Savagery in the corridors of power

The Impact of Napoleon
May 23, 1997

The Impact of Napoleon is, at one level, a reconstruction of Prussian diplomacy in the face of the threat from Napoleonic France. Drawing on a vast range of printed and archival sources, Brendan Simms charts the crooked road that led from the armed neutrality of the 1790s to the military catastrophes at Auerstadt and Jena (1806), where Prussia, bereft of allies, stood alone against Napoleon. Every detour, fork and hairpin turn in Prussian foreign policy is subjected to a compelling and lucid analysis that yields important revisions to the received record (of particular significance are his arguments about the genesis of the decision to declare against France in 1806). The result is a reconstruction of policy and action that could hardly be bettered.

But the book is much more than a "diplomatic history" in the narrow sense. It is also a methodologically innovative analysis of the mental horizons, structures and personal dynamics that shaped government policy. The author's approach can be summarised as a fusion of three distinct perspectives: geopolitics, the primacy of foreign policy and high politics. Geopolitics is not invoked in the determinist sense favoured by an older (apologetic) school of German historians, but as an interpretative rationale, as a way of thinking about the world that played a crucial role in the formulation of policy. As Simms shows, Prussian ministers and diplomats constantly exhorted each other to "cast their eyes at the map", to consider the "geographical location" of their country and its paucity of "natural boundaries", to remember that their state was a power of the land and not of the sea. The conclusions drawn from such inferences were diverse - the book identifies a range of distinct and conflicting "schools" within the Prussian policy-making elite - but the acknowledgement of geography and its centrality to policy was universal.

The "primacy of foreign policy" is invoked in several senses in this book: the most important consists in the proposition that foreign policy was not determined by societal or economic factors but was conceived and articulated within an autonomous "high-political" sphere. Individual officers, noblemen and officials could, of course, as the holders of "personal authority", play a crucial role in shaping policy, but the impact of army, nobility and bureaucracy as corporate entities was, pace Hans Rosenberg, negligible. Nor did noblemen in office pursue a collective "class" interest, as Eckhard Kehr once argued. On the contrary, policy-makers were surprisingly indifferent to the domestic economic implications of foreign policy, even when they and their fellow Junkers in the provinces stood to suffer from them. A case in point was the desultory way in which the government dealt with warnings from merchants and provincial officials of the disruption to the agrarian economy that would follow a policy of confrontation with Britain. The preoccupation of geopolitics with the vicissitudes of the international environment precluded the accommodation of "domestic" factors at the executive level.

Though it may have been semi detached from domestic societal pressures, the formulation of policy was anything but disinterested. In some of the book's most fascinating analytical passages, Simms highlights the role played by personal rivalries in shaping policy. Such rivalries are doubtless endemic in most polities; in Prussia they were encouraged by the structural peculiarities of a system in which competence for foreign affairs was shared out between one (or two, or even three) responsible ministers and the Kabinett, a kind of royal secretariat with wide-ranging competence and constant access to the person of the king. The result was a climate of intrigue in which ministers and counsellors competed for the monarch's favour. Drawing on Carl Schmitt's concept of the "antechamber of power", Simms shows how the struggle for access to the royal person and the influence that came with it distorted the political behaviour of the key players. The most striking example is Hardenberg, who notwithstanding his lofty assurances that he was "incapable d'intriguer" proved a cunning and resourceful courtier, deftly tailoring his policy initiatives to anticipate changes in the monarch's mood - an example is Hardenberg's endorsement of a pro-Russian policy during Tsar Alexander's visit to Berlin in 1805, which was in part designed to unstick the "Francophile" Haugwitz from the levers of influence. In a deft adaptation of Clausewitz, Simms concludes that the decision to wage war on France in 1806 was "the continuation of high politics by other means".

Here a distinction ought perhaps to be made between the comportment of individual players and the policy-making process as a whole. Although Simms persuasively demonstrates the role high-political manoeuvre could play in the behaviour of individuals, one is left wondering how the dynamics of adversarial conflict shaped policy outcomes, given that the central aim was to harmonise with, rather than to confront and alter, the monarch's will. By this reading, the "antechamber of power" did not "distort", let alone dictate policy, but rather ensured, through a kind of dynamic stability, that he monarch's will was done.

A final chapter elaborates the book's central arguments in the context of early debate over the structural reform of the Prussian executive. Virtually all the key figures within the policy-making elite endorsed the idea of rationalising the foreign-policy executive, preferably through the establishment of a unified council capable of providing the monarch with coordinated advice. An earlier generation of historians saw these proposals as evidence of a corporate takeover of monarchical power by a self-confident bureaucracy. Here again, Simms insists on the primacy of high-political and adversarial calculations over broader societal determinants. The senior officials in this rarefied arena were far too diverse and factionalised to embody any kind of "corporate ethos", let alone a coherent bureaucratic agenda. And far from aiming at the usurpation of monarchical power, reformers sought to consolidate the monarch's policy-making role with a view to accelerating the decision-making process.

Simms is utterly persuasive in rejecting the notion that reformist policies reflected anonymous "societal" pressures, but the assertion that such proposals in no way impinged on the monarchical initiative is perhaps open to question. After all, it was the weakness and indecision of the monarch in a period of crisis that opened the way for this unprecedented flurry of reformist initiatives. Frederick William himself appears to have recognised as much and initially fought shy of a unified council for precisely the reason that it threatened his own freedom of movement; he denounced the war party's attempt to neutralise the royal Kabinett as an aristocratic mutiny. The servile royalist rhetoric of the proposals could not conceal the paradoxical character of any plan to "strengthen" the monarch by forcing him, as it were, to make decisions. Even the discursive "primacy of geopolitics" so persuasively demonstrated in this study could be seen as marginalising the monarch, implying as it did the primacy of territorial over merely dynastic priorities.

Readers will find a wealth of other insights in this book: the role of British Hanover is cast into fascinating relief; there are engaging reflections on the meaning of "politics" to contemporaries, and on the sheer savagery of life in the corridors of power. This sophisticated and boldly argued work makes a distinctive and important contribution to broader debates on the context, formulation and interpretation of foreign policy. Its blend of meticulous reconstruction and interpretative depth will set new standards for work on the diplomatic and political history of modern Prussia.

Christopher Clark is a fellow, St Catharine's College, Cambridge.

The Impact of Napoleon: Prussian High Politics, Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Executive 1797-1806

Author - Brendan Simms
ISBN - 0 521 45360 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 390

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