Prince Karl August von Hardenberg

Prince Karl August von Hardenberg (1750-1822) served as chief minister of Prussia. He presided over the recovery of Prussia after the collapse of 1806 and guided the state's diplomacy.

Karl August von Hardenberg was born in Essenrode on May 31, 1750, and, as a young man, served in the bureaucracies of a number of small German states, including Hanover, Braunschweig, and Ansbach-Bayreuth. When the last was incorporated into Prussia in 1791, he was taken into the Prussian services, with the chief responsibility for governing that province. He also distinguished himself in various diplomatic assignments, so that by 1804 he was appointed Prussian foreign minister. The policy he recommended—strict neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars, combined with an attempt to acquire Hanover—would have been possible only with the help of Napoleon and was, to say the least, contradictory. Hardenberg was soon dropped by Frederick William III.

Hardenberg was recalled after the Prussian military collapse at Jena (1806) and at once attempted to salvage the situation by negotiating an alliance with Russia. At Napoleon's insistence he was dismissed a second time. He was, however, recalled in 1810 in the capacity of chief minister of Prussia, with the charge of administering the internal reforms proposed by Baron Stein. This he proceeded to do in a spirit rather more radical than Stein had proposed. All legislation favoring the restrictive craft guilds was abolished; the privileges of the nobility were severely curtailed; all taxation was consolidated into a general land tax; the remnants of serfdom, the forced labor still required of the peasantry on the large estates, were abolished. All of these radical steps were defended as the only means of raising the huge indemnity which Napoleon had imposed on Prussia.

At the same time Hardenberg presided most ably over the conduct of Prussian foreign policy. He saw to it that Prussia reentered the war at the right time and led the Prussian delegation to the Congress of Vienna (1815), where Prussia recovered all of the territory it had lost at Tilsit in 1807. Thereafter, Hardenberg, while remaining chief minister until his death, forfeited much of his influence by his vain attempts to persuade Frederick William III to honor his promise to give Prussia a constitution after the successful conclusion of the war. The King and the temper of the times were drifting toward reaction, and Hardenberg found himself representing, unwillingly, Prussia at a number of international congresses devoted to the suppression of liberalism in Europe. He died in Genoa on Nov. 26, 1822.

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Further Reading on Prince Karl August von Hardenberg

In the absence of English-language biographies of Hardenberg, the student should consult W. M. Simon, The Failure of the Prussian Reform Movement (1955); K. S. Pinson, Modern Germany (1963; 2d. ed. 1966); Hajo Holborn, A History of Modern Germany, vol. 2 (1964); and Klaus Epstein, The Genesis of German Conservatism (1966).