Enlightened absolutism

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Under enlightened absolutism one in is commonly 18th century formed outside the French dominion the form of a princely rule ( " absolutism ") understood. Enlightenment impulses were received by rulers across Europe, in the Russian Empire as well as in German territories, especially in the great powers of Prussia and the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy . At least in part, the high nobility tried to implement Enlightenment reforms.

Emperor (HRR) Joseph II of Austria
King Friedrich II of Prussia
Catherine as Grand Duchess (painting by Alexej Antropow, 1760)


In scientific terminology, the concept of enlightened absolutism of was Wilhelm Roscher introduced in its outlines to nature doctrine of the three forms of government in 1847 for the first time between an early confessional absolutism at the time of Philip II. (1527-1598), a courtly absolutism of Louis XIV. And an enlightened absolutism of Frederick II .

The term despotisme éclairé is used as a non-literal French equivalent . This can be found for the first time in the letters of Denis Diderot and was further disseminated among the Physiocrats .

The concept of absolutism is controversial in historical research. While many historians stick to the term absolutism, partly due to the lack of alternatives, numerous critics of absolutism as an epochal term refer, among other things, to its domination, which can only inadequately explain social, social and cultural developments. The fact that an absolutist rule was nowhere realized in its pure form is cited as a counter-argument. Some standard works now speak of the age of "Baroque and Enlightenment",

Mostly, absolutism, especially outside of the current scientific discourse, is still understood as a form of monarchical rule of the 17th to 19th centuries, in which princes derived their position from God (divine right) and tried to be "detached" from the laws and to rule the estates (clergy, nobility and citizens). The absolutist princes felt responsible only to God and their conscience. The term is still used today, even if the contradiction inherent in it between enlightened thinking and absolutist rule is emphasized.

Just as the term “absolutism” is controversial, so is that of “enlightened absolutism”.

The Enlightenment influence essentially relates to ideas of the early Enlightenment and the important natural law political doctrine therein . In it, the regent was no longer understood as a ruler appointed by God and a sovereign above every law ( divine right ), but as the supreme representative of a reasonable state system whose duty it is to serve the common good . This idea was based on an irrevocable social contract that legitimized and limited the sovereign ruler in the exercise of his power. For example, Frederick II of Prussia (King 1740–1786) described himself as the “first servant of his state”. Enlightened rulers strove (at least ostensibly) to put the judiciary out of hand, but monitored what was happening and revised various judgments of the courts.

Important representatives

The most important representatives of enlightened absolutism are Friedrich II of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria ( HRR Kaiser 1765-1790) and, due to the influence of Joseph and his ministers, his mother Maria Theresia (Archduchess 1740-1780) and Anna Amalia von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel . The Russian tsarina Catherine the Great (1729–1796) saw herself as an enlightened ruler and offered dissident French enlighteners, such as some encyclopedists such as Voltaire, refuge and publication opportunities , but at the same time tightened serfdom and gave the nobility further privileges.

Because of the humanitarian obligation, rulers of enlightened absolutism carried out various reforms. This happened among other things through the " General Landrecht " in Prussia and through the " General Civil Code " (ABGB) in Austria. These reforms ushered in the rule of law and the abandonment of arbitrariness and included the following:

  • Laws should tend to apply equally and bindingly for everyone
  • Turning away from the principle: " Cuius regio, eius religio ", according to which the sovereign determines which denomination his subjects must belong to; Consequence: more tolerance towards members of other denominations, in some cases also religions (first steps towards emancipation of Jews )
  • partial granting of freedom of expression and lifting of censorship; Consequence: The emergence of approaches of a critical public
  • Approaches to the abolition of torture and degrading punishments as well as a humanization of the penal system
  • Softening of serfdom
  • End of the witch trials
  • further expansion of the civil service
  • Introduction or confirmation of compulsory schooling (Prussia 1717/1763, Austria 1774).

The enlightened rulers, however, did not allow their subjects to participate in political decisions in the sense that they could have forced something politically against the will of the monarch. Also, in most cases the reforms have been very limited or unsuccessful. In general, the contradictions already inherent in the concept of enlightened absolutism are evident in their implementation.

Friedrich II.

Friedrich II of Prussia was then considered the “prototype” of the enlightened monarch. The Prussian king had a relatively clearly defined Enlightenment self-image, which was particularly evident in the so-called "Rheinsberg Years" between his marriage and his accession to the throne. During this time, Christian Wolff , Samuel von Pufendorf and Christian Thomasius in particular , as well as continuous contact with Voltaire, were seen as having an influence. His attitude was expressed, among other things, in his tolerant religious policy.

In his reign from 1740 to 1786, Frederick II initiated a whole series of reforms that were at least influenced by Enlightenment thinking. In this context, the reforms of the judiciary should be highlighted. In the year in which he took office, torture was largely abolished and restrictions on the use of the death penalty were made. In the case law, a proportionality of crimes and punishments was sought and the penal system should be humanized. The first reforms concerned a reorganization of the procedural rules, which were supposed to prevent proceedings from being dragged on. The reform efforts in the judiciary also manifested themselves in the General Land Law for the Prussian States, which was published after Friedrich's death. Compulsory schooling was introduced in the field of education, which, however, according to Frederick's ideas, mainly related to the nobility. The other subjects should learn to read and write, but “don't know too much”.

On the other hand, little progress was made in agricultural policy, where the king described hereditary subservience as a “disgusting institution”, but still did not abolish it. Frederick's foreign policy with his great power policy, which manifested itself in the three Silesian Wars (see also Seven Years' War ), largely contradicted enlightened ideals.


  • Heinz Duchhardt : Baroque and Enlightenment: The Age of Absolutism . Wissenschaftsverlag, Oldenbourg 2007, ISBN 978-3-486-49744-1 .
  • Helmut Reinalter : Lexicon on enlightened absolutism in Europe: rulers - thinkers - technical terms . Uni-Taschenbücher (UTB), 2006, ISBN 3-8252-8316-X .
  • Helmut Neuhaus : German History in Sources and Presentation, Volume 5: Age of Absolutism 1648-1789 . Reclam, 1997, ISBN 978-3-15-017005-2 .
  • Jochen Schlobach: French Enlightenment and German Princes, in: Journal for historical research 17 (1990), 3, pp. 327-349.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Angela Borgstedt : The Age of Enlightenment , WBG, Darmstadt 2004, p. 21
  2. ^ Jacques Proust: Diderot et l'Encyclopédie. Editions Albin Michel, Paris 1995 ISBN 2-226-07892-4 , p. 443
  3. ^ Heinz Duchhardt: Baroque and Enlightenment (= Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte , Vol. 11), 4th, revised and expanded edition, Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-486-49744-1 ; on the other hand Angela Borgstedt: The Age of Enlightenment , WBG, Darmstadt 2004
  4. with which he, however, temporarily fell out and one of his burn books was
  5. Borgstedt 2004, p. 18
  6. Reinalter, Helmut (ed.): Lexicon for Enlightened Absolutism in Europe. Rulers - thinkers - technical terms. Böhlau, Vienna 2005 p. 76
  7. Günter Birtsch: Friedrich the Great and the Enlightenment 1987, In: Oswald Hauser (Ed.): Friedrich the Great in his time Böhlau, Cologne, p. 31-46, p. 42