Beyond the Barricades: Government and State-Building in Post-Revolutionary Prussia, 1848–1858 by Anna Ross
Beyond the Barricades describes the efforts of leading German Conservatives, most notably the Minister-Präsident of Prussia, Baron Otto Theodor von Manteuffel, to reform the Prussian bureaucracy in the years between 1848 and 1858, until he was dismissed by Wilhelm I. The book's aims are ambitious—namely, to explain how Manteuffel's brand of pragmatic conservatism prevailed for a decade despite fierce opposition from both the ultraconservative and progressive ends of the political spectrum. More importantly, Ross seeks to show how, as a governing philosophy, the new pragmatism informed the Prussian Ministry of State's far-reaching program of institutional, legal, infrastructural, economic, and social reform in the 1850s, and how Manteuffel's revered conservative heir, Otto von Bismarck, both benefited from and strengthened the new institutions. Thematically, the book's six chapters are clearly indebted to Ross's dissertation advisor Christopher Clark's analysis of the most notable post-1848 reforms spearheaded under Manteuffel in his 2006 work Iron Kingdom and focus on Prussia's new constitution and parliament, its expanded bureaucracy, criminal and legal reform, the promotion of agriculture and industry, urban governance, and public opinion and press management. Moreover, both Clark and Ross emphasize the continuities between the post-Napoleonic reform program begun by Ministers von Stein and Hardenberg in the 1810s and that which took shape first under Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg and, after 1850, under Manteuffel. Ross's exhaustive archival research into the details of Prussian governance under the Ministry of State is impressive, and the book tackles an era too long neglected by historians, bookended by the watersheds of the 1848/49 revolutions and Bismarck's wars of German unification in the 1860s.
Despite the additional details, however, the book's major arguments are elusive. For example, Ross's claims that the energetic reform activities of the Ministry of State [End Page 169] helped forge a "new allegiance with society" (7) and "new administrative culture" (165) are vague. It never becomes precisely clear what an allegiance (or allegiances) with society meant and why building them mattered to conservatives like Manteuffel. The same goes for the author's repeated passing references to revolutionary unrest, where a better explanation is needed of how problems like pauperism or political radicalism drove policy after 1850. To clarify these issues and the governing philosophies mentioned by Ross, such as the Gerlach brothers' support for "organic development" or state statistician Ernst Helwing's interest in John Stuart Mill, the book needed a chapter on the challenges confronted by the Prussian state in 1848 (not least the barricades of the book's title) and a systematic treatment of the competing governing philosophies that drove political debates in the 1850s. The reader needs an understanding of the myriad challenges Prussian officials faced in 1849/50, and why the reforms under discussion made sense to their proponents. In her discussions of the Ministry of State's accomplishments, such as the drafting of a new constitution, the dampening of revolutionary sentiments in the countryside, and the efforts to influence the official and popular presses, the processes of political negotiation appear remarkably smooth, and the reforms, once enacted, uncontroversial. Similarly, in Ross's examination of the Prussian Ministry of State's growing reliance on statistics, which followed similar innovations across Western Europe, it is not clear how this crucial shift in administrative thinking dovetailed with the Prussian state's effort to enhance the predictability and consistency of state-sponsored reforms. The multitude of detail frequently overwhelms the historical arguments, which are more implied than asserted. The book's strongest chapter, on criminal justice reform, makes a compelling point that reformers succeeded by shifting the political debate from concrete improvements of penal institutions to the realm of procedure, which bolstered middle-class citizens' perception that the state was capable of administering justice even-handedly and predictably. Yet one wonders how Manteuffel and Justice Minister Ludwig Simons viewed the rising criticisms of Prussia's criminal justice system on the left, epitomized by Karl Marx's pithy insult of "class justice [Klassenjustiz]" to describe the new apparatus.
Another set of questions concerns the vastly different administrative, economic, and political geographies of mid-nineteenth-century Prussia, and how the reforms implemented by the Ministry of State eased or deepened the divides of religion, ethnicity, class, and urban versus rural dwellers. The chapter on public opinion and press management, like all the chapters, alludes to the social tensions that in this case complicated the government's push to control the news, but what precisely was the Ministry's political message and how was it designed to counter forces aligned against the state? A clear map (or even several) would be extremely helpful to readers unfamiliar with Prussian and German geography, since the only one included, from 1849, is illegible. [End Page 170]
Beyond the Barricades sheds welcome light on the personalities and the reforms enacted by the Prussian Ministry of State in the 1850s, but it lacks a clear thesis about how Manteuffel's "new pragmatism" prevailed and how he and his allies subdued revolutionary excesses, however defined, and channeled change after 1848. Ross's book reveals that the Prussian Kingdom of 1858 was a more coherent, liberal state than might have been expected in the months after the barricades were dismantled. Its contribution would have been strengthened by removing detail not essential to the story and a more systematic unpacking of the values and visions that made the 1850s such a fertile decade for state-sponsored reform.