Prussian Agrarian Constitution

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The Prussian Agrarian Constitution is the name given to the structure of the social and legal institutions that give rural society its character in the state of Prussia that existed from the 16th to the 20th centuries .


As long as non-agricultural forms of life only play a marginal role, the agricultural constitution is practically identical to the economic and social constitution in general. Since the emergence of the urban system in the High Middle Ages , the agrarian constitution has been subject to gradual changes, but for a long time has remained determined by traditional lordly and cooperative structures. Only since the 19th century has the agrarian constitution been under the same auspices as civil society and today industrial society .

In the east, during the Thirty Years' War, the development from manor economy to manor rule continued. The scholl subject become farmers were increasing duties for the estates charged, and the strengthening of magisterial position of the landlords they pushed down into the subjection. After the Thirty Years' War the rulers took on the protection of the peasants. Above all, to prevent the landlords from laying the farmer again .

In the enlightened state , which also directly claimed the peasants as its subjects, the longer it seemed, the more it seemed to be a demand of reason to replace the rights of the landlord and to make the peasants efficient members of the state by transferring property . But the plans only came to fruition in the European turmoil after the French Revolution . The decisive process of the so-called peasant liberation began under the sign of economic liberalism . In Prussia this process was initiated in 1807, but in most German states it only came to a conclusion as a result of the political storms of 1830 and 1848. At least it must be noted that it was possible to overcome structures that were thousands of years old in just a few decades. The essential cornerstone of the modern agricultural constitution is above all that the farmers had become owners of their land since the so-called peasant liberation. This point in time coincided with the beginning of industrialization . This new and still unfamiliar freedom of disposal may appear risky to some, especially with regard to borrowing and dividing the inheritance .

The development of the manor in Brandenburg-Prussia

The development took its starting point in the late medieval agricultural crisis . The nobility expanded their dominions due to the drop in the price of grain after the population decline, the weak dynasty of margraves and the strong cities. The enfeoffment of the Hohenzollern with the Mark Brandenburg ( 1412 ) initially did not result in any fundamental change. By pledging sovereign rights (forfeiture of the margravial high jurisdiction , which often falls to the nobility; or the sale of tax rights of the Pomeranian dukes to the nobility), the nobility can claim peasant services. Due to population decline and rural exodus, the nobility initially hesitated to develop their own economy and tried to settle new farming families. When this did not succeed, there was a need to restrict the freedom of movement of the farmers. The high court laws provided the appropriate basis for this and became more and more important economically. The aristocracy was able to push through the extradition of peasants from the towns and by the end of the 15th century plaice binding was already very advanced. The change in the European economy at the end of the 15th century drove the development forward. The increasing demand for grain in Western Europe due to the growth of the cities stimulated the grain export of the nobility and rewarded a high level of self-management, which the Prussian nobility now consciously expanded. The need for farm labor rose by leaps and bounds, and the nobility increasingly enforced compulsory servitude . The Brandenburg electors support the aristocracy in disputes, so that by the middle of the 16th century there was already a significant tightening of the legal situation and the aristocracy had largely enforced its right to unmeasured service for the peasants. At the beginning of the 17th century , the peasants were already known as serfs (so-called "second serfdom"). The process of political disempowerment of the nobility took place in parallel. The Brandenburg estates were convened for the last time in 1652. 1653 jurisdiction and serfdom was codified permanently and the integration of the nobility in the territorial state not done more about the items, but about since the war against Sweden established standing army .

The "peasant liberation"

The term peasant liberation can easily be misunderstood; In short, it describes the peasants' disengagement from all sovereign ties in the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition, it is not contemporary: The term was first coined in 1887 by Georg Friedrich Knapp , through his work "The Liberation of the Peasants and the Origin of Farm Workers in the Older Parts of Prussia". The term is misleading because it describes two facts at the same time, but they must be separated from each other:

  • the abolition of bondage domination that the hearing or own farmers, the personal liberty granted and
  • the basic relief, which transferred ownership of the land they cultivated to the peasants and replaced the lordly rights burdening them.

The first signs of peasant liberation can already be observed in the 17th century . In 1688 Count Rantzau released his serfs in Holstein , other landlords followed his example. In 1718 Friedrich Wilhelm I lifted the serfdom of his East Prussian domain farmers; this later applied to all provinces. This measure granted the subservient peasants personal freedom, but not ownership of the land they cultivated. In 1777, Frederick II decided that the farms belonging to the domain offices should be handed over to the subjects in a hereditary and peculiar manner. The rights of the noble landlords were not affected by these measures. In Prussia one limited itself to a peasant protection legislation which forbade the landlords to lay peasants .

In 1781 Joseph II granted the peasants personal freedom and ownership of their farms in Bohemia , Moravia and Silesia , later also in other hereditary lands. After his death this was reversed, except for serfdom and peasant protection. In the course of the French Revolution , all feudal rights were abolished without compensation - these regulations also applied in Germany to the areas on the left bank of the Rhine, even where they did not exist (such as in the Grand Duchy of Berg ).

The real breakthrough for the liberation of the peasants came with the Stein-Hardenberg reforms . They were an essential part of the internal reforms with which Prussia responded to the external catastrophe of the defeat of 1806. However, they had been in preparation for a long time, not least because of the liberal reformist spirit that had found its home at the University of Königsberg . Here Kant had philosophically justified human freedom and private property, and his colleague Kraus , the German advocate of the ideas of the British economic philosopher Smith , had already written an opinion in 1802 on the abolition of peasant subordination in East and West Prussia. When Freiherr Stein was appointed minister in 1807, the “ October edict ” associated with his name was already in the draft.

With the sentences “With the Martini-Tage 1810 all subservience to property ends in all our states. After the Martini Day 1810 there are only free people ... ”(§ 12 p. 1, 2 October edict) a signal was announced that was a bit too loud, since the task of basic relief, which is more difficult than the enforcement of personal freedom, was only possible under Karl August von Hardenberg with the "Edict concerning the regulation of landlord and peasant conditions" of September 14, 1811. In the war years, the replacement of the landlord's rights made little progress, and the 1816 Declaration of the Edict of 1811 subsequently restricted the group of peasants who were entitled to replacement, in particular by excluding those small peasants who were not capable of tension from the regulation. It was not until the replacement order of 1821 that the basic relief in the old Prussian provinces progressed rapidly.

Drives and resistors

The driving forces behind peasant liberation were not always the same everywhere. While Count Rantzau referred to the Bible in 1688 , one of his descendants based himself in a memorandum for Schleswig-Holstein landowners in 1796 on the principles of natural law , according to which all people are equal to each other in rights and obligations and consequently none of the others in the free use of his abilities and limit forces. Perhaps the practical continuity, despite changing ideological reasons, can be explained by the fact that it was always the same class that drove the work of peasant liberation forward: enlightened landlords and princes, officials and scholars who theoretically justified the reform and carried it out in practice. Hardly ever did the real impetus come from the peasants themselves, who viewed the peasant liberation not only with indifference, but sometimes even with dislike.

The liberation of the peasants was not the work of unreal theorists or idealistic do-gooders. Rather, the awareness of acting in the sense of divine commandments or natural justice was linked from the beginning with the conviction that what is theologically or philosophically correct will also prove to be economically expedient. It was recognized that "forced labor was the most expensive of all" and that only the transfer of free property would really spur the peasants' strengths. If you look at the fact that in the areas east of the Elbe the feudal quota was 26% of the gross yield, you will easily see that a rural population who has to cultivate foreign land and then has to deliver 26% of the yield to the landlord and still has to Forced servants had to perform, probably lacking the right motivation to work effectively. The economic theoretical justification of the peasant liberation changed over time. In the 18th century, the demand for peasant exemption and basic relief arose from the economics of the Physiocrats , based on the conviction that the welfare of a state was mainly based on the promotion of agriculture and agriculture. The peasant liberation owed its real emancipatory momentum to the classical doctrine of economic liberalism established by Adam Smith . After that man's work was his real wealth, and it was a matter of removing all obstacles that prevented him from developing his powers freely. The Prussian agrarian reforms in particular were inspired by these ideas.

The prospect of economic benefits did not convince everyone. Resistance rose among the ranks of the same landowning nobility from which so many of the reformers came from. It was based on the knowledge that the peasant liberation represented a decisive step on the way from a class-based to an egalitarian society.

The spokesman for the aristocratic front against the reforms Friedrich August Ludwig von der Marwitz wrote: "Stein began the revolutionization of the fatherland, the war of the dispossessed against property, industry against agriculture, the mobile against the stable". For Marwitz, the reforms were directed directly against the Prussian Junkers, who also had a stabilizing effect through property and agriculture. The East Elbe Junkers saw themselves as the bearers of the state and they were. Prussia needed officers and civil servants, and where should the state recruit them if not from the nobility; in a country where the bourgeoisie was ruined for a long time by the Thirty Years War.

Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg formulated his concerns as follows: “Will the spice merchant or the tailor who acquires the property ... also be at the service of his monarch in disaster with property and blood? ... But it boils down to the fact that a property should be like a thaler of money ... The speculator who buys a good thinks only of the present; he will hurry to cut down the beautiful oak and beech forests because they don't bring in as much as the wheat field. But after years the wind will blow the distant sand hills over the wheat fields, and instead of the beautiful green forest ... we will see buckwheat, the leanest of all arable crops ”. In his concerns, Wartenberg showed that long-term and sustainability are better than short-term profit. But: Marwitz and Wartenberg were generals without an army. Marwitz demanded that the nobility should take responsibility not just with proclamations, but seriously in times of crisis, which many of his peers found extremely inconvenient. Despite the mostly proclamatory polemics, the reforms were carried out. The concerns of the nobility at least contributed to the fact that the ideas of capitalist agricultural liberalism in Prussia could not prevail as unchecked as before in England.

Results of the peasant liberation

In order to assess the results of the agricultural reforms, a distinction must be made once again between peasant exemption and basic relief. The actual peasant liberation, d. H. the lifting of personal restrictions on freedom such as serfdom, subservience to heirs, etc., hardly posed any problems worth mentioning. Even where these rights have not yet become completely meaningless for the gentlemen, their abolition did not meet with serious resistance and could therefore be carried out almost everywhere without compensation. It was more complicated when the landlord bond was lifted, i.e. the basic discharge. Under the sign of general human rights, the concept of the inviolability of property had been re-established. There could therefore not be serious thought of depriving the landlords of their ownership of the farms or of the extensive taxes or services to which they were entitled without compensation. The question of how the farmers should raise this compensation turned out to be a central problem of the whole reforms. In the western provinces of Prussia, the landlord's rights were consistently replaced with cash payments from the peasants, partly through capital compensation and partly through long-term pensions.

In the eastern provinces, on the other hand, regulation was to be carried out by ceding land, and the peasants with a good hereditary right of ownership had up to a third of their land, those with a non-hereditary right of ownership had to surrender up to half of their land. For the last time, the regulations led to the expansion of large estates in the East Elbe; The manors were able to expand their area by about 18% in this way. According to recent studies, the effects of this loss of land on farmers are not as dramatic as they were in earlier times, when around 1 million hectares were lost and the landlords were portrayed as the winners of the reform. At the same time as the regulation, the common divisions took place, i.e. the division of previously commonly used forest and pasture areas (common land) and the replacement of previous grazing and wood permits through land compensation. These mean divisions resulted in considerable land gain for the farmers, which largely outweighed the land loss due to regulation. Furthermore, it must be taken into account that the farmers, who were now freed from stately or other restrictions, were able to significantly expand their cultivated areas. With the transition from three-field to crop rotation , i.e. the abandonment of fallow land, the cultivated land was expanded by around a third. there was also the cultivation of poorly used common land and other soils. While the unland in Prussia fell from 40.3% to 19% between 1816 and 1864, the arable land was exactly doubled. It is certainly not wrong to call the Prussian peasant liberation downright a state-induced expansion of the country.

Furthermore, the effects of the land mobility created by the peasant liberation must be taken into account. One can often read the assertion that the peasants who were released were forced to sell and to emigrate through debt, while the nobility were able to maintain their position thanks to functioning loans. But the opposite seems to be true here. By the year 1880 in the eastern provinces of Prussia 64% of all manors had passed into bourgeois hands, while at the beginning of the century it was not even 5%. A comparison of the reasons for land mobility between manors and farms also shows that inheritance and sales were balanced in aristocratic property, while three-quarters or more of farms changed hands by inheritance.

The agricultural reforms in Prussia ultimately stabilized peasant rather than aristocratic property, and the overall assessment of peasant liberation will be decidedly more positive today than it was a few decades ago.


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