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Count Friedrich von Beust in Praise of the German Confederation (1887)

Like the Württemberg democrat Ludwig Pfau (1821-1894), Count Friedrich Ferdinand von Beust (1809-1886) was willing to defend Germany’s legacy of Kleinstaaterei – loosely translated, the fetish of small statehood. Beust had played a part in putting down the Dresden Uprising of May 1849, and as the Kingdom of Saxony’s de facto government leader from 1849 to 1866 he implemented a period of political reaction that frustrated liberals and nationalists alike. Beust was the leading proponent of a “third Germany” (mentioned in the following entry as the “idea of the Trias”), in which authority in German-speaking central Europe was to be divided among Prussia, Austria, and the smaller German states. Beust was also Bismarck’s chief diplomatic rival outside of Austria and one of the German Confederation’s staunchest advocates. When he led Saxony into the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 on Austria’s side, he was forced from office; almost immediately thereafter, he assumed the post of foreign minister – and then prime minister – of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this excerpt from his memoirs, which were published more than twenty years after the demise of the German Confederation (1815-1866), Beust tries to justify his opposition to Prussia, Bismarck, and the kleindeutsch (smaller German) unification of 1871. Like Pfau – but from the opposite end of the political spectrum – Beust believed that unity could have been achieved without disavowing Germany’s federalist traditions.

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Was the German Confederation in reality so objectionable? It is a fact that during the fifty years of its existence, external peace was undisturbed, and Germany was not involved in a single war. It is said – and I myself said so in my last speech at the Delegation of 1871 – that this happy result was owing to the long understanding between Austria and Prussia. Undoubtedly. But this understanding was created and facilitated by the Confederation as the connecting link. So long as that understanding lasted, no German Government had any other programme than complete union with those united Powers. Only when Prussia began after 1848 to pursue the policy of gradually expelling Austria from Germany, did it become inevitable that some Governments should side with Prussia, others with Austria. But we must not forget that not one of the German Governments of that time ever took a single step that might have warranted foreign countries in interfering in German affairs. If there were times when excessive deference was shown to Russia, and later on perhaps to France, we must look for the reason elsewhere than in Frankfort. For years the German Courts were trained by Vienna and Berlin in the fear of God and of the Czar Nicholas, and they did not give the first example of subservience to Napoleon III. But when the moment came for the German Confederate Princes to defend themselves and their country, as in 1840 and 1859, they rose nobly and patriotically as one man. And I must add this consideration, which is often overlooked in the present day: It is highly satisfactory and desirable to be always hearing of the German Empire and its Allies for the preservation of peace. But the more welcome the result of these efforts, the more essential is their necessity. This is a logical and irrefragable conclusion. In the days of the German Confederation we heard little of such efforts, because peace was regarded as a matter of course – which it has ceased to be since 1866 and 1870.

The severe judgment passed on the Confederation was extended to the system of Federal Union, and the restrictions on the independence of the Federal States. But can it be forgotten that the representative system did not owe its origin and development to the two great Powers, in whose dominions it was only introduced after having flourished for twenty or thirty years in the German Central States, in spite of the opposition of Vienna and Berlin? Can it be maintained that this system, which has long been identified with progress in Germany, as in France and Italy, only acquired full development and respect in the German Empire? There are still many who advocate the imposition of limits to popular representation; but not one of them will assert that the time will not come when the representative system will be wanted, not as a curb for the higher, but as a safety-valve for the lower classes. These times are sure to come, and a grave responsibility will fall on those who are now using their power to bring that system into discredit.

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