain of modern German history. They argue that, well before its militarization in the late eighteenth century, the Junkers had already imposed a degrading and impoverishing serfdom on their rural subjects, crushing all resistance and replacing it with the Kadaver-Gehorsam (unquestioning obedience) that would henceforth characterize the relationship between rulers and ruled in Prussian society. The dominant position of the Junker elite in Bismarck's German Reich ensured that this ethos of unquestioning obedience would form the political basis of the new German state. While recent scholarship on Prussia has already done much to undermine this interpretation, Hagen's work effectively demolishes it by going to the heart of the matter—the rural world in early modern Prussia. In doing so, he illuminates questions central not only to Germany, but also to the history of east central Europe as a whole: the economic impact and social costs of manorial lordship (Gutsherrschaft), noble culture, and the complex structure of east-Elbian villages.

At the end of the sixteenth century, Stavenow was a highly profitable estate that owed much of its prosperity to the strength of east-Elbian lordship, which empowered noble estate owners to demand heavy labor services from their peasants and smallholders. At the end of the sixteenth century, most of Stavenow's peasants owed their lord labor services of three days per week. While this imposed a harsh burden on the peasant economy, Hagen shows that in Stavenow (and in most regions of Brandenburg), the peasants, far from being serfs, enjoyed strong inheritance rights, access to royal courts, and a readiness to stand up to seigniorial demands that they deemed excessive.

The Thirty Years War, which exacted a severe toll throughout most of Brandenburg, did not spare Stavenow. As late as 1686, the village population there was only two-thirds of its pre-war level, and seigniorial attempts to re-impose the labor rents they had enjoyed before 1618 sparked village protests throughout the entire district, including Stavenow. As a ruling elite vested with powerful forms of lordship over its rural subjects, the Junkers naturally had the advantage in most of these conflicts, but Hagen shows that power relations between the lord and his villagers were rarely as one-sided as historians have long assumed.

Colonel Andreas Joachim von Kleist (1689-1738), who inaugurated his family's tenure at Stavenow, is emblematic of the successful eighteenth century Junker. An excellent soldier who rose to the command (and ownership) of a regiment, Andreas acquired Stavenow through a combination of careful financial management, royal patronage, and an advantageous marriage. His wife bore him five daughters and eleven sons, and providing the daughters with suitable dowries, and the sons with sufficient funds to launch their military careers, had top priority in a noble family strategy aimed at maintaining noble wealth and status across...


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